The Value of an MFA

A while ago, my friend Miranda asked me, “I’m actually thinking about applying for an MFA.  Did you like Antioch?  Would you want to spend more time there?”

I got my English degree from California Lutheran University in 2008, and went right into Antioch’s MFA program graduating in 2011.  And to put it bluntly, nothing has actually come out of it.  I was in Culver City a couple of years ago for a job interview.  Antioch’s campus was around the corner, so I stopped by to say hello to some of my old professors.  Among them was Steve Heller, the program director.  After a bit of catching up, Heller asked, “Have you thought about going back to school to become an accountant?  We always need good accountants.”

We were on the fourth floor.  I wanted to throw him out the window.  This is coming after I spent three years and thousands of dollars getting my MFA.  If I wanted to be an accountant, I would have just majored in accounting.

I’m not the only Antioch graduate who feels this way.  One of my classmates in the Bay Area recently renewed her cosmetology license to go back to work as a stylist.  Another emailed me saying, “The MFA fucked us all.  Did we meet great people?  Yes.  Hone our craft?  Sure.  But most of us got little to show for it.  I get it.  We all pretty much blew 35 grand plus interest.”

The MFA is only valuable if it benefits the student.  If it does not advance your career, it’s useless.

Gabriela Pereira’s article How to DIY Your MFA sums any program with this formula: MFA = Writing + Reading + Community.

Before going into such a program, I ask two questions.  Can you write?  Yes.  Great.  Can you read?  Yes.  Congratulations!  You’ve got two-thirds of the program down as long as you can do it with discipline.  You have to be able to generate new ideas and motivate yourself to finish projects.  You have to get your daily word count done, and this usually means writing around your existing life.  There are pros and cons to morning versus evening writing.  I say carve out two hours a day wherever you can.

You have to read with discipline.  I enjoy reading.  I get a lot of fun out of it.  But at the end of a book, I ask myself, “What did this do for me as a writer?  Have I learned something that I can incorporate into my own work?”  This can be a theme you want to explore in your own way.  It might be a genre or a format you find interesting and want to try your hand at it.  Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, craft books or research topics, you should always come away from a text with at least one new thing you can add to your work.

Community is the one great value of the MFA program.  At last year’s North Hollywood Lit Crawl, my friend Megan – she’s in one of my writing groups – said, “Wow!  You’re actually part of the LA literary crowd.”  I met almost all of my writer friends through Antioch.  Through them, I’ve met other writers and gotten acquainted with reading series such as Roar Shack and Vermin on the Mount.

It’s possible that I wouldn’t have these connections without Antioch bringing them together in one place, so I will give the program credit on that.  I read and promote these writers because I like them and their work, and hope they’d do the same for me.  Sometimes it’s hard for me to connect with them because we have such different interests and experiences, but we all want each other to succeed.  I’ve been able to meet other writers through my group in Sherman Oaks that I joined through Meetup, and would love to have them at these readings where they can form connections of their own.

So Miranda (and others), what’s my verdict?  Would I do it all over again?

The cost in time, energy, and funds is high.  If you can’t afford the program on your own, you’ll have to take on a loan that you will have to pay back regardless of the outcome.  There will be some in the program who have a snobby and elitist attitude about writing.  If I could guarantee that I’d make the same connections through different means, I probably would not have gone through the program.

Antioch is a good school with a commitment to social justice, but it often neglects showing students writing as career.  I know Antioch will not hire me as an instructor (even though they say I’ve got a solid CV) because I’d focus on improving the skills of the students.  I would tell the students, “This is what you have to do in order to get published.” They’ve got their own ideas.  They don’t need me hitting them on the head with my sensibilities.  They need only the tools and the knowledge to apply them.  The rest is in their hands.

And the rest is in your hands.  Before you go off to serve the community, remember that you serve yourself first.

4 thoughts on “The Value of an MFA

  1. Low residency MFAs are perfect for people who a) aren’t relying on writing for their income b) don’t have the ability to relocate for a normal post-grad degree c) Don’t think it’s going to get them a job. d) aren’t pursuing a PHD from a regular college.

    Contrary to the response on your Facebook post, I was definitely told upfront by Heller and co. that university recruiters will hire people with MFAs before people with regular MA degrees. I have since found this to be untrue. Most colleges with PHD programs, for example, require that you complete *their* MA as part of the PHD. On the job front, MFAs are often the bare minimum for university instruction, but the places where I have applied usually had a caveat that read something like “PHD required, or MFA with strong publishing history.” In fact, a couple university people told me that it’s the publishing history that’s the most important part. I was told in regards to Antioch specifically that the name still has meaning with some entrenched old lefties who remember the bolshevik days at the Yellow Springs campus, but for most people who hire instructors or are filling adjunct pools, Antioch is just another low residency MFA among dozens. Your list of publications/awards, or anything they can use as a selling point of their department is what will get you hired.

    My experiences at Antioch were similar to yours. I enjoyed the community aspects of the program. I met people who I still consider to be good friends. I studied with writers whose work I had admired. However, those intangibles are the only thing that sets the MFA program apart from a free online writing workshop. For me personally the primary benefit was having deadlines to produce work by.

    If I had it to do over again, I would have enrolled in a nearby MA/PHD program instead. My current job has absolutely nothing to do with my degrees and I find myself using any skills related to my MFA degree less and less as the years go by. I think this is one of those classic “Your Mileage May Very” things, however. Just don’t expect the MFA to be a magic bullet for a writing or teaching career.

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    1. Thank you for the feedback, Jazzy.

      There’s been a misinterpretation from readers that I expected a job offer from Antioch immediately upon graduation. In fact, I sent them my CV only in the last several months when they were looking for faculty for the new MFA program in Santa Barbara.

      Heller and the faculty did address job prospects as part of their post-MFA meeting with outgoing students at the very end of the program, but it was only an hour and lacked a lot of information.

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