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Education and Training

Do you need to join an MFA program to be a writer?

Let’s talk about education, specifically MFA programs. I think this is a good time to have this conversation because I can break it up into several parts and not waste almost a month on it. This is a question that comes up from time to time and I wanted to share my thoughts. I’m going to try to be objective, but I have some strong opinions and I’m not going to sugarcoat things.

What is an MFA, anyway?

It’s a graduate degree, a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Loads of places offer them, and they’re all a little different. If you’re thinking about signing up for one, please be sure to do your research. I’m going to try to give you some guidance here, but obviously what works for me won’t apply to everyone.

Things to consider

If you’re thinking about getting a writing degree, it’s a good idea to take a look at what’s available. Don’t sign up for the first Facebook ad you scroll past without taking a minute to see what else is out there. Here are a few things you might keep in mind.

Funds

Believe it or not, there are some fully funded MFA programs. These are free or almost free to students thanks to a scholarship program, graduate assistanceships, tuition waivers, or other support. There are also partially funded MFA programs, where some portion of the expenses are covered, but students have to come up with the rest.

There are downsides, though. The first is that funded programs are very competitive. Funding can fluctuate from year to year due to university budgets, so there’s a limit to the number of students they can accept. My local university is only taking five MFA students next semester, for example. A novice writer might have a hard time getting a spot. The second downside is that you can lose your funding if you have to drop a class or take a semester off or something.

However, definitely give them a try before you resort to taking out student loans to pay for an MFA. You should also apply for grants, scholarships, and other financial aid. This is not a degree where you’re likely to earn back what you spend on it in a short amount of time; most writers don’t earn a living from their writing. You’re not guaranteed a publishing contract or a job after you graduate. If you take out loans with crazy interest rates, you might end up in debt for the rest of your life. (I know I said I would be objective, but I have strong feelings about student loans–and mine weren’t even that bad.)

I’ll post some resources for finding funded programs on Friday, so be sure and come back for that. For today, I still have a few more things you should keep in mind when you’re researching MFA degrees.

Keep your writing goals in mind

A lot of MFA programs focus on certain subjects, like poetry, literary fiction, and creative non-fiction. That may not be helpful if you want to write for children or if you’re into genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc). Again, do some research. Look at what the professors have written. Check out their social media, too.

Also, look at the requirements. My local program has a foreign language prerequisite that some people would probably struggle to meet.

Time

How much time are you willing to put into this? Most MFA programs take 2-3 years to complete. Can you juggle classes with your other responsibilities for that amount of time?

You should also think about whether a full residency, low residency, or online program suits you best. Full residency is traditional college education; you might have to relocate to attend classes in person, but these are the programs that offer full or partial funding. Low residency programs are mostly distance learning, but classes meet in person a couple of times a year, and the amount of time and the meeting location may vary. Tuition might be lower, but there’s less assistance available. You also might be responsible for things like travel expenses or visas and passports depending on where your residency takes place. And of course online programs are conducted over the internet.

The potential is limited

The last thing you need to think about is why you’re doing this. If you just want to be a better writer, this will get you there. However, there are other routes you could pursue that would be cheaper and maybe even faster than signing up for a graduate degree program. I’ll provide some more information about MFA alternatives on Friday.

An MFA will be a big help if you’re thinking about teaching writing. But there really aren’t a whole lot of positions available for creative writing teachers out there, and a lot of what is available goes to candidates with industry experience. Someone who’s worked for an agency or a publishing company has experience that’s more valuable than someone who has a degree, but no practical work experience.

If you’re looking for a job as an editor or a literary agent, you could probably get by with a bachelor’s degree in English, literature, or even communications or journalism. A graduate degree may not be necessary.

An MFA can be beneficial, but it’s not for everyone

I realize this is a lot to keep in mind, but getting a degree is a huge investment of time and money. I’m not trying to talk you out of this if it’s something you really want to do; I know it’s easy to get passionate about this sort of thing, and I think it’s good to consider it from a logical perspective as well as an emotional one. Tomorrow I’ll talk about some of the pros and cons of an MFA.

I hope you’re all keeping up with your NaNoWriMo goals. (You can see my NaNoWriMo post here if you missed it the other day.) Good luck! As always, if you have any questions or anything you’d like to add to this, please leave a comment down below. And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to share it with your friends! There are buttons down below, so all you have to do is click. Thanks so much!

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