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14. I'm a writer thinking about applying to an MFA (or Ph.D) program. Do you think it's a good idea?

A graduate writing program may give you:

  • space and time to write, possibly with some financial support (especially in a doctoral program)
  • the company of talented like-minded souls, engaged in a similar endeavour, providing support and encouragement
  • the wisdom of skilled instructors, who although often harried, will generally make the time to read and comment on your work, especially if you hunt them down in their office hours
  • perhaps, in one of the more academic programs, some theoretical grounding in narrative theory and/or literary criticism
  • some training in teaching freshman comp, and if you're lucky, in teaching creative writing
  • a degree that will theoretically qualify you to teach creative writing at the college level
This is the ideal program -- it assumes that you have carefully researched the programs, considered the instructors and what you think of their work, considered the possible financial or more intangible costs, and held true to your own vision throughout the degree, developing your own ideas fully and taking advantage of everything the program has to offer.

But, you may instead end up with:

  • a stifling environment, not conducive (or sometimes openly hostile) to the kind of writing that most interests you
  • overly-competitive and cut-throat classmates who make every class a misery
  • dogmatic and difficult instructors who are more interested in pontificating about their own work that helping you with yours
  • far more critical theory than interests you, the workshop-oriented writer
  • an overabundance of workshops and none of the critical theory that interests you, the analytically-focused writer
  • graduation to a few adjunct composition jobs, each one at a different community college, requiring hours of driving every day
  • a massive load of debt, a combination of tuition and living expenses, that if you're lucky are carried primarily by student loans but which may also involve running up a hefty and frightening credit card bill
A graduate program can be a heaven or a hell, in part based on how carefully you select it, and in part based on how you conduct yourself within it. It can be easy to stay in 'undergrad mind' -- a state where you blindly jump through every hoop you see. As a graduate student, it's your responsibility and privilege to direct your own education, to use what the department offers to best facilitate the development of your own work.

Only you, the writer, can decide whether graduate school is the best place for you. I'd say that in my both my MFA and PhD programs, fully one-third of the writers there would have been better off as writers if they hadn't enrolled in the program; it hurt them more than helped them. On the other hand, the programs were invaluable to me, a fairly academic, analytical sort of writer. I got a tremendous amount of them both.

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