It’s been about 5 years since I got my MFA. I have to say the MFA is a blessing, but a mixed one at that. Over the last half-decade, I’ve seen my “writerly lot” improve at a snail’s place. I have made some headway, but none of it has come particularly easy. As I look back at my four years at Emerson College (yes, it took four years — I went part time), I’ve compiled a small list of things that I wished that I had known ten years ago when I was first considering applying. I’m not sure this advice will help anyone else, but it surely would have helped me.This is the first in what I hope will be an occasional series.
Work full time while in school and take classes part time. Borrow as little as possible. There is no need to graduate quickly. More likely than not, there is no golden paycheck waiting for you once you graduate.
College loans are nice and tempting — especially the money you get to keep after tuition and books. But, no matter how far away it seems, you will graduate some day and need to pay it back. In my case, I racked up tens of thousands of dollars in debt which I am still paying back — and will be for years. It was in my third year at Emerson when I realized my error. At that point, I started attending school part-time and working full time. The result was that I needed to borrow less money and, in fact, I was able to pay my final semester’s tuition out of my own pocket. By then, of course, it was a little late.
There are several reasons to avoid debt. First, there are a number of MFA programs that are inexpensive or even offer a free ride in the forms of grants, stipends and aid. Some people (guilty) avoid applying to these programs because they are often in small towns in the deep south or midwest or the mountains. My desire to stay in a cosmopolitan area and ‘on a coast’ channeled me away from a number of MFA programs in which the departments offer substantial financial aid.
MFAs don’t guarantee you work.
Here’s a short list of the type of job for which an MFA gives you favored status: teaching creative writing. That’s it. That’s all. If you want to go into publishing, you may as well get an MA in Publishing. Want to teach literature? Then you’re up against PhD’s. How about advertising agencies? Nah. Newpapers? An MFA doesn’t really hold any special standing when it comes to reporting, besides, haven’t you heard that print is dieing?
Let’s say you get a job teaching writing. A full time position pays, what? Anywhere between $35k – $65k per year- and odds are that it won’t be full time job. The people I know with degrees, the ones who teach, are part timers. They drive from school to school without any real office. Again (as a rough ball park figure) probably making $40k a year or more if they work extra hard in the summers.
Sorry to sound bleak, but the whole idea of going into debt for college is that the job you get after you graduate will more than make up for the debt. This is certainly not the case for me or others whom I know. After three years of job hunting, I did manage to find an MFA-based job that more than repays my monthly loan fees (part time teaching, of course), but make no mistake, it is a part time, second job. I still need my day job to make ends meet.
Work a full-time job.
Finally, when I came around and decided to work full time and just take only one class per semester, I found my whole life changing for the better. Working full time means that you are the boss of your own money. It means you can afford to go out and buy books and do interesting things. Also, going to school part time means that you can devote more time and energy to just a class or two. You can really focus and hone your skills rather than trying to juggle say, a term paper for one class, reading a novel for another, and writing short stories for two different workshops.
Summarizing my thoughts. Take fewer classes. Keep your day job. Apply to schools that have generous grant (rather than loan) programs, and don’t worry about graduating quickly.
If you liked this article at After the MFA, come check out my other web project The Slow Man. I’m talking about creativity, productivity, work/life balance, slowing down and enjoying life with a glass of scotch and a cigar.