The MFA as Calling Card

July 5, 2016 § 34 Comments

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Emily Smith

By Emily Smith:

During the Brooklyn Book Festival last September, my employers and I were invited to a gala hosted by the festival. I was making rounds when I met an MFA student studying at NYU, one who bore a shocking resemblance to the infamous @GuyInYourMFA Twitter account. He told me he was working on a novel.

“Like Catcher in the Rye,” he said, “but Holden Caulfield lives in Brooklyn.”

He was likely the type I had to compete with when I was accepted into Emerson’s MFA program this year. Unfortunately, I had to decline because I couldn’t afford to go without funding. There’s a number of think pieces as to why writers continue to invest in a degree that will saturate them in debt, but the answer seems pretty clear: the MFA is a literary calling card, a title not unlike Vanderbilt or Kennedy that can often buy entry into the otherwise classist structure of the literary world.

It’s not that I don’t see the MFA as an invaluable time to learn and write virtually uninterrupted. I applied. I understand its worth, want to be a part of it, and am afraid my career will burn up and out without one. But, I’m also afraid of drowning, my pockets filled with student loan statements heavy as stones.

The cost of applying to MFA programs is in itself a deterrent for underprivileged writers like the writer of color and the queer writer. According to AWP’s most recent report on the academic job market, there were 20,000 applicants in 2015 with program acceptance rates varying from 2 to 6 percent. To increase my chances of acceptance, I’d feel comfortable applying to at least 10 schools, which racks up my application fee bill to about $1,000.

Should I take out a loan just to apply to graduate school? It’s difficult to imagine any Millennial with that kind of nest egg, between student loan payments and the astronomical rent in cities we must move to in order to find jobs. According to the Detroit Free Press, young consumers (especially African-American and Hispanic consumers) are subjected to greater financial risk than the rest of the American population. That means I can either grope blindly without an MFA, or stomach the debt and gain admission into a world that sometimes feels as exclusive as Mrs. Astor’s “The 400.”

Of course, some schools waive application fees for students under unusual financial hardship. Although I’d argue that all Millennials suffer financial hardship (see student loan debt crisis), schools only consider waiving fees on a case-by-case basis, and the criteria for waiving fees are never listed on school websites; the decision to waive is more or less a subjective one, which NYU made a point of in December. When low-income artist of color and Brown university student Joshua Jackson applied to NYU’s graduate program, the school informed him that if he couldn’t pay the application fee, then he probably couldn’t afford the cost of tuition, either. The fee was finally waived after Jackson publicized the decision on Twitter.

It’s unclear what exactly the application fees fund, since it’s hard to imagine Harvard’s Society of Fellows purchasing their $1,000 bottles of wine or Ohio State University funding their president’s $5 million salary with this money.

What the MFA can unarguably provide is community. Writers want friends, too; we’re tired of reaching into the dark and grasping nothing but air. We are tired of pretending that art is made in isolation.

The writer of color, the queer writer, and the woman writer are less likely to receive the same connections as their white male counterparts considering their often underprivileged economic backgrounds. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, some 7,000 master’s degrees in the English field were conferred to white recipients in 2014; in contrast that might give one whiplash, only 530 were conferred to black writers. LGBT students, too, tend to have lower levels of education and lower levels of family income. Unfortunately, family income is directly tied to a student’s ability to receive financial aid through FAFSA, but the system of calculation assumes that students have two parents with two incomes who support them financially. Imagine a queer writer estranged from her family because they don’t approve of her sexuality, or a writer of color with one parent in jail (this is true for 1 out of eighteen children of color) who must still report parental income. Public assistance programs like FAFSA were not designed with these realities in mind.

The reality is that the MFA, and the master’s degree in general, is becoming the standard for qualification and expertise for professional jobs. With the surge of degrees (63 percent since 2000), those who are financially unable to obtain one will likely be left behind in the widening class divide.

I felt the pull of my own insignificance at the gala last fall.

My boss had introduced me to a well-respected white male professor in his 50s who she wanted to hire. As most people do during these kinds of parties, the professor squinted his eyes, distorting my features in an attempt to gauge recognition. Was I a writer of note? He knew one way to find out.

“What are you working on right now?” he asked.

“Finishing my BFA in Creative Writing,” I said.

The professor laughed (a dismissive hiccup, really), spun around, then grabbed another craft beer at the open bar. Later, I watched him nod seriously with that MFA student, the two clinking beer bottles in solidarity.


Emily Smith is currently a Contributing Blogger for Ploughshares and holds a B.F.A. in Creative Writing from New Hampshire Institute of Art. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Bustle, Luna LunaPloughshares and more.

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§ 34 Responses to The MFA as Calling Card

  • pattysmith31 says:

    This is an important conversation for sure. I also wanted to point out that there are plenty of MFA programs that fully fund their graduate students — Virginia Commonwealth University being one of them. If you’re still interested in an MFA, check us out:

    And Richmond is still a pretty affordable city.
    Just putting that out there!

  • lizahl says:

    I’ve never been persuaded (evidence?) that the MFA is actually a “literary calling card” in the sense that many folks imagine it is — opening doors as if by magic, granting publication, respect, benefit of the doubt, even. I did find my own MFA program “community” nurturing and motivating, good friends I’m still in touch with. Of course, that “community” unfortunately was experienced differently by fellow students who weren’t funded by TA support — there were some needlessly awkward/segregating divisions there that exacerbated the unavoidable truth that some folks were “chosen” in certain ways that others weren’t. We all got MFAs at the end, though (at least those who could afford to finish). Your points here about money and privilege are so, so important to consider! I would not have pursued the degree if I’d had to go into big debt to do so. A fat, queer lady whose difference was mostly subsumed by a gigantic helping of white privilege (and middle- to upper-middle class parents, college mostly paid for, etc.) I have been very lucky all-told with respect to the educational and other opportunities I’ve been able to take advantage of. But BECAUSE I don’t think the MFA itself buys entry into anything, I urge my students who ask my advice to think very carefully before taking that MFA step if they are planning on funding it via loans. I do agree that, generally a master’s degree is evolving into a more and more desired/required thing professionally, but I’d separate that concern from the notion of admission into the literary world, wherever that is. Thanks for the piece, Emily, and solidarity from a fellow BFA-er (from waaaaaay back).

    • Billy Pullen says:

      As a public school teacher nearing retirement, I pursued an MFA in Creative Writing. At first friends commented, “I thought you already had an MA” to which I responded, “Yes, I do. I enjoyed the studies in theatre for that MA, but I also wanted a raise in salary.” Bottom line: I received an MFA in Creative Writing in 2014 because I wanted to. I developed a “working portfolio” and have had modest success in being published. Do not pursue an MFA if you think you might get an adjunct position. In my area, adjuncts are a dime a dozen, and the pay is embarrassing.

  • […] Source: The MFA as Calling Card […]

  • Don’t get sucked into the racket higher education has become and certainly don’t take on debt for an MFA – your instincts are right. Watch the Lena Dunham Iowa workshop scenes and next time you encounter a stuffy, rude type like that, you be the one to grab the craft beer and walk away. Love, Mom.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    I do not consider my MFA a calling card of any sort. It was an indulgence, but one I’d earned. My elderly mother, who had not contributed to my undergraduate degrees at all, funded one term, and I paid for the rest because my children were grown and out of college themselves. It was a point of honor to give myself the degree I’d promised myself while I was a young woman. I am not young now. I earned my degree; I worked very hard; I wrote a great deal; and I loved the program. Today, I am no different with a degree than I was without.

    • Jan Priddy says:

      To be, perhaps, more clear, I grew in the MFA, but I continued working as a public school teacher throughout the program, and I cannot agree that “What the MFA can unarguably provide is community.” Yes, I met people and made some friends. I also had already made friends through workshops and events. Community is gained through the writing itself, not degrees. There was no magical transformation or secret hand signal or entry into a inner circle as a result of gaining my MFA. I worked very hard, I value education, and I wrote. I completed a short novel in the program, which, like the three I’d already written, remains unpublished.

  • rachaelhanel says:

    If you need a certain degree to gain entrance into certain circles, those are probably circles you don’t want to be a part of anyway — exclusionary, stuffy, and clique-y. There are many, many other ways to get what you seek — community, feedback on writing, writing time — without the MFA. If you are looking to teach creative writing at some point at the university level then yes, you don’t really have a choice. But if that’s not your end goal, you can find more affordable ways to do the things you want.

    If you do go for an MFA, keep in mind the many MFA programs that exist in small towns that end up being quite affordable.

  • papatyabucak says:

    I second the comments above. MFA’s are great, if they don’t put you deeply in debt, and if you don’t enter them believing they grant you any kind of easy pass to a literary career. Like a number of programs, Florida Atlantic University works to fully fund our students and make sure they have relevant job experience for when they graduate…

  • dianepayne76 says:

    This report is probably useful also when considering getting a graduate degree:

    It’s free to apply to our online MFA program:

  • I echo the comments above. I’d also like to say that some of your ideas regarding people from marginalized communities and MFA programs are dated. You may want to actually talk to someone from these communities instead of relying on statistics. Especially the one regarding the parent in jail. For the most part, when you apply to graduate school you apply as an independent student and you don’t declare your parent’s income. In fact you don’t have to mention your parents at all.

    I do agree with you about the application fees. But there is also the implicit bias that happens to marginalized groups when they attend MFA programs. Or the problematic issues of racism that occur in MFA programs. Junot Diaz and David Mura have talked about this. Do a Google search and you’ll find their articles.

    Also look up an organization called VONA (Voices of our Nations Arts Foundation). They and lots of other organizations like them help marginalized groups to become writers with or without an MFA. They have noted authors like Junot Diaz, Tayari Jones, Kiese Laymon and Tananarive Due who help to usher in a new era of writers who defy expectations.

    So I understand the intent of your article and I think you mean well, but I don’t think you’ve experienced enough yet. Do some more research. Maybe disregard prestige. Maybe look at a low-residency program. Or maybe focus this article on how hard it is for women to make the path to an MFA. That topic is just as needed.

  • You might enjoy my thoughts on the matter from 10 years ago.

    Looking over my book collection recently, I was frankly stunned at how many authors in my collection came from elite writing programs. It actually made me reconsider my attitude towards the degree. Proximity to NYC or maybe Iowa or Stanford probably does help with book and career prospects… Of course, that indicates only what has been true in the past, not what is true now.

    On the other hand, these communities are separated from the real world. Ultimately, you still have to win an audience and create a brand for yourself. It might help to go out of your way to attend conferences or do some low-residency things. Even a monthly creative writing group can accomplish a lot. I got my master’s from JHU (and am proud of it). But looking back, it would have been just as well to take a handful of creative writing classes at the community college rather than delay my entry into the job market by a year or two.

    These programs provide an illusion of a writers’ community; perhaps in NYC that is true. But for the most part committed writers are rare birds in the world. Perhaps I am an extreme example, but I might meet with other creative writers once a year or so (though I correspond with a lot). An MFA won’t solve the solitude problem except temporarily.

    Those MFA applications can be time-consuming and frustrating. My apps got rejected more often than accepted — regardless of the program’s prestige. Making it through that gate isn’t an end in itself — you might have better things to do with your time.

  • Reblogged this on WHAT THE HELL and commented:
    Another sobering consideration of the MFA …

  • Reblogged this on Lauren Foley and commented:
    I have thought about doing postgraduate level study in Creative Writing on and off for several years. The points Smith makes in this article are very similar to the ones that regularly run through my head. It’s an interesting read so I’m reblogging it. Have a goo:

  • Paul Morris says:

    What do application fees fund? These fees pay the salaries of the people who open the envelopes, scan, and handle the actual applications for the various programs across the campus. The funds also go to hard costs: computers, programs, phone lines.

  • (Insert biggest eye roll here).

    I decided to pursue my MFA because I had/have more to learn, not with the unrealistic hope that it would count as brownie points for a job or that it would meaning I would have better chances of getting published.

    People get published with or without calling cards, I mean degrees.

    Consider MFAs for futher education and growth, not out of societal or snobby obligation. And certainly dont consider them as a security blanket or as magic dust.

  • Been There, Done That says:

    The MFA is a pleasant ’boutique’ degree, and the Program model is a pedagogical farce: a group of inexperienced writers, sitting down together to discuss their suppositions of what might make a piece better? Where does that lead? Where is the accountability, in such a program, for the quality of the education? And what, exactly, is promised to–or about–graduates, once the degree is earned?

    My workshop experience, week after week, devolved into a series of comments on popular culture and misleading, personality-driven advice. there was no ‘hard’ content: no genre study, no critical understanding–nothing that would better equip me to improve my work. The degree did not lead to anything but a navel-gazing fantasy of myself as a writer, and no substantive career experience I could have used.

    Three-quarters of the way through, deeply disillusioned, I brought my concerns to the Director of my program–and he largely agreed with me! This was a waste of time, and the silly, unctuous networking that was the sole skill I saw employed by writers was deeply discouraging to anyone who sincerely loved an art and wanted to practice it better: it was all in who you knew.

    After six semesters, I left without finishing (though I have since) and returned to the one place I’ve ever had success–my desk at home, where I do the work, and get the feedback from professionals that helps me to improve.

    For most colleges, the MFA is a csh cow–earning more than it delivers, and leaving young writers no better off than when they enrolled.

  • hilarywho says:

    One of my biggest regrets is paying for my MFA. After I had already gone into debt to get it, I heard this advice: Do not pay for an art degree.

  • I do just need to add my personal experience with the FAFSA over the past 4 years. We did not need to declare income from both parents, my kids were qualified with only mine. Dad’s income (we are divorced many years) was substantial, however, he was unwilling to help. I was worried they would be denied funding due to that, but throughout the process, was happy to learn that we did not need his support or even to have him be included.

    • Kendall Dunkelberg says:

      FAFSA requirements for graduate school are also different than for undergrad. According to a pamphlet, most graduate students are not required to submit information about their parents’ income.

      Click to access graduate-professional-funding-info.pdf

      However, the primary aid that graduate students receive this way is through subsidized or unsubsidized student loans (not grants). Most graduate students apply for financial assistance through their university or through private organizations. I have a section on “How to Afford Your MFA” in our low-res program’s Guide for Applicants:

      Click to access MFAGuideForApplicants.pdf

      As Kevin Haworth pointed out in his response, a full-residency program can fully fund students though they usually teach a lot in exchange for this funding. Low-res programs can be more affordable options but often don’t have as much aid because our students aren’t able to teach for us, but we assume many will have jobs already. You can find a list of affordable programs at Nonprofit Colleges Online:

      I applaud Ms. Smith’s decision not to enroll in a program that would put her into a lot of debt, but she shouldn’t feel discouraged. There are many programs. Taking the time to find the one that is the right fit — for your writing and your budget — is the best thing you can do. No one needs an MFA to become a writer, but there are many programs that can help you along your way and that are well worth the investment when you are ready to make it.

  • George says:

    A preface to the collected stories of Breece D’J. Pancake by one of his instructors at the University of Virginia spoke of Pancake, who came from a modest background in West Virginia, regarding the M.F.A. as a union card. It may better testimony to the situation than the rest of the essay that you write “calling card” rather than “union card.”

    The credentialism of modern America is simply nuts, and few are the organizations that hold out against it. But if Wlliam James couldn’t strangle it in the cradle with “The Ph.D. Octopus”, I don’t know what The Millions can do.

  • An alternate view from Brevity’s editor Dinty W.Moore: […] Smith guest-posted yesterday – The MFA as Calling Card – reminding us how writers of color, LGBT writers, and lower-income writers often face extra […]

  • I got the MFA late in life and can’t seem to pay off the student loan. I also expected to be qualified to teach, and that didn’t really happen with my program. I am glad to have the degree. It does help in some situations. I learned a lot, wrote a lot, and found a community of writers. But when you’re talking about people who can’t afford to pay for the degree, please don’t just include people of color or with different sexual orientations. All kinds of people can find it difficult if not impossible.

  • […] other Brevity readers, I have been following the thread of conversation this week started by Emily Smith and continued by Dinty W. Moore. As the director of a low-residency MFA program, I have my own […]

  • If you can get into Emerson, you can get funding for an MFA somewhere else. Do NOT pay.

  • […] there is a fascinating debate about the “MFA as calling card.” You can read it in order here, here, and […]

  • […] Source: The MFA as Calling Card […]

  • […] Emily Smith’s piece “The MFA as Calling Card” was posted weeks ago, I have still been thinking about it. I think Dinty W. Moore and Kevin […]

  • […] I’m so far away from the world that I can’t possibly infiltrate it. I’m not looking for a calling card; I’m looking for a train ticket. I need to be dropped off somewhere closer to where I want […]

  • […] been talking a lot lately about the MFA – its power, its lack of power, using the MFA as a place to polish one’s craft, to find a writing […]

  • […] The MFA as Calling Card, by Emily Smith […]

  • I think if you get to be a certain age and by then have a lot of credits–publications, fellowships, etc, your cover letter is full of stuff and I doubt it stands out that you didn’t say anything about an MFA. I could be wrong.

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