This post is by staff writer Sarah Gilbert.
I live in a world in which I am blessed with lots of friends who are writers, but even I — social media maven that I am — would put my writing community at far less than a thousand. Yet a few weeks ago, there I was in Chicago with (according to one estimate) 11,000 writers, editors, publishers, and writing teachers. It was the Association for Writers and Writing Programs annual conference, and a Very Big Deal, if you have a master of fine arts degree, or are pursuing one, or want to. Most of my non-lettered writer friends looked at me, mystified, when I described the event.
MFA or not, it was fantastic; I scribbled so hard in my notebook during sessions on “tackling the ambitious novel” and “the lyric essay: collapse of the form or a form of collapse?” that I thought I might hurt myself. I met a few of my writing idols. I made a whole bunch of new friends (some of whom, conveniently, are editors for journals in which I might someday seek to publish my work). I felt the $700 or $800 I spent for the whole trip — yes, I stayed in a hostel — would work out to be well worth it down the road.
“So, don’t you have an MFA?”
And everywhere, I met people who asked, “so, do you have an MFA?” My answer, “no, I still haven’t paid for my MBA,” had most of them looking at me like I had just told them I was from the planet Zortec 500. I met two other writers, though, who had both MBAs and MFAs; an unusual combination. The first, a poet who had gone back for an MFA after 20 years working in management, and I discussed the financial implications at length.
What we came up with was unique to arts degrees, but given the popularity of the programs — and the sheer size and expense of this conference alone! — it’s quite obvious that many thousands of people are making the decision every year to invest an MBA-sized financial commitment into a fine arts degree. I believe it’s applicable to a wide variety of masters’ degrees, many of which are meant to qualify its students to practice better in a field, whether that’s writing or teaching English as a foreign language or playing an instrument, but most of all to teach others.
The master’s degree as admissions ticket
My babysitter is considering (and a family friend is already halfway through) borrowing large sums of money to get a master’s degree in teaching English as a foreign language. The babysitter is making a decent living now teaching mostly wealthy students at a for-profit school, and she’s good at it, and studies hard to do better for her students on her own. But, she’d like to teach at a non-profit, and those organizations require a master’s. My friend Katie, similarly, wants to work with mission organizations, where a master’s degree is more likely to get you a salaried job.
Both of them are perfectly capable of teaching English as a foreign language without a master’s degree. To teach in certain jobs, however, the master’s is your ticket of admission. The kicker: these jobs probably don’t pay better than the other jobs. The investment in the master’s degree is all about quality of life; working in the conditions they prefer.
This is multiplied times 10 for MFAs (in writing as well as other fine arts, like music or sculpture or painting). A master’s degree is a requirement for one of those teaching positions at a community college or technical school. It can also help get you in the door for a teaching position at those smaller, community-based writing centers, like The Attic here in Portland or The Gotham Writer’s Workshop in New York.
The master’s degree as Friendster
The number one reason I hear to get an MFA is to develop relationships with fantastic writers. Some people call it “mentoring,” others call it “networking,” but it boils down to this: you’re far more likely to go somewhere in the arts world if you know people who know people. The searingly gorgeous painting on your wall is not going to up and sell itself at a gallery in New York; some well-known painter or gallery owner needs to call it “searingly gorgeous” so other people will believe it. In writing, it’s very rare to get an agent without a referral from another client of the agent; it’s a lot easier to sell a book to a publisher if they know Anne Lamott or Susan Orlean will write a blurb for the back of the book.
I’m so, so fortunate to have developed friendships with writers through social media (I have, very literally, met many of my best writer friends through Twitter) and simple happenstance (the most famous writer I know is also friends with my favorite chocolatier, who I met buying her chocolates at the farmer’s market — see? Chocolate is an investment) and by the great good luck of having gone to high school or college with them. The thing is, though, my network isn’t really all that hard to create through being a part of small community programs that don’t cost $20,000 per year. Take those small, community-based writing centers, or the indie publishing resource centers, or even a local library book group.
The master’s degree as imperative
Those who go back to get a master’s degree after many years say the same thing that recent undergraduates do: “the MFA gives you space to write.” Or, “it forces you to make room for it.” Well, I get it! It’s sure hard not to finish a short story if you have 15 other highly critical, driven, probably grumpy (it’s the late nights and the criticism that does it) degree-seekers evaluating it the next morning. If you won’t get the degree you spent $50,000 for unless you finish your novella, well, you’re going to probably finish your novella. If you don’t have a day job, you’ll have a lot more time to focus on writing.
I could get all metaphysical now and describe how the artist’s imperative comes from within. How when you need to make space to write or paint or dance or play violin, you’ll stab, rip, steal time from your life to do so. But that’s not always pretty, and I can understand the desire to create an external mandate for your art. It’s better for you in the long run, though, if that external mandate won’t mean working a job you may not like for 20 or 30 years to pay for it.
The MFA creates more MFAs: Pyramids of degree-holders?
This sentiment is unpopular (and extreme), but I don’t think it’s any less true. The fact is that MFA programs are a lot about demand-creation. You give famous writers jobs as MFA professors (because, honestly, writing novels and memoir isn’t really much of a guarantee for financial security); students who think they will be carried along on the fame trail of famous writers will apply; they will become writers who have been taught by famous writers and other students will want to be part of that aura; and so on. What’s more, the students of the MFA programs will need jobs, and the MFA programs can pay them very small stipends because aren’t they making money on their books, too? (No!) And they don’t even have to offer benefits!
Well, like any other pyramid scheme, eventually one runs out of new investors/students, and the writers who did not become rich and famous authors don’t complain much because they’re convinced they weren’t that good to begin with, and they go off and get ordinary jobs or retire on a spouse’s benefits or something.
(I forgot to mention the other MBA I met at the conference. He was not an MFA; he was, instead, selling an MFA program. “No thanks,” I told him, as he pushed a flier about his school toward me, with a look that I hope said, “I know what you’re doing here. I took Marketing 621 too. And I got a really great grade!” Anyway, he backed off.)
The nitty-gritty: It’s an investment that rarely pays out
I’m still waiting to answer the question: should you get an MFA? I clearly shouldn’t; I can’t make any more money with an MFA than I could with my MBA, not by a long shot, and I already have most of the “stuff” you get with an MFA; a writing network, space to write, an imperative. I’m working up my “admissions ticket” the pre-MFA way; trying to get published and get lots of accolades (it’s a work in progress).
Please remember that, while some very lovely people make good money writing books, most don’t. I have far more stories of friends with $6,000 advances and no royalties yet as I do friends with six-figure advances and movie rights sales (but I do have a few of these, amazingly). I don’t count that into my equation, because you just can’t count on that.
It’s a pretty easy equation, though, and one you should be able to figure out on your own.
- Take the salary you can make at a job you can live with that doesn’t require a master’s degree. Let’s say that’s $40,000 a year.
- Take the salary you can make at a job you would want to use the master’s degree to get. A good pay rate is $4,000 per class, per semester, which is — oh crap — less than $40,000 a year. But you get summers off!
- At this point I would ask you to estimate the total cost of your education and use some online calculator to decide how long it would take you to “earn back” the difference. So, if your education cost you $100,000 and you would make $20,000 more a year, it would be a pretty quick earn-back. For writing, well, it would be hard to earn much less, even teaching public grade school.
The net-net, the bottom line, is that you’d be a fool to get an MFA or any of these master’s degrees that get you a good teaching job on purely financial considerations. You have to desire the education, and not just a little. It has to be such a passion that you’d be miserable without it. You need to have dreamed of conducting office hours when you were 10, and have practiced lectures on your little brothers and sisters throughout high school.
I know: you’re out there. Plenty of my friends made the gamble, because it fed something within them, and it’s either paying off or is still worth it despite it all. I probably would have, but got swayed toward the MBA by a bad ex-boyfriend who will one day be the centerpiece of a riveting memoir. Or novel.
You’ll be the first to know.