Getting your MFA…a waste of time?!

This is a departure from my regular posts in that it doesn’t deal with women playwrights or playwriting or theatre at all really…but it is a topic that affects me as a woman who is currently getting her MFA in creative writing with an emphasis in playwriting.  And I think it’s a topic that concerns many of us in our field. So bear with me.

Yesterday I read a blog post by Michael Nye of The Missouri Review entitled “The MFA Degree: A Bad Decision?” (Read full blog post here.)

Please feel free to read the post (and please feel free to tell me if you think I’m wrong), but what I took away from the article was this: the author does not think pursuing an MFA degree in creative writing is worthwhile from a financial or an educational standpoint. He argues that MFA programs are not really training their students to become teachers (but Ph.D. programs are!), that MFA graduates are, and I quote, “a dime a dozen,” and, ultimately, that colleges are not hiring MFA graduates for anything more than adjunct.

Now, here’s where I take issue: Nye seems to be making a lot of blanket statements without backing them up (with studies, statistics, etc.).  From my own personal experience, what I know is this: M.A. graduates are having a hard time finding work that is more than adjunct (ie, “tenure track”); most job descriptions I’ve encountered from writing/English departments request individuals with a Ph.D. OR an MFA; I got hired as an adjunct because I have an M.A. AND because I am pursuing my MFA…so they know I have potential to be brought into a full-time capacity (I was told this, by my employer, during my interview).  Nye argues, essentially, that Ph.D. programs enable you to be more highly considered for jobs that require the teaching of literature or English composition.  Maybe.  But again, in my experience, my fellow M.A. grads and MFAs-in-progress are already GETTING hired to teach English comp classes, even though they have no plans to get a Ph.D. Plus, Nye is making the assumption that we, as writers, who generally (I assume) want to teach WRITING, are looking to ALSO teach, well, just about anything so long as it gets us a job.  True for some people; not true for all.

Nye admits that some people pursuing MFAs are looking to be “just writers” and not teachers; he seems ok with that (though he also seems to wonder why writers who will be “just writers” need an MFA). But his overall conclusion is that a Ph.D. is more worth your time (assuming you want to spend 2-3 years on an M.A. first, then an additional 2-4 years on a Ph.D., when I will have spent, total, 2.5 years getting both my M.A. and MFA).

So what do you think?  MFA?  Ph.D.?  Are we MFA grads really “a dime a dozen” and is it keeping us from getting the jobs we want?  Chime in.  I only have one semester left, but I really want to know.

On a lighter note: don’t forget to check the blog on Friday, when I will post (in the playwright’s own words!) the “rousing conclusion” to my interview with Laurie McCants.

About dramachicky

I am a dramachick: a playwright, actress, director, wife, singer, reader, aunt, daughter, student, teacher, and dreamer. My husband has taken to calling me dramachicky. :-) I have my M.A. and M.F.A. in creative writing/playwriting from Wilkes University. My husband and I started a small theatre group in northeast Pennsylvania called Ghostlight Productions. I love all things theatre and I am thrilled to launch this blog as a celebration of women playwrights.
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8 Responses to Getting your MFA…a waste of time?!

  1. This is a good post, and one that may generate a lot of responses.
    I don’t think getting an M.F.A. is a waste of time. After coming out of an M.F.A. program in poetry, I have such a better understanding of contemporary American poetry and its various movements. I also became part of a community of writers and have had success as a poet since graduating.

    However, I don’t think graduating with an M.F.A. equals full-time employment in academia. The truth is that there are A LOT of M.F.A. programs across the country and very limited openings in academia for creative writing/composition/literature positions beyond adjunct capacity. And a lot of full-time openings depend upon retirements and a school’s financial situation. Some schools aren’t even filling positions after full-time faculty retire.

    A lot of full-time openings in academia also depend upon publishing credits. A lot of postings I’ved looked at for full-time poetry professors require at minimum one full-length book or chapbook, as well as a list of publishing credits with national journals. I’ve seen the same for fiction and non-fiction writers.

    There are a lot of writers that had success without working as teaches. William Carlos Williams, John Updike, and T.S. Eliot are a few that come to mind.

    All that said, I’m happy I got my M.F.A. and now know FAR more in the field of poetry than I did before.

  2. Chelle Ang says:

    As someone who’ve already earned an MA CW degree and is poised to complete studying for her MFA CW degree, I must say that I don’t regret my decision one bit. In fact this degree has taught me exactly what it means to be a writer. It’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears — sometimes literally. Er…not the blood part, but you get my drift.

    Before making the decision to get these degrees, I’d never finished a complete draft or edited any of my work. I’d just stop working on a project when I got stuck and start a new one. Now I have a plethora of unfinished work staring me down wondering just when am I going to really get my act together. Well, I’m happy to say I’ve found that path.

    Unlike everyone else, I wanted nothing to do with teaching. I had my share of it all when I taught music. But after this past residency, I’ve been looking at teaching with fresh eyes. So now, yes, I want to give it a try. Coming into this program I had no illusions about the already waning job market and what it would take to get my preverbal foot in the door. Should I let that stop me from from pursuing my dream of becoming a teacher? Absolutely not. I wanted to be a writer and by golly I am. So for me, I’ve actually won this round.

    Yes, I’ve been flirting with the idea of of studying for a PhD, but I find myself struggling with the fact that I’d have to be in school for another 3-7 years, more or less, depending on the subject I choose. Then there is the big financial question — how will I pay for it all and will financial aid cover this over-priced expense? Sure I’d like to be called Doctor, but I haven’t yet figured out if the pros far outweigh the cons. The only thing I’m certain of is that I love writing like the precious air I breathe and I’ll never story trying to find a teaching job. All this wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for my MA/MFA CW degrees.

  3. When I sat staring at the Wilkes University screen trying to decide whether or not to apply, I heard those ugly voices, “An M.F.A in Creative Writing=a career asking, “Did you want fries with that?” I’m glad I didn’t listen to those doubts. It was my hope, and thinking, that some colleges out there would choose an M.F.A. over a PhD. in some cases, because they get an educated writer without having to pay them an arm and a leg. If you are fortunate enough to secure that position you’ll probably be making enough to be happy, especially if sharing and teaching your passion is your main purpose. Maybe that’s naive, but that’s how I looked at it.

    For writing in general? A lot of writing jobs (and trust me, I’ve been perusing them!) only require a B.A. with significant writing experience. I would think that an M.F.A. would look favorable in that respect.

    Would I take my decision back? No way, ever, even though I have no idea how I’ll pay back the loans next June. I sometimes think the purpose of a Master’s Degree is for personal as well as educational and/or career growth. Employers like to see someone with a higher degree. Personally, getting a doctorate would burn me out at this point. But the community contacts within the program have the potential to get you into a great writing career. At least, that is my hope. Maybe this experience will have more intrinsic value to me than monetary value, but I’m glad I did it and I have hope for the future. Plus, I can tell that my writing and editing skills are more advanced. That being said, my understanding of the writing world is also heightened.

    I’m glad I’m getting the M.F.A. even if I am a dreamy-eyed poet hoping for a good writing gig…

  4. Michael says:

    Hey, all, thanks for reading my post. The idea behind the whole thing was to get a conversation going, and I hope we’ve been successful in doing that.

    It’s worth emphasizing that I have a MFA (in fiction writing) and that I do not, for one second, regret the decision. Nor do I think the MFA is worthless; I think most of my students that have asked me about it would be wise to (one day) go get the degree. To me, three years focused on writing is a good thing, no matter what.

    What I worry about, however, is how many things are not talked about when discussing the pros and cons of pursuing this track. What my essay was wondering, aloud, was if one wanted to work in a university, if the MA/PhD track is a better option even for a creative writer, whether one writes fiction, poetry, nonfiction, even playwriting. I’m not sure how much it matters in the here and now; but will it in seven to ten years? Might an emerging writer be wise to be ahead of the curve, the shift to “Well, this candidate has a PhD…” (universities are awfully proud of how many of their faculty have doctorates), before it’s too late?

    You’re right: there are no studies or statistics to back up this claim. I write from my experience of being an adjunct, and many people telling me how lucky I was – what universities I was at, what classes I got to teach (and often create) – while I was feeling like I wasn’t getting anywhere. Publications are really, really, really huge, no matter what. But I don’t think I was prepared, at all, for the awareness that so many MFAs are teaching heavy loads at community colleges or adjunct positions are four-year colleges, leaving them no time to write.

    Will a PhD protect a writer the way a MFA does not? Maybe not. Might it be a better bet? Maybe. I made a quick comparison in my essay to college football: does a single incoming freshman at any of those 100 plus universities not think, yeah, just maybe, I’ll be in the NFL one day? I would guess not. Are these universities preparing those eighteen year olds for anything else? Certainly not. I think that’s a fair analogy to the growing number of people pursuing MFA degrees without thinking about the end result, especially when there is a growing sense of professionalism about the creative writing field.

    My feeling is that we, as a writing community, need to have a more open conversation about these unspoken assumptions. I could certainly be wrong: maybe there is nothing wrong with the MFA pipeline is working. But I think it’s worth asking.

    Finally: thank you all for reading and writing about this. I really appreciate it!

    • dramachicky says:

      Michael, thank you SO MUCH for your very gracious reply to my somewhat defensive blog post. 🙂

      As a current MFA student, entertaining the thought that the degree I have ALMOST completed may NOT get me where I want to go…well, it’s scary and disheartening. But I do think think you are right that we need to maintain a dialogue about this in the writing community. Like college students, many grad students are too eager to “just” get another degree, without taking into consideration the best possible degree for what they want to do. The M.A./MFA program in creative writing that I’m pursuing at Wilkes University has been a wonderfully positive experience and as I said in my post, it helped me secure an adjunct position at a University where I may, someday, have the potential to move into a full-time position. BUT I don’t know if “someday” will come soon enough.

      In this economy, I suppose we’re all looking for whatever it is that might give us an edge — the best possible chance at securing a position in our chosen field. For some people graduate school just means a pay raise; for others, it’s turning out not to be worth the thousands in school loans. One point you made in your blog that I heartily agree with is the great need for financial assistance for people pursuing graduate work. I was blessed by finding an assistantship at Wilkes (in the marketing communications department) that covered my tuition, which will enable me to graduate debt-free. So even if it takes longer for me to nail down that hoped-for teaching job, at least I don’t have to wonder how I’m paying for this education. Others are not as fortunate.

      Thanks for blogging about this issue openly and for encouraging a dialogue. I wish you the best!

  5. Pingback: MFA/PhD Debate « All the Right Notes

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