Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Career Question

Dying by Delusions of Granduer in Grand Rapids writes in...

I am an engineer, so being practical is a habit I can’t seem to purge. In that context, I want to ask really how poor an idea you think it is to consider applying to a MFA program absolutely needing a career (presumably in teaching) to show for it at the end. I want to ask that so badly, knowing you may only be able to man-fact a response, one that may fully crush my passionate desires at best, though I am truly hoping you can cheerily justify those desires instead. I understand the scope of a degree program such as this. Immersion in this craft is what I want most. However, I have a wife and 2 children and all the stuffs that come with having a wife and 2 children. The career need is real. What say you, dear bus driver?

DbD, I guess I'd say that if you indeed absolutely need a career to show for it, that your chips are better placed in engineering than writing. That's probably stating the obvious, though that's about half of what I do on here.

My questions are:
1. Can you take time away from the engineering career and do the MFA?
2. Are you looking into the Low-Residency MFAs?

DbD, the whole university career issue is predicated on publication. No published book, no job at the university level. And the book is definitely not a guarantee either, it's just a ticket to the dance. And since you can't predict the future, and since there are the livelihoods of at least three other individuals at stake, that doesn't sound like a good gamble to me.

As I've said on here and in the book, the MFA is primarily an artistic degree, and it should be approached in that way. Graduates go on to a variety of careers as teachers, editors, and even agents, and a good many go on to careers not directly linked to the MFA.

I'm sure that's not the answer you were hoping for DbD, but I think it's wise to be wise when other people are counting on you financially.


Anonymous said...

George Saunders was trained as an engineer--and after he got his MA in creative writing he went back to engineering work, mainly doing (I think) technical writing. So it's possible, I guess, to return to your career, and still do amazing writing.

Dan said...

I would say go for the MFA. When you're done, you can always go back to engineering. My tech buddies make so much more money than me. I write. Alas...

jaywalke said...

I am sorry to say it, but I think you have to keep your day job. With just an MFA (and without impressive publications, as Tom said) you *might* get some adjunct teaching gigs, but those don't add up to a career. They almost never include benefits and they don't pay well.

If you really feel the need to get a degree, I would suggest that you look at low-residency MFAs and figure out if you can juggle that with your day job. Get your wife involved in the decision, because you are going to pretty much disappear for two years. If you do choose this path and still want a teaching gig, be aware that some academics won't give a low-res MFA the same weight they give to a traditional one (which isn't much to begin with, see the thread on PhDs). I had one hiring committee chairman - a member of the Old Guard, to be sure - tell me that they just toss those applications. The MFA is just to improve your own writing, because by itself it won't impress many folks at the university level. You may be better off just using that time to write and work toward publication.

Balancing a creative life with a day job isn't impossible. The arts in America just don't pay, that's a fact of life. So, many successful authors have done the nine-to-five (or raised children as a stay-at-home) and written at night. "For art, you must suffer" comes to mind.

The other alternative is that your spouse gets a job. Talk to her, and see what her plans are for life. It can work.

Anonymous said...

My advice -- as a family man (I say this proudly) with a full-time job and writerly aspirations -- is to get an MFA and become a technical writer with a specialization in engineering. If you did this for 5 years in the Washington, DC, area, for instance, you would be making more than $80,000, especially if you have outstanding IT skills, and you could at least feed your children and buy them a few pieces of hockey equipment. Other major cities have strong technical writing markets for engineers, but they're probably not as lucrative (government contractors pay well).

Another thought: an engineer with an MFA in creative writing would be a good candidate to teach technical writing or professional/workplace writing at a community college. For that to happen, though, you would need to take classes in those fields as electives in your MFA program and generate some kind of scholarship (at a minimum a Web site with tons of research) while you were also completing your creative work. I know that Tom approvingly points out programs with strong publishing/editing programs. If you got at MFA at George Mason University, for instance, you would have many excellent professional writing/editing courses to take as electives.

Good luck!!!