The MFA degree is of the utmost importance—until someone asks you what your plans are after graduation. Don’t know what to do with your MFA? You’re not alone. Here’s some advice to help you decide.
Before you even graduate, you’re most likely going to work in a Writing Center and/or teach undergraduate courses for your university English Department. This not only pays some or all of your tuition, but provides you with work experience. If teaching is your passion, you have two to three years of experience under your belt and valuable connections in the field of academia.
Here’s where things get complicated: Sans one or two successful books, with an MFA, you’re most likely going to be an adjunct professor, and if you’re lucky, a full-time lecturer. And, in most cases, you’ll be teaching composition rather than creative writing. In order to be a lecturer or professor of creative writing, you’ll need published books and, in nine out of ten cases, a PhD.
A PhD in creative writing is a popular option. You get three to five more years to hone your craft, immerse yourself in a community of writers, and gain additional teaching experience and opportunities. For many of us, it’s a natural choice. The problem is, how do you find the time to apply to PhD programs during the final semester of your MFA?
I think we all remember the application process for the MFA. It’s expensive, time-consuming, and nerve-wracking to say the least. Now, imagine wading through this process in the midst of your thesis. Can it be done? Of course. Do you want to do it? That’s another story. Taking a year to save up for application fees, doing your research, and revising your sample (most likely the thesis you’ve just finished), could increase your chances of acceptance. And once you have that PhD, you’ll have increased teaching opportunities and a better salary.
So what happens if you don’t want to teach? Some MFA programs have students working as part of the editorial staff of their affiliated literary magazine. In my case, I worked as reader for two years and assistant fiction editor for one year, but other students in my program worked as managing editors and online editors. Editorial skills are extremely valuable and transferable. Check editorial listings for magazines, book publishers, newspapers, websites, webinars, etc. In addition, you’ll find you’re qualified for copyediting, proofreading, and indexing jobs.
Editing not your thing? Use your MFA to write copy for advertising agencies and websites, write articles and reviews for newspapers, or write proposals, case studies, grants, speeches, etc. While most of these opportunities are freelance, with a little creativity and organization, you can manage your own freelancing business.
Stay in Touch
One of the best aspects of the MFA is the opportunity to work and study in a community of writers. This doesn’t have to end after graduation. Don’t forget to stay in touch with fellow writers and advisors. When you’re knee-deep in a manuscript and need a critique, ask the readers you know you can trust.
The most important thing to remember once you complete your MFA is to keep writing. It sounds obvious, but it’s much harder than you think. Once you leave that community, once your thesis is defended, bound, and slid onto your bookshelf beside your favorite writer (or hidden on the bottom shelf), it’s difficult to know where to start, and without a deadline and advisor, procrastination is an easy option. The reality is, it’s time to get serious. Unlike the last three years, you’re going to have to schedule your writing around a full-time job. Yes, you’re busy. Yes, you have things to do. But make sure to take a moment and remember why you wanted that MFA in the first place.
Chelsea Henshey is an Associate Editor for Writer's Digest Books.