To MFA or not to MFA? (Is that the question?)

I. Love. Learning. I loved college, too, and since my husband and I only live about 20 minutes from our alma mater, once or twice a year we head down there to torture ourselves reminisce.

We’ve only been out of school for a few years, so most of campus looks basically the same. But every time we go there, every flier, every display at the library, every student reminds us that the same vibrant, interesting, exciting life is continuing there without us (never mind that it was also exhausting, grueling, and mentally strenuous. Nostalgia.). It seems so easy to step back into that life and learn and grow again. Granted, it won’t be quite the same the second time around, but if I had my druthers, I’d go get a grad degree (somewhere, not necessarily my alma mater).

But . . . in what? Most of the areas I’m interested in pretty much lead only to research or academic career paths (both of which can be fiercely competitive in these fields). And then there’s writing. The best I could get locally was an MFA with an hour commute (each way) or an MA with a vaguely creative emphasis—but last week I found out my alma mater added an MFA program last fall.

So now the question is—do I want it? Yes, of course—and no, of course not.

From what I understand (as I was told by professors), nearly all MFA programs create a certain type of writer—a literary one. Though I would like to style myself as a literary writer, right now my passions lie in genre fiction, and rare is the program where genre fiction (from romance and mystery to YA to scifi) is not at least stigmatized, if not denigrated. And leaving aside the fact that literary fiction is difficult to write and harder to sell, by no means does an MFA guarantee publication—or even publishable writing.

At its heart, any program is only as good as your instructors—and if it’s a workshop setting (which much of the critiquing is in most MFA programs), your classmates are your instructors. While I’m sure that only the best applicants are accepted to the program, that doesn’t automatically make their advice to other writers good (especially if you’re writing genre fiction and no one else is). And though it would be great to get that amount of feedback—I’m not sure my ego can handle two to three years of criticism (even if it is intended to make you better). Finally, it certainly sounds like literary agents are only half-joking when they say that they’ll “try to overlook” an MFA listed as a writing credit.

But still . . . I want those three little letters.

What do you think? Does an MFA appeal to you? Why or why not?

Update: I really like what Eric of Pimp My Novel (he works in the sales department of a large publisher) had to say about MFAs:

So, basically, my view is: if you’re doing literary work, you think you might want to teach college, and you don’t already have a decent job, go for the MFA. Otherwise, you might want to think twice. No one needs a license to be an author, and if you’re considering pursuing the degree purely for some perceived recognition or sense of legitimacy as a writer, you might want to find a new line of work.

Photos: Harold B. Lee Library—Jeremy Stanley; diplomas—Chris Lawrence

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16 thoughts on “To MFA or not to MFA? (Is that the question?)”

  1. Yes, an MFA appeals to me. Absolutely.

    I have a MLIS (Masters in Library and Information Science). I’ve worked in libraries for 10+ years, mostly in Childrens & YA services, which fits my writing goals (my current WIP is YA fiction).

    Working with books is where I’ve been since high school (as a teen I worked in a library for the blind & handicapped). Writing isn’t very far from that. Beverly Cleary was a Librarian, as many other writers before and after her, too. For me, that is encouraging.

    Last year was the first year I wasn’t pregnant, nursing, or thinking about getting pregnant. With 4 kids under my belt, I found myself turning more to my professional development in between the spaces of time, diapering, school days, etc. Part of that development may include getting another Masters.

    If I get an MA, I would be more employable in university libraries (they generally require Librarians to have 2 Masters degrees, minimum, an MLIS and a specialty area). But if I get an MFA, it would help me as a writer more. So many choices…

    While I’m not entirely keen on the local university here (UNLV), I also believe there is something to learn from every experience and person we meet, so I try and come back to that when I get a bit squeamish about the local literary scene.

    If you look at literary types like Niffenegger, yes, she runs in literary circles. She has an MFA and currently teaches @ Columbia. But she was also able to write a compelling, widely accepted, best selling novel which was made into a movie.

    I don’t think getting an MFA would close doors for a writer. It would open them. But still, it is no guarantee for becoming published. I would go for an MFA for the sheer experience, the networking, the literary push into directions yet unseen.

    I say go for it.

    PS: How many aspiring writers have Masters degrees or MFA? I don’t think that many, do you know the stats on that?? (curious!)

  2. I’ve been half-tempted to attempt a MFA program – but only half. Besides not having the money, I have no patience with literary styles (a BA in English cured me). I’m a genre reader and writer. I do want to improve my writing, so I read everything on the subject I can find. I don’t need a degree to improve my work. 🙂

    I didn’t know that some agents are leary of MFAs!

  3. No, an MFA doesn’t appeal to me at all. I already have a Masters’ degree in Science, and even asked myself if I would have traded that for an MFA (the answer is no, since it brought me where I am today). I enjoy learning. However, between family and work, I prefer to be able to choose the classes I need to take to improve my writing. Undertaking a full MFA means I’ll have to take courses that I’d probably rather not, but have to in order to fulfill requirements. I’ve thought about it, and decided that I could better spend the time investment somewhere else.

  4. On agents: Miss Snark and agent Nat Sobel both had reservations on the work of MFAs (either sounding the same or dealing with all the same topics). Even Nathan Bransford notes that most MFA programs are deficient in teaching not only the business of publishing but the underlying structure that gives all that style substance.

    @T—Actually, recently, I’ve kind of been leaning toward an MLIS over an MFA. No local MLIS programs right now, but then, my family situation (let alone my financial situation, though allegedly many MFA programs, like many other grad humanities programs, will actually pay you to go) really is not at a place where I can do grad school right now anyway.

  5. Um, no, not interested at all. I’ve got my degree, thank you very much and it was hard work. My hubby and I have talked like you though about all the good things in our college years and then we laugh and say, “It’d only take one test/final to make us wish we were right back here with the bawling kids.” And you’re thinking about doing it with bawling kids?? I don’t know, you’d be amazing or crazy or amazingly crazy by the time your were done, right? 🙂

  6. I’ve heard that agents publishers etc stay away from MFA’s because of that literary thing.

    I have to agree with them but from a side stand point. My dear husband is a geologist and has become, over the last ten years a tecnical writer. I never let him read anything I write because he is complaining that the sentences are too long, don’t make sense, the comma added in dialogue for emphasis is not correct, or something else. He could never be a “fiction” writer because of his training. I imagine that a MFA is similar only specific in the “literary” direction.

    Either way, good luck if you go back to school. I’m jealous. I really just want a bachelors in English, but it’s not going to happen.

  7. On the way to a BEd I majored in English and liked the spectrum of material covered. I’m not interested in an MFA because it would require too much time spent on courses that wouldn’t directly impact my writing. My time would be better spent on taking individual courses either at University/College or at night school or on the internet (but only from accredited sources), on specific topics of interest. IMHO, those three little letters wouldn’t impress anyone nearly as much as good writing.

  8. I have an MA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University . . . and they’ve recently changed the program to an MFA program. It is the only genre-focused creative writing graduate program in the country (at least as far as I’ve ever seen). My first published novel, Stand-In Groom (a contemporary inspirational romance), was my master’s thesis!

    It’s a low-residency program (meaning you have to be on campus only two weeks out of the year for the “residencies”—basically a week-long writing conference) and then the rest is done online.

    If you’re really serious about pursuing an M.F.A. in writing, you should look into it: http://setonhill.edu/academics/fiction/index.cfm

    1. So, now that you’ve had a year off of the program are you still happy you spent the money? This is the one I’m looking at very heavily as I love my genre writing and it sounds like a great program. Where are you now in your opinion of it?

      1. Actually, Kaye graduated several years ago, and seems very happy with the program still. She’s had half a dozen books published since graduation, too, so I’d say it served her well. Her site is a great place to learn about writing and what Seton Hill’s program did for her.

  9. I am thinking of getting my MFA in Creative Writing. I’m a high school English teacher and already have an MA in Ed but I want to teach college and also want to focus on my writing in a structured environment. I tend to write literary fiction but am struggling because it’s nearly impossible to focus on writing my novel while teaching full-time. I live in San Francisco, CA but am willing to move if it’s a good school, though I prefer to be on the east or West Coast near a big city. Also looking for a school with good funding. Any recommendations?

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