Putting my career eggs into too many baskets -- writing and libraries
August 30, 2015 10:00 AM   Subscribe

For close to a year I've been searching for a mid-career public library job in the northern half of the US (I'm employed, but I need a higher salary or a cheaper city); I've had a bunch of interviews but no offers yet. I am also seriously considering applying for a MFA in fiction writing. But I don't know how to handle trying to do both.

First things first: I know it's ridiculous to go into debt for an MFA; I know there aren't any jobs in the field; but I think the opportunity to work seriously, full-time on my writing would do me a world of good personally. I would only apply to well-funded programs, and I'm hoping that the teaching experience and the degree would give me a leg up in applying for academic library jobs (though I would also be happy going back to public librarianship).

I don't want to put my job search on hold to apply for an MFA because a lot of the programs I'm considering only have something like a 1%-2% acceptance rate, and I don't want to apply to programs I otherwise wouldn't apply to just to have a "safety school" option. I'd rather keep my day job and keep writing on the side. I don't want to give up on applying for an MFA either -- if I got accepted to a good program with good funding, I would go in a heartbeat. But trying to do both at the same time means that I might move across the country for a new job and then have to face the choice of either quitting after less than a year and moving across the country again, or turning down an offer. It means that I'll be spending money on GREs and applications and transcripts, and asking for recommendation letters and writing critical essays, for something that probably won't even happen unless I get rejected from every single job I apply for between now and February. (I keep getting sad when I try to figure out the odds of this).

(Relevant fact: I'll almost certainly need to relocate for any job I get, because I really need more money to stay in my current city than the city libraries pay. Nor am I applying to any local grad programs.)

How do I figure out what to prioritize, and how? Does it make sense just to choose one and give up on the other one, at least for a while? Or can I try to figure out a way to keep all those balls in the air and live with the uncertainty?
posted by Jeanne to Work & Money (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Presumably if you get nothing but additional debt for completing the MFA, you could quit your job and write full time (wherever you like) without it being associated with anything academic?
posted by dvrmmr at 10:26 AM on August 30, 2015

Do you have your MLS? If you do, I would start applying for staff positions that would let you get your foot in the door at an academic library; some institutions will let staff pursue additional masters degrees while employed (mine does). Be sure to look on the university's job site; good staff jobs might not always be posted on aggregated job sites if there is no money for relocation, but if that's not an issue, it's a good way to find jobs with smaller pools. So you could pursue your MFA while also getting experience in an academic library. If you don't have your MLS, I'm sorry to say that you will need to get one, before your MFA, if your ultimate goal is to work as an academic librarian; an MFA and public library experience likely won't be much of an advantage since many libraries require an ALA accredited MLS to even get in the door. If that's true, and since you seem really excited about the MFA aspect, if I were you I might try to focus on getting into a good, funded writing program and take a hiatus from libraries for a while.
posted by stellaluna at 10:35 AM on August 30, 2015

Response by poster: stellaluna: I do have my MLS. But my experience, and the advice I've been given by others, is that it's practically impossible to get an academic library job with only public library youth services experience. I'm certainly applying to academic jobs when I see ones I'm halfway qualified for, but I'm competing with a lot of people fresh out of library school who have more experience than I do with digital-librarianship stuff and metadata.

dvrmmr: The number of people who are able to make a living solely from writing fiction is really tiny, and an MFA doesn't necessarily help. I've sold a novel before, I have an agent, and I'm still not able to do it.
posted by Jeanne at 11:06 AM on August 30, 2015

I agree with the previous poster that an MFA would likely not increase your chances of finding better employment in library sciences. In fact, most people I know who have a MLS did it the other way (got an MFA and then a MLS). I would focus on finding an MLS program (assuming you don't already have one) that will let you get some of the experience you need to make the next jump in your career. If you already have one, are there other opportunities at academic libraries (fellowships? post-grad stuff?) that might help you get some of that experience?

I know I am an internet stranger (with an MFA and a PhD), but I would advise you to put your eggs in your long-term basket first and then go back and pursue your passion project full-time when you have that locked down. If you're going to make a decision that will impact you this much financially (paying out money, when you're already tight, to applications, transcripts services, GREs, etc., and then earning poverty-level wages during your MFA for 2-3 years), do it to invest in the career you've already got going! Take that pay cut to gain additional experience in an academic library setting, maybe in a job that's otherwise below your grade. Are there resources from your former program that can connect you with experiences like this? Hit up former professors and mentors, make sure you're trolling the opportunity boards and listserves. Gaining that experience is probably a better investment in your future, and will put you in a position where you can safely pursue writing without feeling like your post-grad career options are nil.

I know that probably feels like sucky advice, and not what you want to hear, but it's the advice I would give any friend in this situation. Don't stop writing. Work hard on your writing in the off-hours, and maybe even try to send out for publication. Then, when you're in a situation where you have a job you like, consider doing a low-res program like Warren Wilson. These are excellent, excellent programs with top notch writers and students and will allow you to work seriously on writing without plowing under your whole life . Or, failing that, go do a two-year funded MFA at a good program and keep your hand in library sciences while you are there. That way, you'll have something to say about the past two years when you go get a new job after the degree.

Good luck, and happy to talk more via memail!
posted by theantikitty at 11:10 AM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think now is the time to try for the MFA, assuming you want that experience for its own sake. It is only going to get harder to fit into your life as time goes on, and now appears to be great timing since you want to leave your current job and are ready to relocate. And you can indeed get full funding for at least some programs, so I think it's worth a shot. I don't think it will necessarily help you career-wise in the library field, but it certainly won't hurt. At the very least, relocation might broaden your chances of success since you could apply to jobs in the area as a local candidate after you finish.

Applications are probably due in January, so really it is only 3-4 months that you'd be spending in preparation, after which you can resume your job search in earnest. Go for it!*

*Assuming, of course, that your current money situation is more "largely living paycheck-to paycheck and will never be able to buy a house" rather than "drowning in debt and can't make rent".
posted by veery at 11:44 AM on August 30, 2015

I'm an academic librarian and unfortunately I really don't think that an MFA would give you a leg up for academic positions. Some positions do require a second masters so you would techncially have that but an MFA in creative writing is not something that would generally be particularly attractive for an academic library. Also, getting an MFA would mean you'd also have 2-3 years of not working in a library which would probably count against you for both academic and public library positions. So while getting an MFA may be a very valuable experience for you personally, I would caution against viewing it as neutral/positive for future library employment.

Personally, I'd keep applying for jobs and hold off on MFA applications.
posted by pie_seven at 4:06 PM on August 30, 2015

If you've already sold a novel and have an agent, going out to get an MFA sounds a bit like taking coals to Newcastle. An Iowa/Michigan/Michener etc etc MFA guarantees nothing on top of what you already have--unless what you're going for is an academic job in creative writing, for which the MFA is a terminal degree that is being accepted less and less in favor of the PhD. It does sound like you might lose more than you'd gain in this situation, because you'd be leaving a career track that you wanted to work in, long-term.

A money saving alternative, that will also maybe allow for more career advancement: If you simply need time to write, why not apply to residencies like Yaddo, MacDowell, etc, and negotiate some vacation time at your new job to do that circuit over the next few years? No debt, lots of different experiences.

However, if you're still really keen on doing the MFA, seconding what theantikitty says about low-res programs like Warren Wilson and Bennington. They've got fantastic faculty and you don't have to quit your day job for them.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 9:45 PM on August 30, 2015

It means that I'll be spending money on GREs and applications and transcripts, and asking for recommendation letters and writing critical essays, for something that probably won't even happen unless I get rejected from every single job I apply for between now and February.

Apply anyway. As far as the recommendations and essays and gathering of credentials go, they wouldn't be completely wasted because you could use them later to apply for fellowships or whatever. People enjoy being asked to write recommendations, and in your case with a well-regarded book under your belt I think people will love to hear from you. If you end up getting accepted and not being able to go because you got a fantastic job opportunity, well then you won't mind. If you are in a place where it would be good to go to school and you haven't applied, you can't go back and change that decision.

I'm trying to give writing a bigger place in my life right now and one of the people I asked for a recommendation has been a big help to me with suggestions and just not feeling so isolated.
posted by BibiRose at 6:35 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

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