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How to Choose an MFA in Creative Writing Program: Cost and Benefit

Updated on June 22, 2011

I’ve toyed with the idea of pursuing a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing. But every time I try to wrap my head around it, I can never quite narrow down what it is exactly that I’m trying to accomplish. If you’re struggling with the decision too, here are some things to consider.

What’s Your End Game?

I don’t doubt that the process of obtaining an MFA is great for your writing. The instruction, accountability, and feedback can only help, right? What’s less clear to me is what happens after you’ve got those letters behind your name. Are they important?

Writing

If you are concerned more with craft than commerce, and you have the time and money to embark on the extended study and work required in any MFA program, then the process will probably be more valuable than the credential itself. A key consideration is the actual curriculum. Keep in mind that in smaller schools you may have stronger ties will a few professors, but the downside to that is there are fewer opportunities to make those critical connections.

Teaching

If you plan to teach, getting an MFA qualifies you for entry level positions. However, you should not assume that the degree will automatically get you a job. There’s fierce competition out there. Are you willing to teach grade school or high school while you wait for a coveted university position? Most low residency program focus strictly on writing. You may want a traditional on-campus experience that usually includes instruction on how to teach and opportunities to instruct undergraduates.

Publishing

If your end game is to write and sell commercial fiction, there are only a handful of MFA programs that will suit your needs. Literary types tend to raise their noses at the whole nasty business of actually selling books. Theirs is a higher art. While the right program will be invaluable to mainstream fiction writers, the wrong one will do nothing but frustrate. Check the publication rates for schools because many well established programs actually don’t produce published authors.

Can You Afford It?

Higher education is expensive, no question. As of this writing you can’t find an MFA program, either on campus or low-residency, for under $25k. And most of these programs will require at least twenty hours a week of your time – if you want to get the most out of it, and you do because you’re spending all that cash! Price is not the only consideration, but for many of us it’s critically important.

Think about the tuition as well as the time spent that you could otherwise be working. And financially speaking, in most cases an MFA is not really an investment. Unlike going for a nursing degree or an MBA, an MFA is not likely to increase your income post graduation. The exception would be if you already have a teaching position and you need the degree to advance. You may want to seek a program that offers the opportunity to be a teaching assistant.

Once you’ve narrowed down MFA programs by what ultimate benefit they provide and the cost, it’s time to start considering instructors.

Image Credit: tnarik, Flickr

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  • ryanedel profile image

    ryanedel 

    8 years ago from Baltimore, MD

    Hey Lela - I really like what you've put together here. I think all these points are important considerations, and I think a fair number of MFA-seekers don't consider them well enough.

    I'm actually graduating with my MFA at the end of this month, and I can say the experience has been totally worth it. This said, among me and my classmates, we have a saying: "don't pay for an MFA." Honestly, so many programs provide teaching fellowships that there's no reason not to consider the MFA as a kind of job. For me, the past two years have involved workshops and teaching, and it's the first time in my life that I've been "paid full time" to be a writer.

    But I have to agree with Adjunct - viewing the MFA as a stepping stone sounds like frustration just waiting to happen. Some of my classmates have graduated only to face the uncertainties of adjunct teaching or clerical jobs. The only sure ticket in this field (if one exists) is solid publication. My thesis adviser is a phenomenal writer and teacher, very well published - she will hold a university position for as long as she wants one. I've met other writers who have been writing and teaching for decades who are still getting year-by-year faculty contracts, no tenure in sight.

    Aley, I'm really sorry to hear about the experience - you're right, it can be discouraging. Keep heart, though - they might not be the audience you're looking for. If you have any writing to share, let me know.

  • Aley Martin profile image

    Alice Lee Martin 

    8 years ago from Sumner, Washington,USA

    I am in an MFA program right now, (my third masters) at National University online. I really do not like the way they are set up and may opt instead to do a Film masters. People have their own ideas about what constitutes good writing and a formal program can be discouraging.

    Good hub

  • knowledgeispower profile image

    knowledgeispower 

    8 years ago

    Thanks for providing insightful tips on your subject of MFA creative writing program.

    George

    https://hubpages.com/money/making-money-online-wri...

  • adjunct profile image

    adjunct 

    9 years ago from The Big Easy

    I just wanted to note that I have an MFA in Writing. I have been teaching writing at the colege level for the last ten years. I have completely earned my living teaching online for the last 5 years. From time to time, I actually teach creative writing (fiction), but the majority of the work is in the area of gut-bucket composition.

    Thanks!

    adjunct

  • Lela Davidson profile imageAUTHOR

    Lela Davidson 

    9 years ago from Bentonville, Arkansas

    Thanks for your comments, everyone! Law school sounds fun too. Stacie, you are right about the university jobs - not so easily snapped up. It's an interesting situation, that there are SO many MFA programs, but the degree really doesn't translate to a job. As for me, I'm making up my own MFA course of study. It goes like this: read a lot, write a lot, critique and be critiqued, seek mentors, submit for publication.

  • Princessa profile image

    Wendy Iturrizaga 

    9 years ago from France

    Wow, that is expensive!

    By the way, congratulations, this hub has made it to Google's first page. Well done :)

  • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

    Patty Inglish MS 

    9 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

    Lela - interesting and nicely laid out article. A masters in preventive medicine cost about the same when I completed it. As a youth I'd considered fine artsd but the school system discouraged young artists, as did the families, unfortuinately. The arts have since gained more respect.

    Stacey - Congratulations on pursing the law. I wish you every success and think the law will be very useful.

  • LondonGirl profile image

    LondonGirl 

    9 years ago from London

    THat's pretty expensive!

    My mother's currently doing a post-grad diploma in music, which is costing her £2,500.

  • Stacie Naczelnik profile image

    Stacie Naczelnik 

    9 years ago from Seattle

    I was thinking of getting an MFA too, but decided to go for law school instead (for now anyway, MFA may still be in my future). Another thing to consider if you want to teach is that an MFA won't be enough. You need to publish as well for those university jobs. There's a great MFA blog on blogspot--it covers so much, and allows people to ask their questions.

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