Everything You Need to Know About an MFA Thesis


A superb display of artwork at the 2014 California College of the Arts’ (CCA) MFA Thesis Exhibition in San Francisco, CA.

A photo from the 2014 California College of the Arts’ (CCA) MFA Thesis Exhibition in San Francisco, CA.
Photo courtesy of MANYBITS via Flickr CC.

If you’re currently enrolled in an MFA program or are considering applying to one, you’ll likely have to complete a thesis project as part of your graduation requirement. Here’s everything you need to know about an MFA thesis so that you can prepare for it ahead of time.

Since an MFA is considered a terminal degree, the stakes are pretty high as far as expectations go. The work itself should be of the utmost quality. In fact, don’t be surprised if your institution requires you to publish it or present it to the public. At the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA), for example, students presented their MFA projects at a nearby gallery last year.

In short, the quality of your work should be high enough that it can withstand the scrutiny of the creative community. To ensure that your project meets this standard, your school will appoint a committee of faculty members that will evaluate your finished product and give you either a passing or failing grade based on its merit. If you fail, you will not be granted a degree. Told you the stakes were high.

I don’t say this to scare you—I say this so that you’ll take it seriously and get started early. This brings me to my next point: timelines.

The MFA thesis generally consists of three main parts: a proposal, portfolio, and thesis paper. Your proposal is usually due sometime in November. However, you should be thinking about what you want your project to focus on long before then. My personal suggestion is to start brainstorming in the summer.

The thesis paper, portfolio, and presentation will be due in the spring. It may sound like a lot due at once, but you will be given several deadlines throughout the year that are designed to keep you on track. You will also go through several drafts and revisions before your project is finalized and ready to be presented.

It’s a lot of pressure, but as they say, that’s how diamonds are made.

Taking the MFA to the Next Level

A young, female college student painting in a studio.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Art school isn’t just about traditional visual art anymore. Increasingly, MFA programs and the resulting art pieces include multidisciplinary fields of study, whether it’s combining different artistic mediums into one piece or taking student design out into the community to make a difference.

Several prime examples come from the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA), whose students recently exhibited their work on a three-part show divided into visual studies, print media, and collaborative design. In fact, most of the pieces featured mixed media. Angélica Maria Millán Lazon’s Engendradxs is made up of portraits of the artist’s aunt and grandmother, as well as smartphones mounted on the wall playing videos. Meanwhile, Aruni Dharmakirthi’s Fissures of the In-Between features triptychs, textiles, and movement through the physical space of the exhibit.

On the other side of the country, the School of Visual Arts in New York is ground zero for innovative productions like Aya Rodriguez-Izumi’s 121212. The piece uses video, performance, and installation to tell the story of a day in the life of Lynnese Page, focusing on her daily rituals.

But it’s not just a matter of mixed media. MFA programs themselves are expanding to include the broader study of how art impacts the community around it. PNCA’s MFA in Collaborative Design focuses on getting students out into the world to collaborate with businesses, government, and nonprofit organizations looking for design solutions.

Back at SVA, students can choose from both a traditional MFA in Fine Arts and an MFA in Art Practice, which its chairman, David Ross, describes as being for “artists working in more hybrid areas, incorporating a number of different media or selecting the particular medium based on what they are trying to accomplish at a given time.”

Even MIT, traditionally known more for tech than for art, is jumping on the bandwagon when it comes to this kind of innovation. Its Master of Science in Visual Studies program focuses on “the development of artistic practices that challenge traditional genres as well as the limits of the gallery/museum context.”

Other schools with offerings focusing on art and design in the community include the Herron School of Art and Design at Indiana University, the Maryland Institute College of Art, the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, and the Carnegie Mellon University School of Art.

While studio art will always have its place, MFA programs are increasingly going beyond tradition to offer programs that contextualize art within the communities that need it. From mixed media productions to programs focusing on community engagement, it’s a brave new world when it comes to arts education.