Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Value of the Degree

After a month and a half long break, MFA/MFYou has set up shop in beautiful Athens, Ohio. For those of you who have been waiting for what may feel like centuries for a response on a submission, we have every intention of getting through the backlog and sending out some responses soon. In the meantime, our newsletter is back on schedule.

I wanted to talk this week about the value of the MFA degree itself. It’s something I’ve often derided, feeling that the experience is valuable in that it helps you become a better creative writer, but the degree itself is essentially worthless in any real world applications because the only thing it qualifies you to do is teach, which not all creative writers are interested in doing. And even if you do want to teach, like I do, you may need to publish at least one book before you’re a real contender for a tenure-track full time position.

But all of that was speculation based on my understanding of the degree’s value and the experiences of other people that I know who graduated and then had a difficult time finding any kind of full time employment. Now that I’m no longer an MFA candidate but actually a holder of an MFA degree, and I am, for the first time, looking for a job as an MFA, I’m revising my opinion regarding the worth of this degree.

Before I moved to Ohio I sent out my CV and cover letter to four different community colleges in the area. I had low hopes for finding anything because I didn’t know whether they would consider my experience as a TA sufficient, but I figured it was worth a shot. I requested to be considered for adjunct work, if any was available at any of these schools. Three of the four schools responded to me while I was on the road. Two of those schools offered me two courses each as adjunct, and one of the schools is actually considering me for a full time position. Before I got into town, I already had a job interview scheduled for the full time position and was in touch with the department chairs from two other schools about possibly teaching adjunct if I don’t get the full time position.

I’m comparing this with other people’s experiences right now, trying to find work in these hard times. Even though I read on the MLA website that the average adjunct English instructor salary comes to about $11/hour (shamefully low!), it’s actually not a bad position to be in – being qualified for a specific career. One of the department chairs I was speaking with told me that it’s very difficult to find qualified English instructors and I’ve heard that with the economy in the slumps more and more colleges are turning to adjunct faculty to level out their budgets. Not a very well paying job, no, but a job that’s in high demand.

In addition to that, my fear that finding full time work would be impossible at this stage is proving unfounded. I made it all the way to the final interview stage for this full time position, and while I may not get the job (I probably won’t know for another week), it’s important to remember that I wouldn’t have even been considered for it without my master’s degree.

I think part of the MFA-is-worthless attitude comes from wrong expectations that graduate students sometimes have regarding their career path. I think a lot of people in grad school want to move directly into cushy, full time positions as creative writing faculty after they earn their degree but, like in any field, you have to start at entry level and work your way up.

I enjoy teaching composition and I enjoy teaching early level lit courses. Creative writing is fun to teach, too, but in my experience, composition is the most rewarding because of its more diverse range of students and the more vital nature of the material being taught. An MFA degree does qualify you to teach comp at a community college – it qualifies you to teach full time if you can find an open position. It’s true that if you want to teach in a graduate program or if you want to teach in a creative writing program specifically, you’ll probably have to get a book published first, but if you really like teaching there are plenty of other options out there that an MFA will open the doors to.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have a MFA, had an essay published and must agree with you.

I would like to add that adjuncts make up 70 % of the teaching staff in most colleges and universities.