I lean towards “no” on this one, but in an effort to provide a balanced opinion to students, I’m providing both the cons AND the pros. First up, the cons.
In return for slim job prospects, even the most inexpensive MFA will run a student over 35k in this country. And what does the degree qualify graduate students to do once they’ve finished? Here’s a table detailing some of the jobs my class of 2001 art school comrades currently hold.
|Art Handler/Artist||None, but it’s hard to get hired without a BFA.||35,000-60,000 a year|
|Elementary School Art Teacher||BS in education. These jobs are no longer in demand. MFA not required.||64,500 a year|
|Vice Principal||Master’s or doctoral degree in educational administration or educational leadership. MFA not required.||71,000 a year|
|Gallery Assistant||BA or BFA, though galleries tend to prefer the former. MFA not required.||25,000-35,000 a year|
|Visual Arts Professor||I’d estimate roughly 10 percent of my graduating class took this road. There are very few positions available these days. An MFA is required unless you’re a successful artist. Then you can teach anywhere, though tenure may be difficult or impossible to achieve without it.||50,000 -80,000 a year|
|Full-time Artist||I know about three people who do nothing but work in their studios all day, though many many more have representation. An MFA isn’t necessary to achieve this level of success (hello Cory Arcangel), but it doesn’t hurt either.||47,000 a year, but this can vary greatly.|
|Librarian||Masters Degree in Library Science. MFA not required.||84,796 a year|
|Yoga Instructor||An unusually popular profession amongst fine art graduates, though no one I know is still working in the field. MFA not required.||45,000 a year|
|Art Critic||BFA or BA, though an MA is helpful. Good luck doing this full time.||30,000-60,000 a year|
|Commercial Photographer||Pounding the pavement for gigs can be hell. MFA not required.||35,000|
|Graphic Designer||It’s relatively rare for fine art students to take these jobs. It requires a kind of dedication difficult for most artists who want to be focusing on their studio practice. MFA not required, though an MFA in graphic design is probably useful.||60,000 a year|
|Full-time Mom||Most female graduates can expect to take off at least a couple of years to raise kids. Those years are unpaid.||Unpaid|
So why should students get their MFAs when the job prospects for graduates even ten years down the line aren’t that great? I’d estimate that about 15-20 percent of my graduating year at Rutgers have paid off their student loans entirely, and I attended a cheap state school. In these conditions even an unpaid internship can seem like a better bang for your buck. Still, there are a few pros to the degree that could set off my giant table of cons above:
- Two years solid, just to dedicate to the studio. This kind of focused effort in combination with regular feedback from professional artists and teachers speeds the maturing of any artist. It can also help students establish a routine in the studio, though most dedicated artists I know didn’t need to go to school for that.
- Hunter isn’t a bad racket if you can get in, as students can go to school part-time and maintain a studio in the city. A three year program providing prime studio space isn’t a bad deal; plus, a lot of critics and gallerists attend their open studios, so it’s possible to make that school pay for itself.
- Scholarships – obviously getting one of these should make the decision about going to school a no-brainer. Free school is almost always worth it.
- Building a network. Grad school’s an expensive way to get this done, of course, but you’ll meet a bunch of people you’ll keep running into forever. Teachers never forget their students, and the friends made during these two years will last a lifetime. Going to school to get some friends, though, is probably a flawed way to look at the value of an MFA.
- Teaching. There aren’t many jobs out there, but if that’s the career path calling your name, that’s a good reason to get an MFA.
Overall, unless students are entering with the goal of teaching in mind, I don’t think the degree is worth it. And that’s new; in 2001, I would have come to exactly the opposite conclusion. Part of that was naivete, and the last few years have probably shaken that out of everyone: in this economy, paying back art school loans will consume the next thirty years of many students’ lives. Given the amount of income this career track promises, it’s hard to believe MFA programs are offering much bang for your buck.