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?

I need about 35-40 more hours in a week

For the past six months or so, during the intermittent periods when I am actually in D.C. my schedule has been to get home circa 7 PM on weekdays, and generally spend the hours from 7 PM to 10-11 reading and eating, and then from 11 PM to 2 PM or so trying to write. The end result being that by Wednesday I am borderline exhausted, and by Thursday I am over the hump and manic/frantic with sleep debt…which I recover in twelve hour chunks over the weekend.

I find this to be a pretty satisfying and productive pace, but blogging is basically last in my list of priorities (behind household repairs and above buying groceries). I do not like this state of affairs! My hope was to make my longish essays on books kind of a semi-regular thing. Unfortunately, each one takes roughly 3 or so hours.

But they seem to get a pretty good response, judging by traffic figures, and I think it would be both professionally beneficial (and extremely satisfying to my ego)  to develop some sort of internet following over the coming years, especially now that I have found a format which I think both suits my talents and is at least mildly interesting. So I am forcibly reinserting blogging into my schedule.

I am going to shoot for one long book post every weekend (probably Sundayish), and one post consisting mostly of several hundred work capsule — well, not reviews — scattered thoughts on the books I’ve read during the past week, which will be accompanied by quotes from said book (the Kindle makes it absurdly easy to extract quotes from things. It is amazing). I will also write this during the weekend, but set it to be posted circa Wednesday. And then I will fill the intermittent space with short little posts like this one.

Just letting you know what is up.

Yay, I’m [somewhat] desirable.

Just got an email telling me I am on the waitlist at Syracuse, which is my first concrete news of any kind during this admissions process. I’m not too broken up about not getting in. I went in with absolutely no idea of what my odds could possibly be,  so it’s nice to hear that I’m not just shooting an utterly unsuitable writing sample down into the hole of first-glance rejection.