Is Getting A Masters In Creative Writing Really Worth It?

Editor’s Note: this is a guest post by Kristin Offiler of Kristin Offiler.com.

Many writers consider getting a Master of Fine Arts degree. I’ve heard both sides of the argument: some believe it’s essential for becoming a better writer, while others think it’s a waste of time and money. There really is no right or wrong answer. There’s only what’s right for you and your writing journey.

Choosing The Right MFA Program

I decided to go to graduate school and get my MFA straight after graduating from college for a few reasons. I was only able to fit two creative writing workshops into my undergraduate course schedule while working on my English degree, and I desperately wanted more time to focus on fiction. One of those workshops was in poetry, which was great, but I devoured everything I learned in the fiction course because that’s where my passion was.

So I started researching graduate schools, most of them in New England where I live. Searching for creative writing programs quickly turned up a phrase I had never heard before: low residency. Turns out there are a number of creative writing MFA programs that are structured in the low residency style, where you attend a residency on campus for around 7-10 days, then go home and work on your writing for the rest of the semester under the guidance of a writing mentor.

This really appealed to me. I wouldn’t have to move, find an apartment in a new city, search for a job to pay the rent. I could stay settled where I was and integrate an MFA program into my life, rather than the other way around.

A low residency for a writing program made sense. Most writers do their work alone, only sharing it when it’s time for feedback and critiques. The structure of a low-residency program meant I could focus on writing new pieces and revising them for a few months before sitting down to workshop. I know traditional MFA programs where students meet weekly are just as useful and effective, but I liked the idea of writing by myself for a few months before being immersed in workshops.

Applying to An MFA Program

Applying for programs was a long process. I secured a number of letters of recommendation from professors I had worked closely with as an undergrad, and started compiling my essays and writing samples. I took the GREs, and promptly wanted to smash my head into a wall afterwards. Not to discourage anyone, but that test was worse than the SATs, worse than any test I have ever taken, and I left it with the most agonizing migraine of my life. If I could do it over, I would only apply to schools that did not require GREs. I believe writing samples should speak for the writer; who cares what your math score is if you’re looking to enter an MFA program?

I remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom with applications, writing samples, stray papers and envelopes strewn out all around me. I double and triple checked that each essay said the right school’s name. I filled the envelopes, stamped and addressed them, and sent them off into the world after weeks of preparing them.

I was stupidly confident. Some of the schools I applied to (mainly the traditional ones) had very low acceptance rates. I was very naïve about my chances of getting in to some of my schools, which was probably a good thing. Who knows if I would have even tried if I knew I’d get so many rejection letters?

Getting Accepted Into An MFA Program

But that’s the writing life. Rejection after rejection rolls in. Then I received one acceptance: to my undergraduate school for their English MA program. The only appeal was that they had just added a concentration in creative writing. Of the five or six schools I had applied to, they were the only ones who wanted me. Defeated, I started their program in the fall of 2008. I hated it.

A week into the semester, I got an email from Lesley University’s MFA program director. He wanted to call me. Their fall class had filled up so they’d stopped reviewing applications, but then they came upon mine and wanted me to transfer in the spring. To be in their MFA program.

It wasn’t just an acceptance, it was a request. Join us. Get your MFA here, in Cambridge, down the street from Harvard. Be in our community.

It took me all of five seconds to accept. I finished off the semester in the MA program, transferred the credits, and started the low residency program at Lesley University in January 2009. It was the best decision I’ve made in my writing life, and here’s why:

The MFA Experience

The MFA program nurtured my writing. It gave me a place I could go twice a year to be around fellow writers from all over the world, where we could learn from gifted, published authors and poets and screenwriters, attend readings, workshop each other, wander the streets of Cambridge, get away from our lives for a week to think solely about writing.

I think it’s true that you can learn a lot from reading. Heck, I’ve been reading for 20 years. I read everything I can get my hands on. I make weekly trips to my local library and come home with stacks of books. I read blogs, poetry, short stories, novels, memoirs, self-help books.

And yet, I learned things from my MFA program that I wouldn’t have learned from reading alone. I got to work with some very smart writers. They showed me, on paper, exactly where my stories weren’t working. They could tell me why something wasn’t working, would refer me to novels that would be useful at that stage in my writing, could give me exercises to try, or pose questions that made me see a story in a whole new way.

MFA programs aren’t for everyone. Traditional programs are for certain writers, and low residency programs are for other writers. You need to know what’s right for you based on where you are in your writing life.

I was fresh out of college and all I knew was that I wanted to write fiction and I wanted to do it well. My MFA achieved that. I didn’t hear a single classmate say on graduation day that they wished they hadn’t done the program. On the contrary, we all wanted another semester or two to keep building our writing toolboxes.

And another perk of the MFA has been the friends I’ve made. I have a writing community now, fellow fiction writers and poets and screenwriters who have a desire to write. Of course you don’t need an MFA program to gain writing friends, but that was exactly what the program gave me: friends, incredible growth in my writing, and the chance to learn so much about something I love.

Kristin Offiler is a writer living in Rhode Island with her husband and dog. She works freelance and writes articles, blogs, web copy, resumes and columns in addition to her fiction writing. She is an avid reader, loves the beach, and hates New England winters. She can be reached via her website, kristinoffiler.com or by email at kristinoffilerwrites@gmail.com. 

Have you thought about getting your MFA? Why is it—or isn’t it—something you would do? Do you have any lingering questions about applying to MFA programs or the program itself that you’d like me to answer? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

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20 comments on “Is Getting A Masters In Creative Writing Really Worth It?

  1. Ollin says:

    First of all, thanks so much Kristin for sharing your experience with us. I’m sure many of my readers will benefit from what you share here.

    As my readers know, I’m an MFA reject, lol. But truthfully, at this point in my life I have no interest in graduate school. I love working on the novel on my own. But I do have some tips for my readers about applying. These are things I wish I would have done if I would have to do it over again in order to increase my chances of getting in:

    1. The GRE is the spawn of satan: You have to study and memorize hundreds of esoteric words that only .01% of the population ever uses–I wanted to tear my eyes out. Don’t stress too much over this. Just try your best.

    2. Letters of Rec: make sure you had a real close relationship with your recommenders. I actually had great letters of rec and I don’t think that was the problem.

    3. Manuscript: make sure the work you are sharing coincides with the kind of work your MFA program is interested in nourishing. The work I shared was fantasy fiction for middle schoolers. And the programs I applied to were more interested in what they would call “literature,” hemingway, morrison, faulkneresc type stuff. Most of the popular programs are interested in you becoming the next “Franzen.” I realized later that I didn’t want to become the next “Franzen,” I wanted to become the next “Lewis Carroll” or JK, or Tolkien, or Lewis, or Dahl, etc. Anyways, I realized later that the programs I applied for were not the right fit for me. So make sure your manuscript fits the program you apply for.

    4. Be pessimistic: In all other things I encourage optimism except for one thing: applying to MFA programs. No joke: it is fiercely competitive and the amount of people they except is ridiculous. Please DO NOT take it personally if you don’t get accepted. Sometimes final decisions are just arbitrary and have nothing to do with your talent. It’s just that some random thing put you just below the cut.

    5. Go above and WAY beyond: go visit the school and actually meet people who you think will way in on the decision to accept you should you apply. Make a deep impression on them so they remember you. I have a friend whose father is a professor at a prestigious university and one of the people deciding who would get in a graduate program literally told him she was deciding between two people to accept who were basically both qualified. My friends father mentioned he had met one of the applicants and thought he was cool, and literally that made up the mind of the woman who was making the decision. The graduate selection process is as random as that.

    6. Lastly: you got to REALLY love the university atmosphere. My friends tell me graduate school is WAY different than undergrad. There’s fewer classmates, more politics, and a lot of study of esoteric subjects. This is something that many of my friends love because they plan on being professors one day, but for me I kind of grew tired of it in undergrad. Just take a lot of time and make sure to study each school carefully. Applying in itself is a HUGE investment and I wouldn’t suggest taking it on unless you are sure its worth it for you.

    Good luck!

  2. GD says:

    Yes, thanks for sharing this experience! I think the biggest benefit (I haven’t gone, I’m only speculating) is being around people who are not only similar to you, but who need you for your feedback. And you need them; to nurture your writing and to offer their advice. Thanks!

    -GD
    Visit my writing blog at http://shelleddreams.wordpress.com/

    • Hi GD,
      You’re totally right. Being around other writers during residencies (and then staying in touch during the semesters) really helped my writing mindset. Many people in my family and most of my friends aren’t writers, so being around other writers and getting their feedback was a great part of the MFA experience!
      Kristin

  3. I’ve often wondered about the MFA program. There’s a lot I don’t know about writing and must learn the hard way. I write thrillers and–here’s something I just found out that you probably learned in your program–thrillers can’t be written like literary fiction. I had to rework 90% of my book. I have too many degrees and credentials to go back and get yet another, so I end up taking lots of seminars. I think in the long run, you are lucky to have that training.

    • Jacqui,
      There was some division in my MFA program about genre stories, like sci fi and romance. Some mentors loved it, others only wanted to deal with literary stuff. I think if you were to join an MFA program, it would be a good idea to talk to the program director and get a feel for their views on thriller-type works. There might be a teacher or two who specialize in it, or whole seminars devoted to the genre. And I think aside from doing a full program, taking seminars is a great way to gain knowledge. Even now, I’m considering taking additional seminars and classes to keep learning. I guess it’s a matter of not overdoing it and focusing too much on learning and not enough on writing!🙂
      Kristin

  4. Becky says:

    I’d love to get my MFA. I alwayw intended to after i got my BA, but life got in the way. I now have seven beautiful children and the only thing keeping me from getting my MFA is not being able to afford to enroll.

    • Hi Becky,
      There were a lot of parents in my low-residency program. It seemed to be ideal for them since they didn’t have to leave their families for 2 years to get their degree. I know some programs offer financial assistance, but it’s true grad school can be expensive. If it’s something you really want to do, it might be worth talking to some program directors and getting a feel for the price tag and financial aid situations. Low-res programs tend to be more affordable than traditional ones, although I still had to get loans to pay for mine. However, I know people who paid their tuition each semester (but they didn’t have families, so I can see how it depends on each situation). There might be some good online options too, although I don’t know if you’d miss the writer interaction part. Good luck with whatever you decide!
      Kristin

  5. […] guest posting today over on the Courage2Create blog where I open up the old MFA debate. It’s a hot topic and everyone has an opinion. […]

  6. Alison Law says:

    Kristin and Ollin,

    Thank you so much for this post. I plan to apply to low-residency MFA programs in the winter.

    Kristin: Beyond the training and relationships that you gained, do you feel the MFA credential has helped you in your professional life? What were your career aspirations and the aspirations of your classmates – to be full-time novelists, college writing teachers, etc.? Were your instructors helpful in connecting you with agents, publishers or others who might be interested in representing or hiring you?

    Best,
    Alison

    • Hi Alison,
      Many of my classmates already have teaching jobs, have produced plays they wrote in the program, have published short stories they’ve been working on with mentors, so I would say the MFA was beneficial for many of us. Personally, I just wanted to learn more about writing fiction when I entered the program. I wanted 2 years to focus on what I loved, and beyond that I want to publish short stories and novels. But I knew that wouldn’t exactly pay the bills, so I’ve gotten into freelance writing and copywriting, and having the MFA seems to give me some legitimacy when I talk to new editors and clients. I think one’s writing should be able to speak for itself, but I also don’t think it hurts to show that you’ve dedicated part of you schooling to writing. I think the MFA matters the most is you want to teach Creative Writing; otherwise, it’s a nice addition to your resume.

      I can’t speak for all programs, but the one at Lesley University (which I can’t say enough good things about, truly!) provided us with some opportunities to meet with agents and have our writing read, so they could give us feedback on it. We were always around published writers who could share their know-how or contacts with us. However, the main goal of the program wasn’t to help us get money for our writing; it was more about helping us become the best writers we could be so we could then do what we wanted to do with our writing. Most of us had/have goals of being published or produced and then making some kind of money off our work, but I’m almost positive no one in the program got their MFA for that reason alone. I think the writing comes first, the money comes later (hopefully!).

      Good luck with your applications! Do you know which school you’ll be applying to?

      Thanks,
      Kristin

  7. Fantastic post! This is one of the things I’ve considered as well. I may end up there eventually, but as of right now, I’m still waiting to hear from a program in publishing. I want to hone my writing but I also want to know how the whole book industry works.

    And I think the GRE should be illegal.

  8. I can’t really say because I don’t have any writing qualifications and I don’t have the time or inclination to do so now, but in one of my first writing workshops, the author said that such qualifications didn’t mean that you were more likely to be published. Apparently in Australia more people without qualifications get published than with. He didn’t actually give figures though, so who knows how true that is.

    I decided to spend the money I would have spent to do a degree ( lots) on hiring professionals to help me with the project that I really wanted to do, ie write Lethal Inheritance. I won’t get a bit of paper at the end, but I’ll have acheived what I really wanted.

  9. Kristin and Ollin,

    Great post. After seeing the title I was ready to be unconvinced that a MFA program is worthwhile. I have kind of a low opinion of the collegiate learning system. I went to school to be a writer and dropped out discouraged by the entire system.

    There is also compelling evidence showing that the labor market and society in general is starting to trend away from the need for a degree.

    That being said the low residency MFA program sounds like the way an MFA program should be run, and I’m glad I took the time to read this.

    Ollin, I enjoy reading your blog because you challenge my ideas. Thank you for that.

  10. Larissa says:

    This is a great article and touches on a lot of the questions I’ve been pondering regarding getting an MFA. It is something I’ve considered doing because I think it would provide me a great opportunity to fine-tune my craft, and instill some good habits in me. I also think the legitimacy that comes with an MFA would be helpful. However, I already have a Masters in Library Science and I am worried that another masters degree would be a waste of money. Sure it’s a totally different degree, but I have a small family and a tight budget and don’t know how I could justify it when my spouse is currently considering furthering his education to get a stable job in the healthcare industry. It’s a gamble, I would love to do it. I just don’t know when I’ll be able to.😦

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