Sunday, August 23, 2009

To MA or to MFA, That Is the Question

Something I’m sure we’ll be talking a lot about for the next while is the difference between an MA program in creative writing and an MFA program. What’s the difference between these degrees? Why is one a terminal degree and the other more of a gateway to a PhD? And how does a person choose between the two?

Let’s compare the requirements of Damien’s MA program to my MFA program. They’re pretty similar. While my program lasted three years, all the course requirements could be filled in less than that. Really, the extra year is to give you time to work on your thesis. Both programs require lit courses, workshops, and theory, and both require a creative thesis. And it’s the thesis, I think, that’s the key.

In my MFA program the thesis had to be a book length, publishable work. In Damien’s program, the thesis is much shorter – it does not have to be long enough to be a real book – but it must include a critical introduction. So maybe that pinpoints the difference between the two programs. The MFA is more of an artistic degree – the thesis is an actual book that you can then polish up and try to get published. It’s preparing you first and foremost for a career as a writer. The MA is more of an academic degree with a bit more of a focus on criticism, and it prepares you primarily for a career as a professor.

But the interesting thing is that both degrees prepare you for both fields. They would have to, wouldn’t they? Because you can’t really make a living off of writing, but at the same time if you’re getting a degree in creative writing it’s because you want to write. In my MFA program I always felt like they didn’t prepare us enough for careers in the academic field – giving information about conferences, for example, and how to get scholarly essays published, what a career as a teacher entails (besides teaching) and how to get your foot in the door, all of which it looks like will be covered in Damien’s MA program.

But I suspect if I had gone through an MA program I would have felt there wasn’t enough preparation for a career as a writer (having to write a book length work for your thesis seems to me a huge difference from being allowed to turn in a few short stories, essays, or poems. If you’re doing a complete book the process in many ways mirrors the process of working with an editor to get a book published. The MA thesis to me is more reminiscent of a portfolio you might hand in at the end of a single creative writing class).

So I suppose there is a difference, but it’s slight enough that maybe the real question shouldn’t be do you want an MA or an MFA but which individual programs are going to be the best fit for you? Which programs have the instructors whose work you respect and who you would like to work under? Which programs allow you to teach creative writing and which only allow you to teach composition? Which programs have the better track records of people finishing and getting good jobs, and finishing and getting books published? Which programs have you heard good things about? Which programs did your favorite writers graduate from?

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