Should I drop out?
May 4, 2011 8:54 AM   Subscribe

Should I drop out? (more inside)

I'm finishing up my first year in a highly-regarded MFA program, studying fiction writing. The program is very expensive, and I'm going into a significant amount of debt to enroll. My first year has been. . . . underwhelming, to say the least. Support and mentorship from the institution is minimal to nonexistent, the coursework is nothing I can't do on the train coming in to class, and I don't connect with or respect the work of (the vast majority of) my peers. On the plus side, the focus of being in school (ie, the part where I tell myself "this is what I'm doing right now") has helped my writing (albeit minimally), and if I do finish and graduate, I'll be qualified to teach.

I worked in publishing for 5 years before I went back to school, and I'm familiar with the financial realities of being a working writer (or adjunct instructor). It's grim. Should I save myself $20,000 + and drop out, or should I tough it out and get the degree? Advice from writing mefites especially welcome!
posted by sideofwry to Education (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is the qualification going to improve your livelihood/networks enough to justify $40k of debt? Is it the only way that you can do something that you want to do (in this case teach?)

If not, I'd drop out. $20k is nothing to sneeze at.
posted by k8t at 9:04 AM on May 4, 2011

sideofwry: "I'll be qualified to teach."

Is this your goal, or simply a nice perk?
posted by mkultra at 9:09 AM on May 4, 2011

I'll be qualified to teach.

Yeah, but lots of people are qualified to teach and still have trouble finding teaching jobs.
posted by madcaptenor at 9:11 AM on May 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you have the discipline to do the writing on your own, and can preserve existing connections (or find new ones) to those writers and readers whose criticism of your work is valuable to you, then it's not clear to me what you're getting for your $20k (potentially plus loss of income during the MFA? you don't say whether you're working while in the program.)

My own position on student loans is affected by the loans that I may never be able to pay off from law school — I would never have taken out these loans if I had known what the legal market would look like when I got here. So I'm inclined to say that you want a clear and compelling reason to spend the money you are spending. If you can get all the benefits yourself, without spending the money, it seems to me that the MFA is an expensive way to get something you can get more cheaply on your own. If you can't, if for instance the MFA gives you benefits you can't get on your own, such as the discipline to write on a deadline, or the program makes your writing appreciably better — and it's worth the money for you to get those benefits — then it's worth it. But you should consider that if it costs you $20k per year to have the discipline to be a good writer, that may not be a sustainable career for you.
posted by gauche at 9:12 AM on May 4, 2011

I would not spend a dime on that degree. An MFA is useless professionally, especially one in creative writing. If you were offered a waver and stipend, then I'd only maybe consider it. But otherwise, you will never see that money back regardless of your talent, and the work involved in getting your MFA does not mean your writing will get any better.

Of course, teaching jobs are few and far between, especially if you don't have a book, but having an MFA in creative writing does NOT mean you are qualified to teach. Nor does it mean you are qualified to write well.

Personally, I'd find a way to write and read uninterrupted for a year or two while living and experiencing life.
posted by ranunculus at 9:26 AM on May 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I did an MFA in writing almost 20 years ago (how time flies). It qualified me to teach, in theory as a college faculty member, but in reality I taught as an adjunct for 13 years, and you know what that's like already. Like you, I found the structure very productive for my writing, though as gauche said, I've seen a lot of writers who have more intrinsic discipline accomplish a lot more than me in the years since I graduated. I also think I progressed more as a writer in that couple of years than I could have in three times the time on my own, though I think if one were lucky enough to have a really good peer writing group you could get a similar benefit elsewhere.

Also, my MFA experience was amazing; it was in itself a satisfying thing to do while I was doing it, and it remains the best educational experience I've ever had. Even so, I still wonder whether the $15,000 I borrowed to go through the program was a good investment, and I'm not sure how I'd counsel a younger me considering starting an MFA. I know I wouldn't spent $40,000 on a program I wasn't even enjoying, since in my experience the greatest benefit of the MFA was the experience I had doing it.
posted by not that girl at 9:27 AM on May 4, 2011

As a non-MFA, the only thing I envy about MFAs is their qualification to teach. On the other hand, my friend with an MFA hated her adjunct teaching job and was happier after she quit and worked for a bank.

You might check out a book called The Portable MFA that has a pretty convincing argument against the philosophy of MFA workshops.
posted by Victorvacendak at 9:29 AM on May 4, 2011

Best answer: What gauche said about the self discipline. Your publishing experience is way more valuable in a concrete way, your writing will come from discipline.

I found the program you're in underwhelming too (though I was poetry), I took summer graduate classes right out of undergrad, and I thank it for saving me a lot more student loans chasing a paper dragon when what I needed was to just put my nose down and write on my own free time while I worked at a job that let me edit/create publications with InDesign.

Even a prestigious institution can lose its purpose when the main job of its graduates is to teach in other workshops. I don't regret my decision to step off the train for some practical experiences, it was terrifying at first, but my writer friends who kept at it are in varying places from "It was great!" to "I have a lot of debt, I teach at shitty community colleges, and I will burn you with fire."

Or, y'know, keep at it for another year and graduate. I work with a lady who graduated w/ a UIWW Fiction MFA ~20 years ago and she doesn't regret it. Nice place to live too.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:34 AM on May 4, 2011

Finish the semester. Then think about and make a decision.
posted by Neekee at 11:07 AM on May 4, 2011

I am replying as a science PhD student. In my 3.5 years in grad school I have come to the conclusion that higher education is really only EVER worth it if you want to teach, be a lawyer or be an MD. The cost to benefit ratio just doesn't make sense in any other case. And, as someone said above, there are LOTS of people that are qualified and want to teach. The problem is that teaching jobs just don't open up too often - most teachers I know don't retire at a specific age. They love it so much they just do it for life.

Just my two cents.
posted by corn_bread at 12:16 PM on May 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've read at least one writer whose work I really respect before and after they went through an MFA program. I've kept pre-MFA books on my shelf for possible re-reading, the post-MFA books have been read once and given away. They just don't have that spark and passion that made the work really resonate.
posted by straw at 12:24 PM on May 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: STAY!

1) If you leave now you will loose the money already invested. THAT is nothing to sneeze at either.

2) It's up to you [and your fellow grad students] to create good grad student culture. You want it to happen? Step up and make it happen. Besides: this is the kind of spirit that future hiring committeess will be looking for (and yes: I'm one of those people on those committees).

3) Schoolwork not difficult enough? Again: this is your responsibility. Increase the scale of your solutions. Again: you've got to be the one to step up.

4) Reconsider your attitude about education. Would you want to teach a student with your attitude?

5) Take one of your professors out for coffee and ask them.
posted by Murray M at 12:37 PM on May 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Your MFA experience is what you make of it. This is coming from someone who has just finished a MFA in Sculpture. You've got to step it up if you want more from it. Otherwise, if you think the experience and other like-minded colleagues aren't worth your time, then drop out. Either way, your $20k is gone.

My two cents.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 5:32 PM on May 4, 2011

Best answer: I found this thread very belatedly. Apologies for that, and I hope this is still helpful.

I have an MFA in poetry from a fairly well-regarded school. I've since become a fiction (genre) writer, so any advice I give is skewed from that angle.

My first thought is to ask you a few questions:
  • You say you're paying for your MFA. There are only two situations in which that should ever happen: 1. You're at Columbia. Despite what MFA consultants commonly say, I still get the impression, from the writers and those in publishing I've met who have come through the MFA program at Columbia, that a degree from that school might be worth the cost. However, since you already have connections within the industry, that's pretty much a moot point. 2. You're at one of the few programs specializing in certain narrow genres of writing, namely YA. There are hardly any schools that offer such a specialization, much less funded. Even then, it might not be worth it (more on this below). So question number one would be, what program are you attending? If you're at any other program other than those mentioned above, you should drop out. There are dozens of funded MFA programs. There is absolutely no need to go into debt for an MFA, and an unfunded MFA will actually put you at a disadvantage for adjuncting/other teaching because you'll graduate with no teaching experience
  • What kind of writing do you do? In my experience, with the exception of the few aforementioned programs in YA, an MFA in fiction is really only useful for those with tastes narrowly defined as literary. If you have any interest in writing commercial writing--romance, science fiction, fantasy, westerns, mysteries, children's books, whatever--you are unlikely to find professors and peers who know how to give you good advice in an MFA program.
  • What are you publishing goals? If your goal is to be a literary writer and be well-connected within the literary world, an MFA might give you the networking that you need to get ahead. If your goal is to become a working, agented writer, you can learn more from online message boards about how to write query letters and pitch agents.
  • What are your writing habits like? Some people get their MFAs because they want "time to write." In my experience, an MFA doesn't carve that time out for you. Instead, the people who wrote tons during their MFAs also wrote tons before and after. At my own program, the thesis requirements were pitifully low (36 poems/120 pages of fiction) and didn't even constitute a full book of work.
  • What's your workshop experience? If you've already been through tons of workshops, and are used to being critiqued, you probably don't need yet another workshop of strangers telling you what's wrong with your work. You'd be better served finding a close-knit group of readers on the internet whose tastes and abilities are in line with your own. If you've never been workshopped, it might be a good experience--but probably isn't worth $40k.
In short, the answer is that you should probably drop out. Don't spend good money chasing bad money! You don't need an MFA to become a writer, and another 20k in the hole won't really justify the money you've spent any better. It's not your job to make your MFA program amazing--your faculty and peers should be offering you resources you can't find elsewhere. Otherwise, why not just find a community writing group/workshop for free? If you're in NYC, surely you should be able to find one.

For what it's worth, no one from my funded MFA program has a tenure track job yet. Two people out of fifteen have temporary teaching positions at small liberal arts colleges, and one has a lectureship at a local community college with an absolutely onerous teaching load that precludes her from writing.

Also, for what it's worth, in the two years since graduation, I've decided to teach myself to become a working writer. I've finished 2 books and learned a lot more practical knowledge that was ever offered to me during my MFA, despite my professors' very good intentions. I did it all using the internet. For free.

Anyway, feel free to MeMail me. I'd be happy to talk MFALand with you, no matter what you choose.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:13 PM on May 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

« Older Ipad 2 cover   |   Where to stay in San Diego? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.