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Ask the Coach: Is an MFA Worth It?

In this weeks' "Ask the Coach," Jenna Avery addresses a reader’s question about whether or not to pursue an advanced writing degree.
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Welcome to “Ask the Coach.” As a writing coach, I answer questions from writers about making the work of writing happen, tackling craft, business, and personal questions along the way. (Got a question you’d like answered? Check out the details at the end of the article about how to submit one.)

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Today I’m addressing a reader’s question about whether or not to pursue an advanced writing degree:

“Is it worth it to pursue an advanced degree or are there now enough classes and tools and webinars and retreats out there to make a degree in writing superfluous?”

While I have chosen not to pursue an advanced degree in writing (which may tell you something right there), there are many writers who have done so and been glad they did. Writers I’ve spoken with who’ve completed MFA programs were appreciative of the rigor, focus, and structure of the coursework, and some later went on to teach themselves. The degree also gave them a sense of credibility as a professional writer.

On the other hand, many writers struggle to keep writing without the rigor and structure of a formal program once they’ve completed their degree, and I’ve spoken with more than a few writers over the years whose writing practices have simply fallen apart without their courses, deadlines, fellow students, and instructors to keep them going. This is a common issue for writers across the board, to be sure, but what I’ve seen with MFA graduates with this issue is an intensified sense of loss, guilt, and shame around not writing.

In terms of writing consistently and finishing work as a result of a degree program, there’s a powerful collection of deadlines, social accountability to fellow students, accountability to authority figures, as well as a likely significant financial investment. All of these can be created outside a degree program, but they do come bundled together in one package in a highly motivating way.

And, as someone who holds two master’s degrees in non-writing fields, I’ve seen firsthand that there can be something of a disconnect between the theoretical and craft-focused learning that takes place in a graduate program with actual professional day-to-day experience of doing the work.

Pros & Cons

Here are some possible advantages to completing a degree program:

· Having a specifically designed writing program to work through, step by step, rather than having to cobble together your own course of study, could help you focus and elevate a specific set of craft skills.

· Building relationships and connections with fellow writers, professors, and potentially industry professionals, depending on how the program is designed, could help you build your career after the program.

· Having rigor, focus, discipline, structure, and feedback tightly established and built into the degree program could help you complete work in a timely way.

· Setting aside a designated window of time focused on your chosen course of study — and setting your own expectations that that’s what you’re doing — could be focusing and exciting.

· Earning a sense of credibility and validation as a writer could feel grounding and invigorating.

· Strengthening your craft skills will help you build confidence.

But — and this is a big “but” — you absolutely could create all of those things for yourself through other courses, trainings, and programs, as you mentioned.

Some possible disadvantages:

· You will most likely need to work on your writing practice and business skills separately from the degree program once you complete it.

· A degree program may leave you unfocused and feeling lost when it ends, feeling the lack of structure, support, and camaraderie.

· The specifics of the program may not be well-suited for you, your goals, or your temperament.

· Many MFA programs focus on literary writing; if you’re a genre writer, this may be challenging. MFA screenwriting programs may have more flexibility.

· The costs of an MFA program in terms of time, money, bandwidth, and energy may be too expensive for you at this time in your life.

Questions to Consider

Here are some things to keep in mind as you consider this question of “is it worth it?”:

What is your motivation for pursing a degree? Are you looking for credibility? Knowledge and skill? A place to develop your voice? Rigor? Discipline and accountability? Professional training? Something else? Being clear about why you’re considering a degree in the first place can help you make a choice about how important it is to you, or not, to pursue, and if you might (as you suggest) find those things elsewhere.

Would you be interested in compiling your own course of study instead, and what might that look like? It might be useful to brainstorm the various areas of writing you’d particularly like to develop and to do some research about courses available that fit that bill. Script University, Writer’s Store, Writer’s Digest University (all affiliated with Script Magazine), Writers.com, ScreenwritingU.com, CoreyMandell.net, and many, many other excellent courses and training programs are out there for writers.

What are your primary goals as a writer? What do you most want to accomplish? Is an MFA program the best way to get there? Yes, you may build connections. Yes, you may have the time and space to hone and “find” your voice. (You can do those things on your own, too.) If your primary goal is to become a commercial fiction writer, you may not find your people in an MFA program. On the other hand, if you want to teach writing at the university level, earning an MFA degree, may be helpful, though many successful authors teach without degrees.

Can you afford the time, money, and energy required to make the most of an advanced degree writing program? If you are going to invest in yourself this way, make sure you’re able to make the most of the experience, as well as not over-burdening yourself financially. Writing professionally may or may not “earn out” in the way you hope.

If you choose to pursue a degree, what plans will you put in place to help yourself transition out of the program and into writing on your own? Taking a cue from writers who’ve gone before you and struggled to find their footing with writing after earning an MFA, look for ways to create support, structure, and accountability around writing that will help you make a successful transition into consistent, productive, professional writing. (My Called to Write community does this.)

Personally, I’ve periodically fantasized about pursuing an MFA primarily to give myself the “container” of a single-minded study of the craft of writing. Attending graduate school is a way to remove oneself from the mainstream world and take a step back into academic learning; as a lifelong learner this is something that appeals to me. On the other hand, I’m more or less doing this on my own anyway, through my ongoing study of writing craft, writing habit and practice building, and business and career growth, working to balance expense and investment with results and action.

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That’s a Wrap

My intent is to help you consider the pros and cons of an MFA program and give you some questions to get you thinking about what’s most important to you and the best way to get there. There is no right answer, in my opinion, but personal reflection about who you are and what your goals and motivation are, as well as objectively evaluating how MFA programs work and how their graduates feel on the other side can help you make a clear-eyed choice. You might even want to interview a few MFA grads to get their opinions too.

Thanks for submitting your question!

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Submit your question to be answered anonymously via my online form here or send an email directly to askthecoach@calledtowrite.com. Look for answers to selected questions in my monthly “Ask the Coach” column on the third Thursday of the month. And reach out to me on Twitter to share your thoughts: @JennaAvery.


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