Masters (MFA,MS) vs. Portfolio School

January 23, 2006


  • You already have a Bachelor’s Degree.
  • You want to be an Advertising Superstar.
  • You think that Ad School is the best way to get you there.

The first question may seem to be which school, but a more appropriate question is which type. There are actually 2-3 different types of ad programs depending on how you count, but they can be lumped into 2 categories: Master’s Degree programs and Certificate Programs/Portfolio Schools.

Portfolio Schools:
Example: Brainco, Miami Ad School, Creative Circus, Portfolio Center,

The premise of a portfolio school is that the thing that matters most in advertising is your portfolio. The programs usually run about 2 years with a focus on kicking your ass and ending up with a great portfolio. You study nothing but advertising and end up with a portfolio and a certificate of completion. You may or may not need to submit a portfolio for admission.

Master Degree Programs:
Example: Academy of Art University, University of Texas, VCU Adcenter

The premise of a Master’s program is slightly different. A kickass portfolio is perhaps the most important thing for getting a job, but continued success in life requires a larger arsenal than just great design. A greater emphasis is often put on non-design disciplines like strategy, communication, creative business ideas, art, and critical thinking than in portfolio schools. Program length varies from 2-3 years. You end up with a Masters of Fine Arts, a Masters of Arts, or a Masters of Science, depending on the program. You will almost always need to submit a portfolio for admission.

Advantages of Portfolio Programs:

  • Industry reputation.
  • Don’t waste time with classes not related to goal.
  • May not need a portfolio for admission.
  • May take less time, especially if you already have basic skills.
  • May cost less overall.

Disadvantages of Portfolio Programs:

  • No degree if you decide advertising is not for you.
  • Narrower class options.
  • Few options (Cannot teach most places without credential/Masters).

Advantages of Master’s Program:

  • Industry Reputation
  • Broader education/class options.
  • Recognizable Degree.
  • More options (i.e. Ability to teach most places).

Disadvantages of Master’s Programs:

  • May take more time.
  • May cost more overall.
  • Will need some type of portfolio for admission.
  • Will take requisite time, even with prior experience.

This analysis is, of course, is overly simplistic. Either track you take will land you a great job if you work hard enough, and, with few exceptions, the teachers are either working or retired ad pros. You learn from great people who know great people. That said, the quality of individual teachers varies as widely as in undergraduate university (a lot).

Mainly, you should ask yourself a few questions and see where you end up.

  • Time/Money
  • How much time and I willing to be in school?
  • How much money am I willing to pay/borrow?
  • Degree
    • Do I ever want to teach?
    • Is having a degree important to me?
    • Is having a degree worth the extra time/expense/effort?
    • What is different between the portfolio and degree programs I am considering?
  • Prospects
    • Do students at the school produce award winning work?
    • What kind of connections does this school have?
    • What kind of internship/mentory opportunities does the school offer?
    • What is the job placement rate for graduates of the program?
    • How many graduates are working in advertising within 6 months of graduation?
    • Where do I want to live during school, and after?

    Visit some places and talk to administrators, students and teachers. Like most things, try not to game the situation too much– trust your gut. If it feels right, it’s probably the right place for you. If it doesn’t, all its merits on paper aren’t going to do anything for you.

    A Final Note on Master’s programs:
    Many universities have Advertising departments, but few of them will prepare you to work in the advertising industry. There are “academic” and “professional” programs. They are relatively easy to tell apart. Academic programs focus on the study of advertising. Professional programs focus on the the creation of advertising.

    A Degree Alternative to a Master’s:
    A second Bachelor’s Degree is an option at any school that offers a Bachelor’s in advertising, and is the only option at some schools, such as School of Visual Arts and Artcenter, which do not offer an advertising graduate program. A Bachelor’s will almost always take longer than a Master’s.



    1. You should check out the VCU Adcenter. It’s the best of both worlds…you get a Master’s degree and a great portfolio. It was named the #1 ad program in the country by Creativity magazine. Their grads work at the best agencies in the world…Wieden, Crispin, Chiat Day, etc. Btw, check out the Adcenter blog…www.rm116.com.

    2. I did look at VCU when I was trying to decide where to go. You’ll see VCU Adcenter listed under example Masters programs. Great place, just wasn’t the place for me. I didn’t mean to imply that masters programs didn’t give you a good portfolio. VCU falls into my category of professional masters as opposed to academic masters, if that makes sence.

    3. Great article….thanks for posting!

    4. What ad masters programs do you recommend in the Chicagoland area?

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