I graduated university with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts (BFA) in Creative Writing, along with a minor in English, in May of 2016. When I returned home, the people I talked to—primarily friends of my parents—were roundly happy that I graduated, but didn’t seem particularly impressed with my degree.
In fact, I was surprised by how many times their first question wasn’t “What’s your next career move?” but rather, “When are you going to go back and finish?”
And, when pressed, they elaborated, saying: “When are you going to get your MFA?”
I was dumbfounded at first. I thought I was finished. Frankly, I thought I’d succeeded. Not only had my first novel (my honors thesis, no less!) been accepted for publication, but I’d also accepted a job with a nationally acclaimed advertising agency.
But none of seemed to matter. Some people still believe that a creative writing degree is useless unless it’s an MFA.
What is an MFA?
I still don’t have my master’s, nor do I intend to get it any time soon.
But I’ve often wondered how my life would be different if I’d continued my education. Would I be a better writer? Would different doors open for me? Would more opportunities be available?
A Master of Fine Arts is a graduate program requiring two to three years of postgraduate study after you get your BFA. You can get your MFA in creative writing, visual arts, graphic design, dance, and theater, among other subjects.
But unlike in BFA programs, the coursework for an MFA is strictly of an applied or performing nature: If you’re a writer, you’ll probably be writing and editing instead of studying and taking tests. Most coursework is subject to peer and professor review, and the program often culminates in a final project of some sort—usually some major work or performance. For a writer, this will more often than not be a book, or at the very least a book-length work.
Now, the actual value of an MFA degree—indeed, of the entire idea of the MFA program—is hotly debated in literary circles across the nation.
While some industry luminaries laud these programs’ work in expanding American literature (Mark McGurl’s exhaustively researched The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing covers more than 70 years of creative writing teaching in the United States), countless others lambast the MFA as a useless, and even dangerous, parasite on the growth of fledgling writing talent.
Some say these programs don’t teach anything new about the craft—or that writing isn’t something that can be taught at all. Others say MFA staff indoctrinate their students, turning out cookie-cutter writers whose writing all sounds the same. Some accuse MFA programs of being “cash cows;” others, of being “too white.” Others say the programs don’t expose students’ writing to enough scrutiny, while still others say their work is critiqued to death.
Well, we’re here to set the record straight.
Why You Should (Or Shouldn’t!) Go for Your MFA
The truth is, you don’t need an MFA—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get one.
Countless modern authors have met astounding success without the degree, but many others credit their achievements to skills and techniques they learned in a program. It all comes down to whether a particular MFA program lines up with your goals as a writer.
The Pros of an MFA
Here are the top four reasons for going for an MFA.
1. MFA Programs Offer Informed Criticism
To my mind, the concept of the workshop is the backbone of a writing program at any level—students and staff cooperating to critique each other’s work, both to hone their skills and polish their stories for publication.
But as anyone who’s taken a lower-level writing class can tell you, the ROI in any workshop depends entirely on the skill, maturity, and interest level of its participants.
I’ve been fortunate to participate in some thoughtful workshops in my career, but I’ve also been in groups that refused to give feedback any deeper than “It was good,” or “It was funny,” or “I didn’t like it.”
Experiences like this can be frustrating for motivated authors who want to improve their craft instead of being coddled.
MFA programs guarantee quality, specific criticism of your writing. Your workshop groups won’t be the rank amateurs of old—you’ll be surrounded by peer writers who are just as focused and driven as you are.
Similarly, your professors won’t be TAs barely older than you. They’ll be published authors, visiting writers, and industry professionals who don’t give a hoot about your ego. Their critiques will be sharp. Their advice will be specific. Red ink will flow like blood.
And if you’re serious about improving your writing, that’s good news.
2. MFA Programs Offer Structure
There’s one issue almost every writer I know struggles with: motivation.
The blank page intimidates you. Writer’s block confounds you. Or if the ideas do flow, getting them down on paper just seems impossible. An author’s life affords you a great deal of freedom, but this very lack of structure and deadlines makes it far too easy to avoid actually getting any writing done.
MFA programs have a simple solution to this problem: they’re expensive as all hell. The average MFA from a public institution costs around $30,000—an intimidating sum, especially for students already in debt from being an undergrad.
This alone can be the motivation writers need to complete their coursework. After all, if you’re not writing, you’re wasting more money than many writers make in an entire year.
And MFA programs come with structure of their own. You’ll be assigned many different projects with hard deadlines, and each project will have many small steps with individual deadlines designed to keep you on schedule. Plus, you’ll have dedicated professors to encourage you on your way—and give you a kick in the rear when necessary.
3. MFA Programs Build Your Network
This isn’t a universal feature of every MFA program, but many such programs can put their students in direct contact with industry professionals.
Your professors will all be published authors, of course, but the program might host guest speakers as well: These might be visiting authors, but they could also be literary critics, book agents, or important figures from the publishing world.
Not only is this an excellent opportunity to learn from the accumulated wisdom of some of literature’s best and brightest, but these contacts will become all the more valuable once you obtain your degree. These people have already seen what you can do in an academic setting—if you’re looking to publish a book or land a job, they might be more likely to give a familiar face a second look than a stranger.
These aren’t surefire opportunities, of course—no MFA program worth its salt would ever promise employment or guarantee publication—but these are unique prospects and connections you can’t get anywhere else.
4. An MFA Can Improve Your Writing
That’s what you went to school for in the first place, right?
This might sound too obvious to bother including on this list, but there is a school of thought that claims that artistic talents, like visual arts and writing and music, can’t truly be taught. You’re either born a genius or you’re not, and there’s nothing much you can do to change that.
But while talent is inborn to a certain degree, writing is a skill like any other, and constant practice and training will make you better at it … and higher education can help. An MFA program is staffed by industry veterans, and attended by select batches of motivated students chosen for their skill and dedication to their craft: It’s a veritable hothouse of creativity.
If you immerse yourself in this environment and truly apply yourself, how can you not become a better writer?
The Cons of an MFA
Keep in mind that MFA programs are controversial for a reason. While we don’t agree with every criticism leveled at the Master of Fine Arts degree, here are our top three reasons to reconsider enrolling in a graduate program.
1. MFA Programs are Expensive
Like I said earlier, participating in an MFA program costs a ton of money. And while some programs allow you to alleviate this cost through grants or scholarships, many students have to shoulder the burden unassisted. Not to mention that an MFA means another two or three years of school, making it difficult to simultaneously keep a full-time job to support yourself.
2. MFA Programs Offer No Guarantees
You get what you put into an MFA program. Don’t expect to enroll and magically improve as a writer, or to be handed publications or positions with no effort on your part. You’ll fare better, of course, if you work hard and take advantage of whatever opportunities do come your way, but nothing guarantees success. Education can make you a better writer, but it’s a tool to be wielded, not a process to submit to.
For best results, use your time wisely.
3. You Could End Up Writing in a Box
The world of literature is a sprawling one, cluttered with avant-garde stylings, mutant genre combinations, creative explosions and trend-bucking monsters.
But with a near-infinite world of possibilities out there, most MFA programs take a decidedly snobbish attitude towards anything outside the narrow confines of literary fiction. Your dreams of writing blood-soaked horror novellas? Toss ’em—or be prepared for an uphill fight. While genre fiction is an obvious taboo, but you might be surprised that so-called “commercial fiction” doesn’t get much love in MFA Land, either.
And remember, as soon as you enroll in a program, you’re basically at the mercy of your instructors. They’re well-trained and knowledgeable, and most of them do genuinely want to help you become a better writer, but they’re human, too. They have certain preferences and tastes, and inevitably they’ll pass a little of these predilections onto your work through their advice or their editing.
While I don’t agree that American MFA programs are churning out identical-sounding authors, as some have claimed, the danger of losing your authorial voice to an overzealous educational system is very real.
What Can You Do Instead of an MFA?
Not to worry! Just because you’ve chosen not to return to school doesn’t mean your education is over. In fact, you can get a little of the MFA experience without the huge costs—and all it takes is a little discipline and ingenuity. For instance:
- Write! You don’t need an MFA program to churn out the pages.
- Read! And don’t just read for fun. Improve your craft by studying past masters. Read outside your genre. Read outside your comfort zone. And don’t be afraid to pick up a self-help book or two—some are as good as any human teacher.
- Take free online writing classes! You don’t have to be working toward a degree to take a class or two. Many free writing classes are taught or designed by experienced, professional writers, and you can pick up some of the skills you might have learned in an MFA course.
- Start a writer’s group! Or join a pre-existing group. Share your work as much as possible, and don’t be afraid of criticism. And make sure to show your stuff outside the group as well, to avoid the dreaded echo-chamber effect.
- Go to writer’s conferences! There are hundreds every year, all across the country. Not only are these a great opportunity to meet other writers, but you’ll be exposed to some of the industry professionals you might have met in an MFA program as well.