I used to tell everyone not to get an MFA. My personal experience gave me a negative view of the whole academic field. But in the years since grad school, my attitude has softened. I learned skills in my MFA that I use now that I teach writing classes, and for that I’m very appreciative. The biggest mistake I made was choosing a program that wasn’t a good fit for me.
Now, when my students or other writers ask me about MFA programs, I give more targeted advice. You need to look at your life and your needs to figure out if an MFA program makes sense. Here are the five most important criteria to consider.
1. Why do you want an MFA?
This question may sound obvious, but it should not be overlooked. You shouldn’t get an MFA just because your friends are doing it or you are bored with your job (or, as McSweeney’s puts it, you need a snack).
An MFA in creative writing won’t automatically get your book published or get you a tenure-track teaching job. But it can give you time to write and provide feedback that can improve your writing. What’s said less often, MFA programs are finishing schools for the literary set. There are a lot of subtle rules about cover letters and proper reading etiquette. Knowing how to play the game can give you a leg up when submitting, querying or networking.
But please don’t get an MFA if you lack the discipline to write and think that getting an MFA will change that. I had too many classmates, some of them brilliant writers, who never wrote a word after graduation.
2. Can you get funding?
Full funding is rare for MFA programs. In 2016, only 7% of MFA graduates were fully funded, meaning the student paid nothing for the degree. Yet in many other fields, funding is much more common.
Fine arts degrees have a poor return on investment in terms of income after graduation. This means that you really want to reduce the price of getting your degree as much as possible. Look for programs that offer fellowships and other opportunities to reduce your tuition. Even partial funding can help reduce your final bill.
3. What are your other priorities?
Are you going to be working full-time while you’re in school? Do you have children or aging parents to take care of? Make sure you find programs that can accommodate your needs.
Many MFA programs offer multiple formats. A hi-res (high residential) program provides a traditional on-campus experience, which in some cases may offer more opportunities for teaching fellowships or networking. However, a low-res option, which will be primarily online, may be more flexible for juggling multiple priorities. Some low-res options provide more one-on-one mentoring, which may make up for fewer opportunities in other areas.
4. What programs provide the opportunities you need?
You may be considering a specific emphasis, like teaching or publishing. Make sure the programs you are applying to not only offer the emphasis you want, but provide opportunities for hands-on experience as well. You may learn a lot from a pedagogy class, but if you don’t have actual teaching experience, you’ll have a hard time finding a job.
5. What can you learn about the faculty?
When looking at programs, make sure you learn as much about the faculty as you can. Ideally, you want to look for professors who write in a similar genre and have work that excites you. However, it’s also true that not all good writers are good teachers. I like the writing of Joyce Carol Oates, but I’ve heard she hardly shows up to her classes. You want to investigate both the faculty’s writing, and also reviews of their teaching.
Getting an MFA has helped some writers make connections and gain experience that they wouldn’t otherwise have gotten. But many more MFA graduates end up in debt for a degree they never use again, and there may be cheaper ways to learn the same material. By reading this blog post, you’ve already done more research than I did when applying to grad programs, so I trust that you can make the right choice for yourself.