Advice for Fledgling Writers: MFA or no MFA?

The MFA debate is alive and well. If you’re new to writing, an MFA is a Master of Fine Arts (in Creative Writing, in this case). There are some people who believe that all writers should get an MFA, and there are others who think MFA degrees are a waste of time. If you want to read about the debates, this article gives you lots of links to different sides of the argument.

I have an MFA degree, and personally I recommend MFA programs. Here’s why I went that route: I had been teaching for seven years, and I got the itch to go back to school. At that time, I had a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in education. Part of me wanted to get my doctorate in linguistics or ESL education. But another part of me wanted to get into writing again, and my husband’s co-worker had told me about a low-residency MFA program that was nearby.

When I looked into doctorates with an ESL/linguistics focus, the closest university that had what I wanted was in Memphis. My husband and I talked about the possibility of moving to Memphis, knowing that he’d have to find a job that would support all of us and provide insurance. We weren’t sure if moving to Memphis was the best choice at the time. I was pregnant with Ephraim and we’d only had our house for three years.

But I could do the MFA program, which was at Murray State University in Kentucky, mostly from home. I’d have to be on campus a week in January and a week in July for two years, and the rest would be online and correspondence. Getting an MFA would not only help me hone my writing skills, but it would also give me what I needed to teach English and writing at the college level. In the end, I opted for the MFA.

I applied when I was eight months pregnant with Ephraim, and I received a provisional acceptance. Since I had no previous degrees in English, they wanted me to take two graduate lit courses to make sure I could handle it. I took both of them online through Murray State, did fine, and when Ephraim was eight months old, I left for my first week-long residency.

I was pretty nervous that first time, and it was obvious that I didn’t have as much knowledge or experience with writing and poetry that most of the other students had. I think the poems I submitted for workshopping that first semester were terrible! But I made it through, and by the end of that first week, I had learned a ton, made some new friends, and gained a writing community.

Those residencies were some of the best times of my life. I soaked in everything my professors said, I laughed at the bar surrounded with friends and beer, I learned how to analyze poetry, and I swapped stories in the dorm room (that’s where we all stayed – in the dorms) with my fellow writers. It was sort of like being in college again, but with a group of people who cared about words, who loved reading, and who wanted to birth new writing into the world.

I also truly learned, for the first time, how to write and read poetry. Did I doubt myself? Absolutely. But my friends and professors always encouraged me, inspired me, and never let me give up. For me, my MFA experience gave me the knowledge and skills I needed to be a better writer, and it also gave me a lifelong community of supportive writing friends. If I’d had previous degrees in English, could I say the same thing? I don’t know. All I can share is my experience.

What happens after you graduate with an MFA? My classmates are working at a variety of jobs: many are teaching at colleges, some work in journalism, and some teach high school. Some have published books; others, like me, are still working on it. The first thing that affected my career was that I could count that second master’s degree as a +30 in education, which meant a pay raise at work. For a while I tried to apply for college prof jobs. It turns out that English departments are flooded with applicants, and often universities choose applicants who have published widely. I couldn’t compete with them.

I did look into adjuncting, but I really needed a full-time job with benefits because I help support my family financially, so piecing together an income from just adjunct jobs just isn’t an option for me currently. I have done a little adjuncting in addition to my day job, but it has been for ESOL rather than for Creative Writing, and I’m fine with that. I’ve also been able to use what I learned to do craft lessons with students.

So, almost five years after getting my MFA, I am still happily working in K-12 education. However, in those five years, I have written a full-length non-fiction manuscript, half of a fiction manuscript, had several poems and essays published, and have put together a poetry chapbook. I have no regrets. My MFA degree gave me knowledge, confidence, and community. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

However, I don’t believe that a writer has to have an MFA degree to be a good writer. If an MFA is not right for you right now, I would encourage you to read a lot, especially in whatever genre you want to write, and to read with a writer’s eye, looking for what makes a book, poem, or essay good or bad. I would also encourage you to seek out a writing group in your community. Receiving feedback on your work is a huge stimulus for growth.


Do you have thoughts or questions about an MFA? Leave them in the comments below!

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  1. Joanne Corey says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I sometimes get MFA flyers in the mail and wonder if it is something I should pursue. I like the concept of all I could learn, but any program would be expensive, given that I am unlikely to ever reap monetary rewards from an MFA. Meanwhile, I am learning a lot in community workshops and am part of a poetry critique group that meets regularly. If I make it to 65, I can audit classes at the local university for free; maybe that will be my next foray into formal education.

  2. Sasha Cory Pack says:

    This post came with Divine timing. I was going to email you next week to ask for some possible guidance on this. I am in a similar position right now. I already have an M.Ed. and I considered a doctoral degree. However, I really just want to go back for a low residency MFA program in a few years-and I wondered if I was being foolish! I have been looking at Murray State and Spalding and I wondered if you knew anything about either :). Thank you for this well written article! I think for busy moms an MFA program is a great option because it “forces” you to invest in yourself and take some time to focus on your craft.

    • Sasha, I looked into Spaulding, too, but I think it was more expensive than Murray, and I think when I checked, it either wasn’t low residency, or both the residencies were during the school year maybe. Murray has a residency in January and in July. So I did have to take a week of in Jan for 2 years, which wasn’t the most professional thing to do, but luckily the principal I had at that time was a writer and understood!

  3. Melynne Rust says:

    Karissa, thank you sooo much for this post (and the other one on where to submit, etc.).
    I have been thinking a lot about an MFA, and just not sure about what to do. Just reading about your experience is encouraging. Thank you!

    • Thanks, Melynne. One thing I didn’t talk about was the cost. I am still paying off my student loans for my MFA . . . so that stinks. I don’t know – it was the right thing for me at the time. That doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for everyone. 🙂

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