What Kind of Master’s Degree Should I Get?

There are many benefits to continuing your education including the opportunity to network with like-minded professionals, the chance to stay current with cutting edge trends in the industry, and, of course, moving up on the pay scale! But when it comes to choosing a master’s degree program, there are many factors that deserve special consideration.

I had the opportunity to speak with a range of professionals in the field who are pursuing or have already earned a master’s degree in order to outline the differences between a Master of Fine Art (M.F.A.), a Master of Art (M.A.), and a Master of Science (M.S.). Today, I will discuss the key characteristics of these three graduate level programs in an effort to provide the information you need to determine which program most closely aligns with your needs and educational goals.

Key Elements to Consider When Choosing a Master’s Degree

master's degree

1. Program Length

Until recently, an M.F.A. was the highest degree offered in art education. These days, it is possible to earn a Ph.D. in Art Ed, although the programs are few and far between. Nevertheless, an M.F.A. is still considered a terminal degree while an M.A. and an M.S. are considered stepping stones toward a Ph.D.

On average, an M.F.A. takes about three years and requires the completion of around 60 graduate credits. Both an M.A. and an M.S. take about two years and require the completion of around 36 graduate credits.

Molly Wiste, an Adjunct Instructor at AOE, high school art teacher, and professional chainsaw artist, chose to earn her Master of Science (M.S.) degree. Although she admits the decision between an M.S. and an M.F.A. was not an easy one, it was the program length and time commitment that sealed the deal for her. She told me, “I am passionate about both art and education, so I would have been happy studying for my master’s in either area. Honestly, the main factor in choosing an M.S. over an M.F.A. was that to get an M.F.A., I was going to have to quit my job and go live in a studio. With a family, that was not an option. There are many schools in Minnesota that provide an M.S. in education with satellite locations. I got my M.S. in Educational Leadership from a school that is over five hours away because they had a cohort and professors an hour away from me. I met with them one weekend a month for two years.”

classroom easels

2. Focus of Study

The focus of study is the biggest difference between the three programs. Typically, an M.F.A. is centered around studio work. M.F.A. degrees are often focused on one artistic discipline, like sculpture or painting. Roughly 80% of coursework focuses on visual arts and the creative process including opportunities to present work and many critiques. Andrew McCormick, an Adjunct Instructor for AOE, Host of Art Ed Radio, and middle school art teacher, said the best part of earning his M.F.A. was, “…full-on studio immersion and the time and ability to really invest in my own creativity.”

On the other hand, an M.A. focuses on Art Education including best practices for the art classroom. M.A. degrees tend to be more research and theory based. Coursework includes about 50% visual arts curriculum, and 50% liberal arts curriculum, which provides an opportunity for personal focus areas. Patricia Christiansen, one of AOE’s Senior Instructors, earned her M.A. and plans to continue on. She commented, “One goal that I have for myself is to continue to grow professionally. I’m currently in the research phase for doctorate programs. I love being a student and learning with a cohort. It’s a personal goal to always strive to offer more to my students and the AOE community.”

Lastly, an M.S. is typically geared towards specialties relating to the sciences such as computer science, technology, engineering, etc. In the realm of education, it can also be used for more academic leadership roles outside of the classroom. Abby Schukei, AOE’s Social Media Manager and a member of the AOE Writing Team, earned her M.S. in Instructional Technology. She explained she pursued an M.S. because she was looking for a challenge outside of art education saying, “I wanted to gain new skills that I could bring into my art classroom, which led me to study computer science and technology.”

hands typing

3. Capstone Project

A capstone project is a culminating task typically completed at the end of the earned degree. While capstone projects vary greatly depending on university requirements, M.F.A. students are more likely to focus on creative work by putting together a personal show or creating a professional portfolio. M.A. and M.S. students, in comparison, are more apt to focus on academics by developing a written thesis including action research and findings.

Developing a body of work was AOE Adjunct Instructor, Haley Parker’s, favorite part about earning her M.F.A. Her passion shines through in this comment. “The best part of my graduate experience was seeing the change in myself as an artist. From the time I started to the time I completed my M.F.A., there was so much growth in my artwork. My paintings began to transform, and there was a visible difference in understanding the style of art I was creating. I wouldn’t trade the knowledge, instruction, and critique for anything. It is how I became the painter I am.”


4. Career Goals

Maybe the biggest consideration in deciding what type of master’s you want is how you plan on using your graduate degree. An M.F.A. is generally accepted for college studio professors, those wishing to hone their craft as professional artists, and museum directors. An M.A. is more typical of K-12 art teachers, college art education instructors, art historians, and those looking to continue on to a Ph.D. program. Similarly, an M.S. is more typical of a K-12 educator, administrator, or those planning to continue on with their post-graduate work.

The following graphic outlines the differences between an M.F.A., an M.A., and an M.S. in a side-by-side comparison. It can be downloaded as a PDF here.

master's degree chart

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As you can see, there are a lot of factors to consider as you choose your path in higher education. You’ll want to identify your passion and then balance that passion with practical concerns like time commitment and availability.

I’ll leave you with some great advice from AOE Content Specialist, Alecia Kaczmarek, who is currently pursuing her M.A. degree online, “Thoroughly research all options – don’t have buyers remorse. This is a big, expensive decision. It is hard work, and you have to have the time to commit to the courses. Also, communicate this time requirement to family and friends. I found that convenience, price, and choice in making the program my own (picking a Teacher Leadership strand and using my AOE credits towards the program) helped me to make my decision.”

What type of master’s degree do you have?

How did you decide which program was the right one for you?

Heather is AOE’s Project Manager and an expert in differentiation, curriculum development, and assessment. She is a veteran teacher in the art room and at the graduate level.


  • Melissa Kelley

    I have an MS in Childhood Special Education: grades 1-6 and a BFA in Art Education:grades K-12. Getting a Masters degree in Special Education was the best thing I ever did to further my career and knowledge to benefit all of the students I teach. :)

  • Rebecca Doherty

    I don’t know that this is totally accurate. I have an MS in art ed – the program was completely about arts education and included some studio work. When I got my degree years ago, choosing which type wasn’t an option. An MS is what you got if you got a masters. In Wisconsin, people go on to get PhD degrees in art ed. It’s been this way for a long time.

    • Leo Barthelmess

      Agreed. I have my MS in Art Education because that is what Syracuse University offered.

      • Robyn Shear

        I have an MS from SU too!

        • Leo Barthelmess

          Cool! What year? I was ’96.

    • Heather Crockett

      Good point Rebecca – it is important to research the particular program you are interested in as each institution has a unique design.

  • Sarah K

    I have an M.Ed with a concentration in Critical and Creative Thinking. The program was a good balance between instructional strategies, data, and research with understanding creativity and critical thinking across disciplines. My classmates were from all over the country and in various fields, including business. Combined with my BFA in Art Education, my Master’s has given me a unique perspective as a high school Art teacher.

    • Heather Crosby

      Where did you attend?

      • Sarah K

        University of MA Boston. The Critical and Creative Thinking courses were all online.

        • Heather Crosby

          Awesome! I looked into them a few years back. Did you have to be on campus for a few courses?

          • Sarah K

            yes. I took two classes a semester; one on campus and online. plus a couple during summers and was done in two years.

    • Heather Crockett

      M. Ed is one advanced degree I did not delve into in the article. I am glad you shared your experience!

  • Rebecca Mork

    My first license is PreK-12th grade art and I teach art at a K-8 school. Last year I completed a MA in Teaching from Cardinal Stritch University. Within the 2.5 year program, I earned a second K-6 regular ed license and then continued to finish my Masters in the Art of Teaching. Integrated learning is my passion, so my thesis studied the positive effects art activities can have on middle school writing. With the changing face of the teacher pay model here in Wisconsin, the more licenses you earn, the better.

  • Mr. Post

    One of the things I find disappointing about education is the assumption that the only learning that counts is that which is accredited. Many of my most rich learning experiences have happened away from college. None of this extra education I have sought out for myself applies towards renewing my teaching certificate or fulfilling professional development hours required by my district. I have had to pursue two different tracks of professional development – one for the bean counters and one for me. I’ve earned over 230 combined credit hours but still feel I have learned more outside of schools than in them.

  • Amber

    I’m currently getting my masters in teacher leadership. It’s a great program online that allows me to still focus on my classroom and enhance my students learning!

  • Mrs. Hughes

    I teach art K-8 full time and I have my MFA. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. The full time job that I had cut elementary art, so I took that opportunity to go back to school full time. I loved it and I was able to renew my license with the degree. I am now a HQT in Ohio and I got to spend 2.5 years making art that I am very proud of.

    • Heather Crockett

      It sounds like you made the best out of an unfortunate situation. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jill Anders

    M.Ed. with a concentration in Art Education is also available in many states. Millersville University in Pennsylvania also offers a post master’s supervisory certification in art education that looks interesting. The M. Ed. program that I completed at Towson University in Maryland was considered a pre-doctoral program. We spent a year writing a thesis as training for a doctoral program in the future.

  • Judith Loeber

    I have taught high school Visual Art for 16 years; AP, IB, after a BFA in Fibers ,Metals and Printmaking, and a K12 Cert in Art Ed. This comes after a midlife career change from 15 years owning a business as a production artist doing wholesale and retail art shows. with employees. I am just finished with a M.E.D. in Gifted and Talented, online through Wilmington University. I feel this grounded me in instructional design, theory, differentiation, and creating digital teaching products, .As a practicing artist, gaining entry into shows, and galleries, presenting to MFA students on a few occasions, and teaching, I felt a M.E.D. in Gifted and Talented would be more beneficial as it would strengthen my instruction. Also, one of my professors in the certification program stated she was in a Doctoral program, and she believed she was having greater difficulty with papers, as she came from an MFA program. I was able to finish the 33 credit degree in 2 and a half years. Courses were 7 weeks long, and offered year round.

  • Mona Lisa Lives Here

    Heather, you state: “Until recently, an M.F.A. was the highest degree offered in art education. These days, it is possible to earn a Ph.D. in Art Ed, although the programs are few and far between. Nevertheless, an M.F.A. is still considered a terminal degree while an M.A. and an M.S. are considered stepping stones toward a Ph.D.” – Actually, the M.F.A. is still the terminal degree for studio art. The Ph.D. in art ed follows the M.A. in art ed, when desired. because the focus is on art education, the M.A. also qualifies one to teach pre-service or certified art educators about art education at the college level, which was left off of your chart. It is also important to note that many of these conditions vary by region.

    • Grace West

      I have seen a PhD program in Visual Arts! I believe there is only one program currently in the US!

  • Grace West

    I just thought I’d chime in about my interesting MFA. After seeing the comparisons in length of time to complete these degrees, I am pretty happy with the MFA I pursued at Full Sail University in Media Design. I do eventually want to pursue a Ph.D in the Fine Arts as well. As long as we want more education, more degree programs will continue to pop up! My Full Sail MFA was only 1 year (I took 14 months) and I was ready to pursue graphic design, marketing, and branding. Who knew I’d end up being a Technology and Art teacher!

    I still want a more standard studio MFA or PhD someday!

  • BClaire

    I have my M.Ed. Creative Arts in Learning from Lesley College (now University). I wish you had included M.Ed. in your chart because it’s a valuable degree for art educators and too important to not mention. Maybe revise this article and add it in?

    • Jodi Eckert Aker

      In addition to the M.Ed in Creative Arts there are programs that are MA in Art Therapy. That is my background, and it gave me so much more insight into behaviors in the classroom, and a holistic approach to art making. I agree with BClaire

  • Melissa Moore

    I currently teach 6-8. I have a Masters of Arts and Teaching with a BFA. I taught High school for 16 years and love the maturity level and age group. I have been actively apply for HS and Adjunct positions etc. but most if not all are only interested in a MFA. I have been looking at going back and adding MFA to my education. Would I be better off to go ahead for the PhD. would that open more job opportunities?

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  • Casey Sundahl

    I have a BFA in Visual Arts and an MAT in Secondary Arts Education (Grades K-12). I have taught every grade level from Pk-12, but wish to pursue College Level teaching/ specialize in Art History. I have thought about an MFA, but since I already have an MAT, I was thinking of getting some extra credits in Art History and then trying to get into a PhD program. My dream is research and curation. Any advice? I’d consider a joint program/ MA-PhD program, but I didn’t know if any online programs would really be worthwhile, because I live in WV and there are no real programs for me in this field.