What’s the Difference between an MA and MFA, and Which is Best for You?

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A desk with a laptop, cell phone, notebook, glasss, and computer mouse.
MA and MFA programs have some unique differences. Photo by Dan Dimmock on Unsplash

If you’re considering graduate school, you’ve probably seen programs labeled as MAs or MFAs. Both are graduate-level degrees, but they have some key differences. In today’s blog, we’ll dive into the differences between MA and MFA programs so you can determine which degree is best for you.

What do MA and MFA stand for?

MA stands for Master of Arts. MFA stands for Master of Fine Arts. An MFA is considered a terminal degree, meaning it is the highest possible level of education for certain fields.

Who can apply to MA and MFA programs?

Both MA and MFA programs require applicants to hold an undergraduate degree. Depending upon the school and program, your undergraduate degree may need to be related to the graduate program you’re applying for. 

For example, some film MFA programs may require applicants to hold an undergraduate degree in film or a related artistic field. Other times, you can have an undergraduate degree unrelated to the MA or MFA you’re applying for. For example, you don’t need a writing or English undergraduate degree to apply to Emerson’s Creative Writing MFA. 

All of Emerson’s graduate programs take a holistic approach to admissions, meaning that we consider application essays, professional or volunteer experiences, etc., not exclusively your undergraduate major and GPA.

How are the curricula different?

Generally, MAs have fewer credit requirements than MFAs. As such, most MA programs take two years to complete, while MFAs often take more time. 

Additionally, the focus of each program is different. The curriculum in an MA typically focuses on analyzing a particular field of art. For example, a film MA program might focus more on analyzing films and reading critical film essays, rather than creating new films. Many MA programs have thesis requirements, where students demonstrate the analytical skills they have gained from the program by researching and writing about a topic related to their field of study. 

In contrast, MFA programs typically help students refine their craft. There may be a research component of an MFA, but the majority of the curriculum focuses on helping students advance as artists. For example, if a student pursues an MFA in film, they will primarily work on refining their craft as a filmmaker, more so than studying existing films. 

What can you use an MA or MFA for?

An MA is a good option for students who are interested in academia. Because MA programs focus on analysis and critical writing, MA graduates often pursue teaching or research in their field of study. Some graduates may seek teaching certification to teach at the K-12 level. Others may choose to teach at the university level. Some MA graduates may apply for PhD programs to gain more competitive teaching positions or establish themselves as researchers. MA graduates could also apply for an MFA program, choosing to use their theoretical knowledge from the MA to help them refine their craft in an MFA. 

MFAs focus on creating strong practicing artists, so graduates typically pursue their craft full-time after graduation. Professors in MFA programs are typically artists themselves, which allows students to network with them and learn about their artistic industry. Plus, because an MFA is a terminal degree, earning this title can help students gain respect in their field. Once they’ve gained experience in their field, MFA graduates can also choose to teach at the university level. 

Can I get financial aid for an MA or MFA?

Both MA and MFA students are eligible for school-specific, federal, and private financial aid. When you apply for an Emerson graduate program, we automatically consider you for financial aid, so there is no extra application needed. Most schools offer both need-based and merit-based financial aid. Need-based aid is based on your financial situation, and merit-based aid is based on your professional or academic potential.

By completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), students can also gain federal financial aid. To learn more about different types of federal aid, visit the Federal Student Aid website.

In addition to school-specific and federal aid options, graduate students can find their own private scholarships and loan options. Just be cautious about potential scams when applying for private aid.
Hopefully, today’s blog has helped clarify the similarities and differences between MA and MFA programs. For more help deciding whether an MA or MFA is the best fit for you, schedule a call with one of our admissions counselors. To keep up with Emerson’s MA and MFA students, be sure to follow us on Instagram, Threads, and Facebook.

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Writing Assistant

Olivia is a second-year student in Emerson's Communication Disorders MS program. Originally from Ohio, she is loving Emerson and city life. When she's not writing for the Grad Life blog, she loves to read, bake, and crochet.

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