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 put their graduates at 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