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Is A Creative Writing MFA Worth The Cost?

creative writing mfa

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.
  • 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.

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28 Comments Post a comment
  1. From what I’ve read . . all the greats break the rules anyway. Have a lovely weekend Robert

    November 1, 2013
  2. That’s in line with my belief. If you want to TEACH the fine arts, it would be another thing.

    November 1, 2013
    • Yes. That’s a whole different discussion.

      November 1, 2013
  3. Louise Allan #

    I did a few online courses through Gotham (http://www.writingclasses.com). They’re not cheap @ ~$360 for a 10-week course but they’re a helluva lot cheaper than an MFA. For me, it was worth it as I learned so much about the craft of writing, plus I could do it from Australia. I wrote and wrote and read and re-read, but it’s important, I think, to get some critical feedback too. Now my inbuilt crap-detector is much better informed. My writing has improved and I have a completed novel which I’m revising. I stopped classes once I thought I had gained all that I could tuition-wise and joined a Writing Group. We swap 25 pages of our novels each month — the feedback I get from my group members is invaluable.

    So, no, I don’t think you need an MFA, but I think tuition in the craft of writing helps, along with feedback and the ability to develop your own inbuilt crap-detector (as compared to the inner critic, which is really just your mother …)

    November 1, 2013
    • Very true. Good advice. I think you can get the benefit of the classes without the expenses of the degree.

      November 1, 2013
  4. I was going to say that we learn the most by just getting down and writing. I’ve taken some creative writing classes, but I learned the most from just being critiqued by other writers and readers.

    I, for one, never plan on ever being able to fully support myself just on writing. If I can one day, that’s awesome. If not, that’s fine. I’ve planned for that reality.

    November 1, 2013
    • Don’t think you have to be freelancer or something like that to write full time. Thousands of companies hire copywriters, marketing writers, and even long-form writers. That’s what I do.

      November 1, 2013
  5. Great post. I’m like you — I considered getting an MFA at one time, weighed the pros and cons, and decided the ROI wouldn’t come out in my favor. I think university-based programs are great for some things, like guiding your reading at a key time in your development, but they can’t do much with the most important factor in creative writing: your imagination.

    November 1, 2013
  6. I was working on my masters and stopped because I didn’t want to take out more loans. A lot of people wondered/questioned my decision, but it was simply based on not going into further debt (as I’m still paying off undergrad). If someone wants to pay me and pay for the tuition, I’d be all in!

    November 1, 2013
  7. Great post. I think the only reason to get an MFA is because you want to teach. If what you want to do is be a writer, there’s only one way to do that: write, write, write and read, read, read. If you want to get a job writing, the best way to do that is journalism. Many very successful writers were journalist first. I’m talking Charles Dickens, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway. Few are as lucky as Fitzgerald and he made his money from short stories. And look at John Grisham and Scott Turow. They started as lawyers.

    I remember Dick Cavett asking Norman Mailer how he and Truman Capote had become such accomplished writers so early. Mailer said he and Capote had been writing since they were children day in and day out.

    I think the reason some go after an MFA is to get the approval of others. “Hey, look, Mom and Dad, I am a writer. I have a degree to prove it.”

    Like you. I’m not saying that an MFA won’t help. But if you are doing the work you’re probably going to be successful anyway.

    Not a marketing degree. That could really help. But you have to be carefully you don’t give up your writing time for marketing stuff.

    November 1, 2013
    • Meant get a marketing degree.

      November 1, 2013
  8. Reblogged this on White Knuckling and commented:
    Looking for a sign? Here’s your sign.

    November 1, 2013
  9. I got an MFA because my undergrad is in engineering, a degree that doesn’t include anything but math and science. While getting my MFA, I learned a huge amount through careful reading and discussion in the lit and lit theory classes I took, along with the writing/workshop classes. And once I graduated, I had my writing group solidly in place. So now, although I still attend writing workshops and conferences to learn more about writing, I depend much more on my writers group to keep me on track. The MFA program at San Francisco State University wasn’t as expensive in the 2000-2003 timeframe as many others, so I didn’t have to go into debt, either.

    November 1, 2013
  10. Creative Writing Schools are designed to turn out hack writers and function primarily as a means to increase the profits of the teaching institution. They are scams and contribute enormously to the decline of the Arts around the world. Always rely on primary sources, which in this case means: read it yourself and write about it yourself, or the short form, Think for yourself.

    November 1, 2013
    • Hello, Mike. Maybe thinking for yourself isn´t always enough. You can learn a great deal by listening to others, or reading what others have said about some book or author.

      November 1, 2013
  11. I started writing when I was fourteen. Thereafter I had five children, made some cheese, milked cows, cooked jam; and still kept writing. I have just been accepted by a publisher. I’m now forty six. I have had no formal training. It has cost me nothing but an often questioned belief in myself. I count myself blessed. Thanks for the post.

    November 2, 2013
    • So cool

      November 2, 2013
      • Thank you. Appreciated.

        November 2, 2013
    • Hi,
      We seem to have the same wordpress address.

      December 22, 2013
  12. I’m an undergrad right now. About to graduate in May with a bachelors in Writing… And one in Computer Science. I will be going out to get a job in the field of IT and writing in my spare time. I feel that I’ve learned enough to be able to continue putting the time and effort into writing and reading necessary to keep improving. I will publish a novel some day (hopefully) but I won’t be a starving artist while writing it.

    November 2, 2013
  13. What’s kept me out of grad school (though not for creative writing, for a MLIS) is just knowing that the the return of investment wouldn’t be there. Not getting the money that you invested in schooling back in salary would make it hard for me to justify spending that money.

    November 2, 2013
  14. One thing no one has mentioned, which I wanted to point out: you don’t necessarily need to PAY for your MFA degree. I did a Master’s in English lit, and many of my department colleagues were doing MFAs. Like me, those colleagues got departmental assistantships which covered tuition completely and came with a yearly stipend to live on. The position involves some teaching (Freshman Comp or Intro to Creative Writing) or alternate administrative duties to the tune of about 20 hours a week, but you get both the degree and zero-to-minimal debt.

    November 4, 2013
  15. I am a student at Full sail University, and they have a decent Creative Writing program.

    November 4, 2013
  16. Thought I’d comment here as someone who got an MFA in creative nonfiction. I went to grad school directly from college, because I was scared of the real world but also because I got into Columbia and took it as a sign that I should pack up and move to New York, because what else was I going to do? I worked part time jobs in college–making falafel, selling textbooks at the campus bookstore– to pay my own expenses, but the reality is that my parents took care of my undergrad tuition bills. So I don’t think I had a very good concept of what going into debt by taking out loans to finance Columbia would really look like. Now that I’m on the other side of that MFA, I know all too well.

    I loved my two years at Columbia– the amazing professors, writers, dialogue, community of writers and readers and on and on–and am grateful to have emerged with a completed manuscript that I sold to Scribner upon graduating. And although my book deal was significantly more than the $12K you mentioned in your post, it doesn’t go very far when it’s divided into 4 chunks distributed at intervals in the year + between book sale and publication. And when my loan repayment kicked in at the same time, I had to start paying back around $900 a month. It’s been tough to make that much on top of rent and NY living, and I juggle a few jobs to make it happen. So I can’t say whether this “investment” was really worth it. If I could do it all again, I definitely wouldn’t go somewhere as pricey as Columbia- I’d probably just take a class or two at a private workshop. Anyway, that’s my two cents.

    November 4, 2013
  17. Best advice on this that I’ve heard (which reinforces what you write) was from Indian writer Prajwal Parajuly (who did a Masters in Creative Writing from Oxford): don’t get into debt doing it. If you have the means, from savings or rich parents or a lucrative job or whatever, then the experience is valuable. If not, don’t bother.

    November 29, 2013
  18. Reblogged this on Ryan Hartson: Writing and Life.

    January 4, 2014
  19. Hadn’t considered this perspective before! I will have an English degree next month and have been applying to both MA and MFA programs. Thank you for the insight.

    April 18, 2014

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