Ask the Writing Teacher: The MFA Debate

March 30, 2012 | 37 7 min read

coverDear Writing Teacher,

Hello! I’m an amateur fiction/essay writer who is committing to writing; I have always loved storytelling and writing, and I feel that this would be the best decision for me to live a happy and fulfilling life. I’m unsure, though, of what I should do. I want to return to school, however, a few years ago when I applied to Creative Writing MFA programs I was rejected by each one. I blamed this on my social sciences background, and now am reluctant to apply again. However I don’t know how else I would proceed as a writer. Any advice you could give me would be wonderful, thank you.

Aspiring Author


Ah yes, ye olden MFA debate! It’s no surprise that the first question I received as The Millions (self-proclaimed) Resident Writing Teacher should be about this topic; we’re doomed to argue and question and protest and defend the advanced degree in creative writing until zombies shut us up by eating our brains. (I hear zombie fiction is HOT at Columbia right now, by the way).

Best I weigh in, once and for all, and move on.

Firstly, Aspiring Author, I am sorry that you were rejected from these MFA programs. Rejection is painful, and difficult, and that pain cannot be discounted. In the past few years, I have witnessed many of my best and most talented students suffer this same rejection. It’s unbelievable that these writers, whose voices are original and funny, beautiful and startling, true and sparkling with grit and polish and roar, would be turned away. Foolish, too. What are you smoking, my dear Iowa Writers’ Workshop? (Or, what aren’t you smoking? Loosen up!) On the other hand, I have said bon voyage to many supremely talented writers who were accepted into MFA programs. It’s hard to know who will get in, and who won’t; since I haven’t read your work, I have no idea why your fate was what it was.

There’s a terrific conversation between Curtis Sittenfeld and Iowa Writers’ Workshop Director Lan Samantha Chang about this very process; in it, Chang talks about how they have to turn away applicants who are good enough to get in. I am sure that’s the case at programs across the country. It’s an educational and sobering read, and it also inspires compassion for these people who must wade through billions of applications every year.

I can say, without a doubt, that your social science background had no bearing on your rejection, unless you totally bombed it GPA-wise, which (I’ve heard) can make it difficult for some public universities to accept you because of graduate college standards and so forth (credit wendy at MFA programs look at the writing sample first and foremost; what you studied as an undergrad usually only matters (again, so I’ve heard) when they’re figuring out teaching fellowships and the like.

But let’s think about this. It’s easier to blame your social science background rather than face the upsetting and wrenching thought that these programs rejected your writing. That’s what hurts, that’s what wounds, right?

Ugh, I know that feeling too well myself.

Here’s a fact though: the life of a writer isn’t just about producing work, it’s about showing that work to others: agents, editors, and most importantly, readers. It’s about hearing NO again and again and again, and still turning on the computer, opening the journal, and getting back to work.

If you decide not to apply to MFA programs, it can’t be because you fear getting rejected.

(Just think: the setbacks you encounter on your way to being a published author only make your biopic that much more Oscar-worthy.)

Now that some time has passed, I suggest you review your application and see it objectively. What was good about the work you submitted? What wasn’t? Have you improved in the past few years? I assume, if you’ve continued writing, that you have. Look at your work critically (and I don’t mean meanly, but with an eye for critique). How can your writing be better, so that no one dare reject its brilliance?

If you want to go to graduate school to study writing, then you already know what to do: work like hell on your application manuscript, and then send it off to the schools you want to go to. It can’t hurt to write and revise and revise and revise. Even if you get rejected again, the hard work will have made you a stronger writer. And just, stronger.

Now, the other question is, do you have to get an MFA?

Of course not.

For me, getting an MFA was a good decision. I loved having those two years to read and write, and to think deeply about craft. I was happy to get the teaching experience because I have always wanted to teach, and I met fellow writers with whom I still exchange work with today. It was a good thing for me.

I also didn’t pay to go, and that is important. My main advice to you, should you decide to get an MFA: Don’t spend money (or, not a lot) to get it. Get funded. Anyone who makes the argument that MFA students are rich, or going deeply into debt to talk about short stories, don’t know anything about how these programs work.

I’m sick of people (cough, cough, Elif Batuman, cough) talking shit about MFAs, people who love to compare whatever dead author they’re drooling over these days — you know, someone like Stendhal — to the latest batch of contemporary novelists. Enough about how school poisons genius, about how the workshop makes robots of us all! Enough with the ignorant blanket statements! Some writers with MFAs are great, and some aren’t; the same can be said for writers without MFAs.

It’s also odd, I think, to blame (or credit!) someone’s writing to a 2- or 3-year program, which the writer might have graduated from years ago. Life is weird and complicated, and schools and teachers can only influence a writer’s artistic identity so much.

In this year’s Tournament of Books (my favorite “sporting event” of the year), match commentators Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner bring some levelheaded sense to the MFA debate. Here, Warner says,

The notion that somehow the study of creative writing is producing some kind of homogenized product doesn’t stand up against even the briefest scrutiny. Ann Patchett (Iowa) writes good, old-fashioned realism. Tea Obreht (Cornell) works an amalgam of realism and fantasy. Donald Ray Pollock (Ohio State) mines the territory of literary pulp.

That said, like any groups where people gather and share ideas and inputs, a set of values is likely to arise and be shared by many members of that group. Often, these values are already in place prior to the person joining the group, and they have sought out this group because they see like-minded individuals already there.

And then Guilfoile says:

In an extremely informal survey of the stuff that I read, MFA graduates produce work that I like/dislike at exactly the same rate as everyone else. And while having an MFA no doubt has boosted your career as a teacher, I think you will testify that it is no guaranteed short track to getting published.

Amen, brother! An MFA program might help your career, but it more than likely won’t. Just last week a student said to me, “I hear that if you go to Iowa, and someone there likes your work, they just make a call, and voilà, a star is born.” (Okay, he didn’t say it like that, but he did use the phrase “make a call.”) Man, I wish it worked like that! It didn’t for me, and no MFA applicant or student should assume it will for them.

Here’s what an MFA will do: it will make you write, and you’ll get feedback on that writing. After you graduate, when someone at a party asks what you do, you might have the confidence to say, “I’m a writer.” But you might not.

In the event that you don’t get an MFA (or after you’re done getting your MFA), here’s what you can do to be a writer:

1. Read, read, read.
Read as closely and widely as you can. Figure out how narratives are made, how they make you feel this way or that. Enjoy yourself, and note when and why. When you hate a book and spit in its margins, figure out why it disgusted you so. Reading also includes exploring websites like this one, which discusses literature with passion and insight. Join these communities, share in the conversation. (Clearly, with your email, you’ve already done this.)

2. Join a writing group and/or enroll in a class.
Here’s an opportunity to meet fellow writers, to get feedback on your work, to figure out what’s bad advice and what is helpful. To get deadlines. To hear about new books. To receive guidance from a teacher. (I teach privately and for UCLA’s continuing education program, and I just pretend most of my classes are graduate-level. I think other teachers do the same.) And if you live in a small town with limited options, research online classes. If you don’t do this, then at least find a friend with whom to exchange work.

3. Seek out a guru (or two)
If you fall in love with the work of a contemporary writer, send them an email (or an old fashioned letter) telling them so; or, if you can, go to a reading of theirs to profess your love in person. You never know, one of these writers just might be eager to start a conversation about their work and yours, about the pleasures and perils of storytelling. I have used my role as staff writer at The Millions to bother at least half a dozen writers I admire, and I think I’m almost brave enough to reach out, next time around, as a regular old fan.

4. Set goals and deadlines for yourself.
Decide what you want to work on. You might start out small, like, “I want to finish a draft of this essay in the next six weeks.” Later on, you can keep simultaneous goals: “I want to revise my essay in two weeks, and also get halfway done on that short story I’ve been fantasizing about.” Write down these deadlines and plans, and announce your intentions to a kind soul (or two) who can keep you honest. Learn discipline.

5. Send work out.
This should be secondary to the writing, but after you’ve gotten your work in good shape, research the submission process. Duotrope is an excellent resource for short story writers, and blogs like AgentQuery can help you navigate the agent submission process. Don’t write with publication in mind (such writing can have a stink to it, I think), but educate yourself, and then put your work out there. Get used to being rejected.

6. Commit
In your letter you said, “I’m an amateur fiction/essay writer who is committing to writing.” That syntax struck me. Why not, “I’m an amateur fiction/essay writer who is committed to writing.” I sense hesitation in that gerund; I see a person on the verge of stepping into the writing life, a person with a foot lifted, but not yet landed. To that I say: Come on, walk on over. We’re waiting with open arms.


The Writing Teacher

Got a question? Send all queries about craft, technique, or the writing life to [email protected]

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. I am currently a junior majoring in English. This summer I plan to start the process of applying to MFA programs for my graduate degree. One thing that continues to trip me when looking at possible programs is having to decide between poetry and prose. I feel I am stronger at writing poetry, but prose seems to be the option would benefit more for a future in writing. Do you have any advice on choosing between the two? Or, do you know of any programs that allow you to write both?

  2. Dear Writing Teacher,

    I think you make some excellent points in your response to Aspiring Author. I especially like what you say about not paying for an MFA. Unfortunately, I speak from experience. I paid for my MFA, and boy, do I wish I hadn’t. I would like to emphasize to Aspiring Author that one point. DON’T pay for it, unless, of course, you happen to be able to afford it and are determined to get an MFA. Why not pay for it? Because you can easily find the same reasonable advice about writing in one or two paperback books on the subject that you would get from any MFA program. By going this route, you save yourself a ton of money, not to mention a lot of time.

    No, you won’t receive specific comments on your own work from a book. But you can you get that from other places for free, for example, from a writing group. Also, what is the real value of receiving comments on your work in progress? For me, the nearly unrelenting criticism I received on my work in progress from my peers and workshop leaders all but shut me down as a writer. Which brings me to the point I want to make. Based on my own experience, I have to disagree with you, Writing Teacher, regarding what you say about MFA programs making people write. The very opposite thing happened to me. The constant criticism made me not to want to write, more than anything else. Instead of writing with joy and freedom, I wrote fearfully and grudgingly throughout most of my time in the program. It has taken me several years to recover from my MFA experience. I wish it hadn’t happened. Even worse is knowing that I paid for it to happen.

    You may be thinking that I am just a big baby and can’t stand criticism. But that was not the case. It was instead that over time I understood that I would never be able to write the way the people in my program were telling me to. It took me a while to figure that out.

    I would also say to Aspiring Author, take a good long look at the programs you are applying to, if you decide to apply. Find out what really goes on in them, how they work, who teaches in them. Above all, ask yourself what you are hoping to get from the program. Understand as thoroughly as you can your own expectations before you go, if you go. Doing so may help you better deal with the inevitable disappointment that will follow.

    And, in case you’re wondering, I have recovered some measure of confidence in my writing, and I do love to write again. It just took me a while to get back.

    Good luck!

  3. Thanks for this discussion; I’m in the midst of sorting through these issues myself. I’m looking into getting an MFA, the cost of which would, in my case, be paid for almost entirely by loans. The question of the debt has been agonizing, but is there really nothing more to be gained than feedback on my writing? An MFA is a terminal degree, after all. It may not be an MS in computer engineering, but one could reasonably hope to teach freshman comp. as an adjunct (low paying and often thankless, I know, but better than working in a coffee shop, right?) (No disrespect to coffee shops). If anyone would care to elaborate on why they think an MFA would not be worth the expense out-of-pocket, I’d be grateful.

  4. I wouldn’t count on that, D.

    For one thing, you’d have to have published original work in order to even be considered for a teaching post at most university programs. That’s an entire variable beyond your merits as a teacher or the fact that you have a degree.

    Beyond that, I’d encourage you to read Roxane Gay’s post over at HTMLGIANT about “The Creative Writing Job Market 2011-2012.” She estimates that there were only between “40-50” teaching openings in creative writing this year.


  5. In response to Seeking MFA:

    Short answer: only you can figure out which form you are most compelled to write.

    Long answer: When I was a junior in college, I was also trying to choose between poetry and fiction. I loved both and I felt equally strong in both. I chose poetry because it seemed, somehow, easier (writing a poem a week seemed more doable than writing a novel). One of my professors validated this choice by saying that there were twice as many fiction students so, as a poet, I would get more attention.

    Then senior year came around and suddenly I couldn’t write a single good poem. Instead of being selected as an Honors student, I was given only an independent study. Finally, that same professor who’d told me I would have more attention as a poet told me to just own up to the fact that I obviously wanted to be writing fiction. I switched over and–Hollywood ending–I got High Honors for my thesis in fiction.

    You might want to choose fiction because more people read fiction than poetry. You might want to choose poetry because fewer people apply to the MFA in poetry so you’d have a better chance to get in. Neither of these are good reasons to choose. Ultimately, you have to reckon with what makes you happiest, what you naturally gravitate toward, what you feel strongest in. If you don’t know that yet, you must figure it out before you apply to an MFA. You MUST. Otherwise, you might waste 2 years and a lot of happiness in the wrong place. The vast majority of MFA programs do not allow you to switch over. If you need more time to figure out your best style, take it.

    Good luck!

  6. For a piece that complains about Batuman’s “ignorant blanket statements,” this does precious little to actually engage with his argument. Batuman’s point is not simply that MFA programs “homogenize” writing (a point which would be far too vaguely-stated to prove one way or the other); her argument is that particular aspects of MFA programs (lack of emphasis on the canon, for example, and superficial fixation on “outsider” perspectives) result in work that is thoroughly unsatisfying.

  7. Thanks, everyone, for their advice and comments. Jenna, thanks for weighing in, and you too, Amanda–so sorry your MFA experience was so terrible! That sounds awful!

    Seeking MFA, there are a few programs that let you take classes in both genres–I believe USC’s MPW is one of them, and the program at UT Austin is super prestigious and you have to pick two genres. I am sure there are other programs out there. You could also go one time as a poet…and then go again as a prose writer! (Or, do what my friend and fellow student Steve Grant did: do both at once!) I do agree with Jenna that you might want to wait a while to explore both genres fuller on your own, to see which one is truly speaking to you. You can always do both, but one might be more interesting to you, as a subject of study.

    D., of course you get way more from a grad program than feedback on your work; but often what you do and learn there isn’t easily monetized later. If you want to go, you want to go–sometimes you just have to say ‘fuck it,’ whatever debts you might accrue, and follow your desires. It is possible to get loans and still lead a happy, fulfilling life that includes paying said loans back. People do it all the time. But, Nick’s right, those teaching jobs can be hard to find. Also, they don’t pay well–that doesn’t necessarily matter…unless you have big loans to pay back. I already had some undergrad loans, so I didn’t want to add to my debt. In the end, it’s up to you, of course–you know what’s right for your life, your career, etc. All I know is, my husband has a lot of film school debt and it’s been hard for him, and for us. I’d like to be a home-owner someday, you know?! :)

    Will, I wasn’t writing a full-fledged response to Ms. Batuman’s argument (she’s a lady, btw) in this post, but her argument certainly merits a longer reply…many of which were written back when her essay first appeared. But you make a good point. Thanks.

  8. I’m all for the residency and fellowship route to be able to have the time, inspiration and right writing environment to focus and grow in my craft.

    No MFA would take me anyway haha The lack of structure of a good residency frees up my muse.

    But then again I’m an outsider! :)

    Great dialogue here, I learned a lot reading it.


  9. Yes, Pete, I totally neglected to mention how wonderful conferences and residencies can be: Tin House, Squaw Valley, etc. And residencies like Vermont Studio Center, Djerassi, Ucross, etc. etc. There are so many out there!

  10. “Is committing” is not a gerund, as noted in the final paragraph. Rather, it’s a verb phrase in the present progressive tense. By converting it to “is committed,” you create a simple descriptive clause: “who is committed to writing,” in which “who” is the subject, a relative pronoun; “is” is the linking verb; and “committed to writing” is the descriptor, a subject complement.

    Gerunds are nouns created by adding “-ing” to the end of a verb. For example, you might say, “Committing to writing is the first step.” In that case, “Committing to writing” operates as the subject noun, similar to how “A ladder rung” might operate as a subject noun. If you don’t like it, you can eat a frog’s ass. Here’s a helpful resource:

  11. I stand corrected on the grammar! This is why
    I teach fiction writing and not comp. My grammar is self-taught, which accounts
    for the error. Thanks.

    Can I still eat a frog’s ass? Might be tasty.

  12. Eating frog’s asses is my favorite pastime. In that case, “Eating frog’s asses” is a gerund, just as “Skiing” could be a gerund and sentence subject, or “Baseball” could be a subject noun.

  13. Though, in hindsight, it should probably be “frogs’ asses,” since frogs is plural. I hate internet commenting almost as much as I hate myself.

  14. Hello,

    Personally I wouldn’t do it… But it really depends on your *own* situation.

    I was looking at another 20k dollars in tuition, and possibly more in debt if you calculate the 2 year time lost, and didn’t have any interest in teaching.

    I got A’s in all my classes, I just didn’t feel it was worth putting any more time into it.

    I had already done my undergrad in creative writing, and I saw little difference in “advanced fiction” classes I took, and the same classes being taught in the graduate program. Basically, I dropped out, took my money and ran.

    Now, if I was at a fully funded program, I would have stayed. I guess it depends if you can get into a funded program, just realize, the good programs have about a 2% acceptance rates, and the ones that you might have a chance in are somewhere in the middle of nowhere Kansas, Alabama, Utah, and places such as that. I didn’t think it was worth uprooting myself for that.

  15. Also to mention, a lot of programs DO require you majored in English or a related degree, and many also require that you have significant background of upper level english courses. This often constitutes 18-21 hours or so, or at least the equivalent of a minor.

  16. Thank you for this wonderful answer.

    I got here from the page about transitions which I clipped for future reference. I love that kind of detailed explanation with examples. It was so good!

    I have a question about something mentioned here. How would one go through an MFA program without paying for it? How does that happen? I have researched programs many times and always give up because of the cost. It there is a way to get through it without paying, without going tens of thousands of dollars into debt. I would be most grateful to hear those details.

    In the meanwhile, I have been taking creative writing classes at the local community college which are really pretty fantastic; and only $46 a unit!

    Thank you, thank you.

    p.s. I’m sure you can tell I tried hard not to showing off.

  17. @kkrousseau–

    Information about a school’s funding should be available online…after you find the programs you like, search further regarding what kind of aid they give. I think the MFA Handbook supplies this info, too. And, if not, you should feel free to call a school to ask them how much grant/scholarship money they give, etc. Places like University of Michigan, for instance, have lots of money to give. Columbia–so I’ve heard–doesn’t.

    I only applied to schools that I knew had funding for students. It was so long ago I don’t recall how I found these schools…but I did. So if someone like me can do it (a normal human being without great research powers), so can you!

    That’s great about the affordable community college class. Maybe you don’t really need an MFA anyway! :)

  18. Thank you!

    I definitely do not really need an MFA. What I need is structure, deadlines, assignments, feedback, community, a mentor. The rest of it…perhaps a smudge on my self-image. Something wanted, one of those wisps we follow toward a more worthwhile self; the illusion, that illusion, that wanting.

    What? You don’t follow wisps?


  19. Why do some employers and school districts view the MFA Creative Writing as an Education Specialist degree?

  20. I really wish more of the better MFA programs were in bigger metros, or didn’t have absolutely miserable weather such as Minneapolis. Outside of quality of the school, location is the #1 issue for me. Having just turned 30, and with an SO in the working world, these small college towns just aren’t options to live. I’ve taken online classes before, and they proved not much of use at all, I think they might actually be worse in a workshop course which main benefit to me was being present for the workshops everyday such as the ones I took in undergrad. It seems to be the good programs are either in small college towns, or NYC which is ultra expensive and doesn’t offer any stipends for the programs there… Can’t there be more in between? Better programs in say, Portland, Atlanta, DC, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, anywhere like that… blah.

    Ugh, what to do, what to do.

  21. A point of contention on the cost issue. An MFA with full funding is only cheaper if you are young and unattached and do not have an outside career, or if you have a job that pays less than about 35k a year.

    If you are in your 30’s and up, and you have a job that pays over 35k a year, the math simply does not add up to quit your job and go get an MFA, even if it is fully funded. You end up losing more money in salary than you gain in any fellowship – not to mention interrupting your career and permanently depressing your salary as a result. Much more expensive than straight tuition would have ever been.

    I did an MFA at a liberal arts college that does not offer much funding, but which schedules classes at night to cater to working adults. I thought of my “day job” as my fellowship, with the added bonus that because my job doesn’t require taking home papers to grade, I had more time to work on my writing.

    This is an aspect of the “should you get an MFA?” debate that is entirely overlooked. Prospective students should think carefully about potential lost earnings when calculating what is actually the best deal.

  22. Susan,

    Great point. As somebody who is 31, I have definitely thought that out. My first job out of college I made 37,440k a year or exactly $18 an hour, and while certainly not wealthy, I make a good bit more now with a proven track record… but not enough to quit working for 2 years on a degree which won’t get me anything, and in fact might stifle my earning potential in the future once I go back into the work force. I am one of those people who has considered doing the MFA (grappled for years)
    If I were to do it over again, I think I might go straight out of undergrad when I was 21, but living someplace where I don’t want to live (as I mentioned) and going back to a virtual minimum wage living on stipend could prove a huge loss.

    My SO and I have both been accepted and published in literary journals, but just no book deals… we have both contemplated the MFA… however, there is certainly no guarantee it would get us a book deal, nor that it would improve our writing to a level which would be worth a 2-3 year commitment/move.

  23. Amanda,

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I was sitting here feeling crummy about not having the chance to get an MFA, and wondering if it would mean never making progress. Yes, I know that’s ridiculous and your comments helped me see the light. Getting an MFA is not always a helpful thing, and a determined person can manage without one.

    Care to recommend your favorite instructional books?


  24. jdao,
    You might be interested in Poets & Writers, Sept/Oct 2012, issue ( It discusses “The MFA issue.” It provides information on the 114 top programs (85 full-residency and 29-low residency) in a chart that covers popularity, application costs, funding, class size, genres available and many other factors. I found it very informative and helpful.

    Good discussion by Edan and some insightful comments by others.

  25. I know I’m late to the conversation, but I am currently in an MFA program. I hate it. I wake up every school day with dread. Why? Because my classmates seem to have fallen into the bad habit of criticizing without being constructive. My professor is also a part of the problem. When I was in undergrad, I never walked away from a class feeling hopeless. Yet here I am, a portfolio due in two weeks and I haven’t a single clue as to what to revise.

    Long story short, I am not going back next semester. The entire experience has been a nightmare, and in my opinion, not worth taking out loans for. If you’re funded, go for it, but also make sure it’s the right fit. Good luck to those out there who want tot go!

  26. I love to write ! I have quite a bit of poetry and other short stories i have put together. How do i take these writings from pieces of paper to reality>

    I have an associate degree in accounting.

  27. I start my MFA program in November 2014 and I am excited! My Bachelor degree is in Finance and I was accepted by one school and rejected by another. I knew I wanted to get a master’s degree (MBA was screaming my name), but the thought of going to school and earning a degree for reading and writing– two things I’m already doing– won me over. I am looking forward to the structured writing and reading time, but also to join a group of like minded people who are chasing the same goals. That is something I lack in my personal life and I am tickled to death to become a part of this group. But I also totally agree that an MFA is a personal choice, and not right (or wrong) for everyone! Excellent post, thanks!

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