Is an MA in studio art useful?

My wife and I continue to be overwhelmed with options and a lack of direction in our search for the next stage in life, as it were. Yesterday her sister — with whom she’s quite close — suggested we move eastward to Muncie, Indiana, so they could be in the same city. That rationale doesn’t hold much water, though, as she and her husband hope to leave Indiana when he graduates in a year.

Regardless, since we have so little apparent direction, I gave my sister-in-law’s idea a few minutes worth of internet research. I learned that real estate in Muncie seems to be very inexpensive (from what a person can tell on the internet, not knowing the quality of a neighborhood and such), and found in particular a swell old house on the historical registry for under $45k.


I also surfed around Ball State’s website and learned that BSU offers an MA in studio art, but not an MFA. This was a bit surprising; I expected a university of that size to offer the latter.

I haven’t given serious consideration to an MA up to now, mainly because it’s not a terminal degree, required for teaching at the college level. I asked a friend at JBU if they’d hire someone with an MA, and he replied “Yes, if they’re working towards a terminal degree.” That makes an MA pretty much worthless to me from what I can tell, unless it counts towards an MFA program in the future — which it might (if you know, please comment!).

I’ve had some conversation about MAs and MFAs with artist Sarah Irani. Sarah has a friend who earned an MFA from the University of Dallas and had a terrible experience. She quotes her friend: “As for grad school, it’s a waste because it is 1% useful instruction on making/becoming an artist and 99% a vetting and indoctrination process to weed out ‘the unworthy.'” I have to hope that my own alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, is more than this based on my knowledge of its ceramics department. However, the Art School Confidential stereotype has all to much basis in reality.

Sarah has an MA. She listed her reasons for not getting an MFA in an email:

    * I was working at a college that offered an MA. I got tuition reimbursement for working there.
    * I didn’t want to deal with the crap that they dish out at art schools.
    * I was working as an apprentice to a sculptor on big commissions from the time that I graduated until after I was married. There was no sense in paying to get an MFA when I was operating my own studio and getting paid to do big sculptures.
    * By the time I was done with the commissions, I was married and wasn’t in the position to move to be close to a school. I could have driven over an hour each way to Baltimore or Washington, but the expense would have been unbearable.
    * The expense. My friend who went to University of Dallas is so overwhelmed by student debt that she’ll never afford a home. I do not recommend getting into debt with an MFA. It doesn’t pay off.

“All of that being said, an MA works for me and my situation. What are your goals? If your goals are anything other than being a college professor, I say skip the MFA. It is probably a waste of your time. If you want to be a professor, then you more or less have to go,” she continued, and then suggested Notre Dame, which apparently doesn’t charge MFA students tuition. Sounds too good to be true, but I plan to look into it anyway!

Of course that’s just what I need, another option.

Sarah reminded me this afternoon, as we chatted via Gmail, that such a circumstance as my wife and I find ourselves in is also an exciting time. She quoted her father, who used to tell her “that if I didn’t have a word from God, to move in the direction of my desires and trust God to care for me.

Not my selfish desires, mind you.”


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

13 Responses to Is an MA in studio art useful?

  1. chris says:

    I have no advice on the MA v. MFA front other listen to those that have gone before you.

    I used to work for the Ball State Libraries and one of my duties there was taking pictures of student artwork. From what I saw, they produced some pretty neat sculpture and ceramics.

    Here are a few links to some student galleries from the Libraries website.


    and Ceramics:

  2. pcNielsen says:

    That helps actually. I was searching last night to find works done by their ceramics and sculpture profs to no avail. The U apparently doesn’t even have galleries on its website for these profs. Thanks for the links!

    • chris says:

      No problem! Now that you mention it, I don’t recall ever seeing professorial work around campus…I’m sure it’s there though.

      If I’m remember correctly, when I was there (2007) they had just finished an update to their Arts building.

      Anyway, I’m sure you’ll find where you’re supposed to be.

  3. april h l says:

    After just applying for a bunch of graduate MFA programs–I hope on teaching eventually, so I’m going for an MFA, but pretty much every professor I’ve had says you don’t go for an MFA unless you can go for free/cheap (aka, they’ll wave tuition or give you an assistantship). I just got accepted into Columbia College in Chicago, but I’m still waiting to hear back about what financial aid I’ll be getting…

    I have seen multiple programs where you complete a two-year MA program and then get vetted into a third year MFA program…but if I’m going through all the work I just did to apply for MFA programs, I’m not going to do it to get into a MA and then just hope that I can go further in two years down the road.

    Also–the MFA ‘weeding out’ really depends on where you go. I’m applying, personally, for interdisciplinary/craft oriented art, and the programs I visited were filled with nothing but love for their graduate students…but I suppose if I was applying for a particular discipline, that might be different.

  4. pcNielsen says:

    Just have to say, april h l, that I love this line from your website:

    “Finally, I’m interested in almost anything that is non-violently subversive. Art that shakes things up a bit and creates new interpretations of what art is and can be.”

  5. april h l says:

    Thank you very much. 🙂 Good luck on your grad school search!

  6. I do think that it matters what medium you work with. Ceramicists, for one, have to pay attention to craft or else things blow up. MFA-ceramics programs are going to work on the SKILLS involved in ceramics for sure. If you are a person interested in skills-based sculpture, especially figurative sculpture, most MFA programs will fight you. (Besides, most professors at the MFA level don’t know much about making figures. It went the way of the dodo when they were in school.) My dear UD friend wanted to paint figures and wanted to improve skills in painting. Nope. They faught her on that. So she painted other things that weren’t in her heart and eventually it broke her heart. (She is my best example, though I have many friends who have had similar experiences. One painter went to the Museum School in Boston, one of the best, and didn’t paint for ten years after they crushed her spirit.) I say, best of luck to you all! Be strong!

  7. jim janknegt says:

    Here is my two cents: I attended grad school at U. of Iowa for 4 years. While I was TAing life drawing I would frequently eat lunch with the prof I was working under. He was a good guy and honest. One day I got the courage to ask him what he really thought about art school. I’m paraphrasing but what he basically said was it was a good deal for all the profs who had tenure cause it kept them in a job but as for those is grad school hoping to teach it was a real long shot. My experience bore that out. One person I graduated with got a teaching job. That was through a personal contact, the prof he ta’d for knew someone in a school that had an opening. There were on average 400 people applying for each position. Very long odds indeed.

    The good thing about grad school for me was it gave me more time than I had ever had to just do art work. That was great. But if there is some way you can find a way to increase the time in the studio without going to school I’d just do that. And immerse yourself in art history. Find some other artists you trust and get critques from them. Use the money you would spend on school and travel go to Europe or the far east.

    If you’ve never read Ben Shahn’s “The Shape of Content” there is a great section on how an artist should achieve an education. Check it out.

    • pcNielsen says:

      I’ve always wondered at how many professorial jobs are out there, but never really knew how to go about looking into it. I’m not surprised though that there would be a lot of MFA graduates looking for those jobs. And, per your example, opportunities so often seem to be based on “who you know.”

      I love the idea of a dedicated three years of just making art too, but I just can’t justify the cost. Hence, I am looking for one of the other ways you suggest. I’ll let you know if I find it!

  8. LOL! Yeah, for the cost of graduate school, you can spend a good amount of time in Europe or put the money towards renting a studio for the rest of your life.

  9. techne says:

    i recently read an article (several, actually) in the winter 2008 issue of canadian art, which focussed on art schools, about this very problem — the trend now (in canada anyway) is the development of the PhD as the terminal degree in the “fine arts”…

    there’s a great article on it at

    (for those of you who are more sensitive – careful, there’s some strong language, read: swearing)

    • pcNielsen says:

      My wife has noticed PHDs in creative writing being birthed over the last few years. Frankly I don’t see the problem with an MFA being the terminal degree in the arts. It’s almost as long as an MA and PHD as it is from what I can tell, and — at least in some programs I’ve perused — you have to apply and get accepted to the third year. Breaking it up into two degrees just doesn’t make any sense to me . . .

      . . . I’d sooner just ditch any MA in studio art. But that’s me, talking from the outside.

  10. techne says:

    i too have toyed with the idea of pursuing an MFA or MA, but as far as i can tell, an MFA is about functioning within a certain system (or economy) of education (or art production), specifically universities and colleges. there are a myriad of opportunities for pursuing your practise, including teaching — the question is whether you want to be part of that system. it’s not the only game in town.

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