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What Can MBAs Learn From MFAs?

MBA programs may prepare you for the job market, but there are still lessons to learn from the arts


Sun Mar 18 2018

The chasm between an MFA, or Master of Fine Arts, and an MBA is vast. While MBA programs tender useful skills that enable graduates to thrive in the jobs market, an MFA program focuses on craft and often completely ignores its students employment prospects.

Both types of schools charge significant tuition, but MFA programs neither focus on nor expect a return on that investment after its students graduate. Still, even though these art programs may not offer any help for employment, they do have significant lessons to offer professionals on superficially unrelated career paths.

MFA degrees can emphasize any one of a broad array of disciplines, from applied arts such as graphic design to the more abstract, such as painting or sculpture. However, regardless of the specific training, an MFA curriculum focuses on a students’ personal development within their chosen craft.

As Peter Lunenfeld, professor and vice chair of UCLA’s Design Media Arts MFA, notes, “An MBA points to a job, or perhaps an entrepreneurial start-up, as the ultimate goal. MFAs are by their nature more open. At UCLA's Design Media Arts Program we work with students to determine how they can best craft and sustain their own, unique creative practice.”

As for finding employment, Peter says that “there are multiple ways for this to happen, from concentrating on the fine arts model of finding gallery representation, to practices sustained by commissions and residencies, to ones that are more research-driven, to those that are enmeshed in an academic practice, as well, combining teaching with making.”

He adds, “It's a bespoke rather than retail process of advisement, and tends to differ for every student.” To put it another way, the nature of and strategy for finding a job after an MFA depends on each student’s art practice and their specific manner of working. It is up to each student to find their own way.

Contrasted with this is the MBA, where finding a job search and preparation are major components of the overall approach. MBA programs treat employment as a part of the curriculum and often have a sweeping, all-encompassing strategy.

Regina Regazzi, assistant dean of the Parker Career Management Center and Student Services at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, describes her program’s exhaustive tactics: “We prepare students by first taking them through the fundamentals of the entire career search process.”

“We drill on those components (i.e. resume and cover letter writing, asking for and conducting informational interviews, creating and using a tracking list of target companies and contacts, interviewing, negotiation and decision-making) in a variety of ways (small group sessions, one-on-one with professional staff)."

Lastly, UCLA Anderson will “help students customize their approach in small group sessions by industry or function, which are led by about a third of our second year class, depending on the industry or function for which they recruited the previous year. We also have one-on-one sessions with our professional advising staff, to the tune of over 5000 meetings per year,” Regina continues.

The benefits of the MFA, then, despite what it lacks in career services, lie in its unique pedagogical approach. In this model, students spend the vast majority of their time working on their own projects or on personally guided research.

This research is then essentially complimented by classes or seminars that students feel will benefit their practice. While technique and technical craft can be an element of the education, there are no rules about how to correctly implement one’s skills. The focal point is always on students’ research, and its resultswhether that be a painting or a poem.

This model cannot be copied directly, but MBA programs can stand to learn from it by allowing for courses of study that are guided more by students’ interests and research. Through a curriculum that emphasizes each individuals’ practice or project also teaches those students to effectively think on their own, andmore importantlyto think outside of the box.

Learning skills like marketing, how to negotiate a job offer, network, work as part of a business, or to start your own business are all necessary. But learning the ability to think through problems in new and novel waysor to 'disrupt'is equally essential.

An educational method that relies so much on individual work may seem lax. And, indeed, the career and academic resources provided by MBA programs are vital. However, MFA curricula can help students by challenging them to work, and think, more for themselves.