The answer to this question may not be easy to pin down. Generally speaking, no, it is not worth the investment. However, a lot depends on why you are pursuing a degree in photography and what you hope to gain by doing so. The ensuing argument is one that not only applies to photography, but all creative endeavours and their respective MFA offerings – painting, drawing, sculpture, dramatic arts, creative writing, and photography.
The essential roadblock here is the idea that one can be taught creativity. One cannot. One may be taught to draw, for example, or manipulate a camera, or operate photo software, but these technical aspects are rarely the motivations driving those who seek such a degree. If these are your reasons, there are many options out there that will teach you the same skills, perhaps more effectively and certainly more efficiently, than a graduate degree. Those options will also not carry the 20-60K and beyond price tags that are usually associated with MFAs. In other words, don’t enrol in an MFA to learn how to use Photoshop.
Another common reason one tends to pursue an MFA is the idea that it will somehow, magically, qualify them and their “art” in the eyes of the establishment. For example, I have an MFA in photography therefore gallery X will be more likely or inclined to showcase my work. People rarely, in my experience, admit this motivation but it is there, lurking below the surface. We have been taught to believe such things after all – a college degree is a “door opener”, right? Well, not always. As Woody Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, famously proclaims in the film Annie Hall, “Everything our parents said was good is bad. Sun, milk, red meat… college”. Now, to be clear, I am not advocating the blanket “no college” plan that is in vogue just now. I do, in fact, believe that college is a door opener in many situations. If you want to be a doctor, you’ll surely need a college education. Indeed, if you want many well-paying jobs you will find that a minimum of a four-year degree is still a basic entry requirement, despite the “hacking your life” crap that tells you it’s not needed. No, college has its place. That place, however, is not to teach someone to use Photoshop spread over four years at 50K a year. Likewise, the result of college is not to make a failed artist a success by way of a diploma. How cool it would be if that were possible.
So why would anyone pursue an MFA? Two main reasons, really. One, if the school is willing to fund your ride through the degree. If you can get funding to pursue an MFA that not only means that the work you’ve presented shows considerable potential – in other words you are already a legitimate artist – but that the school feels that you will bring benefit and value to them, as a result of your outstanding art, or some variation of this scenario. Essentially, get an MFA, if you want, so long as you’re not paying for it. The other big benefit of this route is that it buys you time to create. The life of a student is a great life. Take it from me, I’ve spent many years as a student – I have two undergraduate and two graduate degrees. But, as someone who works in academics by profession, they’ve repaid me well – the degrees made sense. This brings me to the second reason one might legitimately pursue an MFA – you need the qualification as a qualification.
Sometimes you need a college degree not for what it may or may not teach you, but for what it will ultimately supply you with – a credential. Back to the door opener argument, essentially. So, reason number two to pursue an MFA in photography (or any other creative field) is that you need the credential for some purpose, which is usually academics. Now, don’t misread me here. Yes, there are lots of teachers working in the arts without an MFA. However, generally speaking, if you want to work full-time as a tenured or permanent teacher in an arts program in a reputable university, you will, indeed, need a graduate degree in your discipline. In this scenario paying 60K for an MFA may make sense, if you end up with a full-time teaching gig that returns over 60K per year in salary.
But I just want to learn my craft better; I want to know about the history of photography etc. I hear you, those are legitimate claims, but you can achieve these ends much better outside of a formalized university credential. Read books, they’re cheap – often free! Visit museums and galleries and look at the work of others, appreciate their part of the visual conversation and see where you may be able to contribute to the narrative. Many a famous photographer discovered their “signature” in such a way. You might also consider taking a workshop with a more established photographer. However, caution should also be exercised here. Who is this photographer? What has he or she done that has authenticated his or her claim as an instructor? Is this photographer providing workshops as an adjunct to their career as a photographer, or are they a more or less failed photographer (no legitimate gallery representation, published books, etc.) who is trying to scrape together a living by teaching others how to fail like themselves? As an artist, your money will likely be hard earned. Don’t throw it away on the guy next door simply because he’s marketed himself well. Be discerning, be demanding.
It shouldn’t cost a lot of money to train as a photographer. The money it does take should be carefully and wisely invested. Books and some Photoshop training are likely your best investment, quite honestly. Degrees, as well as fancy cameras and expensive workshops, will just clutter your focus. Developing a vision is what’s most important and that can only be done with practice, practice, and more practice. After all the practice, if you’re still not succeeding as a photographer give some thought to trying something else. Growing tomatoes, maybe.