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What is an MFA, and More Importantly, Should You Get One?

You know you want to write for a living, but you don’t quite feel qualified to go out on your own and try it yet. Or, perhaps, you have an unfinished manuscript that could really benefit from peer input. Or you may want to explore several different genres to see what type of writing sticks the most. 

Enter the MFA. A master’s degree in creative writing can offer you all of these things and more. 

Let’s explore all aspects of this specialized degree, starting with the question that may be on your mind: “What is an MFA?”

What is an MFA?

A Master of Fine Arts degree provides an opportunity to study your art, and this art can be writing. 

It’s a graduate-level program, so you need a bachelor’s degree before you can get an MFA, but a fine arts degree doesn’t require you to take the GRE like many graduate programs. Not having to take the GRE can come as a relief for those of us (ahem, me) who aren’t good at standardized tests.

When you study writing in an MFA program, you have several choices, depending on the program: nonfiction, fiction, journalism, poetry, pop fiction, playwriting, screenwriting and more. 

Often, you can take a workshop or two in a genre other than your focus if you want to explore other areas of creative writing. Obtaining an MFA gives you the credentials to teach at universities and colleges if you want to go that route. A program can last between one and four years, but two years is typical. Costs vary widely depending on the program, but you should expect to invest a pretty penny into your degree. 

The 3 types of MFAs

Whether you’re working full time and want to get your degree on the side, like I did, or you prefer to dedicate your life completely to your writing, you have options.

There are three types of MFA programs:

1. Online residency

For an online degree, you complete it without having to travel or move anywhere. You can do all the work from the comfort of your home. 

This type of program could be excellent for working folks, parents or people who don’t want to spend the extra money on taking trips to residencies. 

2. Low residency

You also work mostly online with an assigned mentor in a low residency program, but it requires you to travel twice a year to residencies. 

Each residency lasts around 10 days and gives you a chance to mingle with other writers in your program. This type could be the perfect choice if you want to hold a part-time or full-time job but need writer-to-writer interaction. You might be surprised how quickly you can become best friends with people even if you see them only twice a year.

3. Full residency

A full-residency program is like a standard degree — you move near campus and commute into class to learn among your fellow students. 

This type of program could be a great choice for writers who want a normal college experience. You can work directly with your classmates, call on them for editing help and attend your professors’ office hours easily. Whether or not you can hold a job on the side is up to you. 

Should you get an MFA? Let’s weigh the pros and cons 

Deciding whether or not to go back to school can be a tough process. There are many positives and negatives that you need to weigh before making a decision. 

Here’s a breakdown of factors that I looked into that helped me make my choice.

Pros of getting an MFA

  • You’ll form a tight-knit writing community. No matter the type of program you choose, when you share your art with each other, you will bond. Knowing other writers is invaluable — for everything from advice to emotional support to writing a blurb for the back on your book.
  • A degree will probably save you time in the long run. Two intensive years of cramming everything writing-related into your skull will almost invariably lower the learning curve for you. Instead of teaching yourself how to write better over the span of 10 years on the job, a degree should expedite the process.
  • You’ll dedicate time to honing your craft. Like me, you could consider a writing program a gift to yourself. You’re honoring your art by making space in your life to advance your skill.
  • You’ll sharpen your grammar skills and become a better writer, editor, reader, and critic. There’s no doubt about it: No matter what form of writing you study, writing a lot makes you better at all of it.

Cons of getting an MFA

  • It will cost you. The average cost of a full residency program is $20,180, and the average low residency program is $31,184. One thing to consider: Does your employer cover any tuition costs? Keeping a full-time job allowed me to pull from the tuition reimbursement that my company offered, which helped immensely.
  • You may not gain the hard skills you’re looking for. The number one complaint in my program is a lack of focus on the tougher side of writing: how to market yourself, build your portfolio, deal with agents or publish a book. Instead, these degrees tend to focus on the craft and leave the hard skills for you to figure out.
  • You’ll use up time and energy. Instead of spending two years getting a writing degree, you could be out there writing. Even though you would be starting with more of a blank slate, there’s absolutely no requirement to get a degree first to be a writer. You could instead put that energy into getting published or freelancing. 
  • You may not need it. If you’re thinking of a career as a marketer, social media manager, publisher, or some other specific job, an MFA might not help you get there. It will teach you some things about the writing industry as a whole, but nothing you couldn’t learn from attending conferences and workshops outside of a degree program.

Is an MFA worth it?

So is an MFA worth it? The answer to this question is deeply personal, so I can only tell you my opinion. And my answer is yes. For me, an MFA was worth the time and money I spent. 

Two key things made the experience valuable for me: the writers I met and the confidence I gained. 

When I made the choice to enter the program, I knew I wanted to write for a living, but I didn’t know in what capacity. Sure, I wish I had a better baseline understanding of my goals when I started, but that doesn’t mean it was a waste of time. Some of my friends had no idea what to write when they started but ended up with a manuscript that turned into a published book a few years out. I gained a writing community that will be with me for life. These are friends who understand the struggles of the writer’s life.

Plus, I felt like the degree propelled me into “Real Writer” status. It doesn’t take a degree to become a writer, and I had already become one the day I started writing. However, I didn’t know that yet. I needed a confidence boost. I appreciated the backing of a degree before I went out to make a living at it. 

Alternatives to getting an MFA

If your gut is telling you not to go the MFA route, trust your instincts. 

There are so many other options out there. You could try freelancing for a while. Even if it doesn’t work out, there’s nothing stopping you from applying to a degree program later. Also, there are plenty aspects of an MFA program you could replicate on your own. You could read grammar and writing books on your own. Additionally, you could write a book in your spare time, take individual writing classes, or attend workshops and residencies. 

There’s even an entire course we’ve reviewed here at The Write Life designed to help you DIY your MFA.

There’s no one right answer. You can do several of these things at once. Take a class at your local writing center and become a member of a local critique group. The most important step in becoming the writer you want to be is to try something.

Photo via Areipa.lt / Shutterstock 

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