Spotlight: Arts Degrees in the USA

Pursuing a degree in the arts at a U.S. institution of higher education is a dynamic and powerful way for students to experience cultural exchange while expanding their artistic potential. The most common areas of study generally are dance, design, film, music, theater, and visual arts. These fields continue to evolve with the introduction of new technology and media forms. Students might wonder what kind of degree program is best for them, and might seek help deciphering a demanding application process. This article presents general information to help clarify the various degrees and application requirements in the arts at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

This article was originally published in the July 2010 issue of Connections by EducationUSA, and was written by Christine Giancatarino.

Students who have completed high school and are interested in applying to undergraduate programs in the arts should first identify their area of interest. Though arts programs are becoming more interdisciplinary, it is imperative that students clearly identify their area of focus in order to produce a competitive application. This will also help advisers mentor students about which degree option might be best. There are three degree options that encompass most undergraduate studies in the arts: Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA), and Bachelor of Music (BM).

  • Bachelor of Arts (BA) The BA is a liberal arts degree awarded by many U.S. institutions of higher education. Students who choose to study an arts field within the context of a liberal arts curriculum will experience a program “designed for the student who desires significant breadth of experience and understanding rather than professional specialization” (“Drawing BA and BFA Emphasis,” 2009). This means that in addition to taking applied, practical coursework in their art specialization, they will also be required to take liberal arts classes to broaden their educational experience. Students who obtain BA degrees in the arts are often skilled in multiple disciplines, and many pursue careers or advanced studies in the arts and related fields. The BA degree is often awarded in the areas of dance, design, film, music, theater, and visual arts.
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA): In slight contrast to the BA degree, the BFA degree is a “professional degree program which offers a conservatory approach to training” in the arts (“Bachelor of Fine Arts”). The “conservatory approach” is a specialized curriculum that requires students to focus entirely on their art. This means that most classes will focus on practical, applied training and very few classes will be required outside the subject area. Unlike the BA degree, the BFA is not part of a larger liberal arts curriculum. The aim of BFA degree programs is to prepare students for careers as artists or to prepare them for graduate study in their subject areas. The BFA degree is often awarded in the fields of dance, design, film, theater, and visual arts. Occasionally, BFA degrees are awarded in music, but many schools award the BM instead.
  • Bachelor of Music (BM): The BM is best suited for students interested in focusing specifically on music. The BM is considered a professional degree where the “curriculum is focused on teaching not only the performance side of music, but also practical and academic skills … [preparing] the student for a professional career in music” (“Bachelor of Music,” 2010). Much like the BFA degree, very few classes are required outside the student’s music concentration. The BM degree is unique to fields related to music.

It is important to note that application procedures will vary from school to school. Generally speaking, undergraduate arts applicants should have strong high school grades, a well-written personal statement, and excellent letters of recommendation. All international students whose first language is not English will be required to submit IELTS or TOEFL scores, and most will be required to take the SAT I. In general, BA programs in the arts do not require auditions. Some BA programs will require students to submit a portfolio at the time of application, and many programs will require interviews. Conversely, BFA and BM applicants will be required to submit portfolios, and in nearly all cases, an in-person audition will be mandatory in order to be considered for acceptance. In general, BA, BFA, and BM programs take four academic years to complete.

Graduate study in the arts encompasses a wide range of fields with various degrees and specializations. The graduate application process is extremely competitive and very intense, and as a result it is important for international applicants to prepare applications well in advance of the deadlines. While not all graduate programs require an undergraduate degree in the same field, it is crucial that students have some recognizable experience in their intended field of study and be able to demonstrate their ability to conceptualize and produce work. Dancers and musicians must have significant years of training before entering a graduate program. Most design, film, theater, and visual arts students must have previous experience. A clear area of focus in a specific subject area is imperative for students applying for graduate programs in the arts. Graduate programs welcome applications from students with BA, BFA, and BM degrees.

Before applying to a graduate program, students must identify what kind of graduate degree they want to pursue, as there are significant differences among the degrees. If students are interested in academic, theoretical studies, they might be suited to the MA or PhD research degrees. However, if students are interested in applied, practical studies in which they will be creating work in their disciplines, they might be suited to the MM, MFA, or DMA degrees. The most common graduate degree options in the arts are: Master of Arts (MA), Master of Music (MM), Master of Fine Arts (MFA), Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA), and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD).

  • Master of Arts (MA): The MA is an advanced degree, usually two years in length. The curriculum will consist of coursework in a specialized field, and a final thesis is required. The MA is primarily available for academic, theoretical fields of study in the arts. Because it is a research-based degree, students will be producing papers as opposed to building performing and applied art pieces. Some examples of fields that award the MA degree are dance studies, film studies, theater history and theory, performance studies, musicology, and music theory. Many students who obtain the MA degree choose to further their studies by eventually obtaining the PhD degree.
  • Master of Music (MM): The MM is an advanced degree in an area of applied music performance and composition. It usually takes two years to complete the degree. The curriculum will consist primarily of applied coursework in a student’s area of study, with few theoretical classes to augment study. Students who are interested in working as professional musicians in the areas of performance, conducting, and composition will want to pursue the MM degree. Some students choose to further their studies by obtaining the Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) degree.
  • Master of Fine Art (MFA): The MFA is an advanced degree in an area of applied or performing arts. While program lengths vary, it is important to remember that most MFA programs take at least three years to complete. The MFA is considered a terminal degree; this means it is the highest degree awarded in an applied or performing art discipline. With the exception of the Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism program at the Yale School of Drama, the Doctor of Fine Arts (DFA) degree does not exist in graduate study in the United States. Instead, the MFA is the highest degree a student can obtain for applied study. Most students applying to graduate school in the arts will apply to MFA programs. The degree curriculum consists primarily of applied practical work, with a few theoretical classes to augment study. Students will be required to create work during their years of study and to produce a final creative piece for their thesis. This degree is suited to students who would like to pursue a professional arts career or university teaching career. The MFA degree is awarded in most art fields; however, it is rarely awarded in music. Instead, students who intend to further their career as musicians or who want to teach at the university level in applied music fields will choose the DMA track. Student who are interested in working as actors, directors, dancers, choreographers, designers, visual artists, and filmmakers are suited to the MFA degree.
  • Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA): The DMA degree is the highest degree awarded in the applied field of music. DMA programs usually take about five years to complete. The DMA is a terminal degree intended for musicians who wish to combine the highest attainments in their area of specialization with doctoral-level academic study in music. DMA students combine applied studies with theoretical research and write a thesis or dissertation. This doctorate degree is best suited to students pursuing an advanced music degree in the areas of performance, conducting, and composition.
  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD): The PhD is the highest degree awarded for the academic, theoretical fields of study in the arts. The PhD usually takes five to seven years to complete. Generally speaking, most PhD programs will focus on theoretical research with little to no applied work. The curriculum for programs includes coursework followed by exams and an original research dissertation. Students who receive PhDs in arts fields very often pursue university teaching careers. PhDs are awarded in academic theoretical areas such as dance studies, film studies, theater history and theory, performance studies, and musicology and music theory.

Just like undergraduate programs, the application requirements for graduate programs will vary from school to school. Students should have at least a 3.0 grade point average (GPA) in their undergraduate studies, a clear study objective, three solid letters of recommendation, and GRE scores. All international students whose first language is not English will be required to submit IELTS or TOEFL scores. Furthermore, most applications for graduate programs will require students to submit portfolios and creative work samples. According to Columbia University School of the Arts, the “Faculty Admissions Committee considers an applicant’s professional promise, talent, background, and depth of commitment to his or her field…accordingly, the most critical part of the application is the creative materials which allow the committee to evaluate these considerations most clearly” (“Admissions FAQ”). These creative materials play a crucial part in the application process, especially for students applying to MM, MFA, and DMA programs. For PhD applicants, it is important to have strong writing samples and a solid academic background. PhD applicants should also identify a professor within the department in which they plan to work.

Because graduate arts programs are extremely competitive, it is imperative for students to submit all required portfolio materials and writing samples exactly as requested by the school. Each school will have its own unique guidelines, so students should visit the websites of desired programs in order to fully understand all requirements. Failure to follow guidelines and submit exact materials in the format and length demanded will likely result in a denial of admission. For some areas of study within the dance, music, and theater fields, an in-person audition may be required.

U.S. higher education institutions have a wonderful range of programs to suit the interests of students, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Having clear goals and a defined subject area is the best way for students to approach the application process. Embarking on a degree in the arts is both a demanding and rewarding experience, and international students are highly encouraged to apply.