Should You Get An MFA?

After reading this post on Galley Cat regarding alternatives to getting a Creative Writing MFA, I started thinking. I just finished my MFA in January and for me the decision to pursue the degree was a good one. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right move for every writer. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to writing or education, so I’m a little tired of the debate over whether or not MFA programs are worth it.

For some writers, an MFA program is exactly right.

I graduated with a group of amazingly talented people from all over the world.  We went to Lesley University and the program was low-residency (sidenote: low-residency does not mean less work, less cost, or that the program is easier. We were expected to spend at least 25 hours weekly on our work, which was very realistic and not at all a simple task. I’m not sure if the Galley Cat list meant to imply that a low-res program is an alternative to an MFA,  because… it’s still an MFA.)

Anyway– the group I graduated with was made up of writers who got something meaningful out of this program and who needed the MFA at that point in their writing life. Not a single graduate complained that it was a waste of 2 years or that they could have gotten this education from a book or website. In fact, we were all wishing we could have just one or two more semesters in the program because every residency presented us with new tools for our writing arsenals.

Freaking cool.

That’s why I’m tired of hearing people debate whether or not an MFA is a good idea. My writing is so much stronger now because I had the chance to study closely with some very accomplished writers. Yes, reading is important if you want to write. But so is discussion, workshopping, feedback. You need eyes to tell you what works and what doesn’t work. If that’s all you need and you can get it in a writing group, power to you.

If you feel like you need more, like you’re hungry for all the knowledge you can get your hands on, maybe you’re in the right place for an MFA.

They’re not cheap, but that’s because it’s an education. School isn’t cheap. If an MFA is the type of education you want next in your life, go get that degree.

If you think it’s a waste of time, don’t go get that degree.

Pretty  basic.

An MFA won’t guarantee that you’ll publish anything or become well-known or rich. It does, however, give you the opportunity to dig into your writing, get feedback, expand your mind a bit, and make connections that you otherwise would have missed out on. Not everyone who gets an MFA does it because they want to be a famous writer. I think nearly every person who writes understands that it’s a tough field, that there are no sure bets, and that you have to work your ass off no matter what your writing goals are.

But I’m more inspired to work my ass off after getting my MFA because I have the resources and tools now to work my ass off in the most effective way possible. I know how to revise, edit, find the pulse of a story and redirect a plot when it strays from the right course. I also learned how to create and teach a college-level seminar, and how to give a public reading without puking.

I would have lived without the MFA, but I’m happier to have it. My friends, mentors and experiences from the 2-year program are shaping who I am as a writer now– a writer who is has her act together and knows what she wants from her writing life.

And I feel damn lucky to be able to say that.

7 thoughts on “Should You Get An MFA?”

  1. Great article. Oh the what if’s. Had I stayed in English and Journalism as I started in college, I might be much happier now. Not that my bachelor’s and master’s degrees are going to waste. I even have hours towards my PhD in educational psychology, but if you have that burning desire to write as I do, then an MFA would have been a much better choice.

    I don’t know anything about low residency programs, but I do know that you are a talented writer with great skills to make it. So keep at it!

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    1. Kristin, I actually really think you would excel so much in a low-residency style MFA program! We had a lot of mothers and fathers in the program, so it wasn’t practical for them to take off for 2 or 3 years to do a program that required full time presence. Low-residency is such a good option, even if you’re not a parent or someone with a job you can’t leave or relocate. The way it works is you go a residency at the school for anywhere from 7-10 days depending on the program, you take workshops, classes, seminars, go to readings, mingle with other writers, and work with a faculty mentor on outlining your work for the semester. Then you go home, do the work on your time, and submit your work on the submission due dates (ours were the first Monday of each month). For someone who was tired of the traditional classroom setting all semester long, this program was refreshing. I loved the residencies because they charged me up, gave me a great starting point, and kept me motivated all semester. Plus, I think low-res programs are the best way to do an MFA because it’s much more natural to write on your own than in a classroom setting. Maybe it’s something you should consider?🙂

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  2. I’m totally one of those annoying people who encourages writers to skip the MFA or the j-school and just dive in. I figure you can always pick and choose continuing education courses later on, with fabulous professors, and fabulous fellow students, while also paying less (because it’s non-credit!).

    Then again, an MFA is an investment in your career like any other. I may not have needed an MFA, but I do find myself benefiting from writing classes here and there, business classes, etc. I even went through a career coaching certification program. Waste of money? Time will tell. But I felt it was worth it to me. And, for some writers, an MFA is worth it to them. So… yeah.

    P.S. You totally need to share your secret on how to give a public reading without puking!

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  3. I agree that it’s different for everyone. A few years ago I applied to and got into a couple of MFA programs (one low-res, one non) but in the end decided not to attend. A lot of my reasons were unique to me; I’d been reevaluating my financial situation between the time I applied and the time I was accepted, and realized I didn’t want to go into debt. And since I’d been freelancing full-time (with one of my main goals being that I’d dedicate more time to creative writing) I felt that I was already enjoying one of the main benefits of an MFA program: the fact that it forces you to carve out 2 or 3 years of your life and dedicate them to writing, and hopefully helps you make that commitment a lifelong one.

    But then again, I’d majored in creative writing as an undergrad and was kind of excited about going it alone for a while, to really find my own voice and see what happened when I didn’t have grades or deadlines to worry about.

    I wasn’t writing in a bubble, though; I had the support of several amazing writing groups, so I felt I was getting the valuable feedback of workshops. I’d been learning about the industry, meeting and networking with editors and agents, by attending writers conferences.

    All that being said, it really depends on a person’s unique situation and their own learning styles. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to go about it; just a right or wrong way for each person.

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    1. Thanks for the comment and for sharing this with your readers! I’d love to hear that they think. The MFA debate is such an interesting one because people have such strong feelings one way or another.

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