December 12th, 2010 / 5:30 pm
Behind the Scenes

To MFA or to not: Reflections on utility

Are you tired of hearing this tired debate? To MFA or to not MFA? I am, but I’m writing about it anyway. If you’re bored with it, don’t bother reading this post. It won’t hurt my feelings any.

I’ve been thinking more and more about how “useful” my MFA has been. I went to a decent grad school (Notre Dame) and got my MFA in 2006 in prose. I knew walking into the program that I would have a hard time getting a job, that by the time I got my degree, I would be underqualified for certain jobs (the ones I wanted, mainly, professor jobs) and overqualified for just about everything else. Even though I knew this, I was deluded enough to think I was different, special maybe.

Let me back up: I applied to MFA programs because I had nothing else to do. I got my BA in English. I was waiting tables, making good money, but I felt this strange lack of identity as a waiter. I wasn’t shielded under the label “student,” which was safe and pleasant. It was a nice conversational piece.

What do you do?

Oh, I’m a student.

Blah. Blah. Blah.

Then, suddenly, I wasn’t a student, and conversations suddently went like this:

What do you do?

Um, well, I was a student. I just graduated. Now, um, I’m a waiter. I’m thinking about grad school.

Grad school?! I thought you were applying to college!

Um, yeah, no, I’ve got a BA already.

Blah. Blah. Blah.

But the point is that I felt a lack of identity. I liked creative writing. I wouldn’t have called myself a writer. But I liked writing enough, so I applied. I knew MFA programs were competitive. I was told—because I went to a tier 2 satellite university—that most “good” programs would dismiss me unless I had a really spectacular sample. I was told that I wasn’t really competitive and I should apply to many programs, 15 or more. So I got my AWP big book of creative writing programs and picked my top 20. I asked my recommenders for letters of reference. I got my samples together. Then, out of laziness, I only ended up applying to six programs. (I was lazy. I didn’t want to fill out bubble forms required for public/state schools, so that eliminated ¾ of my options. In retrospect, that was a bad idea.) I didn’t expect to get in anywhere. But then I did. I got into five programs. (I still hold a grudge against that one school who rejected me, even though I know it’s not personal.)

Obviously, I ended up going to Notre Dame. They offered me the best package. Steve Tomasula was there. I liked his books. It seemed like a good match. Plus, my dad loves football, and my parents are Catholic.

Fast forward two years: I have an MFA. I’ve read a lot of books. I’ve been in workshops that were mostly useless. I took some interesting classes. I completed two manuscripts.

Now what?

With no definitive plan, I stayed where I was. I applied to adjunct at several universities in the South Bend area. I got “lucky.” I got classes. Five classes at four different universities. I made an average of 2 grand per class. Do the math folks. That’s $10,000 for a lot a lot a lot of work. Then, the spring semester rolled around. I didn’t get lucky. I was offered 2 classes at 2 schools and made a whopping $3,500 that spring. I made less money the first year out of my MFA as I did as a graduate student.

That first year out of grad school was actually fairly generous to me though. I won a first book competition and then my second book was picked up too. So: I had teaching experience and two books under contract. Time to “go on the market.”

The next fall rolled in and because I had experience working with these schools, I had a normal teaching schedule. I taught 4 classes per term at 2 schools.

I started applying for jobs. I applied for maybe 45 jobs. All things being equal, I did pretty well. I had 4 interviews, 2 campus interviews, but 0 job offers. Then, as if there were some magnanimous god somewhere, one of the schools I was teaching at offered me a Visiting Asst Prof position.

Year Three out of my MFA, I finally got a full time job. I taught 3/3. I had lovely colleagues. I was relatively happy, but my contract was only for a year. So I went on the market again. This time, I had one book in print and two forthcoming. I applied for maybe 40 schools and got 2 interviews, 0 campus interviews, 0 job offers.

The school I was teaching at offered me another year-long visiting position (of which I would only end up teaching a semester because I picked up and moved to Canada to be with my partner, who started a PhD program).

Because I was sick of applying for jobs and all the terror involved in it (which I haven’t even touched on: the anxiety, the insanity, the insecurity, the constant feelings of inadequacy), I didn’t apply for jobs last year. Instead, I applied for PhD programs. I had, at that point, 2 books in print, 1 small press prize, 1 national award, and 3 books forthcoming and an anthology that I was co-editing with Blake. I got into 1 of the 2 PhD programs I applied for. (Technically, I got into both, but one program didn’t have enough funding for me.)

Now, I’m in this PhD program. It’s ok. I like it fine, but I miss writing. I want to be a writer again. I miss reading fiction. I miss teaching. So my partner and I decided I’d apply for jobs again. I’ve applied for 11 jobs. I’ve had 2 interviews, 3 requests for more info, but ultimately 0 job offers. (Yes, the season is still going.) But when I do the math for it, my MFA has been worth what? A whole lot of financial disappointment, a lot of work for very little money, and some books with my name on it (I’m not disillusioned here. I know my contacts through the MFA helped get me published. If nothing else, they got me a “fair” read.)

So what is the MFA worth? Is it worth it? I’m not sure. Maybe I’m just being a whiny baby. Go ahead. Slap me. More reason for me to keep on crying.

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