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Is an MFA Program Right for You?

by Amy White

In many writers' bios, you'll see three little letters -- MFA. The Master of Fine Arts degree seems to be more popular than ever; there are over 300 MFA programs in North America alone, and every year, more universities in Europe, Asia, and Australia are offering equivalent degrees. Writers from Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Harding to bestselling author John Irving have obtained their MFAs in creative writing, and it seems to be serving them well. It leads a writer to believe that an MFA is the key to success. But on the other end of the spectrum, Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot didn't have MFAs. Neither do Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. If these writers could find success without MFAs, is the degree as valuable as it seems?

A Master of Fine Arts in creative writing is a graduate degree that takes two to three years to complete. Unlike a Masters of Arts, which focuses more on academic learning, an MFA focuses more on the creation of work, typically short stories, novels or poetry. Those enrolled in an MFA program attend writing workshops and seminars about the craft of writing. They critique their fellow writers' work, edit and revise their own work, and read and examine works from published writers. The final term of the MFA program usually consists of an independent study under the supervision of an advisor, at the end of which a student completes a creative thesis -- a writing project taking the form of a novel, short stories, poems, or a portion of a nonfiction book.

Though some programs offer concentrations in screenwriting and children's fiction, the majority of MFA programs focus on fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. The curriculum is intense, and the deadlines are demanding. But students who put in the work will gain a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses as writers. The MFA program aims to help students overcome those weaknesses; through workshops, lectures, and presentations, students will learn how to develop their voices, revise their rough drafts, and incorporate writing techniques into their own works.

In terms of career paths, anyone looking to teach creative writing at the college level needs to have an MFA. Though some universities now offer PhDs in creative writing, the MFA is still considered a terminal degree, meaning writers with MFAs are qualified to teach at a university level. But having an MFA does not guarantee a teaching position. With hundreds of students graduating from MFA programs each year, and only a handful of teaching positions available, the numbers simply don't add up. Those lucky few who receive tenure-track positions can typically list a few published books as their credentials. Graduates of MFA programs should consider landing a teaching position a long-term goal; their short-term focus should be on getting their work published.

But what about those writers who don't want a teaching career? Will an MFA alone land them a writing job? Chances are, the answer is no. For the majority of writing-related careers, an MFA is not a requirement. Search for a writing position in a job database, and you'll find a few listings that require writers to have bachelor degrees, a majority that require writers to have a few years of writing experience -- and none that require writers to have an MFA.

Editors and publishers, meanwhile, seem to value the quality of the writing more than the quantity of a writer's education. Rebeca Schiller, online editor of HAND/EYE Magazine, sums it up: "I don't care if the writer has an MFA or not. It's the writing and how they tell the story that matters." Paul Stenquist, editor of EnergySmarts of Michigan and former managing editor at Hearst, agrees: "I have never expressed any interest in the academic credentials of the writers who wrote for my publications. The quality of the copy is the only thing that matters."

So why would any writer want to spend two years of their life obtaining a degree that seems to have little to no value in the job market? It's best to think of the MFA not as a practical degree, but as a creative degree. You shouldn't attend an MFA program to further your career; you should attend to improve your art. An MFA alone won't get you a high-paying job after graduation, but it can help you improve your writing to the point where you can land those esteemed publication credits.

There are other benefits of the MFA program beyond this most obvious one. Take the instructors, for instance. Look at the list of faculty for the top-rated MFA programs, and you'll find award-winning novelists, poets, and writers. Having a Pulitzer Prize-winning author critiquing your work is a rare opportunity outside the MFA program, but a common occurrence inside it. Another big advantage of attending an MFA program is the atmosphere. Students are surrounded by writers who are just as enthusiastic about the craft as they are. The energetic atmosphere can help boost a writer's creativity.

Between work obligations and family commitments, many writers cannot find the time to write. An MFA program offers writers just that -- time. Students spend two years immersed in the world of writing -- of creating, critiquing, and reading. In short, they live the lives of writers. But two years of writing time often means two years away from family, the comfort of home, and the security of a higher-paying job.

Two years of writing time also comes at the expense of a savings account. The average cost of tuition for MFA programs ranges from $30,000 to $70,000. Many students apply for assistantships, which provide a stipend in exchange for teaching undergraduate courses. Alternatively, low-residency MFA programs can help students save money; they cost around $20,000 to $30,000. With a low-residency program, students spend the majority of a semester at home, working on projects and assignments. They travel to the university once a semester for a week or two of intense course sessions, workshops, and lectures. Neither option is cheap and both will take an enormous time commitment. But for the thousands of writers applying to MFA programs every year, the cost is worth the payoff.

If you're questioning the cost, you're not doomed to cliché- and adverb-ridden writing forever. You can improve your writing without attending an MFA program. You will spend just as much time writing as you would in the program, and you will need a lot of determination to stick with your self-education, but you can save money. The key is to apply the best aspects of the MFA program to your own writing routine.

If you attend an MFA program, you'll have to work your way through a long reading list. After all, no one can learn to write without reading. But you don't have to be enrolled in an MFA program to read your way through the library. Compile your own reading list. Include novels that focus on the same subject matter you would like to explore, nonfiction written in a style you want to emulate, and poetry that uses techniques you find interesting. Once you've finished reading a novel, don't just move on to the next one. Ask yourself what makes the novel successful, what techniques the author employed, what made the characters come to life. This critical analysis will help you develop your own writing style.

Attending an MFA program isn't the only way to improve your writing technique. If you opt for the self-education route, you can still learn all about plotting, research, and poetry forms by attending workshops, enrolling in university night courses, and reading books on the writing craft. To replicate the MFA workshop experience, join a critique group. Your fellow group members will read your work and comment on the elements that did and didn't work, giving you a better understanding of what changes to make during the editing process. Group members, however, are not being marked for participation; chances are students in the MFA program both give and receive more in-depth feedback. But a critique group can give you a general impression of the effectiveness of your writing.

An MFA can help you land a teaching position, but an MFA alone won't get you a high-paying writing job. An MFA program can help you improve your writing, but so can writing workshops and critique groups. Knowing the possibilities and limitations of an MFA degree, should you apply to an MFA program? Susan Burmeister-Brown, editor of the prestigious literary journal Glimmer Train, puts it succinctly:

"It's critical that writers take their writing and education seriously, and there are several ways to do that. The MFA program is certainly one. Writing groups, reading good books about writing, online classes, studying the publications where you'd like to be published -- these can all be good avenues, and what's appropriate for each writer is often a blend of these, and changes throughout a writer's career and life circumstances."

The answer depends on your current lifestyle, your financial situation, your career goals, and your level of determination. If you decide the MFA program is right for you right now, you'll get the most out of the program if you enter into it with realistic expectations regarding your finances and your future career path. If you decide that an MFA doesn't fit with your budget or your future goals, be prepared to work hard to improve your writing through other means. The MFA program is a valuable tool for writers looking to improve their craft, but it isn't the only tool.

Copyright © 2012 Amy White
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Amy White is a freelance writer based in Ontario, Canada. She covers topics ranging from interior design to marketing practices for national publications and websites. In her spare time, she indulges in her addictions -- chocolate, episodes of Breaking Bad, and the five-dollar discount table at her local bookstore.

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