In the past, the standard in America has been that the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) is the terminal degree for an artist. There are an increasing number of programs, however, offering a PhD in art. This introduces the question of what is really needed to succeed as a professor in the arts. Inside Higher Ed explored this topic in the article, For Artists: MFA or PhD?
In my opinion the MFA should still be considered a valid degree for teaching, especially for those teachers that focus on the studio arts. The option of a PhD should also be available to artists who would like to explore art in a more academic direction. A concern I have is that many artists are not pursuing a PhD because they truly would like to think and write about art, but because they feel that they need to in order to attain a teaching job at a top university. A quote form the article referenced above shows this motivation:
“Most colleges and universities don’t understand that the M.F.A. is a terminal degree,” said Tammy Parks, a painter currently teaching at New River Community College, in Blacksburg, Va., and also enrolled in the low-residency Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts, which is based in Portland, Maine. She hopes to earn a Ph.D. in 2016, thereby “enhanc[ing] my employability” at the four-year college level.
“I didn’t feel I needed a doctorate, but the Ph.D. is the terminal degree in other areas, and it is what college and university administrators understand as the terminal degree. So, I decided to get a Ph.D. so we can close the discussion. Let’s move on.”
I believe that education is extremely important and certainly promote the access to PhD programs for artists. Administrators need to understand that different academic disciplines have their own measures of accomplishment. I believe that the MFA degree should be held in high regard and artists should not feel that they must obtain a PhD to become teachers at the university level. It can be difficult to determine how a doctoral degree changes an artist and their work. In some cases it may not significantly improve the art produced and in a worst-case it may have negative impacts on the work produced. I would encourage all people, not just artists, to really think about what they want to get from a graduate degree and make sure that their program aligns with and enhances their long-term goals.