What is Maya for?
Autodesk Corporation's Maya is a 3D Modeling and Rendering program, similar to Lightwave, 3DS Max, Pixar's Renderman, and other professional 3D programs. Along with Renderman, it is considered one of the top programs in its class in the world, and arguably one of the top program in its class in the world. Many pictures have received Academy Awards for Visual Effects because their artists used Maya for the film. One of the most recent examples is the Oscar winning "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" - it used Maya for its visual effects throughout the picture. King Kong was also the beneficiary of effects created by Maya.
In addition to 3D work, Maya is also used for Matte painting. Matte paintings are typically used in digital work for backgrounds.
Many special effects companies use Maya. More notable examples are Lucas film's Industrial Light and Magic, and Matte World Digital.
Autodesk has won a total of 5 Oscars itself from the Academy for significant contibutions to the Motion Picture industry. Last year, it won the Scientific and Technical Oscar for Maya's new Fluid Effects, which allow graphic artists to realistically design better fluid and gas effects on film.
Autodesk's achievements with Maya are not limited to movies - it has also received many awards from the Television and Broadcasting industries. As another person here pointed out, it is also used in the Gaming Industry for 3D game modeling and effects.
Maya is not on the list of cheap programs, even if you're a student. The full version runs close to $2000 or more depending on the version and what you get with it. However, you can download a trial version from the Autodesk site.
Simply put, it is not for the beginner or casual user. It is for those who are professional artists, working at the top of their craft. The same can be said for Renderman, as it has been used by Pixar Animation to create its Oscar winning movies over the years. Many people don't realize that Pixar was originally a Computer company started by George Lucas.
Many people who aren't familiar with 3D techniques start out with Autodesk's 3DS Max, a good program in its own right. While not as powerful as Maya, it does prepare users for the jump to the more complex Maya program.
While Maya isn't for beginners, there are many good training programs available if you're not going to get it in college. One of the better courses is at Lynda.com, which has online courses for most of the top media programs, including Adobe, Autodesk, Macromedia (before the merger - they still have the old courses available) and many programming language courses as well. Annual subscription runs about $400. So if you can swing the cash for Maya, training is accessible. Lynda.com now offers certification in each course completed as well.
Maya also needs pretty powerful equipment to run. Most notebooks or other systems with common ATI Radeon or NVIDIA GeForce chipsets aren't recommended for the 3D processing capability that Maya requires. The Autodesk site has specific requirements for systems to run Maya, and while they're not that steep, they're not that cheap either.