August 29, 2011

The MFA Degree: A Bad Decision?

Last week in TMR’s first production meeting of the new semester, a first-semester intern asked about MFA programs and whether or not the University of Missouri has one (it does not). Even though the fall semester is just beginning, writers are already thinking about the January 1st deadline that most MFA programs have for receiving applications. Everyone, it seems, has MFA programs on the brain.

The latest issue of Poets & Writers is out now, and the cover image is thirty-one people of a wide-range of ages and ethnicities. Titled “MFA Nation” this special issue of PW is chock full of information about MFA programs: Seth Abramson’s yearly MFA ranking system, complete with an explanation of his methodology; articles on the social value of these programs and life as a writer post-MFA; wise quotes from program directors and working writers on what to consider when choosing a program; and probably fifty pages of ads from writing programs throughout the country. There is even a small section on writers who never pursued an MFA, a list that includes Jonathan Lethem and Elizabeth Strout, and writing workshops outside of traditional programs.

Five years ago, I earned my MFA, and have since taught undergraduate and graduate courses in creative writing. I don’t believe MFA programs are inherently evil and have destroyed contemporary American literature. The majority of people teaching and taking creative writing classes are all trying to do good things. Nonetheless, I’ve begun to wonder if the MFA is, in fact, a bad decision.

The explosion of MFA programs in the last thirty years coincides with something else from about the same time period: US News & World Report’s annual survey of “America’s Best Colleges.” This survey is one of the most popular, influential, and powerful publications that comes out of this country every year. This isn’t really a hyperbolic statement. Given how important college is now to, well, everyone, and how much parents get involved in the decisions of the lives of their eighteen-year-olds, and how much money flows into universities, and how surveys like US News “measure intangibles,” and how much is at stake for everyone involved when it comes to money, education (where do our top doctors and attorneys and engineers go?), and, consequently, our overall economy, the US News annual report on colleges might be the most important document of our generation.

(Which kinda blows your mind, if you think about it too hard …)

One of the things that the US News rankings does not consider is MFA programs in creative writing. It’s a pretty glaring omission for our world, an omission that Seth Abramson and Tom Kealey have been working to fill. Abramson, through both his blog and Poets & Writers, is the dominant name; Kealey made a name for himself by criticizing underfunded programs, Columbia’s specifically. These two, and others, have done a tremendous amount of work to peel back the layers of MFA programs and get applicants to make informed decision about their decision.

The similarity between the US News and PW is striking: collegiate ranking systems that determine which program is “best.” It certainly suggests that MFA programs are about something much more than just “time to write.”

I’m sure we all want to say that any MFA program is for those two or three years where an emerging writer gets to focus on his or her craft. The MFA program is an arts degree. Time off from the world to focus on writing. The intrinsic value beyond the page. Making better readers. Etc. Still, one of the results of all these MFA degrees are, like it or not, the creation of an army of people that are asked to teach low-levels of composition, rocking four or five or six classes per semester for adjunct pay.

This post is not attempting to argue, at all, the merits of the creative work or the intentions of students, teachers, and administrators. MFA programs are academic programs and are not particularly difficult to graduate from – one would have to screw up to a remarkable degree to not graduate from a MFA program once you’re accepted. The writing workshop is still the foundation of MFA programs, even if there are programs that are much more rigorous about teaching pedagogy, literature and linguistics courses, innovative publishing technology and techniques. And I’m sure there are people that pursue an MFA in order to be just straight-up writers, or work as a literary agent, or some other publishing venue.

But let’s not fool ourselves about where program graduates end up. We cannot stick our head in the sand about the reality of the post-MFA world. If programs are aiming to work in universities – and while there are, of course, exceptions, that is what the bulk of graduates are aiming to do and encouraged to do – then programs need to be more realistic about what exactly they are preparing their graduates for. What if programs honestly told students that if they want to teach at universities, that MFA graduates are a dime-a-dozen? If MFA graduates truly want to work in a university, what if programs stressed the importance of a rigorous education in literature and all it encompasses – critical theory, comprehensive exams, a dissertation the size of a dictionary? What if we honestly ask ourselves: what does this degree actually prepare our graduates to do?

For a writer with the goal of teaching at a university, even teaching creative writing, a MFA might be a lousy choice. Most find that what MFA programs are really good at (besides time out from the working world, of course) is providing deadlines: workshop due dates, thesis or dissertation defense dates, and so forth. And being a writer has to come from within, from a need to write, a need to finish projects, a need to revise until the work is right. People pursuing a MFA probably know both of these things already – what, then, does the degree itself provide? Creative writing is rarely lucrative, in and of itself. Advice on what to do would, as always, depend on the person I’m talking to but I’m no longer so sure of the MFA is the best answer. Nowadays there are so many newly minted MFA graduates – and more every year, growing, it seems, at an exponential rate – competing for jobs in a bad economy where one or two books (which is hard enough to do) simply isn’t enough.

If a writer feels an advanced degree is the way to go, the MA/PhD track, then, might be the wiser way to go. Does it take longer? Sure: but one shouldn’t be paying for a liberal arts degree anyway; funding should be one of, if not the most, important criteria. Further, it is terrific exposure for anyone to study literature in its entire range, rather than the narrower focus on the last forty years that MFA programs typically focus on. This is good not just as a writer, but as a scholar and thinker as well. It also prepares the writer to teach a wide-range of courses that makes one a much more attractive candidate for a tenure-track position.

There are many excellent professors, brand spankin’ new and decades old veterans, who hold only MFA degrees. One could absolutely be a terrific professor and a write a dozen wonderful books: they exist now and probably always will. But if asked, I’d suggest taking a long, hard look at pursuing a doctorate at a program like Florida State, the University of Cincinnati, or any of the other thirty departments that offer creative writing doctorates. It might be the wave the next great shift in creative writing programs, and isn’t it better to be ahead of that curve?

Correction: As my mentor Mary Troy points out in the comments section, the MFA is offered in the UM system, one at Missouri-St. Louis and one at Missouri-Kansas City. It is not offered at Missouri-Columbia, the main campus, where I work. (added Sept 1st)

Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye

About Michael

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review. His writing has appeared in Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, Kenyon Review, and New South, among others. His first story collection, STRATEGIES AGAINST EXTINCTION, is available on Queen's Ferry Press. Visit him online at mpnye.com

15 Responses to The MFA Degree: A Bad Decision?

  1. Conor Patrick says:

    Completely agree. When I decided to pursue postgraduate study, I settled on an MA/PhD course rather than an MFA for all the reasons listed. That said, in my experience it seems like an MA doesn’t get a writer any closer to University employment upon completion than an MFA does.

  2. Michael,

    Great post, and I love the new site. FWIW, Tom and I have tried to do much more than rank MFA programs — we’ve tried to make sure applicants have the very best data available, even if that data is gravely disheartening and convinces applicants _not_ to apply for or attend an MFA. I’ve got no skin in the game as to whether anyone anywhere seeks an MFA; I only want to be certain that applicants have accurate, comprehensive data available to them when it’s time to make that choice. Here’s an excerpt from pg. 4 of this year’s methodology article for the P&W rankings (available online for free at http://www.pw.org; the excerpt below follows a statistical breakdown of college hiring trends in the field of creative writing over the past three years):

    “Given that the nation’s two hundred full- and low-residency MFA programs, and thirty-two doctoral programs in creative writing, graduate more than two thousand poets and two thousand fiction writers every year, along with between five hundred and a thousand nonfiction writers (some of whom have qualifications and prior publications in fiction and/or poetry), the data above suggests that each year full-time teaching positions at the university level are available for, on average, well less than 1 percent of graduate creative writing program alumni. Even if graduates were only required to compete for employment against those in their own annual cohort, and even assuming only between 10 and 20 percent of nonfiction program graduates can or do compete for positions advertised for poetry and/or fiction, this figure would be less than 2 percent. Realistically, however, each year’s graduate creative writing program alumni are competing against an ever-increasing stock of unemployed, underemployed, and employed-but-still-job-hunting alumni from previous years.”

    Last year’s methodology article — much maligned, little read — went even further, offering this paragraph on pg. 1:

    “In reading the rankings and this methodology article, several principles should be kept in mind: (1) MFA programs are not for everyone, and many poets and writers will find their energies better spent elsewhere as they attempt to explore and augment their existing talents; (2) no poet or writer should feel that they must attend an MFA program, whether such a concern is related to employment, networking, or personal artistic improvement and achievement; (3) MFA students must remain on guard against sacrificing their unique aesthetic, political, and cultural perspectives on the altar of consensus, as MFA programs are ideally for an exchange of diverse opinions, not hothouses for groupthink or aesthetic dogmatism; (4) an MFA in no way guarantees one postgraduate employment, as the MFA is a nonprofessional, largely unmarketable degree whose value lies in the time it gives one to write, not any perceived (and illusory) advantage it may offer in the networking, publishing, or employment arenas; (5) in view of the preceding, it is unwise to go into any debt for an MFA degree; (6) holding an MFA degree does not, in itself, make one more or less likely to be a successful poet or writer, nor should those with MFA degrees consider themselves in any respect better equipped, purely on the basis of their degree, for the myriad challenges of a writing life; (7) the MFA, as an art-school degree, is not time-sensitive, and many poets and writers will find the experience of an MFA more rewarding if they have first pursued, for several years, other avenues of self-discovery and civic engagement; (8) the MFA rankings are not intended to increase applicant anxiety, reduce applicants’ application and matriculation decisions to a numbers game, or define prestige as a function of pedigree rather than program factors that genuinely enrich the lives of real poets and writers (e.g., funding, a strong cohort, strong teaching, a vibrant and welcoming location and community)—instead, their aim is to maximize the information at applicants’ fingertips. The hope is that these rankings will better position applicants to make an important life choice, one which (necessarily) will finally be made, and must be made, using the rankings as only a secondary resource.”

    I’d also add, again just FWIW, that (per the data on pg. 3 of this year’s methodology article) the real boom in creative writing programs properly began at the end of the 1990s, about fifteen years after USNWR started doing college rankings, so I don’t know whether or not the two phenomena are really related (in all of last century 84 MFA programs were founded, nearly half of those in the 1990s; but just since 2000, 118 programs have been founded, with another ten or so already announced but not yet initiated).

    Great essay, and thanks for it! Best wishes,

    Seth

  3. I’ll chime in and maybe it will mean something. I got an MFA, then went straight to a Ph.D. in cw. Nine years of grad school. I had no allusions about it–I was there to write, to read, to write. I didn’t look at my TA work as a job–I did get enough lit / cw classes to appease me. I also did not expect to get a job when I graduated, well, not to the the degree (pun intended) I feel most people do. My PhD university hired me as a lecturer for two years, after which I was not rehired as the university started to give credit to incoming freshman for writing courses, and 3/4 of the lecturers were let go. There are too many MFAs and PhDs out there, and yet my friends still get TT jobs even without books. What does that say? Like anything it’s a crap shoot. Sending an essay to MR is a crap shoot. An explosion of programs isn’t wrong, but the implied assumption that there is light at the end of the tunnel, or a pot of gold, borders on evil. All these grad students support TT faculty, so we also have to stoke the illusion I suppose to some degree. I want to teach. I want to write. I still hold the romantic fantasy. But maybe the problem is TT, which doesn’t exist in the real world (ask my other PhD friends working at movie theaters and Starbucks).

  4. Michael says:

    @Connor: You’re right – the MA doesn’t get you closer to university employment than a MFA. My thought is that a PhD might now be a better option than either, and the MA would only be step one of a two part process.

    @Seth: All great, and important points. I think you’ve been really upfront about your methodology and all the downsides about what a writer needs with a MFA. One of the great things about what you’ve done is been transparent about your system and made adjustments as needed.

    Here’s the thing: the fine print, even on page one, can get lost compared to “MFA Nation” in huge letters on a beautiful cover of THE industry magazine for writers, especially when it is wrapped up in tons of ads extolling the virtues of studying at a university. The information, the warnings, are – you’re right – there. I just worry that we (“we” being all of us in the writing community) could say and do more to give emerging writers more to think about.

    @Ben: I worked for several years as an adjunct, and it can be nerve-wracking. Your story is one that people really need to hear more often. Again, this is not to say that people shouldn’t go to MFA programs or pursue graduate study – as you write, you had no illusions about what you were getting into. And I think it we need to hear the pitfalls more often.

  5. Michael,

    I think you’re right, though P&W definitely did more this year than in any previous year to balance its encouragements with cautions (and I suppose part of the problem is that the readers of P&W are self-selecting; one doesn’t generally doesn’t read a trade magazine to be told _not_ to do something, but rather _how_ to do something). The good news is that I’ve been spending some time every day, for about five years, in the online MFA applicant community, and these young poets and writers are savvier than you might think: virtually none of them, to hear them tell it, expect a job to be waiting for them upon graduation. Many of those who are most vocal about not going into debt for an MFA report this as one major reason for that concern; now that faculty have added their voices to the mix — with funding being the number-one consideration applicants should look at, according to the faculty surveyed by P&W for its “MFA Nation” issue — I think applicants are more aware than ever before that in applying to MFA programs (if they do apply at all) they have to think long and hard about what their futures likely do (or do not) hold.

    S.

  6. Cameron Riesenberger says:

    Take aphoristic sentimentality of the following comment with a grain of salt considering it comes from a person who 1) was freshly laid off from his menial online job three days ago and 2) has no real desire – besides the romantic reasons – to pursue an MFA:

    In my EXTREMELY limited experience, there is no better way to maintain a consistent and fruitful reading and writing life than a year-long, post-undergraduate (and counting) job search, where even a day of tortured writing is better than staring at job boards or figuring out how to make yourself sound like the perfect candidate in an endless string of cover letters.

    Around the time I graduated, I would’ve given anything to spend the next two years in an MFA program, even though, again, I have no real desire to get one. I would’ve even paid to go, because I thought there was no way to maintain the life I’d come to enjoy of reading, studying, researching, and writing, in the world outside of the academy. But it’s simply not true. Yes, I had a lot of time on my hands, which makes it easier, but there were stretches where I was working nearly full-time – I may not have been paid for all the time (volunteer work, tutoring, bartending at weddings, etc..) – and I still had time to read almost as much as I ever had during classes and get into a consistent writing routine. The few people who have asked me for advice regarding their plans post-B.A, have sneered at my advice to not apply directly to grad school and see if you can find a balance between the stuff you love and your paycheck. I don’t take it personally, I reacted the same way when my professors and mentors said the same thing.

    The best thing, is to get A LOT of advice from A LOT of different people. Take it or leave it, it’s up to you to decide, but you have to hear it. A LOT.

    Seriously, have I said a lot enough? I don’t think I have: A LOT of advice.

    I must be getting old.
    Great post. Really enjoyed it/reminiscently made fun of myself.

  7. Pingback: Getting your MFA…a waste of time?! | dramachicks

  8. I got my MFA in the stone age (1974) in a two-year program at the University of British Columbia. I wanted the time to write, and I had no intention of teaching when I came out: my aim was to write for a living. Well, there was a time, back in the mid-’70s, when I’d wearied of low-paying jobs (bookstores and the like, and freelancing articles on real estate and animal euthanasia) and thought to get into a Ph.D program in order to teach. I was told that my MFA was “a terminal degree” (no trace of irony in the counselor’s voice); I would have to get an M.A. and then a Ph.D. But that’s not what kept me from making what for me would have been a terrible decision. It came down to two experiences. First, a friend of mine, then in the Ph.D program at the university I meant to attend, had been denied permission to write his thesis on John Fowles, on the grounds that he was not a “serious writer.” Then another friend in the same program, taking a required course in Deconstruction, reported that the professor launched the class with this astute observation: “Almost everything you’ll learn in here is crap. But if you don’t master it, you’ll never get a teaching job.” So I decided to stick with my original goal. I found my way into marketing writing, which has sustained me for nearly 30 years now, and I teach occasional writing and literature courses as an adjunct at the graduate level. I’ve published a dozen collections of poetry and have never once had to worry about publishing for job advancement, attending schmoozfest conferences, or buddying up to writers I don’t really care for in order to position myself for a grant or a prize somewhere down the line. My “terminal degree” has served me well, I have to say. It gave me time to write, invaluable guidance, and several sustaining friendships. What it did not give me was a full-time job in an academic bubble—and for that I continue to feel grateful.

  9. Mary Troy says:

    Michael,
    You are wrong in the first paragraph when you say the University of MO does not offer an MFA. You have one of them. Yes, it is the campus in the system in the large city,not the campus in the rural area that does this, but it is the University of Missouri, and it does offer an MFA. There are, in fact, two MFA degrees offered by the University of Missouri–one in St. Louis and one in Kansas City.

    And of course, this discussion has been going on for as long as the degree has existed. My own MFA education was at the University of Arkansas, and it was a 60 hour degree, and we were required to have a broad knowledge of many literary periods and traditions, and most of us were taught to teach, at least a little. So I agree that is a better experience than the short programs that focus only on the work, the craft, the writing. Or I should say, the longer programs–often now known as MA/PhD programs–are better for graduates who do want to teach in universities, and want to teach something other than creative writing. But the other kinds of MFA programs, the kinds the University of Missouri has two of, are for students who want to become better writers faster. They will publish books (and everyone always says the degree is as good as the book or books that go with it) and get jobs in universities teaching creative writing, thus perpetuating the master/apprentice system. It is a perfect way to continue to revere writing as an art and not as a bottom line business. We writers have always learned best from other writers who have gone before us.

    And you are right, the sad thing is so many new MFAs must support themselves in universities or colleges or community colleges teaching composition while they wait for their book (s) to be published, and this is a nice period for them of learning how to teach, but is not always the best for the poor students who must suffer from some who are not as good as they should be, as well educated as they should be. Still, it is assumed most good writers are good readers and have and continue to read widely and well, are familiar with the tradition they come from, consider themselves part of the long line of writers who have inspired or annoyed or uplifted or bored us all. And if they do a bad job, they usually are not offered classes the following semester or year, so it is important for them to learn fast. But finally,it is creative writing they want to teach, for that is what they know best.

    I am not opposed to MA/PhD programs in creative writing, and I think it is nice that the University of Missouri has one of those combos too, but the truth is they were created in answer to the deans and provosts and other admin types who count things, and who want to say “98% of our faculty have PhDs.” Those who brag on that are normally the smaller schools,the ones insecure enough to worry about it. My own program at the U of AR, not to brag on it too much, hired people to teach creative writing who were good writers, well published and talented. John Clellon Holmes, one of the original beats, was one of my teachers,and he did not even have an undergrad degree. Yet he had read more, could talk better about what he had read, had more passion for it all,than any of the PhD’s I encountered.

    In fact, I believe what is lost in many PhD programs is passion. Writers often have it, have it enough to give up their jobs, to ask their families to live frugally, to move and start over in order to get better, to get critiques from others in the same boat, other artists. In some very real ways, it is a calling, not a career choice. This is why when we hire for new faculty here at the University of Missouri’s MFA Program, we ask for MFAs, and say we will also accept PhDs if their writing is good enough. So far, we have hired only MFAs. We want those who were passionate enough about it to spend 2,3, or 4 years getting better.

    But I sympathize, of course. I taught as an adjunct for 7 years, often working for 3, 4 different places, barely meeting ends meet, driving cars held together by baling wire, shopping at K-Mart. I get it. I understand where these complaints often come from. Art is hard. Art degrees are not often good career choices. And as our world veers ever more toward $ as the final way of judging, we all question ourselves.

    Mary Troy

  10. Michael says:

    @Mary: Ah, you’re right about UM. I was thinking and writing of the Columbia campus, not the UM system on the whole. I’ve put a correction at the bottom of the essay.

    But I disagree that writers in PhD programs lose their passion. The PhDs here at Columbia haven’t lost their passion for writing, which is one of the remarkable things about the program. Tony Varallo, Tina May Hall, Michael Kardos, Steve Gehrke, Emily Rosko – to name drop only a few – have thrived both in and out of the program. And I keep reading really good work from Wisconsin and Florida State grads all the time.

    What you wrote about deans and provosts demanding PhD hires is true. And unfortunate and myopic. However, this is partly my point. If that’s the way the hiring system works, and a writer can enroll in these terrific PhD programs … well, yeah, it’s a significantly longer commitment, but might it be worthwhile if (and this is a Big If) someone knows that he/she wants to work at a university in the future? I’m really not sure. But I think it’s worth asking and writing about.

    • Mary Troy says:

      Michael,
      It is worth thinking about. All your points are. And many years ago it was what I did think about. I selected the AR program just because it was longer, was (so I thought) more likely to train me better and thus make it easier for me to get a job. There were no PhD in CW programs then, and the writers I knew scoffed at such, said how can you be a doctor of an art? a master is all. But even so, it turned out getting a job depended upon a combination of luck and publication. I think it still is such, no matter the degree.

      I am happy you think PhD’s in CW have passion and are good writers, and I know most of those you have mentioned and agree. What everyone knows is degrees matter little or not at all. Your favorite writer can have an MFA, a PhD, a law degree, or an associates in auto mechanics. But for credentials, the PhD can work better. Yes. (Though once again, many programs with MFAs prefer to hire MFAs) And one would hoe the PhD course work is would not be heavy on critical theory. Reading widely is good for writers and being forced to take 3 graduate classes in Shakespeare or Chaucer or Swift can only help a writer. Taking one of the theory classes need not hurt, but cannot truly help.

      Good to hear from you, though. Thoughtful as always.

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

  12. Pingback: 3 unrelated articles about academia, and maybe an attempt at synthesis « So, You Have An MFA

  13. C says:

    My thinking on this essay is this:
    1) MFA does not equal job. The percentage of folks who do get jobs is slim these days, especially with only an MFA.
    2) Our country does not support its artists. NEA are not comparable to the monies available in other first world countries.
    3) No one should get an MFA unfunded unless independently wealthy.
    4) Since most MFAs are at large state universities, think of the MFA as a patronage program. For two or three years writers can work supported by the government and surrounded by other writers. That is what it is good for.

  14. Sarah Graham says:

    Nice article! I did an MFA at UVA, and did not pay for it or expect to find a job ‘waiting.’ However, I like many of my classmates, did have the vague impression/plan that we would teach adjunct for a few years while getting a book or two published and eventually get more liveable jobs. I didn’t fully realize until after graduation that if one did ever get a job, it would be a very lucky decade or two later after having published perhaps…8 books or won a pulitzer prize! Perhaps when I started thinking about the career path of an academic after graduating college in 98 things were different and have morphed into their current status or I was just ill informed. In either case, the ‘industry’ definitely does not go out of its way to make this clear or dissuade people from joining the ‘army of adjunct comp professors’ referred to in the article. I don’t consider my MFA a mistake perse–my husband is an academic with a tenure track job in the social sciences so I would have been routed into an academic life of some sort regardless ( I currently write while staying home with my son but also work in journalism and science writing) but I think it is important to put this point out there very clearly as you have.