Part of my Resources for Writers is an FAQ page, and one of the questions I get most often from aspiring writers is whether or not they need to get an MFA. (Spoiler: No.) But should they? That depends.
This topic is far too complicated to adequately address in a few sentences, so here’s a lengthier response that will hopefully help potential MFA applicants decide if that particular brand of torture is the right path for them:
Do I need an MFA?
Should I get one?
Maybe! Getting an MFA was an essential step in my progression as a writer due to the path by which I came to writer—tangentially, that is. I thought that I needed one for different reasons: to learn more about craft, to develop my technique, and to have deadlines that forced me to make writing a priority. All of those things happened, but they weren’t what I expected.
The deadlines were helpful, but ultimately, a writer has to be able to prioritize writing without external incentives. The MFA gave me time to develop that habit of writing, but you have to be careful not to rely too much other people’s deadlines.
As for the craft and technique, I learned a lot in the classroom, but I’ve developed a lot more by nurturing relationships with mentors and colleagues. For me, the MFA was the perfect place to go from zero-to-tons of connections, but it’s certainly not the only way to get them. (Other ways generally require a lot of either luck or proactivity. Most writers aren’t lucky enough to fall into great connections, and often writers tend to be uncomfortable with putting themselves out there in person to strangers. But not everyone—if you love that part, go to AWP before applying to an MFA. (Post on AWP forthcoming in Networking Resources.))
Applying to MFA programs is a stressful, rigorous, expensive process, but it’s worth it for the right person and program. Here are some factors to consider before subjecting yourself to application season:
How much formal training do you have in creative writing?
If you’ve spent most of your life being an expert in another field and writing is relatively new to you, then it might really be helpful to go for the MFA. Admission is highly competitive, but if you’ve got the chops, most programs love the diversity an outsider offers. Do your research to find out which programs would welcome your experience. Look at the bios of their recent graduates—were they all 22-year-old BFAs when they were admitted? Maybe not the best fit if you don’t fit that description. (There’s nothing wrong with 22-year-old BFAs, mind you; I’ve learned a lot from them!)
How much time has it been since you finished undergrad?
Though taking the time off to do an MFA after starting your career might be more difficult, it’s generally beneficial to wait some time to process all you’ve learned and mature before heading into the MFA. I know plenty of writers who did go straight from undergrad to MFA (see 22-year-old BFAs above), but the vast majority of writers would benefit from waiting, even just a year before applying.
How able are you to relocate for a program?
MFA programs are notoriously selective, and as a director of a prestigious program recently told me, at a certain point, there really is no rhyme or reason to who gets an offer and who doesn’t. Obviously, they are selecting the best, but they get so many REALLY good applicants that the difference in ability between the person who fills the final slot and the next best person is virtually nothing. All this is to say that you might have to relocate if you want a fully funded program.
(Which brings me to an awkward question, hence the parentheses: Do you have lots o’ money? If you can’t afford to pay for your MFA with cash, you should only accept an offer for a fully funded program. Even “full-funding” might require the financially strapped to take out student loans, so while it’s incredibly helpful, it’s not the glorious free ride you might imagine. If you don’t get full funding the first time you apply, try again next year. I know so many talented writers who inexplicably didn’t get funding on their first round but had very lucrative offers the following year)
What are your career goals?
Many people go for the MFA in order to teach college afterwards, not realizing that tenure-track positions are a thousand times more competitive than MFA slots (which are already super competitive)—and now with Creative Writing PhDs being offered, your MFA is less terminal of a degree than it used to be. And unless you have zero student debt and zero dependents, one can’t live off of adjuncting full time. Of course, the dream of being able to live off writing alone is even more difficult to realize.
I teach in public schools and find it an ideal balance for my writing life—I have less time to write during the school year, but then I have all the time in the summer. Check out The New Teacher Project for one way to get into K-12 teaching.
But beyond teaching, there are a number of ways to keep the lights on as a writer. Think about all of the non-contemporary writers you admire—did they make their living at the university? Most of them didn’t and their experiences working outside of academia gave them inspiration for their stories that they wouldn’t have found on campus. You can be a Writer-with-a-capital-W while having a career doing something that has nothing to do with writing. It’s all about whatever balance works best for you.