For some reason the whole “should I get an MFA or shouldn’t I” debate seems to be coming up fairly frequently these days. Many of these queries get lobbed in my direction, so, for what its worth, these are my thoughts on the subject.
First: Know why you want to get an MFA. It is expensive. There are programs that offer stipends and scholarships, and if money is an issue, start with those programs first. But before you even begin applying to school, you really need to know the answer to that question. If all you want out of an MFA program is to become a better writer–if you have no plans to change your career path–then consider saving your money and joining a really good writer’s group instead. That is not to say that being in an MFA program won’t make you a better writer–it should. But so will being in a writer’s group and reading a lot of great books. If you’re independently wealthy, or just really like school–then I say go for it! I loved being in school and if I had the money I would just earn one degree after another…seriously, I would.
Second: If you think you might want to teach college, you are a creative writer, and you don’t think you have the time or the patience to earn a PhD, then the MFA is for you. Just be warned–you will be an adjunct for a long time–maybe forever–and you will have to teach a lot of comp classes. This is not to say that there aren’t things to be learned from teaching comp at 8:00 AM, but sometimes it’s hard to remember what. The one really great thing about having an advanced degree in English is that there are a zillion English classes out there to be taught by non-tenured faculty. Don’t get all dreamy-eyed thinking that you’re finally going to get to lecture on your favorite novel, or run the perfect poetry workshop–these luxuries are left to the full time folks. There are sections of creative writing out there, and I’ve been lucky enough to grab my share. But I’m not kidding myself–luck had a lot to do with it.
If you think you might want to seriously teach college full time, if health benefits and not spending half of your life driving from campus to campus is what you’re really after, then suck it up and get a PhD in Rhetoric and do it before you’re 30. I know this may sound a little bitter, and I don’t mean it to at all. I love teaching. Period. But these are the facts the way I’ve experienced them. Folks who won’t give you and interview for a full time job will not hesitate to call you two weeks before the beginning of the semester and offer you three sections of comp at a fraction of the pay. This is the reality that is academia in these economic times. But experience is experience and you get to add it all to your CV.
If I were ten years younger I would get a PhD with a creative dissertation. This would mean I would have to leave the Philadelphia area, because none of the 130 or so schools in the region offer a creative dissertation. For me, the time and energy it would take to write a book length academic work is just not worth it. I’ve got novels to write, and that takes every ounce of energy I’ve got left in me.
As for my own MFA experience I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I knew I wanted to teach college and I knew the only way I was going to get to do it was to get an MFA. I already have one Master’s degree (in music) and knew that I would love being in a class room again. This is why I chose a resident program as opposed to a low-res program. My bachelor’s degree is in music and so I had very little literature in my background. I’d spent years in a well-known writer’s group, workshopping stories and novel chapters so this was not what I went back to school for. And I will say that I learned more about writing in those lit classes than I did in workshop. Not that my workshops weren’t great–they were–but the lit classes! Reading books and authors that I would have never forced myself to on my own, being able to discuss technique with experienced professors who were also writers, this was invaluable to me.
Frequently in workshop the facilitator will assign published stories for the class to read and discuss, and they never bother getting around to them. This is a shame, really. What we learn in workshop from reading and editing each others work is invaluable, but it is really all about editing. What we learn from reading work that’s already been edited and published is craft. I pushed myself to try new things as a writer within the safety of my MFA program. I experimented and thought to myself, you are nuts! You’re not this kind of writer, and then I found that I could be that kind of writer, If I wanted to be. Could I have figured this out on my own? Plenty of people do, but I don’t think that I would have.
My MFA experience changed my life in unexpected ways. Half way through my program was when I began my weight loss and fitness journey. I believe it was the confidence, and happiness (I know–that sounds a little crazy!) that I experienced in school which gave me the push I needed. I finally was ready to have my outside match my inside. (To date I’ve lost 103.5 pounds.) But for me, the financial burden has bee worth it. I’m exhausted but pursuing a profession I find incredibly rewarding and I’m wearing a size ten!