Guide to PhD, DA, and MFA Degrees in Art and Design

The expression “terminal degree” is used to describe the highest level of academic achievement in a given field. Whether this is a masters-level or doctorate degree depends largely on the field. When it comes to the field of art and design, the perception of what constitutes a terminal degree may be changing.

While the MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) has long been considered the terminal degree for art and design, the notion of a doctorate in art and design is increasingly gaining currency.

The Emergence of the PhD in Art and Design

As of yet, relatively few programs offer a PhD in Art and Design, but they do exist, as do Doctor of Art (DA) programs. In some art disciplines, the Doctor of Arts (DA) is considered a professional degree and is useful for those who plan to research or consult in the business world. However, both the PhD and the DA can prepare you for teaching and academic pursuits and are considered academically equivalent in terms of the level of study and research. There are a number of reasons to expect that doctoral degrees in art and design may become more common in the years ahead:

  • One theory points to the pattern by which the MFA became widely viewed as the terminal degree for art and design. The availability of MFAs in art and design increased greatly after the mid-1960s, and within a few decades was generally accepted as the terminal degree for this field. As PhDs in Art and Design start to emerge, we may be seeing the beginning of a similar pattern in which a doctorate in art and design, rather than the MFA, comes to be viewed as the terminal degree, at least for some occupations.
  • It should be noted that PhDs in Art and Design are already more widely available in England and Australia. Given an increasingly international and competitive marketplace, a trend in one geographic area is more likely to spread to other parts of the globe.
  • In most areas of post-secondary academia, a PhD is considered the terminal degree for teaching. Therefore, it is only natural that schools which offer art and design programs would expect this level of qualification from faculty members in that department.

Role of the PhD in Art and Design

Where does the PhD in Art and Design fit–in other words, besides giving you an impressive credential, what would a doctorate in art and design accomplish that an MFA in the field would not?

One way to look at it is that MFAs are practitioners who use an existing body of knowledge to create products, perform services, and generally meet existing challenges. The potential for a doctorate in art and design is to expand the field by helping to frame the future challenges and boundaries of design.

A related role involves research. While MFAs are generally occupied with meeting the immediate needs of the marketplace, there is also a need for ongoing research and an exchange of ideas in order to help design keep expanding and evolving. This is especially true now that technology has so profoundly changed the nature and complexity of design. In most fields, this kind of research has traditionally been a doctorate-level function, so it is only natural that PhDs in Art and Design would start to fill this role in the years ahead.

Alternatives to a PhD in Art and Design

Does this mean that you should set your educational goals based on the assumption that the PhD in Art and Design is now the terminal degree in this field? The answer is, it depends on the circumstances.

By no means should the emergence of the PhD in Art and Design be assumed to completely supplant the traditional MFA in Art and Design. For a great many functions, especially those where art and design are applied to commercial purposes, an MFA in Art and Design should continue to function as a terminal degree.

In other words, as you decide whether a PhD or an MFA in Art and Design is right for you, consider the following:

  • Whether your career path points toward the commercial or the academic world
  • Whether you see your role as practicing the state of the art, or helping to drive the state of the art
  • The degree to which you want to ensure the competitiveness of your qualifications into the future

In short, if you are focused mainly on today’s commercial job market, an MFA in Art and Design should be a very viable alternative.

Career Opportunities

Art and design is an extremely broad field, so careers include jobs in the following areas:

  • Computer animation and visual effects
  • Fashion design and merchandising
  • Film and television production and set design
  • Graphics design for publishing or advertising
  • Web site design
  • Video game design
  • Interior design
  • Photography

Your choice of specialty should go a long way toward determining which MFA or PhD programs you consider.

Evaluating Graduate Schools in Art and Design

As you search for graduate schools in art and design, to keep the field of possibilities as wide as possible, consider both on-campus and online PhD programs–or on-campus and online MFA programs, as the case may be. Indeed, given that doctorate degrees in this field are just starting to emerge, they may gain ground more rapidly in the form of online PhD programs in the years ahead. In the meantime, if you have trouble finding an online PhD program in art and design, consider checking with a school that offers an online MFA program in this field. You may find that they will work with you to custom-design an online PhD program to meet your needs.

On-campus and online PhD and MFA programs each have their advantages. On-campus programs offer more personal interaction, while an online PhD or MFA program will give you more scheduling flexibility in advancing your education. Whatever type of program you choose, be sure that the school is accredited by an organization which meets U.S. Department of Education standards. Unaccredited programs may not qualify for many financial aid opportunities.

Design Your Future

Whether you should view a PhD in Art and Design or an MFA in Art and Design as the true terminal degree in the field largely comes down to what your career goals are. As a practical matter, for many professional applications, the MFA would be viewed as a terminal degree by just about any employer. In the academic world though, a PhD in Art and Design may be desirable. This would not only keep you on the cutting edge of the field, but it would allow you to help shape that cutting edge.


  • AIGA, The Professional Association for Design, Is There a Doctor of Design in the House? An Interview with Meredeth Davis, by Steven Heller
  • The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Theoretical Remarks on Combined Creative and Scholarly PhD Degrees in the Visual Arts
  • Quality Assurance in Education, Discourses on research and the PhD in Design, by David Durling
  • Sheffield Hallam University, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Art and Design
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