Should You Get an MFA? What You Need to Know

A woman wearing graduation regalia.

If you have a desire to become an author, you’ve probably wondered whether you should get an MFA in creative writing. After all, a lot of the professional writing advice you can find online encourages you to learn as much as you can about the craft and the business behind it.

However, especially in the U.S., higher education is incredibly expensive. The last thing you want to do is waste tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on a degree that won’t help you reach your goals.

That’s why it’s important to carefully consider whether an MFA will help you achieve your dreams. In this post, I’ll provide a bit of guidance to help you do just that.

What Is a Creative Writing MFA?

First of all, it’s helpful to know exactly what an MFA is. A Master of Fine Arts is a terminal graduate degree, which means those who complete this course of study aren’t typically expected to pursue a doctorate (although there are PhD programs in creative writing).

Creative writing MFA programs typically include the following:

  • Workshops. Critique-based classes where you create original work and submit it to your peers for feedback. Workshops are meant to mirror the publication process somewhat to prepare you to share your work with editors and publishers. They also typically include short craft-based lessons and readings to help you learn writing techniques.
  • Literature courses. Most MFA programs have an advanced literature course requirement. How many of these classes you have to take will depend on the program you join. Advanced study of literature develops writers’ critical reading skills and prepares them to teach college-level courses in this subject area.
  • Teaching experience. Many programs require their students to serve as TAs in undergraduate writing and/or literature courses. Some many require upper-level students to teach small course loads independently. If these options are not available to students in your program, you will probably still have to take a course in teaching.
  • Publishing experience. Some MFA programs may offer credit for publishing or editing internships. Others may offer classes in these areas.

MFA graduates are qualified to teach creative writing, composition, and literature classes at the university level. This type of degree can also be useful if you hope to work in publishing.

Although holding an MFA is not a requirement for other writing-related careers, the skills you’ll learn in the required courses – such as how to give and receive quality feedback – will also prepare you for a variety of other roles.

Should You Get an MFA? 3 Factors to Consider First

Without a doubt, there are many benefits to holding an MFA. However, it’s also a serious commitment. Here are a few things you might want to think through before enrolling in a graduate level creative writing program.

1. Do You Need an MFA to Reach Your Career Goals?

As I mentioned earlier, an MFA qualifies you to teach creative writing, composition, and in some cases literature at the university level. If this is something you’re interested in, an MFA could be a smart investment in your career.

However, you don’t need an MFA to become an author. The experience and connections you can gain while pursuing one will certainly help, but having a graduate degree is not a qualification for landing a book deal.

You also don’t necessarily need an MFA if you want to pursue a career in publishing. Again, it can be an excellent networking opportunity, and some programs provide publishing-related courses. However, you may be better off looking into a publishing degree.

Additionally, a bachelor’s degree in English, communications, or even marketing will suffice for many other writing-related careers.

2. Can You Get Full or Partial Funding?

Unfortunately, finances are a significant deciding factor in whether or not you can pursue any kind of higher education. Regardless of your feelings on the subject, it’s important to weigh whether an MFA is worth the monetary investment.

Many programs offer full or partial funding for MFA students. In exchange, you typically have to teach classes and/or maintain a certain grade point average.

Of course, most of the programs that offer significant funding are also highly competitive. If you don’t have much experience as a writer, it’s going to be difficult to get into one. It may be worth it to put off your MFA and improve your skills in other ways first.

At the end of the day, financing an MFA is a very personal decision. The dollar amount you’re willing to put on your writing education is specific to your goals and your circumstances. Just keep in mind that you don’t necessarily have to go tens of thousands of dollars into debt to earn an MFA – and that if you do, it might be hard to pay it off.

3. Does the Program You’re Considering Allow You to Write What You Want to Write?

Depending on your circumstances, you may be limited as to which MFA programs you can apply to. Finances, location, program duration, and many other factors can influence which universities are viable options for you.

In addition to all the logistical elements you have to consider, it’s important to make sure that any program you apply to offers courses in the type of writing you want to pursue. Many programs are genre-based. The last thing you want to do is enroll in a school that only offers fiction and poetry concentrations when you want to write creative nonficition.

Fortunately, if you’re doing basic research on the schools you’re applying to, that scenario is pretty unlikely. However, there may be other restrictions in place that aren’t as obvious.

Some MFA programs prohibit students from writing “commercial fiction”, a term that generally refers to genre fiction such as fantasy, sci-fi, romance, and (sometimes) historical novels. Some people in higher education feel that these types of works are, by definition, lower quality than “literary fiction”, and therefore not valuable enough to study at the graduate level.

Whether you agree with that sentiment or not, it’s important to note your prospective program’s stance on this issue. If you’re hoping to write a epic fantasy for your thesis, you want to make sure there will be faculty who are willing and able to support you in this endeavor.

MFA Alternatives to Consider

If you’ve assessed the three factors above and determined that an MFA is not the best route for you (or not feasible for now), there are several other ways you can work on improving your writing skills or pursuing a literary career. Here are a few to consider, depending on your situation.

If you want to go into publishing…

Consider pursuing a publishing degree instead of an MFA. This will better prepare you for your career goals by providing more extensive classes related to this field and more opportunities for experience in the industry.

You can find a list of quality publishing programs here.

If you want to be a blogger or copywriter…

Try an online class from Skillshare or a similar platform. Digital content creators can definitely benefit from the creative writing skills you would learn in an MFA program. However, you certainly don’t need a full-blown degree in the subject to succeed in this field.

If you’re a new writer…

Look to see if there are any community classes in your area. Many libraries, nonprofits, and other organizations offer entry-level writing classes at little to no cost.

There are also tons of books by famous writers that can teach you a lot about the craft. On Writing, The Art of Memoir, and Bird by Bird are all worth reading.

Conclusion

Pursuing an MFA is serious commitment, but one that can be incredibly rewarding. That said, not everyone needs a graduate degree to accomplish their career or writing goals.

Before jumping into an MFA, ask yourself a few key questions:

  • Do you need an MFA to reach your career goals?
  • Can you get full or partial funding for your degree?
  • Do the programs you’re considering allow you to write what you want to write?

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Featured Image Credit: Unsplash.

Molly Tyler
Molly Tyler

Molly received her B.A. in English in 2016, and her M.F.A. in Creative Writing in 2019. She now works full time writing blog posts and web copy for small businesses.

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