Why you should never, ever get an MFA

phdhoodgoldpiping           After semi-randomly going on a midnight rampage and reading a whole bunch of articles about why graduate school (in the Humanities) is a terrible idea, I decided to codify some of my pithiest thoughts on the subject.

I’ve sometimes been shocked to hear my friends tell me that their English professors encouraged them to apply to PhD programs. Honestly, to me, that seems like it should be a firing offense: it’s the academic equivalent of malpractice.

The jobs just aren’t there. When you graduate in one of the humanities, you are often super-specialized. There’ll only be like three or four job openings a year for whatever it is that you do. And there’ll be a hundred applicants for it.

Another way to think about it is this: the supply of professorships is not increasing. There was a time, during the 40s and 50s (with the GI bill) and again during the 70s (when women and minorities started entering college in greater numbers) when colleges had to increase in size very fast. The supply of professorships was HUGE. That is not the case anymore. At best, the number of professorships will stay the same. More realistically, it is going to shrink. Basically you will only get a professorship if someone dies. Now, each professor advises maybe 40 or 50 students over the course of his or her career; and only the single best student is going to advance into his (or someone else’s) chair.

In fact, most professors will never have a student who becomes a professor (while others, the ones at prestigious universities, will have several). But even in the most prestigious programs, most of the students are not going to be able to become professors.

Those odds are terrible. It’s legitimately much harder to become a professor than it is to do a lot of other things. Furthermore, between the PhD and adjuncting and post-docs, you usually put in a decade of work before you realize that you’re not going to make it. And when you don’t make it, you’ve been socialized so strongly to believe that becoming a professor is the high-point of life, that not-becoming-a-professor shatters your self-esteem. Also, when you enter the real job market, you find that people generally don’t really want to hire PhDs with little work experience aside from teaching.

What it amounts to is that getting a PhD in the humanities is, from a strict cost/benefit standpoint, almost never a good idea. And it’s definitely not something that should be encouraged.

In some ways, MFAs have it a bit easier. Our degrees are shorter—only 2-3 years—so we waste less time. Since we’re less specialized are generally qualified for almost all of the jobs that open in a given year (rather than just a tiny fraction of them). And we don’t have an expiration date. You can be ten years out of your MFA and, if you publish a book, still be competitive for a teaching job.

However, on a broader level, the job market is still incredibly gloomy. For awhile, the number of creative writing programs was growing rapidly, but I feel like that’s bound to slow down shortly. And even amidst the boom, there are only 25-30 openings every year. Each gets 100+ applicants. And all of those applicants are usually published writers, with books (so they’ve already survived a pretty rigorous selection process). The vast majority of MFAs—even at top tier programs—will not get professor jobs.

Furthermore, MFAs suffer from the same problem of socialization as PhDs. When you’re here, you kind of imbibe the notion that writing is something that happens in a university. I think that makes it hard to write when you’re out there, in the world, working. I think it makes you start to feel like you’re a bit irrelevant. More and more, there doesn’t seem to be much lip-service paid to the notion that someone could work at an insurance agency and still produce good fiction. I feel like people think that if he was really good, then he’d have a professorship. So, to that extent, I think the MFA has the potential to harm peoples’ ability to orient themselves to what will be the reality of their life as a fiction writer: for the rest of your life, your writing will need to be scheduled around a job–some job–that does not involve creative writing or the creative writing industry.

So yes, don’t go to graduate school.

 

Tomorrow: I will write about why this does not make a pessimist (and, also, the circumstances under which you might consider going to grad school)

 

Some of the articles that I read between 2 AM and 4 AM on a day that I think might’ve been a Sunday?

4 thoughts on “Why you should never, ever get an MFA

  1. Alex Danvers

    Interesting read. Psychology is poised at the border of science and humanities, and I think that people are more successful to the extent that they can sell it as science. If you do anything with the brain, you’re probably going to be ok. If you just study cognitive dissonance, it’s a little shakier. But either way, I think the academic job market it pretty brutal. The upshot of getting good training is that at least the stats I’m learning could be applied to working for a credit card company or something.

    The other thing that I might mention about writing–because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do seriously–is that there are a lot of technical writing jobs. I worked as a medical writer for 3 years, and while I didn’t find it terribly satisfying creatively, I did get to practice building good sentences with an editor paid to look over my work. To the extent an MFA teaches you to write clear, readable sentences, you are developing a marketable skill.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I feel like Social Psychology has definitely earning potential. My mom’s grad students (in Demography) seem to end up in fine jobs, where they do thoughtful and interesting work.

      Also, yes, that’s true. I think a bunch of MFAs end up in writing-related professions, and there is definite demand for that. I’m definitely thinking about trying to get into technical writing (on a more freelance, contract basis) when I’m done here.

  2. jrfrontera

    I LOVE THIS POST! You basically echoed my exact thoughts from last fall when I (once again) seriously considered going back to school for a post-grad degree. A long time ago, I considered going to school for Creative Writing. I contemplated the job market and decided it didn’t look good. I went to school for Broadcast and Film… realized I did not like sitting in a dark room all day, and that the job market still looked too competitive. Switched to Animal Science. Here, I was told by a professor I should get a PhD because many schools needed and wanted to hire more women science-related professors. I was tempted, but was sick of school by the time I finished my BS so I went and got a “real” job. Got into research, where I determined 1000% I did NOT want to do a science related PhD… far, far too stressful with the research and obtaining of grants and trying to publish papers and ohbytheway teach and grade papers. Screw that! When my son was born, I switched careers to something more low key with a more flexible schedule, now I am Admin Asst for a small medical software development company, and I love it. Has NOTHING to do with my degree… I brought basically nothing over from my college education to this job, except for the knowledge of bodily systems and the names of the parts of the intestine, lol. Everything else I learned on the job! So, I am super super glad I did not go through grad school, it would have been a complete waste for me. I almost did go back again last fall though, because I determined I wasn’t writing enough, but another look at the cost and time committment, plus the realization (again) that you don’t HAVE to have any kind of degree in writing to become a successful writer, finally convinced me to save my money and time! And I am soooo glad (again) I didn’t go! Because now I am writing like the dickens on the side, while still working my regular day job – AND some writing has even snuck into my day job, now that they’ve realized I’m writing on the side, they keep giving me all the writing and proofing jobs! – and it’s perfect! Like Orsen Scott Card said anyway… “Don’t quit your day job! That’s where you get ideas.” Hahahahah!

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I’m glad you managed to make the writing work with your work and family life. That’s really the hardest part of a writing career; if grad school taught you how to do THAT, then it would really be worthwhile.

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