The Chronicle Review

What Defines a Successful Post-M.F.A. Career?

November 03, 2011

The M.F.A. program in which I teach is part of a large English department in the midst of self-study and external review. When I met with the external reviewers who visited campus, I was asked about placement. That's a word that educes defensiveness from many of us who teach in programs that grant art degrees.

Have not some of the greatest artists, musicians, and writers the world has ever known survived by working day jobs as insurance adjusters, clerks, or waiters? Have not many of them died unemployed and impoverished? Was James Joyce ever "placed" as a writer? Would I give up my car and my TIAA-CREF account in exchange for having my books read a hundred years from now? What would my students' range of answers be?

But that's not the conversation the reviewers thought they were starting, so I scratched at the larger issues before relaying some of our success stories: graduates of our program who hold tenure-track jobs after publishing books. And I reported on steps we are taking to help our students prepare for and find jobs, as well as to publish.

Graduates of M.F.A. programs have always followed a greater variety of career trajectories than their scholarly counterparts in humanities Ph.D. programs—both because they've wanted to and because they've had to. Many who enter M.F.A. programs do so because they want to take a few years out of their lives to read and write, and they have no desire to enter academe as a profession. Some want to write a best seller, land a movie deal, and put their feet up. Others plan to take assorted day jobs, to earn a living in publishing or professional writing, or to secure a patron through matrimony. One former student of mine took a job on a fishing boat because he wanted to. Another wants to bake professionally in the morning and spend the rest of the day writing. Another plans to be a stay-at-home mom who writes beautiful novels.

Others, of course, do want nice university positions. Typically their road there, if successful, is longer and contains more detours than those of their peers who write scholarly dissertations. One reason for this is that substantial publication is a prerequisite for a good teaching job in creative writing, and that almost always means a full-length book. Unlike young literature scholars, who need a book to keep the job they get, creative writers almost always need a book to get the job, plus another to win tenure. I know exactly two fiction writers who started tenure-track jobs without a book contract in hand. One has an honors-college position that includes a significant administrative component. The other, who had numerous impressive story publications, scored a 4/4 teaching load after the institution's first-choice candidate backed out at the last minute.

If nothing else, the book requirement means that the typical M.F.A. hire has put in at least a few years between graduation and the tenure track, generally patching through that time with some combination of fellowships, additional study, adjunct teaching, and paid work of various stripes. Indeed, the Poets & Writers ranking system—the only current comprehensive ranking of M.F.A. programs—emphasizes fellowship placement as much as job placement, defining fellowship placement as acceptance into 16 of the most prestigious writing fellowships and residencies. Its methodological statement concludes that there are full-time university teaching jobs available for less than 1 percent of graduating creative-writing program alumni, noting also that only about half of those alumni want to teach. The 10 programs with the best full-time job-placement records placed between 8 percent and 20 percent of their graduates over three years.

While we who teach in M.F.A. programs can show our students how to write a strong pedagogy statement and stage mock interviews, the best job training we can give is to help students write a good book, cajole them into finishing and revising that book, and give them advice on getting it published. That also serves the students who don't want to remain in academe; nearly all of them do want to publish books.

The 2012 Poets & Writers ranking was controversial for several reasons, but its analysis of placement was not one of them. A couple hundred creative-writing faculty members around the country signed a letter of protest, and numerous critiques of its methodology popped up online. Ranging from knee-jerk to excellent, they mostly ignored placement. It was the silliest of the critical responses that contained a placement-related idea worth weighing: Define M.F.A. program success by counting graduates' book contracts. That the person who proffered the idea publishes "zombie-themed satires" with a publisher that offers to accelerate its submission-review process for a hundred-dollar "rush fee" both opened him to widespread Twitter ridicule and points to a problem with using publication as a placement measure. The relationship between writing quality and commercial success is irregular. And the commercial market for literary fiction is brutal.

Please understand, successful genre writers about to fire off angry comments, that I am not belittling publication and commercial success. If fame and cash are a writer's chief goals, then they are a good measure of accomplishment. Hats off to Stephanie Meyer, but what about a young Kafka? Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime. Anyway, those who would emulate Meyer would spend their time much more profitably outside of an M.F.A. program. Most M.F.A. programs are foremost about nourishing writers who want to create literature, and few pretend otherwise. Of course literature and money can and do come hand in hand, but less rather than more often, even in prose and certainly in poetry.

The fact that about half of our students don't want academic jobs doesn't excuse M.F.A. programs from trying to help those who do to obtain them, but it does make "job placement" a problematic yardstick. And the fact that the literary market is capricious and difficult doesn't excuse M.F.A. programs from trying to help their students succeed in that arena. Yet it does make "manuscript sales" a tricky stand-in for "job placement," particularly in the short term. (Sometimes a brilliant writer works for years before appearing to be an overnight success whose work grabs big prizes. Recent examples include Colum McCann, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Marilynne Robinson, and it's been true since Arthur Conan Doyle's England and Ovid's Rome.)

My own definition of placement is hard to state as a number and of little use except perhaps to others who teach young artists: How many of our students are still making art—and making it well and ideally to the notice of others—10 years out?

Some will dismiss that as the comfortable view of someone sitting near the top of a pyramid scheme, but precarious prospects were the nature of the arts centuries before the first M.F.A. program reared its head. I'm not letting academe-housed arts programs off the hook, and I hope we all try to help our students succeed in the ways that they want to succeed, material as well as aesthetic. But our definitions of "placed" are necessarily multiple, and we are unable to include employment guarantees with the degrees we grant. There is dishonor in this only if we pretend otherwise.

Besides, consider us an instructive preview. The dearth of jobs for Ph.D. humanities graduates, together with the related recent interest in alternative careers for scholars, suggests that a broader definition of "placement" may be coming soon to a variety of non-arts programs too.

The author of four novels, Elise Blackwell directs the M.F.A. program at the University of South Carolina. Between receiving her graduate degree and obtaining her first academic job, she spent more than a decade supporting herself as a professional writer and translator.