Columns > Published on June 12th, 2012

Seriously Though, Do I Really Need An MFA?

Master of Fine Arts. Has quite a ring to it, right? To be a master of anything sounds like a nice deal. To many a writer, an MFA program is the Shangri-La of instruction: A place to spend two years with nothing but an intense, laser-like focus on the craft of writing. 

But is a graduate degree really the ultimate end of all writerly pursuits? It's not like you can't be a writer unless you have an MFA, right? Hemingway didn't even go to college. 

I've thought about getting an MFA. I've thought about not getting an MFA ever. It's something I've been thinking about lately and I'm sure I'm not the only person who's considered it, so I thought, why not bring it to the denizens of LitReactor, for a little discussion? 

The Pros

There are a number of advantages to entering an MFA program (if you can get in to one). The aforementioned intensity of the instruction; how nice that must be, to spend so much time doing nothing but reading and writing. A lot of us may do this already, but this is structured, and there are goals and deadlines and incentives. There's a level of commitment here that's hard to achieve elsewhere. 

You get to work with professors of skill and renown (Amy Hempel teaches at Bennington!!!). Plus, students are pushed out of comfort zones, and they ultimately finish their programs with completed work and some connections in the publishing industry. All good things.

The Cons

On the flip side, MFA programs don't come cheap. The low-residency program at Bennington College (one of the most prestigious in the country) costs more than $38,000 to complete. Even the program at Hunter College (part of the publicly-funded CUNY system) runs $11,470 for New York City residents. (And yes, loans are nice, but you have to pay them back). 

And just because you complete an MFA program doesn't mean you'll be published. It's not a guarantee. Nothing in life is. 

In my research across the wilds of the internet, I've also come across people who've said the classroom environment isn't always friendly to genre writers, and for as much as writers are being pushed out of their comfort zones, they're being pushed into someone else's notion of what they should be doing. I can't speak to the veracity of that, having never been in an MFA program, but it's worth adding to the discussion.

The stigma

One of the things about MFA programs--and the thing that bugs me the most--is how some writers will look down on people who don't have MFAs. Like they're less committed, or just less skillful, for that lack of instruction. The whole MFA debate is another one of those ridiculous "intellectual" disputes in publishing (see also: eBooks v. print; literary v. genre).

On one hand, there's no debating that an MFA has the potential to help you and your writing career. But isn't the notion that someone is less of a writer without them sort of terrible? If I read a ton of books and write every day and spend a lot of time working at the craft of writing, it may not be as good, but can it be enough? 

What say you?

I've talked a lot. Now I want to hear from you. There's no right or wrong answer--every path is different. Have you made a conscious decision to spurn MFA programs? Are you in one right now? Are you getting more or less than what you expected? 

Let's talk MFAs. 

About the author

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor. His latest novel, The Paradox Hotel, will be released on Feb. 22 by Ballantine. He also wrote The Warehouse, which sold in more than 20 languages and was optioned for film by Ron Howard. Other titles include the Ash McKenna crime series, the short story collection Take-Out, and Scott Free with James Patterson. Find more at www.robwhart.com

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