Updated: Nov 28, 2022
An MFA in Creative Writing is a terminal degree. It means you don’t have to obtain a higher degree in order to teach creative writing at the college level. There are PhD programs in creative writing, and in terms of providing a leg up for candidates pursuing creative writing teaching positions at colleges and universities, given everything else is equal, the PhD may indeed provide that. However, publishing in journals and publishing books (and the popularity of the book as well as the reputation of the publisher) are also taken into account when candidates for open teaching positions are considered. There is also the “fit” of the candidate within the department, i.e., with the candidate’s prospective colleagues, but we won’t get into that here. Today we’ll just be discussing the pros and cons of MFA programs in creative writing from the student’s perspective. So, let’s get started.
There are two different types of Master of Fine Arts programs in creative writing, the Low-Residency program and the Full Residency program. The Low-Res program, as it is often referred to as, is typically a program where students attend in-person/on-campus twice a year, normally for one week each “residency.” While this may vary by program, most have two residencies per year. The rest of the year, you work from home, writing, reading, and turning in assignments/your writing either via email or through an online portal assigned to you by the program/college/university.
The reason Low-Res programs came to be was because there existed a need for flexibility in terms of prospective students being able to remain working and taking care of their normal, daily lives. Full residency programs require students to attend classes fulltime, exactly as you would if you were attending a two- or three-year, on-site graduate program.
Having attended graduate programs three times, once for business, once for Literature in English, and once for my MFA in creative writing—fiction, I understand the benefits of in-person fulltime attendance, as well as those of attending a Low-Residency program, which I did for my MFA in creative writing. So, here are the pros and cons, in my opinion, of getting your MFA (this list applies to both full-residency and low-residency MFA programs):
You get to work on craft with published authors
You get to workshop with classmates and get constructive criticism from multiple sources
You’ll have a finished (or semi-finished work/thesis) by the end of the program
You are able to build a community of fellow writers to keep in touch with
You get to meet a lot of the professional, published writers you admire and who’ve “made it”
You read books you’ve never read before, and you’re reading like a writer, which makes a difference in terms of your understanding of literature
You learn about deadlines and are, in a way, forced to meet those deadlines
MFAs aren’t cheap. You’re looking to spend around $20k, give or take a few thousand dollars. And if your goal is to teach afterwards, there are very limited spots at universities, and those openings are very competitive. And that $20k or whatever amount you took out in loans? It’ll take you a long time to pay off if you’re in academia.
Getting an MFA doesn’t mean you’re going to get automatically published
You’ll have some facilitators/teachers who provide value, and others who don’t
Like any school environment, there’ll be cliques—and you won’t always be hanging out with the facilitators, which for some is something they aspire to doing. Nothing changes by being around other writers—you’ll still have to work, you’ll still have to write; there is no magic that comes from being around other writers except the cool factor/enjoyable factor you may feel, and the ability to learn from them
One of the common beliefs of attending writing programs is that they potentially create a “factory” where the writing style of the professors (and perhaps the students) become too similar. Professors/facilitators who teach what they know can sometimes be taken too literally by students, thus creating a situation where students “mimic” how the facilitators or other writers in the program write.
If you are considering applying for MFA programs in creative writing, you have to weigh the pros and cons and your passion for the craft. There are various sources available to you, but I find the Poets & Writers MFA Program Database particularly helpful. You can filter programs by Degree, State, Program Size, Residency, Application Deadlines, and more. For fully-funded programs, ProFellow’s site lists 53 universities that offer them, as well as links to further information on each of the school’s programs. There are other sites out there that will get into the details of each school, and you can do more research by using google if you have specific questions about particular programs, or if you want to dive deeper into what might suit you specifically based on your needs.
My experience attending a Low-Res program was a good one, but I had the money to pay for it, so it wasn’t a financial burden like it was to some other writers I know. I got to work on my novel as my thesis, and I had a couple of professors who helped me immensely. My thesis advisor actually had me rewrite the second half of the novel, which had taken me thousands of hours of research and my having interviewed people so I could get the exact details of what it was like working in a particular field. But he was right in doing so—the novel is now significantly better (though it hasn’t yet been published as it’s over 300 pages and my willingness to shorten it isn’t all that great).
So, if you’re thinking about getting your MFA, whether full-residency or low-residency, you have to weigh all of the pros and cons listed above before you take that next step. Not every writer out there needs to get an MFA in creative writing. Plenty of published authors—novelists, poets, short story writers, etc.—don’t have an MFA. They’ve learned how to write by writing and reading, which is, in essence, what it’s all about. If you need the encouragement and guidance of a professional writer and the camaraderie of fellow aspiring writers, an MFA program may just be the right move. If you’re doing it because you want to teach, again, be wary of the prospects—they aren’t all that great.
Personally, I loved my time in the MFA program. You may too. My advice is this: come up with your own pros and cons list. Figure out how an MFA program can help you and your writing. Think about the cost, and weigh the various program benefits—do they fully fund students? Are the facilitators/writers-in-residence, visiting writers, etc. ones you admire? Ones you want to be around? You’ll be in it for at least two years, so do your diligence. I wish you all the luck.
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