Continuing Education May Make You Wiser — But Richer?

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.

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Adult student
Adult student
8 years ago

It sounds like your eyes are very wide open, which is good. And I wish you the best for your career! What do you think about degree programs that don’t have a financial cost, but do have an opportunity cost? Obviously I ask based on a personal example: I graduated from college, the job market tanked, and I wound up cobbling together part time work to earn about $12,000/yr. I liked the jobs I had, but learned that to move into something more permanent in the field I would’ve had to either wait for higher level staff to move (and… Read more »

CandiR
CandiR
8 years ago
Reply to  Adult student

Which is better? Depends on your field. I literally cannot work in my field without a doctorate. Therefore, I earned my doctorate. Some fields, the eventual catch-up in pay between a masters and a doctorate makes the delay worth it, but in other fields, working with the masters pays well enough that the delay for a doctorate isn’t. BUT, sometimes the PhD opens more doors to more interesting work than a terminal masters can.

So, you need to know what the game is like within your own field.

lisa
lisa
8 years ago
Reply to  Adult student

Has anyone heard about collegeplus? They are saying you can get a 4 year degree in two years in their program. Time to check it out.

Rosa
Rosa
8 years ago
Reply to  lisa

It’s a bachelor’s only, because it relies heavily on CLEP tests and other ways of getting credit that usually don’t apply to graduate degrees.

Most of College Plus’s students get the degree from Thomas Edison State College, which does have very low tuition rates (about half my local community & technical college). Their acceleration schedule is just students taking lots of CLEP tests and then sometimes doubling up on distance learning classes, something any motivated student can do through a university that offers distance learning if they can handle the workload.

Guesty Guest
Guesty Guest
8 years ago
Reply to  Adult student

I hoped this article would focus on whether it’s worth it to get the M*B*A. I have the MFA and paid very little for it. 1) I went to school in an inexpensive state in an inexpensive town; 2) I got in-state tuition; 3) Most of that tuition (and living expenses) were covered by my teaching assistantship and a PT job as a copywriter. I did get opportunities I would not have gotten without the help of MFA faculty. At the same time, I created my own opportunities as well. I really want the MBA and all I can learn,… Read more »

Get Rich Point
Get Rich Point
8 years ago

I just don’t understand one thing : “Why the hell does everyone associate passion with money?” If, ever, I go for an MFA I wouldn’t do it for money; rather I would do it for my growth and satisfaction. No one learns painting to make money? I really don’t think that men are that fool. I, once, wanted to become a painter but ended up becoming an engineer who makes a lot of money each month. However, I still want to take painting classes. If you want to learn something then learn it for the sake of learning. Please don’t… Read more »

sp
sp
8 years ago
Reply to  Get Rich Point

I think the article though was about individuals being wary of expecting a return on the investment. Many people associate a more advanced degree with a higher-paying salary, and that is most certainly not always the case (especially in Fine Arts).

However, I agree with your sentiment. I went to graduate school because I was passionate about my field and wanted to become a better educator, not because it would move me up on the pay scale.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago
Reply to  Get Rich Point

Agreed! I find it funny that the GRS position seems to be “spend money on experiences, not stuff” — but education is looked at as a way to earn more money, not as an experience. It could be either, or both. Regardless, people still need to do the math.

SA
SA
8 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

Well, that’s because no one would here would consider it reasonable to spend money on an experience that requires 100K in loans, especially if it also requires you to forego a couple years of salary. If you have the means to pay cash for grad school and go into semi-retirement, I don’t think anyone here on GRS would begrudge you that experience. It’s just that that isn’t the case for most people.

Staying out of Debt
Staying out of Debt
8 years ago
Reply to  SA

I will have to agree with you SA, so long as you have the money in hand I’d do it. But how many other students are accumulating debt going to school for degrees viewed as the ticket in. Growing up I was told an Engineering Degree was the way in. Then when I was a senior in High School it was any degree is a ticket in. But when you go out and get a job, it’s a different story.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago
Reply to  SA

I wasn’t talking about degrees specifically — I was talking about continuing education in general (like the painting classes mentioned above).

I won’t attempt to argue about costs because I’m not American and academia works differently up here. 🙂 If I’d had to pay the costs I’ve heard about in the U.S., I would likely never have done my MA. With lower costs, funding opportunities and paid work, it turned out to be a smart financial move for me.

Rika
Rika
8 years ago
Reply to  SA

Well, I also believe errtepreneunship is about making a meaning, doing a service, or solving a problem. Meaningful money will come afterward and esp. when the service is really needed. Money is with no doubt a facilitator.For money making ideas, I look around and try to find a solution to some of those problems we are facing right now!No need to say that earning an MBA/MFA degree is no guarantee for making tons of money, so I don’t say it!

chacha1
chacha1
8 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

And another point I would make to the aspiring MFA is, if you’re not pursuing the degree as a direct career move, why do you need the *degree* in order to learn the *art*? I would have had a very different, and probably richer, life path had I realized that I could study history perfectly well at home by myself for free, and invested my higher education in something I would have *needed to be taught,* like engineering. You can learn basic painting or writing technique at any old $30 community recreation center class. Once you know the rules, the… Read more »

Bella
Bella
8 years ago
Reply to  chacha1

There is a common misperception that being a great artist is something you’re either born with or not, and that engineering can just be taught! Having a little experience with art – and a LOT of experience with engineering – you’re selling them both short! There is a feedback loop from other good artists that will help you improve, and perform much better if you go to school and learn from a master likewise – in order to succeed in an area like engineering – you do have to have a certain minimum natural aptitude for math, science and spacial… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  chacha1

My wife and I make a meager living at art. We make movies. It’s a [$%^&[email protected]#] meager living but it’s a living, and we look forward to prospering in the future. Last week we sold $400 worth of DVDs and another $400 from PBS for some video rights. Next month there’s a $500 honorarium and a free trip. It’s not a ton of money but it adds up. And yes we get to sell out and make corporate videos to pay the bigger bills but it actually helps us practice instead of having a completely unrelated day job, and some… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
8 years ago
Reply to  chacha1

There are a lot of great communities of artists outside academia, you can work on craft and get great mentoring and feedback without getting an MFA.

Gabriela Pereira
Gabriela Pereira
8 years ago
Reply to  chacha1

The cost of Writing MFA’s and similar degrees is an interesting issue, in particular because they are just about useless for all writing that falls outside the boundaries of “literary.” Not only would writers be able to learn the writing craft on their own, but the MFA would most likely do more harm than good. After all, unless you want to learn a very specific type of literary writing, you will not learn it in a traditional MFA program. Sure, there are a rare few programs where writers can study genre fiction or teen lit and kidlit, but for the… Read more »

Kraig @ Young, Cheap Living
Kraig @ Young, Cheap Living
8 years ago

I’ve heard many personal stories from those who went back for an advanced degree, only to not make up the difference in income. Sometimes, they even decide soon after graduation that something else is more important than that niche career they yearned for earlier in their life. The student loans didn’t magically disappear, either. I side with you that if you’re going to go back and get a Master’s Degree or higher, 1. Be sure you ARE passionate about doing what you’ll be qualified for and WILL BE IN FAR INTO THE FUTURE and 2. Make sure you go into… Read more »

Savvy Scot
Savvy Scot
8 years ago

Sometimes the sense of achievement is enough of a motivator – being able to prove yourself that you can do it!
I totally agree that you should choose something that you are passionate about, but sometimes the money doesn’t matter. The change in lifestyle or change in job that the qualification can offer is often a reason in itself

Savvy Scot
Savvy Scot
8 years ago

I think further education is simply a networking tool and a door opener. A lot of companies won’t look at you without a Masters Degree and the contacts that you make throughout the course of the program are sometimes just as valuable as the experience itself.

victoria
victoria
8 years ago
Reply to  Savvy Scot

Well, for some things that’s what a masters does. But there are certain jobs (in the health care sector, for example) that you can’t get licensed for without a masters — I can’t just decide to throw up a shingle and be a genetic counselor. Those sorts of jobs often, but not always, fall under the category of degrees where you’ll recoup your investment, depending on your earning power before you go back to school.

Pam
Pam
8 years ago

I understand what you are saying. I’m in the education field and it seems that many people around me are going back to school for doctorate or ed specialist degrees. I think some are motivated by money, others by the contacts but seemingly very few by learning new things. I have gone back to school for my doctorate and feel that in my particular case, it’s been a combination of all three. Nothing can compare to the new things I have learned about my field. The contacts I have made have been fantastic. However those are only as useful as… Read more »

My University Money
My University Money
8 years ago

I think you hit the nail on the head with your pyramid metaphor. Many graduate degrees in humanities fields are due to this sort of marketing and propaganda campaign. Here is one thing I don’t understand. As someone with basic BA and B.Ed degrees, I have had quite a few offers to teach English as a second language. Some have been from non-profits, but others from private schools around the world that pay quite well. Wouldn’t this make a lot more sense financially and stress-wise (I have to assume a B.Ed is much easier than an MFA) than getting an… Read more »

Meghan
Meghan
8 years ago

I’m in art history, and did my undergrad in fine arts (BFA), so I know a lot of people who have gone on to do MFAs. Most of them do it because they want to develop their work, be seen as professionals, and most of all be able to teach in a university. As was explained, you really do it because you have a certain career goal for yourself, not for the money. Having said that, I think the cost of BFA and MFA programs in the US is absolutely ridiculous (I’m speaking more about the fine arts which is… Read more »

April
April
8 years ago

There’s definitely passion vs. salary increase — if it’s your passion, like Sarah says, go for it!

I know people who have gone back to school to “afford nice things” without really researching how much more they’re going to make, though. They assume more education leads to more money, which isn’t necessarily the case.

LMP
LMP
8 years ago

Almost all of the best MFA programs offer outstanding scholarships or fellowships for their students. This is not need based financial aid; it is offered to all accepted students. The universities understand that an MFA is not a moneymaker, and have raised money to provide students with the means necessary. Underfunded MFA programs are often inferior MFA programs. I recently earned my MFA and it didn’t cost me, or any other student in the program, a penny. I would wholeheartedly discourage someone from paying tens of thousands of dollars for an MFA (I wouldn’t!) but I would encourage them to… Read more »

Jane
Jane
8 years ago

I wholeheartedly agree with this article. I am disturbed by the professionalization of every field, which often just translates into getting more formal education. The universities, especially the for-profit ones, have really done a good job not only convincing prospective students but also employers that more education is necessary. And they have also convinced students that expensive is better. I went to a university that I am certain is raising their tuition by leaps and bounds every year not because they need the money, but because a high price tag equals a better education in most peoples’ minds. Why can’t… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago

Aaaaa haaaa haaaa! The MFA in Writing! None of my favorite writers has one. Some were college dropouts, some never set foot in a university. I’d argue that the MFA killed American literature by further isolating writers from the real world, discouraging innovation and promoting inbreeding. It also created a glut in the market: you don’t need to write well enough to attract a publisher, only to fill a student loan application. Who reads poetry journals? People who are trying to publish in them, nobody else. It’s a Ponzi scheme. An MFA only qualifies you to teach other aspiring MFAs,… Read more »

victoria
victoria
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Unless you really, really want to be a journalist, I actually think the best education for a writer is to major in a non-writerly subject matter you find fascinating (bonus points if it’s something fairly technical, since that’ll open up more opportunities post-college) and to intern/work/freelance as a writer and/or editor through college. And read all you can, plus work on your own projects. Whether you want to be a creative writer or a non-creative writer, that combination will give you lots of mental tools many writers don’t have plus a credible specialization if you want to make writing your… Read more »

Grace
Grace
8 years ago
Reply to  victoria

A thousand times this. I have an engineering degree and write romance and women’s fiction. An MFA would be nice, but it wouldn’t help me professionally at all. For now, I’d rather do without the MFA and continue juggling writing with my day job. It’s much easier to write when I have the lights on and food in the fridge.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  victoria

@ victoria– I don’t know about that formula, I’d have to see it in practice to see if it actually works. I know a lot of journalists who make a living by writing though– not just as reporters or editors, but writing for magazines, or writing marketing and PR copy, or writing non-fiction books, or training materials, or running publications for governments and institutions. These aren’t people I’ve just heard about but family members or people I do business with. Yes, journalism proper is a tough ungrateful job, and the hours are horrid, but the skills are transferable to a… Read more »

victoria
victoria
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I do personally know people (through writing groups) who have used that exact formula, and I guess I’d call myself a variation on it. While my degree was in comparative literature, I’m primarily a medical writer, in part because I broke into freelancing pitching articles about an uncommon medical condition that I have, and in part using the post-baccalaureate coursework I’ve done in the health sciences. I’m likely to be getting a professional MS in the health sciences in the relatively near future as well, and I intend to keep writing after I do it. I know a fair number… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Having seen a fair bit of bad writing from subject matter experts, I’d say learning more about writing as a craft is essential too. Some people are born writers, but skills like research, editing, audience awareness, interviewing, tone, stylistics and grammar aren’t innate. Formal training in language and professional writing can compliment natural ability and work experience.

I’m not saying people who want to be writers should get a degree in writing or an MFA, but they should find a way to build their skills. You don’t just magically become a writer one day — it’s a constant learning process.

Andrew
Andrew
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

You forgot two of the most famous examples in American poetry: Wallace Stevens, the insurance executive and William Carlos Williams, the doctor.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

@Victoria — I keep coming back to your suggestion because I wonder if there’s a piece missing. To be a teacher, you need a degree in your field and then a teaching degree. (Or experience in your field if you are a tech teacher.) Essentially, the knowledge of your field comes first, then training in teaching.

I think the ideal formula for writers would involve study in the field they want to write with coupled with study about writing as a craft. (Stylistics, genre, rhetoric, etc.)

sarah gilbert
sarah gilbert
8 years ago
Reply to  victoria

Victoria, this is exactly the advice I give to aspiring writers — it’s highly biased by the path I’ve taken, but I believe that we have enough MFA viewpoints in the world of letters. I do love a good novel set in a college town now and again, but it’s great to also read work by people who know a lot about (say) what it’s like to work as a dishwasher in a restaurant or a plastic surgeon or a cameraman for a local TV affiliate. I go through weeks when I’m sure my mission in life is to write… Read more »

Ramblin' Ma'am
Ramblin' Ma'am
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I absolutely agree! Per my comment below, the main reason I didn’t get an MFA was financial. But I was also concerned by people I met who seemed incapable of existing outside of academia. They went from BFA programs, to MFA programs, to teaching writing. They often seemed detached from “the real world” or how the average person thought, because everyone they knew was a writer. How is someone supposed to create realistic fictional characters in that kind of environment? That’s not to mention the bland, overly workshopped stories that sometimes result from those programs.

Kingston
Kingston
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I think someone who wants to be a good journalist would also do well to study history, political science and economics. Of course they need to practice writing, but it is important for journalists to be knowledgeable about the world so they are more than just stenographers.

Reuth
Reuth
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I have an MFA in writing. In poetry. The only way I could have chosen a less-lucrative education path was to get a grad degree in origami. But here’s the thing, or two of them really: One, I didn’t do it for the money (who the hell is a poet for the money??) and two, that degree gave me a 25% raise AND cut my hours-at-work in half. I was already working in education. The MFA allowed me to teach at the college level. I spent one year adjuncting (for terrible pay) and landed a full-time job after the 1st… Read more »

sarah gilbert
sarah gilbert
8 years ago
Reply to  Reuth

Reuth, it’s funny, as I was contemplating the piece (between submission and publication), I thought about adding in a bit about poets. There’s something about the craft of poetry that can be enormously benefited by rigorous study of form and historical models, not easily done in one’s own living room. Not to say that lovely poetry cannot exist without academia; but much of the best poetry has been written by very, very well-educated writers. We all know that poetry is not entered into for the money, so I don’t really think poets are coming to Get Rich Slowly to make… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  Reuth

@ Reuth I actually have a BA in “Creative Writing” but I never went for the MFA– I got an MA in literature instead, as the MFA programs seemed too inbred and actually sort of provincial– they seemed to focus more on watching one’s contemporary compatriots when people should maybe be reading more Kafka or Rabelais instead. I did love my time in grad school as I got to read a ton of stuff from all eras and in different languages, and yes, being around people who love what you do is wonderful, but one can’t live forever in an… Read more »

jim
jim
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Nerdo, Not sure why you recommend journalism.
I don’t think journalism is a great field go to into for financial reasons. Journalists are relatively low paid, the demand for such jobs is dropping and the competition is high. Maybe you know a lot of journalists or something, but thats not a thriving industry. Just look at all the newspaper dying off gradually..

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  jim

Hey, no, I didn’t say that– I said that if someone wants to be a writer they are better off studying journalism than getting an MFA. I know a bunch of journalists, yes, and I wouldn’t say “go work for a newspaper” in this day and age. Still, the training and the ethics and established practices of the journalistic profession are bound to be a huge advantage when it comes to writing on any project, for money or for the glory or both, whether you’re writing an article on electric automobiles or doing research for a historical novel. Even when… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I sometimes wonder if I’m the last journalist in the U.S. who was hired without a journalism degree — or any degree at all. (I was a newspaper journalist for 18 years.) I agree, though, that the job teaches you to pay attention not just to what’s being said but to what’s going on around you. Finally got a degree two years ago, at age 52. In my second year considered going for a master’s degree in a new program at the university. That was because I couldn’t see a future job for myself (newspapers were dying), and figured if… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

To be fair, I love the work of several writers who came out of the Iowa Waiter’s Workshop – Tracy Kidder, TC Boyle, Ann Patchett, Elizabeth McCracken.

There have to be other MFA’s among my favorite writers, I just notice the Iowa ones especially.

Nicole
Nicole
8 years ago

Great post!

Karina
Karina
8 years ago

What a GREAT article! I think this is exactly the kind of thinking future creatives and artists absolutely must engage in: cost/benefit analysis. There was a recent article by Adam Ragusea in the Boston Globe about how there is a “liberal arts trap” (title of the article)-and how schools are pumping out innocent, unemployable musicians, which is my particular field. The author then went on to describe how they are jaded and no longer working in the field, and blamed the institution for their inability to get employment in their field. This makes me angry, because nobody MAKES you engage… Read more »

LR
LR
8 years ago

This is a great article. It’s worth knowing that many administrators in academe refer to masters programs as “cash cows” and regard the masters students with contempt (ugly but true)–though some programs, like masters “finishing” programs for engineers are a bit better. If you apply for anything, apply for a PhD–and if you don’t want it, leave early with a terminal masters. That will improve your chances of getting funding and will probably get you better treatment and access to resources.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago
Reply to  LR

Sometimes I forget I’m reading an American blog until the conversation turns to academics 😉 In Canada, Masters programs are degrees in and of themselves. In most cases, you have to have an MA before you apply to PhD programs.

I sometimes wonder how that affects the job market here as opposed to the U.S. (where I understand it’s sometimes seen as a “cop-out” to do a terminal Masters.)

Paul
Paul
8 years ago

I am retired from the US Air Force. I have a BS in Biology which I have never used except for trivia games and to be able to understand what my wife is going through with her Type I diabetes. When I was still in the military, I decided to get an MBA because I thought it would improve my job prospects for when I retired. As an aside I would like to point out that a military retirement is not as good as it looks from the outside, especially if one is enlisted. I know I and my family… Read more »

Kris @ Debt-Tips
Kris @ Debt-Tips
8 years ago

A higher degree can definitely pay off, in the right fields. And if your employer pays, at least in part, then there’s no reason not to get a masters degree. But in many fields its a nice wall decoration but not a ticket to a big payoff!

Lindsay
Lindsay
8 years ago

I agree. I hope nobody in science or engineering takes this article’s advice. The article does not apply to all master’s degrees, it only seems to discuss MFAs.

Employers looking for scientists or technical expertise will specifically state in job notices that they prefer or require at least a master’s degree. Also if you apply for a job doing specific technical work, you really need to be able to list certifications and proof that your training is up to date. Technical and hard science jobs tend to pay much better than jobs that require an MA or MFA.

Jen Guzman
Jen Guzman
8 years ago

Suddenly, I feel a whole lot better about getting my MBA. Sometimes I question its value, because I only work part-time….but in reality it has allowed me to work part-time while raising kids while also making decent money. And I managed to get out of grad school without any debt.

myscientificlife
myscientificlife
8 years ago

Great article. I’ve recently been thinking about this, but for the sciences. I often wonder about the opportunity costs of going for a PhD vs getting an entry level job with a BS. In my case, my grad school stipend will be equivalent to an entry level job, but the opportunity for raises is 0. However, for me the chance to do the research I want is worth the trade-off.

K
K
8 years ago

As a scientist with 20 + yrs of exoperience, don’t get a another degree unless your employee is paying for it.

And unless you are dying to sit in a office writing grant proposals all day, don’t bother with the PhD.

A good researcher doesn’t need a PhD to do interesting research. You need to be good at research to do interesting reaserch.

Colleen
Colleen
8 years ago

I think it’s absolutely RIDICULOUS that non-profits and other organizations are using MBAs and MFAs as “admission tickets” to jobs. Who says that having a MBA and/or a MFA means you are better accomplished, brighter and more worthy of the position???

This is just another form of segregation if you ask me. It’s all about who can afford (or wants to be in massive debt) to get the more advanced degrees and has absolutely nothing to do with a person’s innate abilities or talent!

Kingston
Kingston
8 years ago
Reply to  Colleen

I agree with you. This is the worst kind of gatekeeping. Talk about barriers to social mobility. (And how ironic, considering the mission of most nonprofits.)

Cara
Cara
8 years ago
Reply to  Kingston

I agree. Also, I’ve noticed many MFAs look down on “hack” writers (meaning: writers who dare to write for money). Only someone who’s never had to worry about money could afford that kind of snobbery.

jim
jim
8 years ago
Reply to  Colleen

I don’t think requiring a masters degree or higher education should be interpreted as some sort of unfair discrimination. I’d assume that the main reason some employers end up requiring a masters is mostly because of supply and demand in the field. If theres an over supply of people looking for work in a field then an easy way to narrow the field down is to require a higher education level. If there weren’t ample people applying for jobs then the employers wouldn’t have the luxury of having higher education requirements. Of course in other areas a grad degree is… Read more »

Darcy
Darcy
8 years ago
Reply to  jim

Jim, you are absolutely right. Part of it *is* supply and demand. A lot more people have bachelors degrees now, and an employer with a lot of resumes on his/her desk is going to look for an easy way to filter down the pile. Pulling out people with a Masters is an easy, objective way to do that culling. Also realize that in some fields, the Masters degree is the new Bachelors degree. When I got my BA 20 years ago, it actually *meant* something to an employer to have a BA. It meant that you’d expended a signficant amount… Read more »

Beth
Beth
8 years ago

My MBA was a total waste of time, I would have been better off working a second job with the time I spent on it. I could have made some money or gotten some skills that would have been a benefit.

Luckily, my company paid the tuition and I borrowed most of the books, so no expense, just time. Glad I have the 3 letters, but not really worth it.

Greg Miliates
Greg Miliates
8 years ago

I used to think that degrees and professional certifications were necessary, but I’ve gotten over that myth. I work in the tech industry–where many people advise getting lots of technical certifications & professional certifications. However, I have a B.S. in psychology, and M.A. in education (actually, recreation), and have NO technical certifications. Yet I’m a database/software consultant charging $150-$175/hour, and have been self-employed for over 5 years in the field, consistently earning over 6 figures and growing my business even during the financial meltdown. How is that possible? Because my clients are more concerned with actual skills & experience instead… Read more »

Craig
Craig
8 years ago

I’m a professional non-fiction writer and I went to school for business. That helped me far more than any English or fine arts degree would have. Most English majors I know flip fries or wait tables for a living. I think an MFA would be a terrible waste, at least from an investment and use of resources point of view. If that’s what you need to do to get a job you need then that might be necessary but you also don’t need to pay a university if you’re just doing it for the education or experience. You could probably… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago
Reply to  Craig

I think it really depends on the type of English degree. I don’t know what it’s like in the U.S., but Canada has BAs and MAs in professional writing, communications and journalism, not just creative writing and literature. Most of the people I know who did degrees in applied fields found jobs fairly easily. Unfortunately, having interviewed people from the latter category I’ve seen that a degree in literature isn’t proof that you’re going to make a good marketing writer, technical writer, article writer, educational writer, etc. People with lit degrees need work or volunteer experience — when you get… Read more »

chacha1
chacha1
8 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

Or a portfolio of WORK, period. My observation is a lot of liberal-arts students never produce anything. They read what other people write, and discuss that, and then never write anything themselves that isn’t required for a class.

A writer will write regardless of whether there is an assignment due.

Katie
Katie
8 years ago
Reply to  Craig

“get a degree that will get you a job” I do feel I need to respond to this, if only because it’s been a common theme during this recession. It’s very difficult to know exactly what degrees are going to be in demand when you graduate (especially from bachelor or PhD programs, which often take at least 4 years). When I first started undergraduate, pre-law was considered a very responsible choice. Same with those who started law school 3 years ago. The market changes. Right now, engineering is considered the responsible choice, but it may not guarantee you a job… Read more »

jim
jim
8 years ago
Reply to  Katie

I understand your point that things can change over time and its hard to predict the future years in advance. But generally its reasonably easy bet that nursing, engineering, business, or other higher demand fields will still have far better job prospects 4 years from now than psychology, arts, communications or other fields with a glut of people.

Frugal Portland
Frugal Portland
8 years ago

Great post. I would love to go back to school, and would, if I were to win the lottery or something. Not to make more money, that’s for sure.

Ru
Ru
8 years ago

For some artists, getting a masters is still cheaper than setting up a workshop, and gives them much more scope to experiment. It would cost me a fortune to purchase every tool I use at university- the lathe, the potter’s wheel, the kiln, the spray gun and booth for glaze spraying, the silk screen set up for making transfers- not to mention even basic materials, which are covered in my costs. Lots and lots of people I know are now doing masters- the popular thing is to do your BA at Sunderland, Cardiff or Central St Martins (hello!) and then… Read more »

CR
CR
8 years ago

Sarah, your piece gives off the impression you regret getting your MBA? “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.” Maybe the negative phrasing is more towards the ex and not the time/money/effort (TME) towards your MBA and I am reading this all wrong but as someone who is currently planning to write his GMAT and apply to Business School I am curious with regards to your view on your MBA. The MBA will probably set me back 80k in student… Read more »

sarah gilbert
sarah gilbert
8 years ago
Reply to  CR

Yes. I regret the boyfriend and the way I made the decision (I would have probably gone on to get an MA and a PhD in English literature were it not for the boyfriend — awesome, but my life would have been on a totally different path that may not have ended up with the wisdom I think I have now). I don’t regret the MBA. It *was* a degree that would pay me back for the investment — I just have skipped off the MBA mainstream for the time being. I’ve been able to get jobs based entirely on… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
8 years ago

Every time I hear people (which is always online) talking about how much they “want to write” some part of me can’t help but to think that “write” can only mean, “make sure everyone hears what I have to say”. Sometimes it seems like a very egotistical pursuit: “listen to me, the things that I’m saying are important!”

Anybody can write, especially now that the Internet makes publishing trivial. The thing that you’re looking for as a professional writer is a big audience, right? That’s why you want the social network mentioned in the article.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago

Your comment made me laugh! I see a lot of books, blog posts, articles, etc. sent my way. Almost everyone can write, but not everyone can write well. Even fewer people know how to market their work and deal with criticism.

Ironically, many of the professional writers I know don’t have their names on anything — they’re technical writers, marketing writers and ghost writers. The ones that write free lance have to focus on their personal brand in order to get more work – it’s not ego so much as it is business promotion.

Amy
Amy
8 years ago

I’m so glad other people realize this! I got an MFA in 2006, but had a full ride (tuition was covered, and was paid a stipend) and did it purely for fun. I did have to take a modest amount loans out, but paid them off pretty quickly (because I went back into the workforce as a non-writer) and hadn’t incurred loans from my undergrad. It was a fantastic experience, but that being said, I wouldn’t recommend it to most people. Some of my grad school cohort have gone on to teach, but tenure-track positions are more or less non-existent.… Read more »

Gerard
Gerard
8 years ago

Interesting article. However I feel that you do miss something. I agree with your point, fully agree with it.

What I feel is missing is the observation that in the United States education seems to become too expensive. You already mentioned the pyramid scheme like MFA, but I think that should be expanded to an observation that ALL college level education (and up) is getting too expensive to be worth it.

Ramblin' Ma'am
Ramblin' Ma'am
8 years ago

Great article! I have a BFA in writing and literature, with a focus on creative writing, and I could really relate to this. When I graduated (eight years ago), many of my fellow students and professors encouraged me to continue on to an MFA. Because of grants, merit scholarships, and my parents’ college savings, my undergraduate loan debt was fairly small. Had I continued on to an MFA, I’d have needed to pay for it all on my own, and I may not have been able to work full-time while attending school. In retrospect, it would have been a financial… Read more »

sarah
sarah
8 years ago

It’s interesting that you sort of dismiss the quality of life improvement (in the TESOL example). Personally, I considered the financials when I went to grad school for social work, which is also a field where you absolutely have to have a master’s to get a decent job. Legally you can’t even call yourself a “social worker” without a master’s and a license, though that doesn’t stop most people. The master’s level jobs pay only a little more and I calculated that with the cost of tuition and the cost of not working for 2 years, I’d have to work… Read more »

Gerard
Gerard
8 years ago
Reply to  sarah

But would you also have done if you would have never gotten your investment back?

sarah gilbert
sarah gilbert
8 years ago
Reply to  sarah

Sarah, I didn’t mean to dismiss the quality of life argument; just to make the point that it’s something you need to enter into with your eyes wide open. If quality of life is worth paying off debt for 20 or 30 years (and I would argue it often is — happiness is far more important to me than the size of my retirement account), then go for it; just have that in mind as you sign the loan documentation. And perhaps find a way to reduce your debt with that knowledge!

cc
cc
8 years ago

very introspective article, i like it!! i’m a professional artist and am being courted by an MFA program at the moment. fyi, to get ahead in my field you do not need a BFA or MFA, just a very strong art portfolio; the BFA certainly helped speed things along with great instruction and a lot of shortcuts through the guesswork of producing a personal, commercially viable body of work. my parents paid for it, but i think it was a great value and i was able to immediately get work after graduation. that said, i’ve looked into an MFA and… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  cc

I have a friend who was a great filmmaker and then got an MFA and went into teaching and never made a movie again.

AVOID.

Focus on your portfolio and apply for grants and residencies instead.

Best wishes!

Laura
Laura
8 years ago

Sarah, thank you for contributing such a thoughtful and insightful article; very relevant to my life right now. I plan to bookmark this blog entry so I can refer back to it as I plan how to get my MFA without incurring debt. (I want the MFA specifically to teach Comp101 in community college/night school, as an income stream from a job I can still do after retirement.)

Leslie
Leslie
8 years ago

Excellent article! I had been considering going back to school to get my Masters in Library Science (to change careers). It turns out that to work in any sort of library setting, you HAVE to have a Masters. However, Librarians don’t get paid well (unless you are a corporate librarian which is a specialized field, obviously). I ultimately decided not to go because it was going to take me so long to earn back the cost of going to school. I have been working part time for the past few years at an aquatic facility. There are two program managers… Read more »

Aryn
Aryn
8 years ago

Actually, you don’t need an MFA to teach community college. You need a Master’s degree, which can be an MA in English. You can get an MA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. When I first set out to get my MA in order to change careers (I didn’t want to teach), I determined that an MA was easier to get in locations near me, and cheaper. I also found that many MFA programs are so competitive, that you pretty much needed an MA first. The nice thing about the MA is that you can then enter an… Read more »

fantasma
fantasma
8 years ago

Honestly these days, it seems like a BS/BA do not mean a thing even with experience for employers especially with so many people out of work. Employers favor MS/MA with a bit of experience. People don’t usually consider going back to school for continued education and or to pick up a certificate to stay current on skills or pick up new skills in place of a masters degree but it is worth a thought. I too am in the process of picking up certifications and getting a masters degree but not an MFA. Maybe those considering an MFA should look… Read more »

PawPrint
PawPrint
8 years ago
Reply to  fantasma

MA in Technical Writing = massive layoffs for me. Luckily, I had no loans. I only know a few people from my program who still are doing tech writing.

Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager
Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager
8 years ago

I think going for higher education only makes sense if you can increase your skill level and your chances of a higher paying job. Just getting a degree doesn’t work anymore.

SavvyFinancialLatina
SavvyFinancialLatina
8 years ago

I am having a similar problem. I finished my undergrad in 3 years, and went to grad school, finished my MS in 1 year. I fast tracked all the way. Right now the positions I am educationally qualified, I don’t have enough work experience. And for the ones I have enough work experience, I am overqualified in terms of education. Sigh

Personal Finance for Young Professionals
Personal Finance for Young Professionals
8 years ago

I do not recommend getting a Masters for most people. The investment in time and capital will rarely give you a positive return. People tend to think these days when they can’t get a job out of college, they should go and get a masters. It is an employer’s market right now, meaning that employers are able to pay workers that hold Master’s degrees as much as one who holds just a bachelor’s degree. If you do want to get your master’s, work for a company that will pay for it. That way you have some flexibility in your work… Read more »

PawPrint
PawPrint
8 years ago

That’s how my software engineer husband got his bachelor’s (he had a 2 year degree) and then his master’s. That was, however, before the IRS started taxing it as a benefit–not sure how the rules are now, but it’s probably still cheaper than student loans.

KP
KP
8 years ago

I remember asking my priest when I was growing up why he got a PhD in Early French Literature. His answer was one I will never forget, “It gave me great pleasure.” So as I read this article about the payback of an MFA, I kept thinking about the difference between education and vocational training. I had never thought of any degree in Fine Arts to be anything other than education for enjoyment and its own sake. If you are looking for vocational training to improve your earning potential then you are looking for training and not education. The two… Read more »

Kingston
Kingston
8 years ago
Reply to  KP

I like this. I am really in the learning for its own sake camp, but am discouraged about the price of higher education getting so disconnected from reality. Who dares to study Early French Literature any more? I know it won’t pay the bills, but I do want to live in a world where some people know things like that! It makes me sad for my kids, who are approaching college age. I think in the future more people will have to go the autodidact route like Greg Miliates above (though he did get to do a psych BA and… Read more »

Neurotic Workaholic
Neurotic Workaholic
8 years ago

I really like this article, and it’s something that I want to show to my undergraduate students who tell me that they want to go to graduate school. I earned a master’s degree and am now working on my Ph.D. in English because I want to be a college professor; it’s what I always wanted to be, even though I know that I will never be rich and the job market is extremely competitive. But I know a lot of people who went to graduate school not necessarily because it was their passion or even because they thought it would… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
8 years ago

To be completely honest, I got an economics PhD because I didn’t really know what else to do… but it turns out an economics PhD is one of those degrees that, while perhaps not as valuable as an economics MA in terms of opportunity costs etc (since it takes 5-6 years instead of 1-2), opens a lot of doors and has a large return on investment. Even if my degree program hadn’t been able to indoctrinate me into becoming an economist with every fiber of my being. (Luckily my husband still loves me despite the brainwashing. I suspect I was… Read more »

Victoria
Victoria
8 years ago

I am so glad someone did a post on a college education. I went to school originally to get a bachelor’s degree and continued on to get my master’s degree because my professor pushed and pushed me to believe that I would make $20,000 more a year by having my master’s degree. Well I graduated with my Master’s degree (in Sociology) 3 years ago and I am now just an office assistant making $30,000 a year, part time blogger, and freelance photographer. Not what I expected at all. Granted I regret getting my degree in something so broad but I… Read more »

Vince Thorne
Vince Thorne
8 years ago

The large loan amount makes this degree almost prohibitive. know of any feasible loan options?

Jaime
Jaime
8 years ago

I don’t get the appeal of an MFA, many writers come from self-educated backgrounds or other fields such as law like John Grisham and Emily Giffin. Both Emily and John have law degrees. An MFA is more of a “nice to have” but its not required for writers. However the way to learn writing is to write a lot and get critiqued, there is no other way. I honestly don’t like learning in college. I am very much an independent learner and I like that. With the internet and bookstores i don’t see the point of going to college unless… Read more »

Sherry
Sherry
8 years ago

I agree with the peeps here that saying really technical fields are probably the only fields where a degree usually will pay for itself over time. Not knocking MBAs or MFAs, but I am a recruiter and I talk to a lot of MBAs and some MFAs that well, they make less than I do, and all I have is a GED and a couple of years of college. Out of all the types of positions I have worked on, the only ones that I think degrees were really justified were certain engineering degrees and other technical degrees. Many states… Read more »

Carl Lassegue
Carl Lassegue
8 years ago

Interesting article! Getting higher education is not always a guarantee that you will make more money and it’s not for everyone.

PR
PR
8 years ago

I did get my MFA in a field I thought would last me a while. (Graphic Design) then Mr. Jobs invented the ipad, then kindle came along with every other ebook and while my degree has opened the door for me. Print is costly and is in kind of an unknown trajectory. I am not making even 40K a year and guess what I am in my 50’s! Do I regret my MFA, nope. But make sure someone else is paying for it. Scope out not only the requirements, but know ahead of time, this may not make big bucks.… Read more »

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