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.