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MFA Visual Art Research

A research guide created for students in the MFA program at Lesley University College of Art and Design.

MFA Thesis: Finding a Balance

Writing an MFA thesis is a delicate balance between maintaining focus on your process and your art, while also using research and citations to put your art into a larger context with evidence as support for your claims.

Think of two extremes.   People write completely narrative theses, like this one. Other people write long, well-researched art history theses, like this one.  In the Lesley program you're aiming for somewhere in the middle, but you all might vary in how close they are to one or the other.

Writing an MFA Thesis

Thesis Outlines

If you aren't sure how you want to organize your thesis, try mind mapping your ideas to find connections (scroll down for videos!) or read other MFA theses to see how other people organize a thesis.

Abstract vs. Practical

Notice how all the examples below compare in their organization (check out their table of contents!), even when dealing with a similar topic or medium!


Notice how the two theses below both center around art and trauma, but how they organize their thesis is different. 

Process-Based Art

If your art is very focused on your process, you may want to find a way to put more focus on that in your thesis. You can have a section of your thesis about your process but for some people their work is very process-based so they speak to process throughout the thesis.

Memory & The Familial

If you don't have any concerns about writing about your own work, you just want to see how scholars discuss/cite the work of others, check out art history theses. Remember that these students aren't focusing on their own artwork, the way that you should, so they are a good place to find references to other artists to research.

Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a great way to organize your thoughts visually.  There are digital tools you can use (check out this list of 5) but it's usually more effective to create one on paper by hand.  They can be used for:

Studying: Map a textbook chapter or lecture notes to better understand, remember, and make connections

Writing Papers: Map out your thoughts to generate a topic or thesis question, outline your supporting research, and find connections to help you with transitions

Presentations: Present information visually, so that the audience can see how your ideas are organized and connected

See mind mapping in action:

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