in article about creative writing MFA programs, illustration of an open laptop with a forest growing from the keyboard
Illustration by Julia Reddell, George Fox University
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in article about creative writing MFA programs, illustration of an open laptop with a forest growing from the keyboard
Illustration by Julia Reddell, George Fox University

A master’s degree may actually complicate your relationship with writing.

An MFA in creative writing is a graduate program meant to help refine a writer’s craft. The curriculum is designed to give writers a few years after undergrad to focus on their writing while becoming a part of a community of like-minded people. As an MFA, you’ll spend the first few semesters in various workshops and then your last year working on your thesis and refining your writing. As a poet in an MFA program, I’m working on submitting about 40 pages worth of poetry. I’m not entirely sure what this looks like for prose writers, as the minimum page count can vary depending on your program.

There are some pros and cons I’d like to point out about MFA programs. The biggest pros are that you are given constructive deadlines for your writing, you are a part of a community, and you get to learn more about sharing your work. The cons? Well, I’d say those would be financial stress, not knowing what your post-graduate plans are, a potentially negative impact on your mental health, imposter syndrome, the pressure to publish, a lot of reading and writing, and bad workshops — just to name a few.

What To Know Before Applying to MFA...
What To Know Before Applying to MFA in Creative Writing Programs

Pros

Deadlines for Your Writing

Having deadlines to meet was one of my favorite things about the MFA program. It pushed me to produce work that I wouldn’t have otherwise. While other students were stressed by their due dates, I loved the structure they provided. And more than anything, I loved knowing that I was on track to meet my goals.

Community

During my time in the program, I was lucky enough to meet other writers. My classmates were all smart, hard-working and creative, and it was nice to get their feedback on my work. Similarly, my professors were all successful writers, but they weren’t cocky about it. I’d say they cared more about my general well-being more than the content they were teaching.

Sharing Your Work

Sharing my work was ultimately one of the most rewarding parts of my program. As part of the course requirements, I had to give a 15-minute reading of my work. I was really nervous about it, but I picked out my favorite poems that I had written and prepared to share them with my peers. While I wanted to be taken seriously, one of my poems had a funny line in it, and its delivery kind of turned the whole reading into a comedy show. I was super grateful for the comedic relief, and the reading went much better than I expected. After sharing my work in the program, I began submitting my poems to outside magazines and was pleased when they were accepted. You can find a few of my poems here and here.

Cons

Financial Stress

I wouldn’t recommend pursuing an MFA if you already have a full-time job secured. If you don’t, still think carefully about the decision. Trying to study while not being able to afford food is not a fun experience. One of my favorite poets actually had to sell plasma to make ends meet. Unless you have an assistantship, you will have to take out a lot of money in student loans. You may not think this is a big deal before you start, but once you see those numbers on your billing statement, you will be sick to your stomach.

If you do have an assistantship, you will most likely be teaching. Even if you love the practice, it will take time away from your writing, and you will be asked to do more work than what you’re paid for. Not to mention, it can be hard to focus on your studies when you are worried about what kind of job you’ll get after graduation. Many companies will see you as overqualified with a master’s degree, and many will wonder why they should hire you if you don’t have any real work experience.

Impact on Mental Health

I also wouldn’t recommend getting an MFA if you are really struggling with your mental health. Right before I started my program, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I thought that it wouldn’t take long for me to stabilize again, but I was wrong; it’s been three years, and I am still having a hard time. During my first year in the program, my mental health got so bad that I almost went to therapy three times a week until I realized that group therapy wasn’t working. I wish that I didn’t have the pressures of grad school on top of my new diagnosis and finishing undergrad.

Imposter Syndrome

Ask anyone in their first year of graduate school how they are feeling and you might get something along the lines of “I was nervous” or “I was excited.” It’s very common for students to feel imposter syndrome, especially after getting into such a competitive program. My imposter syndrome was so bad during my MFA program that I struggled to write poems for my first semester, and it continued into the rest of my time at Butler. I told myself that I wasn’t talented enough or that I didn’t study hard enough or that my writing wasn’t interesting enough. But they were all lies that came from my fear of failure.

Academic Rigor, the Pressure To Publish and Competition

Let’s be honest: Graduate school in any field of study is not easy. I learned the hard way that I shouldn’t take nine credits at a time. On top of lots of reading, there was a pressure to publish your work. Not only did it feel like you needed to have the best work ready for your workshop, but you also felt like you had to have work that was ready to be published.

To put a cherry on top, you would never know how your workshop would go. For instance, say you were really proud of your poem. Even though you were happy with it, there would be a good chance that the group would be critical of your work. For me, that was difficult because I was writing about my life. I felt like people were critiquing me instead of my work. It was a lot of pressure to be the most efficient, yet unique, yet eloquent writer all at once. I wish I would’ve stopped caring about others’ opinions a lot sooner.

Do I Regret It?

In a way, I do. I regret spending so much money on a degree that doesn’t guarantee a job. However, I don’t regret taking the time I needed to learn more about poetry, about myself and how I want to live my life and treat other people. It’s a hard thing to describe. In December, I’ll finish my MFA, and I will feel really proud of myself. Until then, I’m going to try to make the most of it.

If you are considering applying for an MFA program, I urge you to take your time when thinking about graduate school. Know that these programs aren’t going anywhere, and, as long as you keep in touch with your professors, they’ll still be happy to write you recommendation letters in the future. It’s okay to wait a year, or 10, or even 20. Whatever you do, make sure that it’s the right decision for you and not one based on what other people think.

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