When I was 25 years old, I dropped out of grad school.
I’d been enrolled in a well-respected, funded masters program in creative writing with a focus on poetry. I’d moved from my sunny home state of Florida to rural Appalachian Ohio to pursue the degree, packing my dreams and my furniture into a yellow Penske truck.
It was a two-year program, and I got through the first year pretty well by all external accounts. I always got my students’ grades back to them timely; the lowest grade on my own transcript was an A- (20th Century Literature). The poet-professor who led my second-semester workshop told me, in the ship’s hold of her tiny office, I meet a lot of students whose work has potential, who could make it with some guidance. You’re already there. As long as you keep writing, you’ll succeed.
I did keep writing, and I did succeed in some significant ways: I’ve been supporting myself as a full-time freelance writer for half a decade now, and I have a few creative publications to brag about, too.
But after that first year of grad school, I hit the road again — and I didn’t come back.
To explain why I dropped out would take far more words than we have room for in this newsletter (TL;DR: too young; too little therapy; far too much wine). So I’ll skip ahead to the plot twist: seven years later, I’m applying to grad school again. In fact, I have my “Statement of Purpose” draft open in another tab as we speak.
And now that I’m going through the process a second time with some classroom experience under my belt, I have some insights that may prove useful for others pondering The MFA Question.
What an MFA Can Do For You — and What it Can’t
A big part of what went wrong with my first grad school experience: I didn’t actually know what I wanted. I’d graduated with my double-major in English and Philosophy a year before I applied and spent the interim working in coffee shops and bookstores. I’d always written: scribbling poems in the margins of my math and science notes, pecking at my mother’s typewriter at four when I hardly knew what words were.
But none of that is the same as having a specific creative project, or even generalized creative vision. I was hoping grad school would make me into a legitimate writer with something to say. It can’t do that — at least not without a lot of time and introspection beforehand.
This one’s probably more obvious, but another thing a graduate program in creative writing probably won’t do is make you rich — or even keep you in the black long-term. Many of the most sweepingly successful writers, like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, don’t have MFAs; the typical career path for an MFA writer is to find a job in academia and teach college courses while writing on the side. As you’ve probably heard, the academic job market is… not great, a trend that’s worsened considerably with the pandemic. Tenure-track positions are growing rarer and rarer, and the pay grade for a professorship is pretty laughable considering the debt you’re likely to go into to get there. Even in a funded program, you’ll be earning a paltry stipend for a lot of work. Financially, grad school is a great way to wipe out your savings — or stagnate on getting any savings built up in the first place.
So why go at all? Well, here’s what an MFA can do: It can buy you time to write with a dedicated community of fellow writers, people who get it. It can give you the time you need to develop your fledgling book idea into a powerful, well-edited manuscript ready for publication. It can expose you, by way of workshopping, to ideas, sensitivities, and cultural contexts you might not have thought about on your own. It can put you in touch with important names in the industry (though such connections guarantee nothing tangible). And if you do want to teach, it can give you the pedagogical experience you need to do it well.
Personally, I’m considering a return to grad school because I feel a constant tension between my paid work and what I cheesily call my heart work — the ache and lack of having to draw from the same creative well for both. The writing I do for clients revolves around topics like personal finance and travel. It’s work that is demonstrably useful for readers, and I don’t mind writing it. But it isn’t the lyrical, deeply personal narrative that spools out of me when creative impulse hits. Grandiose as this may sound, it isn’t the work I know I was put here to do.
And so: I’m applying. This time around, I plan to focus on creative nonfiction rather than poetry. This time around, I have a 45,000-word manuscript drafted, a specific story I want to put into the world, a four-year sobriety streak and a whole collection of well-earned gray hairs.
Which is to say, this time around, I know what I want — or at least I’m a lot closer to knowing.
Thinking About an MFA? Here’s What to Look For
Only you can decide if an MFA — or another graduate program in creative writing, as PhDs and MAs do exist — is right for you. But if you are seriously considering this possibly foolhardy step, here are some concrete things to look for.
One thing I didn’t know during my first round of applications: many graduate students in creative writing (and other humanities) are funded for their studies. Basically, you’ll teach (or assist teaching) a number of undergraduate classes each semester in exchange for a funding package, usually including a tuition waiver (phew), some amount of subsidized health insurance, and a small living stipend.
When I say small, I do mean small; even a generously-funded MFA usually pays less than $20,000 for the entire school year, and you’re on your own come summer. Finances are going to be tight, and you may be expected to teach two or even three sections a semester, especially in your second or third year. (The words “indentured servitude” are tossed around graduate-level humanities departments on a fairly regular basis, and only half in jest.)
That said, it’s a lot better than going into five- or even six-figure debt to pursue a degree that, in all honesty, doesn’t guarantee much in the way of ROI, at least financially speaking. As mentioned, even if you’re an actual genius, it is very unlikely you’ll strike it rich as a writer. (You’re doubly screwed if you’re a poet, unless you’re Rupi Kaur, who also doesn’t have an MFA. Sorry.)
Of course, if you’re independently wealthy or just ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ about being in serious debt, your mileage may vary. But looking for fully funded programs is a great way to narrow your search from the get-go.
Writers whose work you admire.
One of the biggest incentives for going to grad school is the opportunity to work with people whose writing inspires you — and that’s true of both classmates and faculty members. Fate (and the admissions committee) gets to decide who your classmates will be, but when it comes to faculty, names and credentials are listed right there on the school’s website, along with their genres and areas of expertise.
These are the people who will (hopefully) hold your hand and shape your work for the next few years — and also the people who will sit at that long, scary table when you defend your thesis. It’s worthwhile to at least poke through their work and see if you’re on the same wavelength.
This can also be another way to narrow your search: look for, and apply to, specifically the schools where writers you adore teach. (Please see: my application to Ohio State University, despite a pressing desire not to move back to Ohio, solely because Elissa Washuta works there.)
It really does matter — in more ways than one. That sub-$20,000 stipend (which is probably going to be closer to $10,000, tbh) will go a lot further in, say, a small town in a flyover than it will in a major metropole. (Maybe that’s why all the best writers seem to gravitate toward the midwest?)
On the other hand, you do actually have to live there — unless you’re considering applying to a low-res program, which I’m not covering in this essay because they’re almost never funded. So try not to pick someplace that will make you utterly miserable, be it for its size, weather, distance from loved ones, politics, etc. It’s definitely a balancing act!
The Bottom Line — or the Denouement, for You Writer Types
All of this is just one writer’s take on the process, and there are plenty of factors that didn’t make it onto this list: coursework, program length, additional work-study or fellowship opportunities, literary magazine editorial positions, and more.
So do your research, think carefully, and get ready to subsist on ramen for a couple of years. An MFA probably won’t land you a six-figure salary as an elbow-patch-wearing professor, but you might score a couple years of mostly uninterrupted creative focus — and maybe some lifelong friendships. (I even got some of those the first time around.)
Jamie Cattanach is a full-time writer based in Portland, Oregon, covering everything from 401(k)s to plastic surgery. Along with SEO-driven marketing content and reported articles, she also writes personal essays and poems.