If you're hoping for an easy answer as to whether or not an MFA is worth it, you’re not gonna get it from me. Unlike the ex-teacher who thinks his students suck or the many characterizations of the MFA program as a ponzi scheme, I think their value depends entirely on a student’s unique circumstances. Personally, I’m incredibly satisfied with the experience I had at UC Riverside. I learned how to read more critically, experiment with story and language, understand craft more deeply, how to navigate the publishing industry, and most importantly, I got expert feedback on my work. There is no substitute for that.
Here are my suggestions:
Carefully weigh the cost: While about half of the top 50 programs are said to fully fund at least some of their students, most degree seekers will have to fork out some serious cash, ranging roughly between $20,000 to $80,000. That money can buy you a lot of editing, one-on-one coaching, and time.
Know that an MFA is not an MBA: It will not immediately earn you more money or job opportunity. In fact, go ahead and assume you will not get this money back either through a book advance or teaching job. Can you still afford to spend the kind of money we’re talking about?
Forget “time to write”: Unless you’re in a fully funded program, you’d better be getting a hell of a lot more than time. If that’s all you expect, take your money and live off of it for as long as you can and write all day. I’m not sure how the phrase “time to write” got popularized, but when I was considering an MFA, many grads told me that’s all an MFA was good for. With that thinking, I couldn’t afford it. I’d still be miffed about taking out student loans if I’d gotten anything less than I did – mentorship, community, instruction, support, fun, friendship, accountability, and a pretty balanced mix of enthusiasm and reality check.
Make sure you’re ready: If you aren’t entirely sure you can handle the work load, confident you can take sometimes harsh feedback, willing to experiment, and ready to dig deep to improve your writing, you’re wasting your time. If you’re ready to do all that, and you pick the right program (more on that in a sec), it’s hard to imagine you won’t improve your game by a trillion points or more. Whatever you do, do not fork over tens of thousands of dollars if what you want is a pat on the back. You will leave bitter and broke.
Pick the right program, not the “best” program: If you want to write commercial fiction, don’t choose a deeply academic program that calls anyone who publishes a sell-out. Similarly, if you want to write novels, don’t choose a program that will push you into short stories because they’re easier to workshop. I know someone who went to a prestigious, fully funded program only to transfer to a low-res school that would “let” her write a novel. If you know you want to teach, look for a school that will let you teach, TA, or even better, one that also teaches teaching. Many do not. Also, if you have a unique interest, look around for specialty programs. For example, Chatham University offers specialties in travel, nature, and social justice. The Savannah College of Art and Design focuses on non-fiction. UC Riverside's low-res program, Boston University, and Goddard College offer concentrations in screenwriting and playwriting. And The New School and Vermont College of Fine Arts have concentrations in writing for children and young adults. Whether you’re a screenwriter, poet, essayist, librettist, environmentalist or probably anything else, there is a program for you.
Ready to apply?
1. I’m sure you’re going to start your research online, so check out the huge number of listings at Poets and Writers, their rankings (for what they're worth), nuances of the more prestigious programs at The Atlantic, tips on affording the experience at affordingthemfa.com, forums on the latest year's app process at The Grad Café, and suggestions from an app reader at Inside Higher Ed.
2. Once you determine your goals and narrow down programs that might fit, look up their graduates. What jobs and publications do they have five years later? Do those lineup with your own expectations? Next, talk to current and/or former students. The schools should be able to get you on the phone with someone willing to talk about their experience. Lastly, once you’ve been accepted, see if you can sit in on a workshop before you decide.
Not sure about the investment?
Here are some alternatives:
Conferences can give you energy and inspiration along with an introduction to the publishing industry. They’re also a great place to start building community. You’ll find a conference for every type of writing, at every level, and in almost any location. Chuck Sambuchino at Writer’s Digest offers a wealth of info to get you started.
Running from one afternoon to an entire year, community classes are a less formal alternative to an MFA. They’re generally more affordable and require less commitment (good or bad thing?), plus you can usually start any time. Look for university extension programs (UCLA’s is stellar) or local writing centers like The Writer’s Center in DC, Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, The Loft in Minneapolis, Writing Workshops Los Angeles (where else?), Grub Street in Boston, or Sackett Street Writers Workshop in Brooklyn. Chances are you have something near you.
Critique and accountability groups. Search for one online or start your own. Lifehack offers a primer to get you going.
Coaches, editors, consultants. I’m a little biased here, but I think one-on-one instruction, feedback and support can help you reach your goals more quickly than any other method. You can also work one day, month, or project at a time and expect a totally customized approach. If that appeals to you, check out my packages and FAQs to get an idea of what writing coaches do. If you’re ready to get started, you can book my services here.
Good luck with this decision! It's a big one.