Monday, August 15, 2011

MFA Q&A: Was it worth it? - Answers from Fellow Alumni

This installment of my Monday MFA series covers the value of an MFA with answers from some of my fellow alumni from the MFA in Creative Writing program at Queens University of Charlotte. Thanks again to my blogger friend Alison Law who asked the questions.
Q: How has the MFA credential helped advance your career? Have you been able to quantify it in terms of more money made, more work, etc.?
Val Nieman: My Queens MFA was truly life-changing. I had been a newspaper reporter and editor, and didn't see a different route ahead, until the program gave me the skills and courage to make the leap into teaching. I'm now a tenured associate professor at North Carolina A&T State University, teaching creative writing, and truly happy in my new career. The residencies and independent work were crucial to the development of my thesis novel, published as Blood Clay in the spring of this year by Press 53.
Cliff Garstang: I wrote an essay on this subject a few years ago: Competition is Good or What's RIGHT with MFA Programs. The value of the MFA is the community, more than the credential and more than the skills. And I think it's hard to dispute that connections can be valuable in the business.

Jim Walke: [My MFA] had an unexpected side benefit: I'm the only member of the research faculty at VT, as far as I can tell, with an MFA. The rank requires a terminal degree and I had one, so that bureaucratic box was checked. (I write and manage research grants at a scientific institute.) I got my MFA for the community and the feedback, and I'm very happy with what I received in return for my time and money. I went to a low-residency program, which worked well for me because I don't have interest in teaching writing as a career.

Beebe Barksdale-Bruner:  I never heard of a terminal degree until after I got one. It was just plain ol learning for me. I was interested in dissecting poetry and what makes it work and if I could do it. I didn't even like poetry. I looked up haiku in the dictionary and wrote one and said to myself I'm ready to learn more. I am a curious person. I was too old to be making a career of it. I don't like that word "terminal" because I am as we all are. I like poetry a little more now. I don't understand why airports are called terminals.

Mary Akers: My MFA didn't do anything for my writing that I couldn't have gotten being on a forum like Zoetrope. But I didn't know about Zoetrope at the time (learned about it through a fellow student in my MFA program). I would regret having borrowed/spent all of that money (which, ten years later, I still haven't even half paid off) except it's where I met so many wonderful people, and worked with some great writers. But the learning could have taken place any number of ways--reading, workshopping, attending conferences. My MFA also forced me to produce work on a schedule, which was good, but I'd already written a novel (now a doorstop) while raising three kids, so I didn't exactly need that push, either.

Tracy Crow: I didn't go after an MFA with a teaching goal in mind. After finally completing a BA in creative writing at 42, I just knew I hadn't gotten all I needed about the craft of writing.
Along the way, I fell in love with teaching, thanks to the workshop model offered at Queens. I held a visiting position at the University of Tampa for nearly three years. In the end, however, the provost marshal denied a more permanent position, preferring to search for someone with a PhD in CW. Apparently, schools are ranked on their number of "terminal" degrees, and she no longer considers the MFA the terminal degree in CW. :( I'm afraid we're likely to see more of this... But, I've been teaching for 2 years now at Eckerd College, where my MFA is considered a valuable terminal degree for our Creative Writing program, in terms of SACS accreditation. The other two full-time faculty hold an MA in English.


Sam Wilson: I have a hard time recommending an MFA as a career booster unless you know for sure you want to be a teacher. My wife teaches high school English and was bumped to a slightly higher salary schedule when she finished her MFA. I think it's ...about $1,000 a year extra...which sounds nice but doesn't really pay for the degree (her traditional MFA tuition was $60K). My career as a sales rep is indifferent to the MFA degree, but my writing has definitely improved. That's probably a more reliable outcome than the salary bump....
Linera Lucas: Each semester saved me at least 3 years of working on my own or taking local classes. Since I started writing seriously at 50, this was important.
Dorothy Spruzen: Ditto Linera's experience, although I'm slightly older . . . Also, I love to teach and this provided the credentials I needed. Because of my age, I did not try the academic route - Comp 101? No thanks, and it's not worth paying my dues doing this as I think it's too late to get anywhere at the college level, especially considering you need good publications under your belt. Moneywise? I made more teaching ballet 20 years ago.
Dartinia Hull: While I was laid off from my old job TWO DAYS after getting my MFA, part of the reason I have the current job, communications manager at a large church, and a few freelance teaching gigs, is because of it. The people at the church liked my newspaper background but loved the fact that I managed to get an MFA while working a full-time job. They also loved the flexibility (career journalist with an MFA in fiction) and the appreciation for words. But I didn't get the MFA for a career-advancing thing. My writing is better, my world is wider, and I have amazing new friends; that was why I did it.

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