Pros and Cons of an MFA Degree

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Welcome to day two of our MFA series! Today I want to talk about some of the pros and cons of an MFA degree. Obviously these are the things that stood out most to me, but you should sit down and make your own pro/con list if you’re thinking about pursuing an MFA.

Pros

Instruction

If you’ve never taken a writing class before, this is going to be a whole new world for you. Honestly, I’m not sure you can get into an MFA degree program if you haven’t taken a writing class, but I don’t know. It might be hard at first, but you’ll probably learn a lot if you stick with it. I really can’t go into a whole lot of detail here because it’s going to be a little different no matter where you go. Different programs have different requirements, and of course every instructor is going to have their own teaching style. Just do your best to try and get the most you can out of it. Come to classes prepared and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Structure

Remember how I keep telling you to create a writing routine? Well, all the classes, assignments, and due dates are going to help you do just that. It should also help you learn how to write faster because you will fail your courses if you don’t meet those deadlines. Success will be harder if you don’t come up with some kind of a routine and stick to it. I’m not going to say it’s impossible–I got my undergrad degree by the seat of my pants, after all–but structure can help you succeed if you let it.

If you’re in a low residency or online program, you’ll have to create a lot of this structure for yourself. There will still be assignments and due dates, but managing your time is on you.

Critique Groups

Critique is one of the best teachers. I think I’ve said it here before, and I’ll probably say it again. A good critique is the one of the ways you’ll learn how readers might react to your book before it’s out there in the world. It’s your chance to revise with feedback and write the best book you can.

One of my favorite writing classes was the advanced creative writing I took in high school. The teacher basically gave us free rein to write whatever we wanted, and then class was just a giant critique circle. It was the best. Some people wrote poetry. A couple of the guys were in a band together and shared the songs they wrote with us. One person really liked screenwriting, and even sold a script to a TV show (Frasier maybe? I don’t remember now). I loved our little critique group because we were able to build our work up without tearing each other down. Criticism was offered and accepted respectfully, and the discussions were great.

*I’ve noticed a lot of people complaining about criticism in writing groups recently. Like…It seems like they’re asking for beta readers and then blowing up when their readers point out errors. I can understand being upset if someone tells you your writing is trash and you should quit, but throwing a fit because a reader noticed a grammar mistake is self-defeating. If you are this thin-skinned, you either need to work on that or accept that publishing is not for you. When you put your writing out in the world, you open yourself up to criticism. There’s no getting around that, so you might as well get used to it now. 

Connections

This is more of a possibility than a guarantee, but I thought it was worth mentioning anyway. There’s a good chance that some of your professors will be people who worked at (or with) literary agencies or publishing companies. If they think your work is solid, it’s possible they’ll recommend you to some of their colleagues. Don’t be pushy about it, but don’t be afraid to ask for tips either. The worst they can do is say no.

Cons

I discussed some of the cons yesterday, but I feel like it wouldn’t hurt to go over them in detail today.

Cost

In this case, I’m talking about your money and your time. A lot of MFA programs are expensive, and there’s no guarantee you’ll get your money’s worth. Plus, all the time you’re spending attending classes, reading, writing, and doing other classwork is time that you’re not devoting to other efforts. It’s fine if you happen to have a lot of free time, but if you’re going to have to sacrifice a paying job or time with your family, that’s probably a big minus.

Programs and professors can be hit or miss

There are few things worse than spending a ton of money on schooling and realizing your professor is an idiot. Or at least unqualified to teach a certain subject. I have been down that road, and I’m still mad about it.

Do your research. If you have an MFA program in mind, try to get the names of the professors and look into them before you commit to the program. Look at things they’ve published. Check out their social media. You can also look them up on Rate My Professors.

There are no guarantees

You might put a ton of time and work into an MFA degree and still not land a publishing contract or find work as a writing teacher, editor, or agent. You can always self-publish, but you don’t need a degree to do that. I think that’s probably the biggest con of all–you don’t NEED an MFA to get by in the writing world. It might give some people a leg up, and I’m sure the extra instruction is great, but it isn’t a necessity.

You have to choose what works best for you

Once again, I hope this is useful information for you. If you can think of something I missed, or if you have any questions or anything you’d like to add, please leave a comment below.

Tomorrow, I’m going to provide a list of resources for you. Some of those will be things you can look into if you want to pursue an MFA degree, and others will be for those of you who’d rather come up with something on your own. I think it’s important for every writer to do whatever they can to improve their craft. Whether that’s a degree program or something else is up to the individual, though.

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