What Becomes of an M.F.A.?

February 26, 1999

Professional and trade schools are judged on their ability to turn out qualified workers who will achieve some level of success in their field. If one could do just as well without going to school, why bother?

Art schools and creative-writing programs, however, don't promote themselves on how successful their graduates are in becoming, say, self-supporting poets: the numbers would be embarrassingly low. Instead, they define their goals more modestly.

Creative-writing programs generally highlight their value in bettering one's writing skills, but the Master of Fine Arts is also a career degree, for which students have certain expectations. According to the directors of these programs, many if not most of their students expect that they will have an inside track to a job in teaching or publishing, either through the strength of the degree itself or through their professors. In that regard, students do believe that creative-writing programs are a type of trade school from which they can emerge as desirable literary commodities.

This belief that writers will be employed within academia, along with the existence of creative-writing degrees, is new in the history of literature. More than 10 times the number of colleges and universities offer the M.F.A. today in creative writing than when Associated Writing Programs was founded in 1967. Thousands of graduates now receive such degrees each year.

Unlike an M.A., the M.F.A. is considered a terminal degree. So, what happens to creative-writing graduates? With only rare exception, programs only have anecdotes. "When they publish, they send us their books," says Frank Conroy, director of the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. "They tell us when nice things happen to them." Another college has a "wall of fame," filled with acceptance letters from publishers and reviews that graduates and current students have sent in or tacked up.

In 1995, the University of Florida at Gainesville sent out a questionnaire to graduates of its program from the preceding 10 years (40 per cent responded). Of those graduates, roughly 60 per cent were teaching on the college level (although more than half of them were adjunct faculty), 10 per cent were working in publishing or actual writing (technical writing, for the most part), another 10 per cent were employed in fields unrelated to writing, and the remaining 20 per cent were pursuing another degree.

Academia has both an official job market (listed positions, tenure- track or otherwise, each of which attracts between 100 and 200 applications) and a much larger unofficial job market of adjunct positions. Teaching experience -- and the M.F.A. degree itself -- count. but only so much. Applicants for listed jobs in creative writing are expected to have a body of published work, which increasingly includes one or more books with reputable publishers. Most M.F.A. students do not have a book by the time they graduate and would not meet the requirements for these jobs.

If the aim is to teach on the college level, students must focus on producing book-length manuscripts and getting them published. But how do they support themselves until then? Something has to give, and it's usually the writing. A large portion of M.F.A. graduates never publish anything after they complete the program.

At the University of Iowa, Mr. Conroy believes that group to be 25 per cent; William Logan at Indiana University estimates the number at 50 per cent; and Thomas Russell, director of Memphis State University's program, claims that "90 per cent of the students are never going to publish a word after they leave the program."

A survey of past graduates of Columbia University's creative-writing program found a high percentage of real-estate brokers, social workers, employees of insurance companies and advertising agencies, school guidance counselors, proofreaders and college-level freshman composition teachers whose publication experience was nonexistent or modest at best. Many reasons are given for the failure of writers to publish, including:

  • Teaching requires so much time, even for adjunct faculty, that there is little remaining for writing.
  • After they leave M.F.A. programs, most graduates return to the types of jobs they held before (if they had employment experience). Writing assumed center stage when they were in school, but the process of earning a living turns it into a hobby.
  • A sizable number of M.F.A. graduates go on to complete other degrees -- the most popular being doctorates in literature -- and creative writing becomes a thing of the past.

Why are more M.F.A. graduates pursuing other degrees? Some colleges maintain a long-held prejudice against prospective faculty members who have only M.F.A. degrees, believing that their commitment to teaching and other academic work is small at best. Another reason, which many graduates discover for themselves, is that they may be hired to teach creative writing but no other classes. Perhaps that is why some writers burn out in academia. As one program director said, "The Ph.D. is a way to keep yourself decently poor, whereas the M.F.A. is a means of remaining unemployed and unemployable."

The trend of M.F.A.'s going for Ph.D.'s works against the idea that the M.F.A. is a terminal degree. Conversations with college personnel offices and the chairs of literature departments have convinced Robert Phillips that a Ph.D will be selected over an M.F.A., all other qualifications being equal, even if the M.F.A. graduate has considerably more publishing in his or her background. "The Ph.D says to a university, 'I am committing myself to academia,' and universities like that," says Mr. Phillips, director of the University of Houston's writing program.

Given that few graduates find permanent teaching jobs, programs need to reorient their students to the realities of the literary marketplace. They should help students and graduates understand how to publish their work and how to find literature-related employment. Yet career services at most programs range from nonexistent to informal. Rarely are career-oriented courses assigned in these programs, although perhaps a copy of Literary Marketplace or Writer's Market may be found in the departmental office.

Some programs do take these issues more seriously than others. A number produce their own student-run literary magazines and arrange internships at literary magazines and book publishers, all of which may assist graduates in finding employment.

Still, more needs to happen: Creative-writing programs should take a cue from the career services offered by business and law schools. Publishers, literary agents, magazine editors and self-supporting authors should be fixtures on campus, meeting with students, reading students' work and talking about what they do and what the students hope to accomplish. Programs should also be bringing in potential employers for recruitment days, as well as actively seeking job leads for current students and graduates. No one wants to emerge from an M.F.A. program with only large debts and no job prospects.

Daniel Grant is the author of The Writer's Resource Handbook.