Is A Creative Writing MFA Worth The Cost?
Let’s start today’s post with a few relevant stats:
- The average MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in Creative Writing at a public university costs in the neighborhood of $30,000, according to CostHelper.com.
- According to a variety of sources in the world of literature, the average advance for a first-time novelist is somewhere in the $5,000 to $10,000 range. One author made $12,000 on a book that peaked at #6 on Amazon.Think about that: He had a book that placed #6 on the largest bookseller in the world, and he ONLY made $12,000.
- From what I’ve found on the internet (it’s very reliable!), and from my own knowledge of the freelance writing world, I would say a solid, well-connected, always busy freelance writer will make in the neighborhood of $40,000 per year.
So if you consider all those stats together, do you think a Creative Writing MFA is worth the cost?
Let me get all corporate on you and phrase the question another way: Will you get a good ROI (return on investment) from an MFA in Creative Writing?
Now, I know, I know. You’re an artist. You don’t care about money. You write because you love to write and all that. I do too.
But here’s the reality. You might love writing like Paula Deen loves bacon fat, but—the moment you go into a crapload of debt to fund your creative writing degree—the writing will slowly become secondary to the money.
You’ve got student loans to pay now. And, each month, that Sallie Mae bill is like a ticking time bomb.
In the meantime, you get a freelance job here and there. You work on your novel as time permits. You blog a little at night. And, during the day from 9 to 5, you take a job doing administrative work and answering phones–or something that doesn’t fully use your writing skills.
Why aren’t you pursuing your writing passion full-time? Because you can’t. You’ve got bills to pay, and the starving artist bit only works for a little while, because eventually you’re married and you have kids and the kids want food, not your in-progress sci-fi novel.
I never pursued an MFA in Creative Writing. I considered it a few years ago. But, by that time, I had been writing full-time for 7 or 8 years, and another degree didn’t make sense. I didn’t feel like the benefits outweighed the drawbacks (time, money, etc), in my situation.
I don’t have anything against people who choose to get a Creative Writing MFA, but I just hope they don’t go into a lot of debt to do it, and I hope they realize that, for most, a writing career isn’t a ticket to fortune and fame.
Anne Patchett put it this way: “No one should go into debt to study creative writing. It’s simply not worth it. Do not think of it as an investment in yourself that you’ll be able to recoup later on. This is not medical school.”
Note the verbiage there. This isn’t about the quality of the degree. It’s about going into debt to get it.
So what’s the alternative? Take some creative writing classes. You can take a few classes here and there without committing to the expenses of the degree. If you’re still in undergrad, you can take creative writing electives, like I did with my English degree.
The three creative writing classes I had in college were some of the most practical, useful classes I ever took. So I understand the draw of the MFA, I really do. But can you take some of those classes without going all in on a degree that will cost you tens of thousands of dollars in debt?
Write and freelance as much as you can. That’s on-the-job, real-life training. Five years from now, would your experience and connections (sans the debt) surpass anything you would gain from the MFA?
I don’t know. For me, an MFA in Creative Writing just didn’t make sense, professionally or financially. Maybe one day that will change. But I feel pretty good about my choice right now.
Your situation might be different. You might feel strongly that an MFA is exactly what you need. If that’s true, then more power to you.
Just be realistic about the cost and benefit of the degree.
You can learn a lot about writing by just writing. And that doesn’t cost anything.