Ploughshares Takes Up the M.F.A. Debate

Lately, I’ve had a lot of students tell me that they want to go on and get an M.F.A. after they finish their undergraduate degree. In fact, nationally, creative writing programs are booming right now, and I think it’s too soon to tell if that’s for the best or not. The long-running fiction/poetry journal Ploughshares just published an interesting article regarding the M.F.A. degree.  I think this article gives one of the better overviews of an M.F.A. degree that I’ve read in a while because it raises both positive and negative points about the degree. First, it points out that you should never go into deep debt for any sort of art degree. I whole-heartedly agree with that point. With an M.F.A. degree, you’re not going to get rich. In fact, the only real job you can get with it is teaching undergraduates, and full-time jobs in academia are becoming scarce thanks to all of the national and state-level cuts to education (assume these cuts will only worsen if the GOP maintains control of the House after the 2012 election and somehow wins the Senate and White House, too, a real possibility). That said, if you do want an M.F.A. degree, or really any graduate degree, there are ways to lessen the debt. A lot of graduate programs offer fellowships, scholarships, and graduate assistantships. I was able to obtain my M.F.A. from Wilkes University because of a graduate assistantship, so I wasn’t loaded with a terrible debt when I finished. Some other graduate programs also offer teaching assistantships. Check into these as a way to pay the tuition bill.

The article also points out that there are ways to complete the degree without having to move across the country. A lot of M.F.A. programs are now low-residency, meaning most of the work is done online. This can be especially convenient if one has a family and career already.

Certainly, there are ways to complete an M.F.A. degree that make it affordable and convenient to one’s geography and lifestyle. But as the article also points out, if one is already part of a writing community and reading consistently, an M.F.A. is probably not be needed, especially if one has no interest in teaching. Personally, I don’t regret for a second getting an M.F.A. It certainly expanded my knowledge of contemporary poetry, made me a better writer, and introducted me to a wonderful community. I also teach, so I needed the degree.

3 thoughts on “Ploughshares Takes Up the M.F.A. Debate

  1. dramachicky says:

    Good post, Brian. I think the MFA debate is really important BECAUSE it’s becoming so popular. The question I have is, what’s next? See, college used to be the “big thing” that set people apart educationally. Now “everyone” goes to college (not literally, of course, but more than ever), so people began to need master’s degrees to set themselves apart. Then MFAs. And now that “everyone” is getting MFAs (low-residency; it’s so easy!), do those who want an edge need to get a doctorate? What happens when “everyone” has their doctorate? I like to think that experience and expertise still count for something…at the same time, I know people with more expertise and experience than, say, myself, who can’t get teaching jobs without that terminal degree. At some point, though, academia is going to have to figure out what they not only want, but really NEED in a teacher.

    I love having my MFA, btw. 🙂 And NO, I am NOT looking into doctoral programs. 😛

    • Brian Fanelli says:

      You certainly still need the M.F.A. to be considered for any creative writing opening, and I think a Ph.D. would be even better. But I would say experience does count for something, as do publishing credits. I know that institutions want people teaching their creative writing courses who are working writers and have experience publishing and working on literary journals. That said, and as you pointed out, there are a slew of M.F.A. programs now, which makes for greater competition in a field with a limited amount of job openings.

    • Brian Fanelli says:

      And on sort of a side note, I saw today’s economic report that unemployment dropped again, and it’s now at a three-year low. It seems the economy is finally starting to turn a corner, which should benefit schools, thus leading to more teaching jobs. I hope so anyway!

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