In my last post, I provided general information about MFA Programs. As I pointed out, before you spend the time and money to apply to any graduate program, it’s important to clarify your goals and to define exactly what you hope to accomplish. If you can afford the tuition and you wish 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.
Here are some of the pros and cons of an MFA program.
MFA Program: Pros
Time to Hone Your Craft
I’ve listed this at number one for a reason-honing craft is, in my estimation, the only truly good reason for pursuing a creative writing degree. Yes, there other ways to hone craft and, no, you do not need a degree to be an excellent writer. Cormac McCarthy, whom I consider one of the greatest writers of our time, never graduated from college.
Nevertheless, no matter how sincere our intentions, life intervenes. Unless you’re a determined self-starter, fully committed to working on craft, lessons are easy to set aside. Particularly today, when self-publishing is easy and cheap, it’s tempting to forgo studying in favor of publication. This is a bad idea on many levels, not the least of which is that publishing before you’re ready, or putting out a book that’s deficient in craft and technique, can damage your reputation.
If you’re itching to publish and can’t wait, go for it. If you’re hoping to build a career and sustain it long-term, you’re better off waiting to publish until you’ve mastered the basics of craft.
Evaluating the advantages afforded by prestige is hard because, let’s face it, it’s mostly between our ears. If the respect of others gives your confidence a boost, an advanced degree can be an advantage. If you don’t care what others think, there may be no advantage here at all.
Preparation for a Job in the Field
When we think of a post-MFA career, we often think teaching or publishing. But publishing a book is not the only job an MFA might help you to land. You may find work writing or editing for a newspaper or magazine, land a job as a literary agent, or find work in any of a number of writing-intensive fields, such as PR or corporate communications.
Develop a Network
MFA residents meet one or more times per week, typically in small groups. Because most MFA programs are relatively small and the majority of students live locally, students tend to form tightly knit friendships. Writing is a lonely, often frustrating profession; a supportive network can pick you up when you’re down and support you throughout your career.
Bond with a Mentor
A mentor, if you’re fortunate enough to find one, can provide important connections and invaluable advice. My mentors answered questions and helped me with both teaching and writing; even now, nearly fifteen years after graduation, we keep in regular touch.
MFA Program: Cons
A Grad Degree is Expensive
Many programs offer awards, residencies and other financial incentives. Despite having received a prestigious teaching fellowship, my MFA cost more than $30K, not including living expenses. Today, the annual tuition at my alma mater is $18,000 and only 25 percent of students receive finance aid. While a combination of awards and scholarships may offer the chance to break even, most students I’ve talked with have come nowhere close.
It Takes Time That Might Be Spent Otherwise
Two to three years is a long time. If you have no pressing obligations and you can afford the time, this may be a non-issue. For people with jobs or families to consider, time may be a consideration. Can you afford to devote two to three years to a pursuit that may prove fruitless? Even if you’re among the lucky few to publish immediately, few writers can sustain themselves on their earnings, with most earning under $30,000 per year. For self-publishers, the news is grimmer. According to a recent study, half of self-publishers earn less than $500 a year.
I apologize if this news feels discouraging. That’s not my intent. Graduate school is an enormous commitment. Yes, it can be very worthwhile, but you should make the decision with open eyes.
There Are Other, Much Less Expensive Ways to Hone Craft
These days, most universities and many community education programs offer extension courses in creative writing; classes may be offered on campus or online. In the Boston area, there is a fabulous program called Grub Street that offers a wide selection of high quality, reasonably priced creative writing, publishing, and screenwriting courses. Other metropolitan areas may offer similar courses. There are also well-regarded online courses offered through programs like the Gotham Writer’s Workshop.
If you don’t care to enroll in a program, a quick Google search will turn up offerings by writing teachers, college professors, and industry professionals. Before you sign a contract with anyone, be sure to do your homework. Before the teacher is reputable, and consider talking to other students. You can also attend classes through the Writer’s Digest University or find listings for instructors in the classified sections of industry trade journals such as Poets and Writers.
There is No Magic Path to Publication
This is probably the worst reason for pursuing an MFA. Despite myths to the contrary, few graduates publish their thesis and within 5 years many have gone on to other jobs. This is not to say that you won’t publish eventually-I self-published my thesis and have done very well. But the MFA is by no means a direct or even necessarily an easier road to publication.
The best program or decision for one person may not be the best for you. Before you leap, evaluate the advantages and disadvantages and consider all your options. Even if you don’t publish upon graduation, an MFA can be an invaluable experience, giving you time and space to hone your craft and introducing you to a strong network and supportive community that may stay with you throughout your writing life.
Are you an MFA student or graduate? What do you consider its biggest advantages and disadvantages?
- Joanne Phillips – a writer’s journey: The Best Creative Writing Courses
- A. F. Stewart’s blog: Guest Post: Three Things I Never Expected to Do with My Creative Writing Degree
- The College of Saint Rose: What We Talk About When We Talk About Writers: An Interview With MFA Student Alyssa Craig
Thanks for a great post, and for linking to mine too :) I've just started an MA in Creative Writing at the MMU (UK), and it's going well so far, but I had all this soul-searching to do before I began. Just 4 weeks in, however, I already feel that I've learned so much from the close analysis of, and exposure to, the kind of books I'd never ordinarily read, and I feel my writing's improving already! (Early days yet :) )
Thank you so much for sharing your experience so far, Joanne! I wish you every success with your MA!
I love this series of MFA advice posts you've been doing, Terri. There are so many generalizations floating about, most of them contradictory ("You can't be successful without an MFA getting you a foot in the door"; "MFAs are worthless and just churn out teachers of writing in an academic Ponzi scheme") that it's hard to find nuanced, solid information about the pros and cons. So this is great.
In my personal experience, the degree was enormously expensive but absolutely worth it. I was a bit unusual in that I'd already published two novels before going for my MFA. I had a lot of people ask me why I did it when I was already successful as a writer, and my perennial answer was: Because I want to stay humble and I still have a lot to learn! (Okay, that, and I wanted to teach. But I'm quickly learning that teaching jobs are scarce and enormously competitive, even for published novelists. And a lot of their descriptions are starting to state "PhD preferred.")
I went to a low-res program, and it was a great fit for my personal circumstances. (And I just did a series of blog posts on the low-residency model's pros and cons, too!)