Furthest Right

Are Today’s MFA Programs Really Worth the Investment?

This is a specific iteration of the question: should I major in English? Which for a writer or someone aspiring to become a writer is something you’ve probably been wrestling with. The short answer for the undergraduate English major is no, you don’t need it to become an author. In fact you’re probably better off spending your time and money getting another skill that can either a) play into your plan to be an author by offering you the business skills you’ll need to succeed as an entrepreneur – and increasing more authors are involved in the business and marketing of their books. Or b) major in something that will pay the bills while you wait for your career as a writer to become self-sustaining.

The only people who should major in English are those wanting to obtain an MA in English and then teach. For most writers English simply isn’t the major they should be in.

Which brings us to the question of whether you should get the MFA.

If you’ve done undergrad right and didn’t go into too much debt and didn’t waste your time getting a degree that ends with the word “studies” then congratulations. You did a pretty good job at college.

So here is the bottom line: some of your favorite authors have an MFA, and some don’t. You can Google lists of who has an MFA and who doesn’t so I won’t belabor the point here, but the fact that some have it and some don’t means exactly one thing: it’s a personal choice and that choice is largely dependent on what you intend to get out of the MFA.

The MFA can be of use if you want to work in the professional world of writing. It can be a credential that will allow you to work for a publisher, help you gain traffic on a blog, or even get a job as a guest blogger in the ever increasing lit-sphere. An MFA will allow you to teach other students. It might get your foot in the door with a publisher if you have a completed manuscript and are a recent grad. But that’s about it.

If any of that appeals to you, then maybe an MFA is what you need. Though this brings us to another question, perhaps a more important question. What should a writer major in at university?

I have a BA in geology, an MA in history, an MBA and have way too much time invested in a PhD in history. History improved my writing in a way no other academic class or department did. But then I had some excellent professors who taught me to write. I also read writing as dry as an academics bones and knew I didn’t want to write books for ten other academics, and I read writers like Norman Davies, Barbara Tuchman, Thomas F. Madden, and others. They demonstrated to me that history didn’t have to be tedious. It would be, for me, entertainment. And so today I write mostly historical adventures. I pride myself on my ability to create deep characters, complex plots, and (usually) accurate historical settings. History is a good major for a writer. But you have to be prepared to teach it to make a living.

This is why my advice on what to major in is largely dependent upon what you, the writer in training, would like to do while working to make a living off your words. STEM careers are hot right now, but that will fade as automation takes the place of computer programmers (and this is already happening according to friends in the industry and in Japan).

Ultimately, what you major in at university will be important only in that it should help you attain your goal of being a writer. Maybe it will be a way to support yourself, maybe it will put you in the publishing industry, but one thing I believe is that college isn’t necessary to write. And that should be the first question you ask yourself: do I even need a degree anymore?

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