Monday, October 08, 2007

Opportunities after the MFA

Devashree writes...
Hi, 'm writing from India. Planning to apply for MFA in Fall 08. This question might've been answered before, but nevertheless...After completing the MFA, what precise job opportunities do we have? I'm aware of that fact that it takes a considerable amount of time for our very first book to get published or our script to get accepted, but in the mean time, what are the other job opportunities do the MFA sudents have? Being an international student, I really need to know the means to manage there after my education is over.Please, any kind of help is most appreciated.

Daryll Lynne here--

We just had the "professional development" portion of the MFA given to third-years, so I've got a fresh, if alarming, take on what's out there. First you need to understand that you're not getting the MFA to learn a job skill or walk into a paying career. No "precise job opportunities" are attached to the MFA.

The theory of the MFA degree is that it is a terminal degree qualifying you to teach at the junior college/university level. As you state, you also need a book or three or four to apply for one of those cushy, tenure-track positions, which will be a few years down the road. Consider that hundreds of people graduate with MFAs each year, but only a few tenure-track jobs are available. Competition is really high for those jobs, and not everyone who wants one gets in. Realistically, what you can expect is this:

Assuming you're specifically choosing programs with a TAship, you will have the opportunity during the MFA to teach Freshman composition, an intro to creative writing class, and if you're really lucky, an intro to lit of some kind. You may also have opportunities to teach in the local high schools or at a prison or some such. The TAship plus the MFA will qualify you for the instructor mill--which means teaching a bunch of Frosh comp classes and maybe, and this would be like winning the lottery, a lit or creative writing class. These jobs pay poorly, typically offer no insurance or guarantee of a job past the 9-month school term (though there are multi-year contracts out there), and often you must move around or supplement by teaching at several schools at once (I have one aquaintance who teaches 5-6 comp classes at the university and local junior college in town plus some online classes down the road in Indy). One of my advisors described this as "soul-breaking" and recommends against it. If you really want to teach, she suggested going out into the world to do any other job but instructor mill for a few years and get a book or two out, then come back and teach. (I know, doesn't help you as an international applicant.)

If you want to extend that MFA experience and boosting the academic job possibilities a bit, consider going on to a PhD (or applying to one in the first place). Even if it's a creative thesis, you have to take at least one other track, which qualifies you for actual lit or comp jobs at the university level.

Other thoughts:

Some states will allow you to teach at the high school level for a few years with a grad degree but without a teaching certificate (you might consider earning one after the MFA). Those typically pay a little better and have benefits. (I don't know how things work for international applicants, so you'll need to check on that.) English doesn't need as many people as Math and Science, so it is a bit competitive even at the high school level in some locations.

Some MFA programs have literary journals, which give you some editorial and layout experience, so there's the possibility of finding work in the editorial world, though I don't have much info on this. Entry level editorial positions don't pay much, as I understand. There are post-graduate certificates available in editing that you might consider (the one at Denver University is 3 months over the summer and cost $3600 when I looked into it two years ago). There may be other opportunities like copy-editing and such that others could suggest.

There are a few competitive fellowships out there, usually for a year or two, where you teach a class or two and otherwise are obliged only to write.

If you have the desire, technical writing jobs seem to be plentiful right now.

On the bright side, I heard a recruiter-type speaking about choosing English majors and MFAs over MBAs for business and management-type positions because we know how to communicate effectively. You might consider going outside of academia for a job after school.

Sorry that's a bit bleak. Anyone with cheerful advice please chime in.


Erika D. said...

We started to get into this on a thread over at the Poets & Writers Speakeasy last week, and I mentioned that a group of us--all holding MFA degrees and working non-teaching jobs in colleges/universities--had proposed an AWP panel this year to discuss, well, non-teaching jobs in colleges/universities that may be especially suited to MFA alums. Unfortunately, the proposal wasn't accepted. But for those who like academic environments, colleges/universities can offer many good writing-related jobs: magazine publishing, marketing/development, speechwriting, arts administration, and more. (Often, having a master's degree can be a plus for those jobs.) And the security of health insurance, retirement savings, and other benefits is pretty nice.

I think that it's wise to think broadly about opportunities after the MFA. Think about fields, perhaps not directly related to the MFA on first glance, that would not make you crazy to be dealing with 9-5 (or whatever your hours may be). Yes, it's nice to have the relative freedom of freelancing/adjuncting, but there are definitely tradeoffs there, too, which can make your own "creative" work suffer.

To the extent possible, look for environments that will value your MFA background and writing life outside the office. Beyond colleges/universities, these might include literary/arts centers, nonprofits, publishers, etc. And (it can't be overstated) look for jobs that will offer you health insurance, retirement savings, paid vacation, and other benefits (elusive in the world of freelancing/adjuncting).

Lizzy said...

It's odd that a panel such as you describe would be rejected by AWP, erika. I perked up immediately when I read what you'd written. As an MFA student now, this is *exactly* the kind of panel I'd love to see at AWP. Do they not want to give us hope that there's more for us out there than we've been told, or what? I mean, I think we all want to be able to make a living and still have a little time to write. That's all.

Anyway, this is a great post. Wish I had more to add. Thinking about job-hunting gives me a headache. But all we can do is work toward our goals and try to enjoy the ride, right?

Devashree said...

Thanks a million guys...this info has been extremely helpful...Also, I wanted to know, that, if u wanna make a career in scriptwriting, is MFA degree helpful? And is it possible for the MFA degree holders to approach film makers with the script or is there a different, maybe a more precise procedure for that?
P.S- Btw, did I mis-read something in the first comment, or did u really say "teach at the 'prison'"??

Anonymous said...

I know almost nothing about novel to film adaptation (other than what I read in film geek websites), but I know that there are MFA programs that emphasize, or at least give you the option to write for the screen. UC Riverside has a MFA in "Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts," and of course there's USC's Masters in Professional Writing Program (I live in SoCal, hence the West Coast-centric perspective). Both programs utilize a 'multi-genre' approach, so you could write literary fiction and simultaneously bang out that "_Hamlet_ in Space" sci-fi epic that has been gestating in the back of your mind (it's been knocking around in my sick head, anyway).

And two of my professors (one a female, the other a male) started out teaching at don't knock it 'til you try it, I suppose.

Erika D. said...

Lizzy, thanks! We thought it was a pretty good idea, too, and I don't see our specific focus repeated elsewhere in the AWP program, but I have to confess I've never quite understood the way AWP goes about accepting or rejecting panels.

That said, I do see a number of career-related panels scheduled this year (see the schedule at

For instance, it looks as though several panels will discuss leading workshops outside the conventional college/university classroom. See "Writers in the Schools," "WITS International," "Writers Beyond the Schools," "Not Your Usual Workshop," and "Voicing Needs and Creative Survival: Writing in Multilingual Community Spaces," for just a few examples.

There's also going to be some focus on career options with nonprofits and/or publishing. See, for example, "An Alternative to Teaching: Preparing MFA Students to Work in Nonprofit Arts Agencies," "Innovative Internships & Practica in Teaching, Public Arts, and Publishing: Preparing the Low-Residency Student for Life After the MFA," and "Alternatives to Academia."

From the roster, I'm assuming that freelancing and magazine staff jobs may come up in the panel on "The Road Not Taken: Pursuing Careers."

And there's more, to be sure. Plus, of course, "Getting on The Tenure Track: The MLA Interview and Campus Visit," for those who do want to pursue that route. And for those who will be teaching composition, "Recognizing Common Ground: Creative Writers as Composition Teachers."

I agree that career panels are very important for AWP to run, especially considering the ever-growing MFA student population.

Gustavo said...

The MFA program at UMass-Amherst often offers a "Fiction to Film" class. I sat in on that class when I visited, a couple of years ago, and it was fascinating. This year -- my first year at UMass -- the faculty member who teaches it is on leave (a one-year Guggenheim fellowship), so the course isn't offered. But I think as of next year it will be offered again. It's something to keep in mind... Now, one thing is whether some MFA programs may train you in script-writing; quite a different thing is whether that gives you any chances to land a job as a writer/screenwriter... I have no clue about the latter. My suspicion is that, besides your training, other factors enter the picture here (e.g., contacts, networking, luck!, etc.)

Erika D. said...

And a week later, I'm back with what I hope you'll find a useful link, on Post-MFA Career Resources.

Amy T said...

I applying for low-residency MFAs this winter ... programs that will allow me to keep my 8-year editorial career rolling while I delve deeper into the craft of writing. Meanwhile, as I read all of this, I recall that very few of my editorial colleagues in book publishing, advertising, and communications have had MFAs in Writing. It's a good thing, too, because most editorial jobs aren't nearly lucrative enough to repay student loans.

I recall the words of a copywriter I interviewed for career day back in 8th grade: "If you want to write, you have to live first.”

What I am suggesting is that we keep options open and not get too attached to jobs like "editor", and "writer". People without MFAs can do these jobs well (for cheaper than you might hope). Having also done creative recruiting, I can say I don't think the MFA is much of a sell for most jobs.

Getting certified as a paralegal or yoga teacher after the degree might bring in some cash while the ol' writer's brain stays free to finish that all-important novel. Some of the most successful artists/writers I know have noncreative day jobs....

lauren said...

I am researching possible job opportunities after (hopefully) getting my MFA degree. I have read numerous posts and articles about teaching in different levels of education. I am 24 and i am starting my third semester of college. I have no desire to teach but I am also realizing I may not be talented enough to be an artist. The issue is that art has always been and will always be my passion. What other career options are possible for me aside from teaching with an MFA?

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N. McC said...

After getting my MFA in 06 I scored a Creative Writing adjunct position in my local community college district (AZ, 10 colleges in the county). There are restrictions limiting adjuncts to a 9 hour load, which equates to teaching 3 classes a semester. I was thrilled to teach creative writing as there are almost no programs as such at this level, but when I found I brought home a grand total of $150/wk per class (I put in about 15 hours now, but more in the beginning) I nearly cried. With two full classes, working everyday online, I still don't make enough to pay the health insurance premiums for me and my two kids. I work at home, so there's my upside, but my pay is abysmal, shameful. My son makes more at 18 working at a retail pool supply outlet, with better benefits to boot. Wish I was still cute enough to bartend on the weekends and write during the week. But book sales being what they are, horrific, I'm wondering what I was thinking ten years ago.

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I am advising is we maintain options amenable and not find too that come with jobs including "editor", and "writer". Men and women without MFAs can do these jobs very well (for less expensive than you can hope). Getting also completed creative enrolling, I can state I don't believe the MFA is quite a bit of a cost most careers.
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