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The MFA Conundrum: Does An MFA Hurt Or Help A Writer’s Career?

MFAsAn MFA (master of fine arts) in creative writing can open many doors for you in your writing career. But do you really need one? And is there a situation in which having a master’s could actually hurt your prospects as a writer?

A master’s degree is an enormous investment of both time and money (lots of money). Before you sign up for a creative writing MFA program, it’s best to take an honest look at what you want and what sacrifices you’re prepared to make to get it.

Types Of MFA Degrees For Writers

The Traditional MFA. Historically, MFA programs for writers were few and far between (and creative writing doctorate degrees were almost unheard of). But now, many universities offer MFA programs for writers, and a number offer doctorates.

MFA programs can be similar to any other masters programs, requiring students to attend classes on campus and offering many of the perks of campus life. Often, traditional MFA programs are built to accommodate working adults, but the coursework is intense and (sometimes) full-time.

Low-Residency MFAs. In recent years, low-residency MFAs have become a staple at many colleges and universities. Writers who enter low-residency programs are usually not required to be on campus; their coursework is done mostly online. Low-residency MFAs tend to cost less than traditional MFAs.

Some low-residency MFA programs require that students dedicate a number of weeks to residencies that feature intense face-to-face classes with teachers and fellow students. Here’s one example: The low-residency program at Fairleigh Dickinson University, in our home state of New Jersey, requires students do a few residencies, with the option of attending the residencies in New Jersey or at the school’s sister campus in Wroxton, England.

What’s The Difference Between An MFA And An MA?

In terms of literature, a master of arts is a degree suited for (potential) teachers who are concentrating in literature studies—though there can be a creative writing component involved. With an MA, a person may teach at colleges and universities, though not likely in a tenure-track position.

An MFA is designed for people who want to be better writers, for people who want to study the craft of writing. Writers (especially those with strong publishing credits) can teach college creative writing or Comp 101 with an MFA degree. Writers with MFAs are usually eligible to earn a tenure-track position.

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What Does An MFA “Get” A Writer?

The obvious answer is: MFA students improve their creative writing skills. But there are other benefits too:

  • Connecting with other published authors and teachers (networking)
  • Being able to teach writing at the college level
  • Gaining experience by working at a school’s literary journal
  • Bragging rights in your author bio

Can An MFA Hurt Your Writing Career?

There is one primary drawback to getting an MFA: student loans. The cost of a good MFA can range from $40,000 to $80,000 and up.

The kind of debt that a writer must take on to get a master’s can shape his or her future for many years to come. In other words, if money is an issue, you could end up rearranging your life to repay your debts—and that could cut into your actual writing time or into your lifestyle in general. With too much pressure to pay the bills, there’s always a chance your writing might suffer.

The Secret: Knowing What You Want

If you think you might want to get an MFA because you might like to teach, we recommend that you try teaching on some level before shelling out the dollars for your master’s. Then you’ll be certain you’re taking the right steps toward your goals.

If you want to get an MFA to improve your technique through an intense course of study, then you won’t be disappointed. Just be sure you have a plan to deal with the debt.

While agents and editors like to see MFAs in author bios, they’re not necessary to success. Good writing is good writing. And you don’t need a degree of any kind to be a great writer (though for some people it certainly helps).

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: Have you considered getting a master’s?

7 Responses to The MFA Conundrum: Does An MFA Hurt Or Help A Writer’s Career?

  1. Clare,
    There are many factors that go into choosing the right school for you. Reputation is only part of that equation. Of course, some MFA programs have well-known reputations, but the fact that you even have an MFA will be seen as a plus–no matter what school you get it from. Going for your MFA shows an extra level of commitment to improving your writing. Ultimately, you should choose a program based on what works for you and suits your interests, because you’ll get more out of it.

  2. Does the “reputability” of the school matter if you are not going to be able to attend a top tier program. I am trying to decide between a low residency with regional accreditation and a state university that is not notable, but not horrible in the rankings.

  3. An MFA is an enormous asset to a writer. Yet, a person can write prose without the degree. It has happened!

  4. Not all MFAs will put you into debt. Many programs — particularly the top traditional programs — offer teaching assistantships, fellowships, and other forms of support or financial aid. No one should go into debt for an MFA, but if you can get into a strong program, you won’t have to.

  5. While an MFA does “allow” you to teach creative writing at the college level, most colleges and universities now will only hire creative writers with PhDs– at least in terms of full-time, tenure track appointments. I would definitely NOT do an MFA with the idea that it will get you a full-time college teaching job.

  6. One point I’d like to offer is that you need to understand your self to know how useful an MFA would be as well. Be honest. Can you take teacher critiques? Can you stomach the idea you’ll be reading work from fellow students who might write better than you? In facing the negatives, can you turn those things into ways to improve your own writing? I’ve seen MFA’s kickstart a lot of people into finally working at their writing career, and I’ve seen them turn people into bitter, whining lumps who pout about being Shakespeare undiscovered and misunderstood, and who gripe about the fact an MFA wasn’t an inside ticket to getting published. Ultimately, it’s about becoming the best writer you can be, which actually requires a strength of character people don’t tend to associate with creative careers, oddly enough.

  7. Sorry I couldn’t resist – you know what we all say – MFA means . . . hint, it starts with mother and ends in . . . well, never mind, you figure it out.

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