No. You absolutely do not. MFAs are not cheap and there are a lot of affordable resources that can help you hone your craft and become a better writer. I personally know plenty of published authors who do not have an MFA.
I, however, do have an MFA. My degree is an MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College, and getting it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made for myself. While I believe that I would have gotten published eventually without my degree, I also credit it for a lot of my success. I think it massively accelerated my publication track and I became a better writer than I would have ever become had I not enrolled in my program.
But getting an MFA is a personal choice, and it may not be for everyone. If it’s something you’ve been contemplating, here’s my list of pros and cons to help.
You get a built-in community of people who are in the same boat as you. They love writing, take it seriously, and want to make it their job. I found that this was one big reason I was often really excited to go to class every week.
Structured lessons designed to challenge you
Sure, you can learn to write by taking non-credit classes, online courses, or reading craft books/blogs/articles, but those courses aren’t always designed to really push you. MFA programs are built to make you a better writer and often require you to do things that might scare you or that you may think you can’t do. They are built for more serious writers who what to be the best writers they can be.
You’ll have a handful of deadlines each semester, which forces you to be productive. This is good practice if you’re hoping to be published someday.
MFA programs usually require instructors to either be published writers or have made significant contributions to the writing/literary community. The people you learn from are vetted and experienced writers with plenty to share.
A tool for a day job
While an MFA does not guarantee you a publishing contract, it does give you some solid credentials for a day job while you work toward your publication goals. With an MFA, you can teach writing at various levels. Colleges, in particular, are often looking for adjunct Comp 101 teachers, and some might even have openings in their creative writing classes. Personally speaking, my degree has enabled me to work as a college writing tutor for the past four years, which has given me a reliable source of income.
Exposure to opportunities and experiences
MFA programs have a vested interest in your success. If you succeed, it reflects well on them. Because of that, they are able to point you in the direction of some quality resources that will help you reach your goals. During my time in my MFA program, I had access to regular talks from editors, agents, and published writers. I was also given the chance to do a reading in a Philadelphia Barnes & Noble for one of my classes. This meant that we spent time discussing how to give a good reading and my first reading experience was with a friendly audience of classmates, family, and friends. When my book came out and I had to do events, I was prepared.
Additionally, there were a handful of conferences and writing events that gave discounts to students in my program.
An informed critique
The feedback you get comes from people who are studying the craft just like you are. While a friend’s critique can be valuable and helpful, it also might include, “this is funny,” or “I don’t like this,” which isn’t all that helpful. A critique from your MFA instructor or classmate will often be more specific. They’ll be able to tell you exactly what you’re doing well so you can replicate it, and identify specific problems, so you know what you need to fix.
Plenty of options
You can choose between full residency programs (traditional, weekly classes), low-residency programs (work remotely with short stints on campus), and fully online programs, to find one that best fits your budget and lifestyle. And while MFAs are expensive, you don’t have to go to the most renowned school to benefit. I went through a small, fairly affordable program and I feel like I got a high-quality education.
Shows agents/editors you’re serious
Getting an MFA is a sign to editors and agents that you are serious about your writing. It tells them that this isn’t just a hobby for you. It shows that you put a serious investment into learning your craft, which is often appreciated.
You will be a better writer
I am an exponentially better writer with my MFA than I was before it. My first published book was the first book I developed from start to finish after I graduated, and I don’t think that’s an accident. It was the first chance I had to use everything I learned in my program. Your experience may not look like mine, but I can’t imagine a reality where you won’t emerge a better writer after you graduate than you were before you started. You’ll also give yourself a serious leg up on any publishing goals you may have.
This is obviously a big one. Of course, prices vary from program to program, but we’re still talking about a Master’s degree. As I mentioned, my program was pretty affordable, but even the most affordable programs cost thousands of dollars. You have to figure out if it’s really worth it for you based on your own circumstances.
Again, it’s a Master’s degree. Each class is going to take a significant time commitment. Also, if your life is really busy and you’re only taking one or two classes a semester, it will take a long time to complete your degree. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something to think about.
Depending on the program you pick and where you live, you will most likely have to travel to your school either weekly or occasionally. Your time commitment and travel expenses could increase if you live far away from your school. Additionally, your availability and travel budget could limit your options.
Possibility of too much feedback
You don’t get to pick your readers in an MFA program. Even though the majority of your classmates will probably have the best intentions when they give feedback, they will not all be your readers. Some will not get your work, and their advice might mess with your head. I’ve seen it happen. It is possible to give good feedback regardless of genre, but that is a very specific skill set that not all MFA students have. No matter what you decide, it’s important to keep this in mind.
Any graduate program can be mentally draining, especially if you’re also working a full-time (or even part-time) job and trying to keep up with family and friends. You will most likely spread yourself too thin during your time in school. I thought it was worth it, but it may not be for everyone.
No guarantee of publication
In most professions, getting a Master’s degree in your field all but guarantees you a job in that field–at least at some capacity. The same cannot be said for an MFA in writing. While I absolutely believe it will make you a better, more complete writer and give you a better shot at the publishing industry, publications if far from guaranteed.
As always, I hope this helps!
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Now it’s your turn: Have you ever thought about an MFA? Do you have one? What are your pros/cons/concerns/thoughts? Tell me about it in the comments!