Should you get an MFA?

Reading time: About 5 minutes

If you’ve ever considered going back to school, you may have asked yourself whether you should get an MFA. Today’s post looks at that idea in some detail. 

When I was in my 30s, I briefly considered going back to school and getting an MBA — Masters of Business Administration. I was a senior editor at a large metropolitan daily newspaper at the time and not entirely happy in my job. But I worried about taking a long — and expensive — break from paid employment. 

To be honest, though, my bigger concern was that I’m terrible at math. (I’m not being modest here. I’ve never been tested, but learning disabilities run in my family and I think it’s highly likely I have dyscalculia — dyslexia for numbers.) I spent several months weighing the options, and in the end, decided not to pursue the degree. A few years later, I started my own business.

Perhaps you’ve gone through similar self-questioning, with respect to seeking a rather different degree — an MFA, a Masters of Fine Arts. I say this because so many clients have asked me whether I think they should pursue their MFAs. Of course, it’s not my decision to make, I remind them. But here are my thoughts:

As with anything in life, there are both pros and cons. If you’d like to see what other writers have to say about MFAs, check out this post from another site surveying 27 big-name writers on the question. 

Spoiler: writers who have the degree themselves or who teach in such programs mostly endorse them and writers who don’t mostly say they are unnecessary. Many are vehement including (on the yes side) Gary Shteynart who says, “You have to get an MFA. Without an MFA nobody will look at you right, so you have to get an MFA.” Then, on the no side, Jonathan Franzen argues: “I got married instead to a tough reader with great taste. We had our own little round-the-clock MFA program. This phase of our marriage went on for about six years, which is three times longer than the usual program. Plus, we didn’t have to deal with all the stupid responses to writing that workshops generate.

Otherwise, here are the pros:

1-An MFA will give you the time to focus on your writing. This, in fact is what an MFA is all about. The writing. You’ll have to do regular assignments — for deadlines — and you’ll need to write a thesis. These demands on your time will help you address your own productivity challenges and may help you decimate writer’s block. (On the other hand, you could also develop a massive case of writer’s block from the pressure.)

2-It will help you forge relationships with other writers. In addition to all your fellow students, you’ll also be able to meet, read and discuss your work with your professors and teachers. This esprit de corps will not only help support you while you’re doing the MFA, but also when you’re finished. Being connected to other people who understand the challenges and barriers facing all writers may help you when you go through periods of struggle. Also, you may be able to rely on your fellow students (and profs) for blurbs — those positive ‘mini-reviews’ that appear on the outside back cover and in the front matter of books. (I wouldn’t have thought of this benefit myself but I learned it from a friend of mine who did her MFA for precisely this reason.)

3-Many universities will regard an MFA as a minimal requirement, if you want to teach. As you should know, making money at writing is not easy and many writers find that they need multiple income sources, not just publishing, but also teaching and doing other kinds of jobs. (with luck, not being baristas). Nowadays, however, I’m told that many MFA teachers need PhDs. So just be aware that having an MFA may be a minimal but insufficient qualification for teaching.

And, here are the cons to seeking an MFA: 

1-MFAs are incredibly expensive. The cost runs from $7,000 to $20,000, per semester depending upon the school. If you have that kind of money you might be better off paying a really good editor to improve your writing. Especially in the time of COVID (and the depression that will almost certainly follow) it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of money on something  that isn’t necessarily going to give you a reasonable return on your investment.

2-An MFA is not a shortcut to getting published. As author Neil Gaiman puts it, “the awful truth is that no editor, picking up a manuscript is going to check your qualifications before reading page one, and no qualifications will keep her reading past page two, if she isn’t enjoying it and interested in what happens next.”

3-The focus of an MFA program is almost always literary writing. Let’s say your aspirations run along the lines of sci fi or thrillers or romance novels. For those genres, an MFA is not going to help you much at all.

4-An MFA is costly in terms of your time. Don’t ever undervalue your time! Time is actually more important than money, because you can always earn more money but you can never recover lost time. And be aware that MFA programs will likely require assignments in which you have no interest but you’ll be forced to do them anyway because they are program requirements. Yet more lost time! 

5-MFAs usually require workshops. While there are some benefits to workshops — where your classmates will be asked to comment on your work — there are also many detriments. The biggest problem is that highly verbal, highly opinionated people can dominate. And that doesn’t mean that their opinions are worth anything of value to you (see Jonathan Franzen’s comment at the top of this post.) Also, if you by nature find workshops distressing, you’re certainly going to find an MFA to be distressing too.

6-An MFA keeps you stuck in the bubble of the university life. Many successful writers argue that to be a successful writer you need real-world experiences. Lacking these, you are likely to be able to write about nothing more than university life — a topic of limited interest for most readers. 

In summary: I’d say, the nays by and large have it.

But here is an alternative idea that just might work: consider building your own MFA.

Here’s how you can do that:

  • Identify a long-form project you want to write, much as you would write a thesis if you were doing an actual MFA. Take the time you would have spent on that MFA thesis and lavish it on your own idea. There’s no need to please a supervisor or go through any academic hoops. Write to please yourself and later, you can work to find an agent or publisher and try to get the work published.  
  • Read with determination and purpose. The best writers have always learned by imitating the experts. This means reading — like a writer. You’re not examining a text for story or plot. You’re reading it to see how the writer actually achieved their ends. Then, when writing yourself, you can emulate the strategies you’ve learned from that other writer.
  • Create a community for yourself. This happens naturally in a traditional MFA program, but you can make it happen, as well. Go for short-term workshops. Meet people; make connections. Do you like the idea of workshopping? Then get some critique partners who can offer constructive criticisms of your work and allow you to learn more by offering criticisms of theirs. Finally, consider hiring a professional editor to help you improve your work. Here, I’d look for a substantive editor, which is more expensive than a copy editor. But this person should be able to help you  examine the structure and style of what you’ve written and suggest ways of making it better.

Before you make your decision about an MFA, think hard about how you’re going to spend your money. If you’re prepared to spend $10,000 (or thereabouts) per term, ask yourself whether you could spend it in a slightly different way — on editing, coaching, self-publishing, whatever — and get more of what you want. 

I bet you can.

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Have you ever thought of getting your MFA? What did you decide? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by June 30/20 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!