When I decided to pursue an MFA in 1995, I did so because I wanted to teach. Fiction writing is a tough field and few people earn enough money to live without holding a job in addition to writing. By the time I finished the program, I’d been teaching for two years and, although I love working with students and being in the classroom, I’d changed my mind about teaching as a career. Teaching is an intensely demanding profession. Teaching only one class per semester, a schedule I’ve arranged by choice, I average 15 hours a week; when the roster tops 20 students, as it often does, my hours increase.

EducationEvery year, at least one student asks if I’d advise pursuing an MFA. This is a difficult question to answer. As an educator who firmly believes in the value of higher education, I’m loath to dissuade anyone from continuing on. An MFA does afford a certain degree of prestige-if you plan to self-publish a degree in the field can provide credibility; more important, it allows you two to three years to focus on honing your craft. A program can also help you build a network. Writing is a lonely, often frustrating profession; a supportive network can pick you up when you’re down and support you throughout your career. A mentor, if you’re lucky enough to find one, can provide important connections and invaluable advice.

An MFA does not necessarily lead to a teaching or a publishing career-despite the myth, few graduates publish their thesis and within 5 years many have gone on to other jobs-and the degree can be costly. Tuition at Emerson College, my alma mater, costs over $18,000 a year and only 25 percent of students receive aid.

As with any graduate degree, before applying to an MFA program, it’s important to clarify your goals and know what you hope to accomplish. If you can afford it and you want to spend two to three years honing your craft, an MFA might be the perfect choice. If not, there are other ways to hone craft.


What is an MFA Degree?

An MFA, which stands for Masters in Fine Arts, is a studio arts degree. Most classes are taught as workshops, as opposed to traditional seminar or lecture, with students distributing their work to the class for critique. Not all workshops are created equally. On one end, the workshop leader is actively engaged and involved, offering her opinion and advice and leading discussion. On the other, she acts as a facilitator, leaving the discussion and critique largely in the hands of her students. There is, of course, a range of teaching styles within this spectrum. The degree of interaction varies from teacher to teacher; although I can’t say for sure, I would imagine that it also varies from program to program.

The MFA used to be a terminal degree. In other words, it was the highest degree offered in the field. For those hoping to teach in a university this matters, because many, if not most universities require that their tenure-track candidates hold a terminal degree. While the MFA still qualifies as a basic university teaching credential, in most cases to be considered candidates must have at least one (traditionally) published book. It is possible to earn a PhD in creative writing and some universities now require this.


An MA or MFA? What is the Difference?

An MA, or Master of Arts, is housed in the university’s English department and, as such, emphasizes literature and literary theory. Like the MFA, an MA prepares students for PhD programs, though not all students in either program pursue a higher degree. Theoretically, the studies differ; in reality, the courses offered in the programs may be nearly identical. MA graduates may be awarded teaching positions in higher education, though rarely without impressive publication record.

Most MFA programs take two to three years to complete; MA programs typically take two years. Poets and Writers further explains the distinctions and offers rankings of MA and MFA and PhD programs.


Full-time versus Low-Residency Programs

In residency programs, as the name suggests, courses are offered on campus. Students meet one or more times per week, usually in small groups, for lecture or workshops. Because the programs are small and most students live locally, students often form tightly knit groups. Occasionally, my MFA classes met in the professor’s home, which afforded students a wonderful opportunity to bond with our mentors.

Although MFA students are often older than typical graduate students, I was at the older end of my class. I was also a mom, with four daughters at home, which meant that I wasn’t able to hang out with my fellow students. When classes were over, I went home and didn’t return until my next class. For students in a similar position, or those with work or familial obligations preventing them from traveling to campus, a low-residency program may be equally beneficial while more convenient.

Students in low-residency programs meet on campus twice a year for one to two weeks. Between residencies, students work one-on-one with faculty members on reading and draft and revise creative work. Here\’s a list of the top 10 low-residency MFA programs put together by Poets and Writers.

Do you hold an MFA? If so, would you pursue the degree again? Why or why not?

Next: Pros and Cons of Pursuing an MFA