do you need an MFA?

PhotobucketSo here’s the question: do you need an MFA?

Answer: No.

(Score! Shortest. Column. Ever.)

But here’s what happens if you ask the question in a slightly different way.

Question: Could you benefit from an MFA?

Answer: Almost definitely.

A little background: My senior year of college, I applied to the most selective MFA programs in the country. They politely rejected me. The following year, I decided I wanted to be in Washington, D.C., and when I applied to American University’s MFA program, they were kind enough to let me in. I graduated two years later with a bright shiny new degree and a much more developed sense of craft.

Ten years later, I’d had a few short stories and poems published in literary magazines (including the pretty darn reputable North American Review), but despite near-constant submission of my novels to agents and publishers over that decade, and dozens of near-misses, I still hadn’t sold a novel.

Getting an MFA will not get you published. Period.

That said, knowing what I know now, would I have done this differently? Probably not. I look back very fondly on my years at American. Full-time enrollment in a writing program was a huge, huge learning opportunity for me. I became a much better writer. I finished my first novel, something I’d never managed to do when my focus was split between writing and classes, or writing and working full-time. Getting the first one done in grad school taught me I could do it. Later I learned how better to balance writing with other demands on my time, but I needed that first one under my belt so I knew what I was shooting for.

What else happened over those two years? I got better at sentence-level writing. I got better at critiquing other people’s work. I met wonderful guest writers and got their input on my writing. I put together a solid portfolio of short stories as well as taking workshops in poetry and playwriting to round out my perspective on language.  I saw a one-act play I’d written produced onstage, I served as a litmag editor, and I took courses in literary journalism, translation, and literature. I had incredibly positive and incredibly negative workshop experiences and both kinds taught me things I needed to know.

Now. Here’s the thing. Could I have done all of these things without paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition? Honestly, I probably could have. Eventually. You can do night classes, week-long or weekend workshops, and online critique groups. You can pay brilliant freelance editors to provide honest feedback on your work. And there are all those parts of getting published that they don’t teach in MFA programs, or at least not in that program at that time: query letters, novel plotting, finding an agent, who’s who in publishing, all that stuff. Honestly? You can learn most of that on the internet, if you’re willing to put in the effort.

The MFA has a gigantic price tag. Whether it’s worth it to you to pay that price is a completely personal decision. Most of the published writers I know don’t have them, and plenty of MFAs I know aren’t published. And the only decision I think is a bad decision is to draw a line between the two groups and look down at the people who made a different decision than the one you made. I’ve read a lot of rancor in both directions, and it’s pretty much always misplaced.

Do you need the degree? No. Will you pursue it? That’s completely up to you.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s CarbonNYC


About Jael McHenry

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.


  1. says

    This is a terrific post. I’d just add a few comments. First, if a writer wants to pursue college/university teaching, especially on the tenure track, an MFA is pretty much required. It typically won’t get one hired without publications, but unless the publications are pretty major, the publications alone won’t get one hired without an MFA, either. Second, there are *some* MFA programs that offer decent funding. Not all, by any means, but some. Finally, low-residency MFA programs do offer an opportunity for people working full-time to acquire some experience in that balancing act while still in school. (Not that I, seven years past graduation from a low-res program, feel that I’m managing it particularly well these days!)
    .-= Erika D.´s last blog ..Monday Morning Markets/Jobs/Opportunities =-.

  2. says

    Thoughtful piece — and oh so true. I think it’s so important for people embarking on MFA’s to be realistic about what the degree can–and can’t–offer.

  3. says

    Thanks for this post, Jael. I’ve often thought about the numerous benefits to pursuing an MFA–not to mention how wonderfully indulgent it would be. (Kind of like immersing oneself in literary dark chocolate for two years–okay, maybe that’s just my take on it.) But it’s just not possible from a practical perspective for me. I appreciate this post from someone who’s been there acknowledging the benefits but saying that you can still achieve your goals without it.
    .-= Tracy Hahn-Burkett´s last blog ..“Your Child Is Sick and We’ve Called the Paramedics” =-.

  4. says

    Well-said, Jael! (And great to meet you this past weekend!) At the time I started my MFA, I had already taken some great college and adult-ed writing workshops, spent two summers trying to write full-time on my own, and founded a writing group that had been going on for nearly two years. I thought that made me “ready” for an MFA (and probably the personal statement about those experiences helped me get into the program), but once I was there I actually felt over-prepared, and I think I would have gotten more out of the program if I’d come in with a lot less experience. I was probably most surprised to realize that the caliber of the best writers in the adult-ed workshops (which cost about $150 for ten weeks, compared to about $2500 or so for a grad school workshop) was on a par with the best writing in my MFA program, and the content was sometimes much more interestingly diverse. Now I teach in that same adult-ed program and students sometimes come to me for MFA advice and recommendations… I start off with a shpiel on “how to get comparable experience without an MFA” and it seems that simply having that understanding has made students more confident in their choices and able to get more out of them, whether they choose to go for the degree or take a different path.

    • picklepuss says

      I felt the same way. I already did my undergrad in creative writing… then entered, and subsequently dropped out of a program as I didn’t feel like I was getting much out of it and didn’t want to go more in debt. That being said… as mentioned, I did my undergrad already in creative writing, and had also done writing seminars and in my early 30s… Hey well, at least I tried, but yeah… MFA not always the answer, I also had no interest in teaching whatsoever.

  5. thea says

    I believe in education for the joy of learning! If I could afford it, I’d go for it in a heartbeat!

  6. says

    Excellent take on the subject. And so true. Many students, even at the college level, often ask what “practical” use a particular subject can offer, as if learning about something has to lead to a specific tangible end.

    I also think about in music. Does someone need an DMA to be a professional musician? Of course not. In fact, many performers start their performing career much earlier than a formal education allows.

    Learning and growing and gaining experience: these are the reasons we study and engage.
    .-= Yat-Yee´s last blog ..Reitrement Party for Grab-A-Line Monday =-.

  7. says

    Good post, Jael! Personally, I’m really glad I didn’t get a MFA–I would have done so in my 20s, but in retrospect I don’t think I had the perspective or depth to write a decent novel (which is probably why I never did finish a full draft); I don’t think all the studying in the world would have changed that. But in my 30s, I feel like I’m in a better place to tell a compelling story, which is probably why I was able to fly through the first draft of my novel in a few months. Timing, as they say, is everything.

  8. says

    Thanks all for weighing in! Erika, good point about the MFA being necessary for teaching — if that’s your goal, it changes the equation for sure.

    Learning is wonderful and amazing in all its forms. It’s great to find the form that’s right for you.
    .-= Jael McHenry´s last blog ..the unsolitary writer’s life =-.

  9. says

    That’s so interesting. Thanks for posting. I constantly wonder if I should pursue an MFA, but I think I’d probably be better served sticking with online and single classes and workshops. I guess I always assumed MFA meant published, but now I see how naive that is.

    Thanks, again!
    .-= Erika Robuck´s last blog ..Authors to Watch =-.

  10. says

    AU rocks! Disclaimer: I graduated there with BA.

    Jael makes important points. MFA won’t guarantee you become a published author. And there are many, many of us without MFAs leading successful writing and editing careers.

    I believe an MFA is about enriching yourself. Stretching yourself. I think it challenges students to do things that are uncomfortable and improve writing skills. You can do that with non-degree writing courses. I hope to pursue an online MFA someday.
    .-= Meryl K Evans´s last blog ..9 Reasons to Cut Responses to an Article Query =-.

  11. says

    Terrific post. I am always rather irked when someone very flippantly says don’t get an MFA. Any school, any program, is ALWAYS going to return to you exactly what you put into it. If you are honest with yourself and critical of yourself, an MFA is a way to a decades worth of feedback on your writing in 2 years. It may takes the full decade to process that feedback, but it will be there (instead of the straight-up form rejection letter you’re getting from the impossibly busy editors at the magazines and journals you submit to).

    The MFA also offers the chance to establish a group of writers that you can share with, that you can ask for pairs of eyes on a piece. Granted, if you live or grow up in NYC, maybe that isn’t a hard thing to find, but if you are out in the middle of nowhere you probably aren’t getting very good critiques from the groundhogs.
    .-= William Owen´s last blog ..Lights Outside =-.

  12. says

    Excellent insights.
    Unless you need an MFA for employment reasons, and/or your employer will finance it, it’s a pretty indulgent degree, and the ONLY real reason to do it is because one is hungering to spend two years completely immersed in the soup of writing craft.
    I’d do it again in a heartbeat, and wish I’d done it sooner, though I don’t recommend it for every writer.
    .-= Lisa Romeo´s last blog ..Stuff My (Writing) Students Say, Part I =-.

  13. DavidC says

    I don’t have an MFA but an undergrad Creative Writing degree. (And plenty of exposure to MFA students, of course. I took several classes with them.)

    I believe this degree set my writing back by at least 5 years. This regression was due to the pressure of feeling like everything I wrote was being graded by a group of professors who don’t exactly represent the reading public in their tastes and interests. The degree also made me too highly analytical about every sentence I wrote.

    It took five years to break out of the professor-pleasing habits before I could write decent fiction and then after a few more years get an agent.

    While an MFA may have benefit some authors, I would note that just as many could be stifled. There is a lot of pretension and snobbery that go into these programs and they can screw with your head and your ability to write mainstream and genre fiction.

    Fortunately, publishing fiction is one of those areas where degrees don’t mean squat. Either you can produce fiction that sales or you can’t.

  14. jdizzle says

    To the people who did an MFA… I am wondering what writing courses you had in undergrad?

    My reasoning for not pursuing it was I didn’t know what else I would actually *learn*… I took classes from the same profs that taught in the MFA workshop, and did my Undergrad in Writing with minors in Film Studies and Journalism…Needless to say, a lot of freaking writing on both creative and non fiction… as well as screen writing…