In this post, I expand on some remarks I made in answer to a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “M.F.A. Fever.” The column takes up the challenges of advising students who seem to have a burning ambition to attend an MFA program but who demonstrate little evidence of having written (or read!), well, anything. It also examines the advising challenges these students pose when they have unrealistic expectations about the potential costs of an MFA program or the opportunities for employment made possible by an MFA degree.
First, I would encourage student advisors like the author of “M.F.A. Fever” to keep up the reality orientation for these undergrads. Most of them, in their heart of hearts, don’t want to be writers. And few (none?) will ever go on to teach. You might try asking the student questions like, “What were the last ten novels you read this year?” or “Do you have a weekly writing quota? What is it? A page a day? Two? Five?” or “What time of the day do you usually reserve for writing?” and, of course, “Have you published? What? Where?” It’s probably a good idea to also ask the student what she or he intends to submit by way of a writing sample when applying to programs. All of these questions can help you gauge whether the student is truly serious about writing and may also awaken those students who aren’t to the kinds of assumptions made about serious writers.
I attended a university that abandoned its undergrad writing program, in part, because of a survey that revealed an overwhelming number of English majors who chose the writing option did so because “I don’t want to read all those books.” Those people are not writers and should not be encouraged toward MFAs. They might be temporarily in love with the idea of being a writer, but that’s all. I’m reminded of George Constanza’s line: “I always wanted to pretend to be an architect.”
Second, I would also encourage advisors of students interested in an MFA to suggest they get out into the “real world” for a few years after completing their undergraduate degree before applying to an MFA program. Tell them to work, write, read (a lot), try to publish, and then see if, having practiced their craft, they still have the ambition to put in two or three years of work on improving it. If they’re serious, they should by then have a clear idea of the kind of author they want work with, which will narrow their focus when choosing which programs they apply to. And I know through personal experience that a few years struggling to make ends meet outside of the academic bubble can have a strangely beneficial effect on your writing.
Third, I see too much emphasis in discussions of MFA programs placed on the “cash out” value of an MFA, which is of course negligible. An MFA opens few doors when it comes to job hunting, and undergraduates do need to know this reality. I was lucky: during my MFA I was awarded a writing assistantship in which I had to go to work daily for the university’s College of Arts and Architecture development office. There I learned to crank out about 5-10 news releases a day about the concerts, exhibits, and other activities sponsored by the college. I also wrote feature pieces for both the college’s and the university’s alumni magazines. By the time I finished my MFA, I had a couple years of real writing experience and a portfolio of work I could shop to employers.
And finally, as I noted above, an MFA is certainly not (normally) a path to teaching. Most other MFAs in my program were awarded teaching assistantships, but only the ones who went on to complete Ph.D.s actually wound up teaching for a living (and not without a great deal of struggle). So, undergrads shouldn’t be fooled by the fact that an MFA is frequently referred to as a “terminal degree.” Rather, they should understand why the term “terminal degree” is the source of much dark humor among MFA graduates!
Still, for the student absolutely determined to give it whirl no matter how dubious their credentials or desire, I think doing an MFA is only truly a problem (assuming he or she is accepted) if the student will have to self-fund. I would advise students against doing an MFA if they have to fund it themselves. However, if the student can obtain funding through an assistantship, what’s the harm? Yes, they might lose two or three “productive earning” years, or get off to a slow start in pursuing whatever career path they choose for the purpose of making money, but I suspect serious aspiring writers interested in MFAs aren’t careerists to begin with. I see no problem with someone taking a few years to pursue their passion in this way. (Or, perhaps, a few years learning that they really don’t want to write after all.)