Sunday, November 16, 2008

Planning Ahead

With my time in my MFA program quickly running out, I’ve been thinking more and more lately about what, exactly, you do with an MFA degree. It seems to me there are two major things you learn in an MFA program: how to be a better writer and how to be a good teacher.

The first is probably the reason why most of us join an MFA program to begin with and while I believe you do gain a lot as a writer from an MFA program, it seems to me that it’s rare for someone to finish their MFA degree with a ready to publish book. Many people finish with a book that needs more work and many people finish with a practice book, something that they learned a lot through writing but something they will never publish. For most people, an MFA program is only an early step in the VERY slow progression toward a successful book publishing career. How far along you are as a writer by the end of the program also greatly varies from person to person and is completely dependent on how much effort you put in. (How many hours a day did you actually spend writing and how many days a month did you convince yourself you simply did not have time to write? How much did you actually pay attention to the feedback you got and how much did you write it off as “that person just isn’t my audience”?)

The second thing you learn is a bit more concrete. I think every single person who has a teaching assistantship learns loads about teaching while they’re in an MFA program and by the time they finish, they should be ready to go out and teach. Sure, there’s still plenty more to learn – teaching (like writing) is one of those things that you learn by doing. You get better and better each semester and, essentially, to become a four star college professor, you just have to keep teaching semester after semester and just keep developing and growing with each class.

Now here’s the rub: An MFA degree, on its own, isn’t worth much as far as getting a solid teaching position is concerned. First, you have to get a book published. Combine a book deal with your MFA, you’ll probably be able to find a decent job. But what do you do for the several years after finishing the program but before making that first book sale?

There are several options. You may decide you don’t really like teaching and just go out and get a job doing something else. This seems to me a pretty solid option, especially since as a teacher you may find it more difficult to write every day when your job essentially uses the same brain faculties as writing requires. But what if you find that you really love teaching?

Well, you can try and find a full time college or university job, but it’s unlikely.

You can scrape by teaching adjunct until you sell that first book – but you better hope you don’t have any student loans or credit card bills to pay in the meantime, because things will be tight and you don’t have any idea how many years you’ll be doing this before you’re in a position to move up.

You can teach at the high school level. This is one I always thought (until just last night as I was talking with some friends who plan to teach high school when they finish the program) would be undesirable, since at the high school level you’re teaching 5 days a week, several classes a day, and on top of that, you’re teaching bratty teenagers. But this might not actually be a bad way to keep teaching, get a decent full time job, and still keep that ultimate goal of teaching at the University level in sight.

The option I’m hoping to take is to go on to get a PhD. With a PhD, you’re more likely to find a good teaching job and it gives you a few more years to work on getting that first book published. My plan is to first get an MA to prepare me more for the research and literature focus in a PhD program, and then stay on at the same school to get a PhD. I love school and so I’d be very happy to extend my time as a student, and on top of that it would give me about 7 more years to get a book published before I have to find a full time teaching job (but I would be able to keep teaching the entire time as a TA).

It’s something I think everybody should start thinking about from day one – maybe even before day one – of an MFA program: What are you going to do with this degree? Be REALISTIC and don’t assume that going through an MFA program will leave you with a publishing career or that an MFA degree will help you get a good job. And hey, being aware that the degree itself is fairly worthless without a published book may help you push yourself that extra bit to actually write every day, to actually get what you planned to get out of the program – to become a better and more serious writer.


Justus said...

Before I went for my MFA, a professor said, "Know what you're getting into. Do it if you want to work on your writing or make contacts with other new writers, but don't do it because you think it will benefit you in getting a job or getting published. An MFA and a dollar will get you a ride on the subway." I said I understood and appreciated that, but even so I don't think I really got it until after I graduated and found how tough it really is to find a job. I've also read that even a PhD doesn't help too much, that there are simply too many people out there with advanced degrees and not enough jobs to go around, that like 55% or something of PhDs still can't find full time teaching jobs. But still, if you're applying with a PhD and an MFA, your probably better off than with just the MFA.

Jessie Carty said...

I thought about the PhD as well but right now I just can't stomach the thought of writing a ton of papers! Although I would love to have the opportunity to be in a program where I could TA since my low-res MFA program doesn't give you that opportunity.

So what am I going to do when I'm done?

Trying to stay self-employed. Getting my name out there to teach workshops, to tutor etc. But we shall see!

good luck :)

Ashley Cowger said...

Jessie, I wonder if you would consider starting a process blog (MFA/MFYou Community) - I don't know much about low-residency MFA programs; it would be really interesting to see how that works . . .