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Types of MFAs

By the OnlineU team | Updated 10/10/2023

A Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree lets an art student practice their craft under the supervision of experienced instructors. As an MFA student, you'll create a portfolio of your graduate school work and receive an advanced credential that you can show to employers in a variety of fields. But are all MFAs similar, or do they have key differences? Which type of MFA might suit you best? Read on for details of the different types of MFAs. 

By the OnlineU team | Updated 10/10/2023

A Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree lets an art student practice their craft under the supervision of experienced instructors. As an MFA student, you'll create a portfolio of your graduate school work and receive an advanced credential that you can show to employers in a variety of fields. But are all MFAs similar, or do they have key differences? Which type of MFA might suit you best? Read on for details of the different types of MFAs. 

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Types of MFA Degrees

MFAs are largely similar in two ways: 

  • Most of them are full-time programs lasting three years, though you might find part-time options.
  • They are terminal degrees that may qualify you to teach the subject you studied. As you review careers below, keep in mind that postsecondary teaching is an option in all cases. In fact, the analytics company Lightcast calculates that these jobs were by far the most common for MFA graduates in the last 12 months, with more than 1,000 academic job postings requesting this education. 

However, MFAs differ in two main ways: learning format and art form studied. Learning format refers to the way that instructors deliver courses, which can be on campus, online, or a hybrid of the two. Most MFAs are either in person or hybrid — the sensory nature of fine art tends to encourage up-close viewing or listening. Depending on your art of choice, you may not have many online MFAs to choose from.

A low-residency MFA is a common type of hybrid master's degree. Low-residency graduate students complete fully online courses but travel to campus for one or two weeks of intensive classes each year. 

We've listed the possible fields of study below. Some graduate programs have relatively broad names, while others have narrower concentrations — for example, an MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in fiction versus an MFA in Fiction Writing.

For more information about studying online, explore our Guide to Starting Your Online Education, where we cover the online learning format.

MFA in Creative Writing

Writing students learn the function and form of their chosen type of writing. Most classes require them to submit a writing assignment every week for critique by instructors, teaching assistants, or classmates. Over the course of the program, students write many thousands of words and gain experience with giving and receiving constructive criticism. The culminating project is usually a complete manuscript in the student's specialty, such as a novel or screenplay.

Creative writing MFAs are the most common variety. These programs can be fully online because there's no physical performance involved. Low-residency programs are also common. 

Concentrations and Common Courses

Creative Nonfiction (Essays)

Common Courses:

  • Nature Writing
  • Reading as a Writer
  • Travel and Food Writing


Common Courses:

  • Graduate Seminar in Literature
  • Detective Novels Through Time
  • Form and Theory of Fiction


Common Courses:

  • Function and Form in Poetry
  • Graduate Seminar in Poetry
  • Prose for Poets


Common Courses:

  • Film and Television Development
  • Script Analysis
  • Writing for Feature Films

Possible jobs for MFA graduates include the following:


  • Median Annual Salary: $73,080
  • Job Growth: -4% 

Technical Writer

  • Median Annual Salary: $79,960
  • Job Growth: 7% 

Writer or Author

  • Median Annual Salary: $69,510
  • Job Growth: 4% 

To explore undergraduate programs in creative writing, view our list of accredited online creative writing bachelor's degrees

MFA in Performing Arts

These graduate degrees encompass all disciplines in drama and dance, both in front of and behind the curtain. Most classes get students moving so they gain lots of performance experience, and other courses highlight the history of their field and the technical aspects of performance art. 

Online programs are rare in the performing arts. This limits the amount of flexibility that dance and drama students have while studying, because they typically need to attend classes in person at set times.


Common Courses:

  • Introduction to Musical Theater
  • Readings in Drama
  • Voice Training


Common Courses:

  • Choreography
  • Creative Process
  • History and Literature of Dance


Common Courses:

  • Communicating Through Sets
  • Costume Design and Creation
  • Lighting Design


Common Courses:

  • The Acting Process
  • Directing Stage Combat
  • Stage Production

Here are some possible career paths for performing arts program alumni: 


  • Median Hourly Rate: $17.94
  • Job Growth: 3%  

Dancer or Choreographer

  • Median Hourly Rate: $22.62
  • Job Growth: 5% 

Producer or Director

  • Median Annual Salary: $85,320
  • Job Growth: 7% 

MFA in Visual Arts

You can earn an MFA with a concentration in a range of visual media, such as painting, ceramics, sculpture and studio art, graphic design, and fashion. Each medium calls for different skills and expertise, so there's wide variety in coursework among these types of art.

There are more online and low-residency MFAs in visual arts than in performing arts, but fewer than for creative writing. Internship requirements are also common in fashion and graphic design programs to give these students a chance to apply their skills in the workplace.

Concentrations and Common Courses


Common Courses: 

  • Fashion Design Software
  • Fashion Theory
  • Textile Materials

Graphic Design

Common Courses: 

  • Typography
  • User-Centered Design
  • Visual Storytelling


Common Courses: 

  • Drawing for Illustrators
  • Illustrating for Publications
  • Professional Practices


Common Courses: 

  • Contemporary Art and Critical Theory
  • Marketing and Promotion
  • Studio Practice Seminar


Common Courses: 

  • Materials and Media
  • Studio Seminar
  • Topics in Art History

Depending on your specialty, you might find work in one of these occupations:

Art Director

  • Median Annual Salary: $105,180
  • Job Growth: 6% 

Craft or Fine Artist

  • Median Annual Salary: $53,140
  • Job Growth: 4%


  • Median Annual Salary: $53,420
  • Job Growth: 10%

Fashion Designer

  • Median Annual Salary: $76,700
  • Job Growth: 3% 

Graphic Designer

  • Median Annual Salary: $57,990
  • Job Growth: 3%

You can find more information about graphic design careers in our article, "What Can You Do with a Graphic Design Degree?"

MFA in Music

As with performing arts MFAs, these music degrees may appeal to both performers and behind-the-scenes personnel. MFAs for music performance may be geared toward specific instruments such as voice or piano, or might be open to musicians of any kind. 

Performance MFAs are rarely online or have low residency degrees because they rely on close interaction among live musicians. You might find some online options for music scoring, composition, and sound engineering. 

Below are some of the common specializations, along with example classes:

Concentrations and Common Courses


Common Courses:

  • Fundamentals of Harmony
  • Notation and Scores
  • Orchestration


Common Courses:

  • Improvisation Workshop
  • Jazz Ensemble
  • Rhythm Workshop

Sound Engineering and Production

Common Courses:

  • History of the Recording Industry
  • Physics of Sound
  • Pro Tools Certification Preparation

Here are a few jobs for MFA music graduates:

Music Director or Composer

  • Median Annual Salary: $62,940
  • Job Growth: 1% 

Musician or Singer

  • Median Hourly Salary: $39.14
  • Job Growth: 1% 

Sound Engineering Technician

MFA in Film

Schools offer MFA programs for every aspect of filmmaking, from visual technology and sound design to production and direction. Some degrees feature interdisciplinary concentrations such as screenwriting and directing together. Most programs culminate in a finished short film that students collaborate on.

Many film MFAs are low-residency programs. They often require an internship at a film, TV, or digital production company.

Read on for common courses in some of the major film studies concentrations:

Concentrations and Common Courses


Common Courses:

  • Aesthetics and Theory
  • Directing Actors
  • History of Film


Common Courses:

  • Color Grading
  • Narrative Structure
  • Post-Production Workshop


Common Courses:

  • From Script to Screen
  • Practical Production
  • Role of the Producer

Visual Effects

Common Courses:

  • 3D Modeling and Animation
  • History and Techniques of Visual Effects
  • Storyboarding

Film MFA graduates may qualify for the following roles:

Film and Video Editor

  • Median Annual Salary: $62,420
  • Job Growth: 9% 

Special Effects Artist or Animator

  • Median Annual Salary: $98,950
  • Job Growth: 8%

Producer or Director

  • Median Annual Salary: $85,320
  • Job Growth: 7% 

Which Type of MFA Should You Choose?

The choice of a degree program is yours alone, with many factors to consider. But there are three main questions that might help you choose a specific type of MFA degree program. You might ask yourself these questions as a starting point in your MFA research. 

  • What subject do I want to study?
    This question should be the easiest, because you know what your passion is. However, you might need to make some tough decisions based on practical career prospects. 
    For example, you might consider whether to focus on cello performance or sound engineering and production. There are more musicians in the country, but the field is growing at a slower rate than sound engineering. In addition, it tends to be less stable and predictable work, which is why the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists musicians' hourly wages rather than an annual salary.
  • Do I want to learn online or in person?
    You can eliminate many programs that aren't offered in your preferred learning mode. Keep in mind that you're unlikely to find online programs in the performing arts and in many aspects of music.
    Another important consideration is funding, which is potentially linked to the question of online versus on campus. MFA students may qualify for partial or full funding if they take on a teaching assistantship in their academic department, but this arrangement is rare for online learners. If you receive a funding offer in exchange for TA work, you may need to decide whether it's worth accruing more student loan debt to study online.
  • Do I want a full-time or part-time program?
    Part-time MFAs are relatively uncommon, so your answer to this question could considerably narrow your choices.

Check out our Guide to Financial Aid for Online Students to learn more about reducing the cost of college with financial aid.

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