The average price tag for an MFA in creative writing is $30,000, according to Costhelper.com. Pretty steep, especially since you probably won’t have time to hold down a full-time job during the two to three years it takes to finish.
Is an MFA worth $30,000? No way. Unless you’re the kind of person who has $30,000 rattling around in a shoe box or trust fund somewhere, in which case, go for it.
For everyone else, an MFA makes sense if… and only if… you’re funded. That is, your tuition is waived and you’re receiving some sort of stipend from the university for teaching or assisting or just because they like your prose. An MFA is an excellent way to learn a lot, read a lot, meet cool people and earn fast-food wages while figuring out how to Be A Writer. If you get accepted, your odds of being funded are not at all bad. Huffington Posts reports that more than half of the top 50 MFA programs are fully funded.
You’ll probably be low-income for a couple years. But at least you won’t graduate with debt!
I got my MFA from the University of New Orleans, and I was lucky enough to be awarded funding. I got a tuition waiver, health insurance and a stipend of approximately $6,000 a year. In exchange, I taught one freshman composition class per semester. Technically, teaching assistants weren’t allowed to work outside jobs, but of course I did.
Let me describe the kind of person for whom this might be a tenable situation. It helps if you’re young, sans family or responsibilities for anyone other than yourself, and willing to live in crappy apartments or move in with your parents. (I was 22, single, had come from a short-lived career in fast food, and lived with my grandmother.)
If you want to eventually teach at the college level, a teaching assistantship can be a real plus. You’ll probably take at least one pedagogy course and be assigned an experienced mentor. After graduating, I taught as an adjunct at state and community colleges. It’s a good skill to have.
You WILL have plenty of time to write and a wonderful community of writers. In my experience, these are the two most priceless gifts an MFA program has to offer. I loved the faculty at UNO, but I learned so much more from my fellow students. And they have gone on to do awesome things that make me insanely
jealous proud. I shared workshops and post-critique beers with Mac McClelland, Bill Loehfelm, Jen Violi, Marcus Gilmer, Barb Johnson and other literary superstars.
After three years, countless short stories and two novels (one of which became my thesis), my writing did improve. Did it improve to the point where it was sellable? Did I snag a book deal? Was I a master, as my diploma said? No, no and HAHAHAHAHAH (cue spit take). They say what you do during your MFA program doesn’t matter as much as what you do afterwards. There is only one thing you have to do, and that is keep writing.
I got my MFA 10 years ago. I’m just now beginning to be able to cobble together a half-decent novel. Would I do it again? Yes. But I’m really glad I don’t have to.
Melanie Page says
I’ve heard that the average “bounce back” time between graduating with an MFA and actually writing again is typically three years. I’m on almost 5 years and I’m still dry as a bone. For me, the MFA program was much more about networking than writing. I barely had time to write because I was doing my degree and then also adjuncting at different schools because I received no stipend (but my tuition was waved). If you’ve ever seen the movie Five-Year Engagement, I was a combination of both Tom and Violet: happy to be in academia because it is my life, but miserable with the location, low wages, and weird beings all around me.
That sounds about right! I didn’t write fiction for a good two years after the MFA, but I did do academic papers. Then I did The Artist’s Way and turned that around. You make me want to check out Five-Year Engagement.