Should I Pursue a Master of Fine Arts (MFA)?

Think of all the students that pursue visual arts, language arts, and performing arts. No, you don’t need a degree to write, draw, paint, act, read, or communicate. You also don’t need a degree to do science experiments in your garage – but students still pursue degrees in biology and chemistry.

Dear Laryssa,

Are you glad you got your MFA in Creative Writing? The reason I ask is because I almost applied for programs last year. On one hand, it’s a passion, and I know I’d get a lot out of it. On the other, I have a couple of friends who got their MFA, and it has not helped them in the job market at all. My mentor even goes so far as to call it an “art degree.” She says, “If you want to write, just write! You don’t need to go to college for that.”

If you could do it all over again, would you still get your MFA?

Sincerely,

Andy
Campbell, CA

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Dear Andy,

I get this question a lot so I figured I would share the answer with my online audience. My response is not very simple, and it probably won’t make the decision any easier for you.

First of all, your mentor is correct. The Master of Fine Arts is an arts degree, but I don’t necessarily think “arts degree” is a bad thing. A lot of people study the arts for various reasons; think of all the students that pursue visual arts, language arts, and performing arts. No, you don’t need a degree to write, draw, paint, act, read, or communicate.

You also don’t need a degree to do science experiments in your garage – but students still pursue degrees in biology and chemistry.

“If you want to write, just write!” Let’s be real here. The benefit of attending a Master of Fine Arts program is that you are forced to write. Professors hold you accountable for writing, and your first priority every day should be to write. In the real world, sometimes the desire to write and the efforts made to write have epic wars with things like daily responsibilities.

That being said, the pressure to write every day is not always a good thing. How much do you love to write? Are you prepared to write even when you don’t feel like you have anything great to say? Are you prepared for grueling workshop sessions? For your peers and professor to criticize your work?

If you’re completely in love with writing, so in love you would marry writing if it were a person, then another thing to consider is cost. If you have the money to attend the program, or the program offers you money, my advice to you is DO IT, GO!

However, you should be very realistic about the monetary value of your degree. You wrote, “I have a couple of friends how got their MFA, and it has not helped them in the job market at all.” The MFA is a terminal, non-professional degree. Unlike a law degree, which has a specific purpose, a Master of Fine Arts is a chance for the student to fully immerse herself in her craft and to practice writing.

If you’re thinking about pursuing the MFA simply because you think it will help you in the job market, DON’T DO IT! Now, many people would ask: why would you go to school if it won’t necessarily help you in the job market? Hundreds of years ago, curious and interested young people pursued an education simply for the pleasure and joy of it. Think about that.

Let me tell you a little story, Andy. In July, I went to a job interview at a well-respected publishing company. After spending about a half hour with the interviewer, the last thing she asked me was about my MFA. “Oh, you like to write?” She asked. “That’s nice, a lot of our employees have hobbies, and we encourage them.”

Be prepared to get that kind of response. Frequently.

If you want to be a writing teacher or professor, the MFA will help you in the job market. However, the degree alone will not be enough to secure you a job as a teacher. While you are in grad school, you are going to have to work hard to build your teaching experience and your relationships with your professors. Sometimes, these tasks get in the way of the WRITING, which is the main reason why you decided to go to school, right? Think about grading papers for hours when you have a short story to write.

You also have to consider the program itself. Some schools place a greater emphasis on craft, and other schools place a greater emphasis on the study of literature. At the University of Maryland, I had to take required English courses with the English M.A. and PhD students. I never took an English literature course in college; I’m a writer, not a literature scholar. If you don’t like analyzing books to death, you will have to consider this element.

Nowadays, universities have a few different program options: part-time, full-time, and low residency. These options affect more than just the time you spend on campus; they affect how much time you spend in the writing community at the school. Being involved in the writing community is one of the most potentially fulfilling aspects of a Master of Fine Arts degree. If you find yourself at a school where many of your classmates have busy lives outside of the classroom, you probably won’t see them very often.

At the University of Maryland, the writing community was not very close. Because I didn’t teach, I was on campus 2-3 days/week for class. What did I do during the rest of the week? I worked part-time jobs and internships to keep myself busy. My classmates came from Maryland, D.C., and Virginia, and many had other jobs, responsibilities, and families. At a school like Iowa, for example, the writing community is overwhelmingly vibrant.

If I could do it all over again, I would go. However, I would apply to more schools (I think I applied to 13)/research the programs/spend some time talking to the students in these programs and asking them about their experiences.

During my time in grad school, I learned a lot about myself, mostly because I felt like I had to invent a daily purpose. Writing fiction on a near-daily basis is an emotionally-trying process. All too often, I felt caught up in my imagination. But if you can handle the intensity, I think pursuing the MFA is a noble task.

Also, I now have a 200-page work-in-progress collection of short stories that I probably wouldn’t have written otherwise.

Good luck!

Laryssa

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