Is an MFA Necessary?

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I met a person with a doctorate degree. I was in graduate school at the time. He said, “I don’t get why anyone wants an MFA. Do you teach?”

A painter once told me they’d never go to college for an MFA, because no school can teach a person how to make art, or how to be an artist.

A professor with an MFA told me he’s been on many hiring committees, and that having a degree didn’t matter, because the very first thing they look at is the job candidate’s portfolio of artistic work.

“If the work isn’t there,” he said, they “don’t get considered for the job.”

However, I have experienced and seen the exact opposite. Colleges and universities ask that candidates have terminal graduate degrees as a matter of requirement.

Consider the following (anonymized, but actual) art professor job listing:

The Department of Art at the University of ________ invites applications for a tenure track position Assistant Professor in Painting, effective September 1, 2023.

- MFA in studio art working primarily with painting and drawing.

- The department seeks an artist possessing a broad understanding of contemporary visual arts.

- Candidates must be able to participate in shaping a curriculum that is inclusive of both technical and critical issues.

- The department desires a candidate who is a working artist with significant exhibition history, who has broad understanding of the history and contemporary practice within the medium as well as the practical and theoretical implications of new technologies.

- Hired candidate will teach 4.5 courses per academic year and will participate in the formation of curriculum and other departmental planning.

- Commensurate with education and experience.

Applications should include cover letter, CV, statement of teaching philosophy, adequate representation of production with supplemental material, and three letters of reference in PDF electronic format, emailed to: Painting Search Committee Department of Art

The very first thing listed under qualifications is a Master of Fine Arts.

The last thing they listed is that the candidate must be a working artist.

They want a college educated, working artist to teach. That makes total sense. What doesn’t make sense is why so many MFA holders pretend that the MFA isn’t a tool for career advancement. It’s your hard work that gets you the job, but it’s your MFA that gets you considered for the job.

An MFA is definitely not necessary for you to become an artist. It is, however, necessary for securing a college level teaching position.

Next: 10 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Enrolling in an MFA Program