Guidelines for the MFA Degree in Art and Design
Adopted by the CAA Board of Directors on April 16, 1977; revised on October 12, 1991, October 26, 2008, and May 5, 2019.
Requirements and options within Master of Fine Arts degrees vary by institution across the United States, with considerable differences among available concentrations, specializations, and emphases in art/design studies and supporting subjects such as art history, criticism, and education. CAA supports rigorous and varied curricula, and encourages institutions to regularly assess the educational objectives of all degree programs carefully to assure that expectations are realistic, feasible, and demonstrate a positive and functioning relationship between the goals and objectives of the degree programs and the human, material, and fiscal resources available to support those programs. All degree program requirements and options should be clearly formulated and published as to permit prospective students to make informed decisions about program content and expectations. The guidelines set forth herein and the standards published in NASAD Handbook by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) represent a logical minimum for institutions to maintain quality and foster continuing excellence.
Definition and Purpose
The Master of Fine Arts (MFA) is the terminal degree in studio art practice. The MFA, the Master of Design (MDes), the Master of Art and Design (MAD), and the Master of Graphic Design (MGraph) are among the terminal master’s degrees in design practice. These degrees are recognized by CAA, NASAD, the art and design professions, and the vast majority of institutions of higher education in the United States as professionally equivalent to terminal degrees in other fields, such as the PhD or the EdD. Master’s degree programs with other titles that focus on some aspect of studio art and/or design practice should align with these guidelines to be considered terminal master’s degrees and thus equivalent to the MFA. Additional observations about terminal degree programs in visual arts and design are detailed in the following document:
Statement on Terminal Degrees in the Visual Arts and Design
(CAA, January 2015)
The MFA degree demands the highest level of professional competency in the contemporary practice of studio art and/or design. A successful MFA candidate will possess advanced professional competence in some aspect of studio art or design as exemplified by a considerable depth of knowledge and achievement demonstrated by a significant body of work and the effective presentation of that work. The work needs to demonstrate the ability to conceptualize and communicate a breadth of understanding in art and/or design and/or appropriate related disciplines, and the ability to think independently, to integrate, and to synthesize information associated with practice in an area of specialization. In addition, the MFA recipient should provide evidence of applying critical skills that pertain to meaning and content, and be able to examine and assess their work from a variety of contexts and perspectives.
A successful MFA candidate will demonstrate both strong conceptual development and creative, skillful use of tools, materials, and artistic techniques, regardless of disciplinary specialization and including programs rooted in innovative uses of technology, collaborative work, or interdisciplinary projects.
CAA fully supports the autonomy of individual institutions to develop and apply specific criteria for program- and candidate-level achievement, with encouragement for inventive, applicable, and unique methods for assessing work within a landscape of continually evolving artistic practices.
The remainder of this document outlines specific guidelines and requirements for the MFA degree.
Definition of Credit
Credits are a unit of measure reflecting amounts of work over certain periods of time. CAA recognizes a standard wherein one semester hour of credit represents at least three hours of work each week, on average, for a period of fifteen to sixteen weeks, and one quarter hour of credit represents at least three hours of work each week, on average, for a period of ten or eleven weeks.
Work toward credit may occur in formal classes, critiques, technical workshops, or independently directed activities. The allocation of time between formal studies or independently directed activities is at the discretion of the institution. In all cases, faculty contact must be sufficient to ensure the development of knowledge and skills required by each course, and the ratio of three hours of work per hour of credit earned should be met.
Credit and Program Requirements
The minimum requirement for the MFA degree is sixty semester hours of credit at the graduate level, or ninety quarter hours of credit, including courses in academic studies concerned with visual media and relevant cognate areas of study, but excluding coursework required to address undergraduate deficiencies.
Undergraduate degrees (BA, BFA, BS, BEd) differ in credit distributions and educational emphases. Accordingly, institutions may require supplementary coursework in studio art, history of art, or other areas to fully prepare incoming students for success in a graduate program. However, new genres and disciplines in the visual arts may require, or take into consideration, student experience or study outside traditional art and design areas. Graduate-level curricula and coursework often encourage students to embrace a broad spectrum of ideas and media based in, or associated with, other disciplines.
Consistent with other terminal degrees, successful completion of the MFA degree demands a high level of professional competence and maturity. CAA believes these attributes can best develop from study over an extended period of time and therefore recommends a minimum of two years of full-time graduate study for the degree. It is also strongly recommended that there be a balance between courses with regularly scheduled meeting times and more independently directed courses. MFA degree structures based primarily or entirely on independently directed courses, individual critiques, or online coursework—without varied teaching and learning methodologies and experiences—are strongly discouraged. In addition, at least half of the earned credits, and preferably more, should be in courses intended for and enrolled with graduate students only.
CAA supports diverse learning opportunities and formats that broaden opportunities for intellectual, creative, and theoretical exchange and recognizes that a myriad of MFA curricular structures are employed by institutions, including Low-Residency programs. These programs are designed to accommodate and attract working professionals, art educators, practicing artists, and other nontraditional students. Institutions implementing such programs should do so in such a way as to provide sufficient flexibility without compromising the competencies, learning objectives, and credit hours for the degree.
Low-Residency programs typically blend intensive residencies with distance education studies incorporating periodic critiques and directed research in art history, theory, and criticism with affiliated faculty. Over the duration of the degree program, students usually participate in two or three residencies on the institution’s campus, or an affiliated location, for approximately two to six weeks in the summer and winter. Spring and fall semesters typically utilize a distance learning model focused on the production of artwork and academic requirements including research and writing. Students normally present their work in a culminating exhibition and/or thesis defense during the final residency period.
Regardless of curricular design, the purposes and outcomes of the degree should be in keeping with the credit and program requirements outlined in these guidelines. All programs, including those based on distance learning or with a significant distance learning component, should provide continuous concentrated study within a graduate community that affords interactive experiences among students and faculty, whether in person or through electronic communications.
CAA advocates for programs with robust, comprehensive, and sound educational curricula. At the same time, and given that the MFA is the terminal degree for practitioners and educators in studio art and design, a baseline of requirements and standards seems essential.
MFA degree requirements should emphasize substantial creative work, preparing candidates for professional practice, with an understanding that programs often also incorporate a research component. Institutions hold responsibility for designing coursework and structuring course sequences that lead to professional competence within studio practice. This goal may be achieved through a concentration in a specific discipline (such as animation, ceramics, fashion design, digital media, drawing, film, glass, graphic design, illustration, industrial design, interior design, jewelry/metals, performance, painting, photography, printmaking, social practice, sculpture, textile design, time-based media, weaving/fibers, video, etc.) and/or through an interdisciplinary or collaborative program of study. Programs should ensure a depth of involvement commensurate with a terminal degree, and that each student receives due consideration of individual needs and conscientious direction in planning an appropriate course of study.
Requirements in Academic Studies
Knowledge of cultural heritage and the historical and/or contemporary factors that inform artistic practice can be gained through courses in visual media including but not limited to credits in critical studies, art history, visual culture, and art theory. Formal, advanced-level courses in such areas should be considered essential to MFA programs. Some institutions find that offering courses covering a variety of historical periods, styles, and themes may serve their educational objectives, whereas other programs might require art theory courses either in lieu of or in addition to art history. It is equally important that global and diverse perspectives be presented within academic studies
Degree requirements typically include options emphasizing history and its role in shaping the visual arts as well as study of how the visual arts have shaped world history. Seminars in modern and contemporary art history, and theory from the perspective of contemporary studio-based practices, are especially appropriate for MFA candidates, as are studies in art criticism, research, and ideation. Self-criticism and external comparison are among the means by which artists evaluate ideas, processes, and/or the objects they create. These skills cannot be left entirely to intuition or casually grasped assumptions. Criticism is based on discourse and linked to the process of making; therefore, verbal, written, and conceptual skills should be taught and encouraged.
Other disciplines of educational value to the student should also be encouraged where relevant, and may in some cases replace art history, theory, and/or criticism courses. Faculty should encourage students to take full advantage of appropriate resources in areas both in and outside the visual arts, guiding them to explore cognate areas to enhance their total educational experience.
Written Requirements and Comprehensive Examinations
A written document or thesis that demonstrates a student’s ability to think critically and contextualize their work historically and/or theoretically and within the landscape of contemporary practices is a requirement of some programs. While such written work is often deemed valuable and consistent with the educational objectives of a program, it is not a substitute for the body of creative and visual work. Such a written document in itself may not constitute the final body of work.
Comprehensive examinations, not held as a regular part of a course, whether oral or written, should not be required in disciplines other than the chosen concentration or program of study. Satisfactory performance in coursework is considered evidence that a student has a working knowledge of the material.
Each MFA candidate should be required to present a final body of work showing professional competence in studio art or design. Since art making in the contemporary context demands the ability to produce creative work, institutional and public review of the final product seems essential. Accordingly, degree-granting institutions should possess exhibition facilities appropriate for students to exhibit a sufficient number of works such that artistic development and ability to produce a cohesive, professional body of work can be assessed. Institutions lacking sufficient space for MFA exhibitions have a responsibility to suggest or provide appropriate exhibition space off-campus.
Documentation and Retention of Student Work
Documentation of MFA exhibitions should be required and kept by the institution as a matter of record. Institutions with resources may elect to purchase outstanding examples of work for their permanent collections. CAA, via its resolution of April 29, 1972, strongly discourages the all-too-prevalent past practice of institutions demanding, without compensation, examples of student work. The acquisition of student work assumes the existence of adequate display and/or storage facilities for artwork. The issues of conservation and restoration should also be considered before student work is purchased.
Preadmission Preparation and Dealing with Deficiencies
Admission to MFA programs often takes into consideration evidence of the nature, extent, and quality of undergraduate preparation, including substantial coursework in studio art and/or design, as well as academic studies concerned with visual media and other relevant subjects. Additional work, life, and creative experiences beyond formal educational settings can also play an important role in preparing candidates for graduate study.
The actual admission decision should be based on critical examination of the academic record; the content of courses taken; and the portfolio of studio work, papers, and/or professional experience as appropriate. In all cases, standards for admission should be sufficiently high to predict success for advanced work in studio art and/or design practice and other required coursework.
While many institutions consider the BFA to be a preferred qualifying degree, applicants possessing other undergraduate degrees might be more than fully prepared and qualified for graduate studies based upon the essential criteria for admission (critical examination of the academic record; the content of courses taken; and the portfolio of studio work, papers, and/or professional experience as appropriate). Applicants with degrees other than the BFA should not ever be discouraged from applying nor automatically eliminated from consideration. Any student, regardless of degree, may not be fully prepared for graduate-level studies and may be required to complete remedial coursework.
The institution should identify any deficiencies in undergraduate coursework for each admissible candidate and inform those prospective students of remedial work needed to compensate for gaps in preparation. The institution should communicate in clear terms whether any of the remedial coursework will count toward the credits required for the MFA degree.
Advising on Degree Requirements
The institution should inform all potential students of the curricular requirements, critique obligations, exhibition expectations, and other academic considerations pertinent to successful completion of the degree program.
The MA as a Qualifying Prerequisite
Some institutions use the MA degree (thirty semester hours of credit) as a qualifying prerequisite for final acceptance into MFA candidacy, allowing those students to apply the earned credits toward the higher degree. This practice is appropriate if the work completed for the MA is deemed to be of an acceptable quality to meet terminal-degree standards and if the overall credit and degree requirements are met.
Faculty and Staff
Institutions should maintain a contingent of faculty qualified by earned degrees and/or professional experience and/or demonstrated teaching competence for the subjects and levels they are teaching. The aggregate individual qualifications of the faculty should enable each unit, degree program, concentration, or specialization to benefit from diverse instruction and accomplish its stated goals and purposes.
All faculty must be able to guide student learning and to communicate personal knowledge and experience effectively, and faculty members teaching graduate-level courses must represent the professional standards to which graduate students aspire in specific fields and specializations.
While quality of teaching is of primary importance, professional recognition of faculty members is also highly desirable as strong creative work, research, and/or other professional activities often support excellent teaching and learning. While every faculty member need not be professionally recognized at a national and/or international level, faculty members should be fully competent and professionally active in their respective disciplines and fields. It is essential that a significant number of faculty members teaching graduate-level courses are active, or have been active, in presenting their work to the public as scholars or professional artists or designers.
The full-time teaching assignments of artists/designers should not exceed eighteen contact hours per week consistent with practices across the institution. A maximum teaching assignment of eighteen contact hours per week and twelve contact hours per week, in alternating academic terms, is suggested for faculty expected to have exemplary records of achievement in teaching, research/creative activities, and service. Many institutions assign lower teaching loads as to accommodate greater research or service expectations. Appropriate reductions in teaching loads are warranted to support research/creative activity; managing and maintaining classroom, studio, and/or gallery facilities; and administrative responsibilities.
The full-time teaching assignments of art historians should be comparable to those of other humanities faculty at the same institution (with two courses per semester as the norm at research universities, three at four-year institutions where teaching is given greater priority, and five at two-year colleges). Institutions must also recognize that class preparation in art history differs from that in other liberal-arts disciplines because of the time expended on the selection and arrangement of visual materials. Appropriate reductions in the number of classes taught are warranted when the position also includes administrative responsibilities for a department or program, image collection, or gallery, or for teaching studio courses.
Facilities and Resources
While it is not necessary for institutions to offer a broad and comprehensive range of degree concentrations, it is essential to communicate clearly and accurately about the opportunities and any limitations among disciplinary and interdisciplinary programs offered. It is critical that institutions only offer degree concentrations when and where the human, material, and fiscal resources are available to support high quality programs.
Appropriate access to studios, tools, and equipment is fundamental to art and/or design production and an education about safe studio practices. MFA programs, whether based in traditional media or focused on newer technologies, should be offered only in concentrations and specializations that are adequately equipped with an appropriate range of available technologies and suitable student work spaces, with specialized equipment, tools, spaces, computers, design software, and peripherals being essential for student success within both traditional and digital media. For MFA programs of an interdisciplinary nature it seems essential that facilities are designed and situated in ways that encourage collaboration and exchange across disciplines and might include resources such as digital-technology and fabrication labs and/or print centers.
For the majority of students a private studio is a necessity. However, the studio should not be so private or segregated as to prevent healthy contact and interchange. Independent studios should be supplemented by readily available access to all shops, labs, and general studios. In institutions that do not provide private studios, students must have access to a private communal space set aside for their specific needs as a community.
CAA recognizes that many students enter graduate programs with plans to work outside traditional studios or labs and will seek links to spaces (virtual or real), interdisciplinary curricula, and/or local and global opportunities on campus and in communities. In effect, facilities and equipment needs are often defined by the modes and methods of research, and/or creative activity and plans to communicate about and/or disseminate the results.
No MFA program can exist without adequate visual and image resources, libraries, museums, and exhibition opportunities. Students must have continuous contact with works of visual cultures, both past and present, and the need for access to resources at all hours, within reason, seems clear.
Overall, and as art making and its related technologies continue to evolve and grow, MFA programs and faculty should be prepared to offer robust and appropriate opportunities for the application of knowledge, skills, and critical thinking associated with an array of contemporary creative and studio practices and a broad menu of options. In addition, visiting artists and lecturers can provide inspiration and broadened horizons by multiplying the diversity of intellectual, aesthetic, and cultural points of view. The full benefit and value of these outside authorities can usually be enhanced by visits of several days’ duration.
Students in MFA degree programs should be afforded funding consistent with support provided to terminal-degree students in comparable academic units in the institution. Communications about initial financial support and expectations about continuing support should be provided to all admitted candidates prior to enrollment at the institution. In addition, communications about continuing financial support should be provided to all enrolled students on an ongoing and continuous basis until their completion of the degree program.
Many institutions offer graduate assistantships, research assistantships, teaching assistantships, and/or other types of financial assistance to students in MFA programs. CAA suggests three guiding principles as best practices when considering assistantship appointments:
- The primary purpose of graduate studies is the advancement and production of knowledge. As such students should be provided every opportunity to successfully complete their academic and creative obligations, first and foremost. Accordingly, all due care and consideration should be given when determining the scope and specific expectations of assistantship duties and communicating those in advance to all applicants and awardees. Assistantships should be administered with great care and thorough consideration, and sufficient preparation and mentorship should be provided to awardees as to foster success. Assistantship appointments that cause undue interference to academic progress seem both unfair and unwise.
- The purpose of an assistantship is to provide the students with valuable and practical training related to their goals and aspirations as artists, designers, and educators. The specific duties of an assistantship should contain a strong educational component and assistantship positions should not focus on clerical or menial work or in any way eclipse the primary purposes of a graduate-level education.
- Academic credit should not be awarded in instances in which direct compensation is received for completion of teaching or other assistantship duties.
Preparing for and Evaluating Success
MFA programs should offer professional development opportunities that prepare students for careers in art- and design-related professions. Students should be encouraged to take advantage of such opportunities, to acquire the skills for a successful postgraduate life, and to identify strategies to advance their career objectives.
While CAA recognizes institutional autonomy and authority in establishing outcomes for its degree programs, institutions are strongly encouraged to recognize the diverse and varied ways in which artists and designers contribute to the world, and to consider a broad range of assessment techniques and measures for success.
Specific measures might include but not be limited to employment within and outside of higher education, exhibitions, commissions, residencies, fellowships, community-based projects, artworks, media works, design works, client-based consulting, retainers, consultancies, art or design articles, papers, books, book chapters, reports, inventions, discoveries, presentations, demonstrations, workshops, grant applications, situated art and/or design works, online work, curatorial work, awards, citations, client-based work, inclusion in collections, commercial successes, commercial work, curatorial letters, data about viewers/users, funding/grant awards, human welfare data, impact studies, legislation, licensing, peer reviews, periodical references, press releases and/or media attention, policies, prizes, quality of life measures, regulations, and other professional activities.
It is important to note that all four of the national arts accrediting organizations recognized by the United States Department of Education—the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD), the National Association of Schools of Dance (NASD), the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM), and the National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST)—publish guidelines for evaluation specifically stating, “Over-reliance on quantitative measures is inconsistent with the pursuit of quality in the arts. The higher the level of achievement, the more strongly this pertains.” CAA advocates for a balanced approach to assessment that includes both qualitative and quantitative measures to ensure an equitable and comprehensive evaluation of program quality supported by the values and principles of higher education.