A year ago, I was still weighing my options. Quarantine had just started, but I already suspected it could extend into Fall 2020. Like everyone, I was stockpiling canned goods and trying to learn practical post-apocalypse skills – wasn’t an MFA in creative writing myopic in the face of all that? In the end, I took the plunge, not least because I was concerned that the 2021 application season would be much more competitive; as we saw during the 2008 recession, application numbers tend to increase during economic crises.
While the final numbers aren’t in yet, many programs reported a surge in applications this year. Anecdotally, it seems the surge was driven in large part by unemployment; people were submitting MFA applications and job applications concurrently. As April 15th approaches, I wanted to tailor this blog to those applicants – and anyone else unsure of whether grad school is the right choice in such uncertain times. Most decision day articles focus on factors like aesthetic fit, faculty, and teaching load – and rightly so. That said, when society pole-vaults into a new era, you don’t want to make a major life choice like it’s 2019. Below are three tips from someone who was in a similar boat last year.
1. Know Why You’re Going
I would advise against going to grad school solely to avoid the job market. This is doubly true if you’re considering an unfunded or partially funded offer. Finding a career is always tough, especially for us “creative types,” but it won’t be any easier when you’re worried about loan payments.
This isn’t just about money (more on that later). Funded or not, MFAs are hard work. Choosing creative writing (as opposed to, say, business or law) doesn’t change the fact that it’s graduate school. I say this from experience: in order to keep up with your coursework and writing, you’ll have to pull 10-12 hour days regularly. If you’re not doing that for a reason, it will feel exhausting and fruitless.
I love the work I do, but it’s intense. The work ethic I’ve had to develop would have been unimaginable to me in undergrad. My abilities to focus and manage time have flourished, yet I’m rarely ahead on my work. If I wasn’t making progress on specific creative and career goals, I’d be miserable. Engaging with art and my program’s community makes me happy, but the sense of meaning is what keeps me going.
2. Consider Career Opportunities (or not)
I often hear that the MFA isn’t a “professional” degree. In terms of professional development, most MFAs will equip you for university-level teaching and not much else. Unfortunately, demand for tenure-track positions far, far outpaces supply, and no one wants to adjunct long-term.
However, I’d contend that you can make your MFA a professional degree if you’re intentional about it. MFAs offer career-building opportunities beyond the tenure-track treadmill. In fact, this was a feature that attracted me to George Mason. The program offers two lit mags, a small press, a literary festival, a thriving translation community – the list goes on. The enterprising student can gain experience in publishing, communications, public relations, and even technology. Am I shilling? A little. Still, I’ll be graduating with skills beyond teaching composition – and you can, too.
Research the opportunities at your potential program(s), and keep in mind that not everything will be well-advertised on the website. Asking the program’s admissions coordinator, current students, and alumni what they’ve valued most will give you a clearer picture.
One caveat: these experiences won’t fall into your lap. The most valuable opportunities will usually be outside of the classroom. You’ll have to be open to them, and that includes making time in your inevitably hectic grad school schedule. If you’re not ridiculously self-motivated and willing to take on extra (unpaid) labor, the MFA may not be fertile soil for your professional growth. If the thought of taking on more work as a full-time student doesn’t excite you, that’s 100% fair. Listen to that feeling.
3. Have the Unpleasant Finances Talk
An anecdote: During my first round of MFA applications, I received a partially funded offer. It was a cool program in a city I love, so for a while I leaned towards accepting. I was invited to attend one of their readings, where I was introduced to the woman who held the fellowship I’d been offered. We talked about the fellowship’s duties and her upcoming graduation. She admitted that she was nervous about returning to “the real world.” Being exceptionally tactless, I said something to the effect of, “Loan repayments suck, huh?” The air was immediately drained from the room. Within minutes, the conversation suffocated and died. I felt like a jerk, but I didn’t mean anything by it. I thought I was just stating a fact. As embarrassing as the exchange was, her visible dread told me everything I needed to know: I didn’t want to be in the same position. Ultimately, I decided that I wouldn’t take out loans for grad school, even though it meant applying a second time.
Regardless of your choice, don’t put off crunching the numbers. In our current economic scenario, it’s more important than ever to be frank with yourself and do your research before accepting that offer. I recommend looking at the Department of Education’s loan repayment wizard. If you don’t trust Internet mages, try a simpler tool like this one.
And honestly? Take Mom & Dad’s opinion on loans with a grain of salt. My father was convinced that taking out loans for an MFA would reward me with a cushy, high-paying tenure-track position. With all due respect to the man who raised me, he thought the job market was about the same as when he graduated in 1989. He didn’t realize that I could make more as a plumber than an adjunct. If you want advice, you’ll likely get more relevant information from people in your age group.
Much of this blog is my own experience, because it’s all I have to go on. It could be completely irrelevant to your life – although that in itself could be informative. Ultimately, accepting or rejecting your offers is a personal choice hinging on your circumstances, goals, and priorities. After two app cycles and one year in a program, I can tell you this: When I finally committed to a program, I felt confident and excited about my choice. My number one, overarching tip is to make sure you feel that way, too.
is a first-year MFA candidate in fiction at George Mason. He is a DC-area native, but took a trip to Austin, Texas for his BA [insert obligatory “hook ‘em”]. In addition to writing creepy stories, he creates visual art, zines, and Spotify playlists.