about bulletins books Maureen Johnson dot com blog f.a.q. contact community
scarlett fever
suite scarlett
girl at sea
13 little blue envelopes
the bermudez triangle
the key to the golden firebird
vacations from hell
let it snow


Today, someone on Twitter asked me: “After getting a BA in Creative Writing, is graduate school for the same a bad idea?”

I replied that I thought it was a good idea to get experience in something else. To which someone else then replied: “Why? I’m getting my undergrad in writing and getting into a really good MFA [Master of Fine Arts] program is a big dream of mine.” Then many other people asked why. Why was I saying this? Do I just love the sound of crushing sweet, sweet dreams?

No! On the contrary, I hope to ASSIST you in making your dreams into reality! Since many people seemed curious about this, I thought it best to EXPAND my views into a blog post! Let us talk about MFAs, and let us be candid.

First of all, I don’t really like BAs in creative writing to begin with. But okay. Let’s say you have one, since that was the question. If you are considering an MFA in writing (which is the only kind of MFA I am talking about here), ask yourself this: “What do I hope to accomplish with my degree?”

*pauses while question is answered* Okay. Did you answer:

- to impress people with my fancy schooling
- to stay in school forever
- to find myself
- to delay getting a job
- to annoy my parents
- to figure out if I like writing
- to keep my campus parking permit

. . . WRONG ANSWER! *takes paper, eats*

Let’s get one thing clear . . . NO ONE WILL CARE ABOUT YOUR MFA EXCEPT YOUR MOM. MFAs confer no power. The only thing they technically allow you to do is teach other MFAs, except those jobs usually only go to people with some kind of publication record, many (if not most) of whom won’t have MFAs—or, more annoyingly, to the English MAs who often have mandatory experience teaching Freshman Comp—so don’t rely on it for that. Editors don’t care. Agents don’t care. It doesn’t increase your chances of publication one iota. MFAs are so expensive and essentially useless that they are definitely NOT the place to figure out if you like writing. The ONLY thing you can hope the MFA will do is improve your skills. That’s it. (And there are many people who hold that MFAs make you WORSE, not better. I think mine helped me, but I can definitely see their point.)

Now, if you go right from college to an MFA program, your only life experience up until this point has been in school. I realize that everyone has a life outside of class and everyone has their own story and personality, but . . . you’ve still be in college the whole time. And college is, well, college. Which leads to two potential problems:


Up until now, you’ve always been in arenas where people have had to read your work, because you were a student. Once you are out of that arena, you enter a world of fierce competition, where no one has to read a word you write. So you had better be interesting.

Let’s get right down to it—if you are in a writing program, you are kind of paying for people to humor you. If you want to spend two or three years writing dense, tangled narratives about the life and death of your pet parakeet BooBoo,* your teachers and your fellow students may encourage you to stop, but no on can actually stop you without tazing you.** And the reason you may be doing this is . . .


The best material and the best method comes from life, life outside of the routine of college. Sure, stuff can happen to you in college—really weird and crazy stuff. But you’d be amazed just how SIMILAR a lot of that weird and crazy stuff is, how a lot of people will have the same stories.

Here’s a little story about ME . . .

“Great!” you may say. “That’s means people will LIKE my story because it will remind them of their own experiences!”

It doesn’t work that way. The key is PERSPECTIVE. You need experience and time to figure out how to frame those events, to realize what they mean in the long run. Plus, you just need MORE STUFF to happen to you outside of the confines of a campus. You need to struggle and have heartache and have to search for a job and a place to live and make important decisions.

The people I saw who really excelled in the MFA program were people who had been out of school at least for a few years. Pretty much all of these people had had jobs. And some people had come from very different fields of study. The difference in the writing was incredible. I mean, even if you are writing about vampires or werewombats . . . you still need to instill your story with an underlying BIG TRUTH about love or loss. Maybe you want to write about a girl who moves to New York to make it big! Awesome! What do you know about that? Have you tried to move to a place and make it big? Have you ever moved anywhere on your own? It’s experience and perspective that give stories depth.

Frankly, I don’t push MFAs on people at all. I did one, and I’m glad, but I don’t think it is what made me. And when I look around at all of my writer friends, I’m the ONLY one (that I can think of) with an MFA. They all had various kinds of experiences. John Green was a hospital chaplain. Ally Carter was an agricultural economist. David Leviathan still is an editor/publisher. Justine Larbalestier has a PhD in semiotics. Scott Westerfeld designed software. Robin Wasserman did her graduate work in scientific history. Cassie Clare worked for the National Enquirer. Meg Cabot ran a dormitory. The list goes on and on.

I had loads of jobs. I was a waitress in a theme restaurant, I traveled around the country with a media company, I worked in theater, I worked with tigers and weirdos and directors who made everyone take off their pants for rehearsal, for management consultants who used incomprehensible jargon . . . and I wrote. I used a lot of what I saw. I used crazy customers. I used the worry of not being able to make the rent. I used the psychology I learned from waiting tables. I used the struggle and loss and uncertainty and excitement and wisdom . . . all from things that happened to me after I left the security of a campus and moved to a city and made it on my own.

And I got an MFA.

Since I HAVE one, let me give you my suggestions for MFA success:

1. Know what you want. An MFA is loosey-goosey enough, so have a goal in mind. Don’t go there to “find yourself.” Go there to sharpen what you already have. But in order to figure out what that is . . .

2. Take a few years between your BA and MFA. Write a lot. Finish something.

3. Research any program you are considering to a fault. An MFA is no place for a safety school. Get into the one you want, or don’t go. Consider the faculty. Look them up. Read their books. Consider their graduates. Are they publishing? Can they demonstrate a clear track record? Consider the classes and programs offered. Do they offer any interaction with the publishing industry in addition to the academic work? Consider the acceptance rate. If they take the majority of people who apply, be wary. Consider how much it costs. Do they offer scholarships or allow you to work while you’re in school? Don’t be afraid to ask these questions.

4. Avoid the “my work is too good for this world” art snobs. MFA programs are full of them.

5. Stick with the people who work hard and write much, for theirs is the path of writeousness. (Sorry for that.) (But it’s true.)

6. Remember that the program is finite. Like the people of Ye Olde Times who used to put up pictures of dancing skeletons to remind themselves constantly that life is short and vanity is foolish, always think about life after your MFA. In fact, live that life as much as you can. Prepare by learning as much as you can about publishing and securing a way of earning income.

I truly believe those six steps will help you have a FULFILLING experience in an MFA program.

I hope this helps. It has certainly helped me break my cycle of NOT WRITING BLOG POSTS FOR A WHILE. This was because I was writing A BOOK. But I am back on the saddle now, so if you need ADVICE on other matters, please let me know.

* Believe me, I have seen this happen.
** They have probably considered this.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Tumblr
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Slashdot
  • StumbleUpon
  • Print
  • FriendFeed

Posted: Saturday, May 8th, 2010 @ 8:06 pm
Categories: advice.
Subscribe to the comments feed if you like. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

35 Responses to “ASK MJ: HOW TO GET AN MFA”

  1. Johanna Says:

    Maureen, I love this post. As with most of your posts. I’m a creative writing minor, so I take a lot of classes with creative writing majors and (surprise!) end up reading a lot of stories about college students. I have friends who want MFAs and I don’t get it. I can’t wait to get out into the world and start gathering up the junk pile that will eventually be a novel!

  2. Girl With English BA Says:

    As someone applying to MFA programs with a focus in Fiction, other students who are considering graduate school must keep in mind that most MFA programs (the top 50 schools) will require some sort of publication history. And you are right, the only thing you really can do with an MFA is teach and if you are serious about that, you should just go ahead and go for your PhD. To expand on what you’ve said (which is pretty good advice to people who are experimenting with this writing thing) I offer: Explore schools that pride themselves on being interdisciplinary. The more you cross your education into other programs, the more you will be able to expand your own ways of thinking. Learn another language, study foreign literature. Read theory. If you are a serious writer, find a group to workshop with and get your work out there. Submit to low-key journals until you are blue in the face and up to your neck in rejection letters. Fix you work and send it out again. Always have a back-up plan, but never quit on self-improvement.

    Remember again, graduate school is no joke. My fellow peers who are years ahead of me and experiencing what it’s like to go after that degree (and MA degrees in Literature) have been sent home after submitting 50+ pages and are told to start over. Workshops will show you no mercy. Prepare yourselves.

  3. Laura Says:

    A year or so ago, I would have read this and said, “Oh, poppycock! MFA programs help you learn!” But now I agree with pretty much everything, and I’m graduating college this year with a B.A. in Creative Writing.

    For me, writing is something I’ve wanted to do since kindergarten and have, but once I finally got into my program, I found out how utterly boring it is. Sure, it has been fun, and I have improved my writing and editing skills a lot; however, I don’t think I would have stuck with it if I hadn’t studied a lot of other stuff.

    It’s weird, too, how many people automatically assume I’m going into an MFA program.

    “Oh, you majored in English? Are you going to grad school?”

    So anyway, I agree that life experience and life away from a structured environment makes for some good and often weird material. Then you can go back and connect your experiences and figure out what they really meant.

  4. Maureen Says:

    Thank you! But I have a question . . . “keep in mind that most MFA programs (the top 50 schools) will require some sort of publication history”

    Is this true? No school I knew of required a publication history (and I went to one of the top schools). And 50? That’s a lot for writing MFAs.

  5. lol Says:

    “Remember again, graduate school is no joke. My fellow peers who are years ahead of me and experiencing what it’s like to go after that degree (and MA degrees in Literature) have been sent home after submitting 50+ pages and are told to start over. Workshops will show you no mercy. Prepare yourselves.”

    I wish I could say the same about my own MFA program. With the exception of one teacher, I haven’t found much there that I couldn’t have gotten without the $45,000-a-year’s worth of debt. *sigh*

  6. lol Says:

    And also, the no mercy thing? In MY program? That’s a joke. I WANT that, but it just doesn’t happen.

  7. Tara Says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I’m currently after a BA in English Literary Studies (one of my minors is Creative Writing though), and I’m in the same boat as Laura, with it being assumed that I’ll go to grad school. I’m not really sure that I want to or even that I should, and your opinion on these things has made me feel loads better.

  8. Allison Says:

    I am not a creative writing major. I’m way too practical for that. And though I constantly debate whether to completely give up my dreams of being a writer, I always find myself compelled to attempt to tell a story.

    Even though this post was geared to those who are majoring in CW, if anything, it reassures me that if I work at it, I can be a psychology major and (maybe someday) a writer.

    Who knows. Maybe one day you’ll see my name on a novel that says “Allison ______, Ph.D” as the author byline. :P

  9. Amy B Says:

    I have my BA in English (with a Creative Writing concentration) and I do plan on eventually getting my MA in English as well. Thing is that I want to be a teacher, so it makes sense to continue learning in the area I teach!

    Great post though :) It gives wonderful advice for people really considering more training for writing.

  10. Jon Says:

    I agree with it all. Be practical. 99.9999% of writers have a day job. Thou shalt not live by writing alone…

  11. Allison Says:

    AHEM. Weren’t you going to write about PROM? *taps toe* *checks watch* *glares*

    This was great, though. I’ve wondered about Graduate School and what I want to do and when I want to do it… it’s nice to hear your perspective. I started following your tweets and blogs and such because you’re hilarious and awesome, but I stick around for things like this. Thanks, mj!

  12. pete Says:

    Maureen’s right. Just go to law school and get a real job; anything with the word “art” on its name is just for lazy hippies!

  13. Kai Says:

    Yay, a new blog post!
    I am thinking about going into writing, but I am torn between that and acting. I’ve pretty much resigned my life to be the poor struggling artist type, seeing as everything I have passion for is a difficult career path!

  14. Ransom Says:

    Great post, Maureen. It’s always nice to be reminded that editors and agents aren’t looking for the MFA.

  15. Mary Says:

    Good advice here! I’m not a writer, but a professor and my general advice on grad school tends to be first “Nooooooooo!” followed by a “well, maybe…but think about it.”

    I teach graduate students, and yes I have a whole chunk of graduate degrees myself, so feel very qualified to point out potential problems with grad school in general. Big problem: it is REALLY EXPENSIVE to go to grad school, not just in tuition and the decades of student loans you accumulate, but also the time you lose out on by not getting into the job market, not paying into social security, not getting started on buying a house/car/whatever. It sucks to look up from your studies in your 30s and realize you still have a cruddy apartment, furniture you picked up from street corners, and clothes from Goodwill, while other people your age have real careers and incomes. And it is so often just foolish to do this.

    You may want to be a professor, but the jobs are far and few between. I’m insanely lucky to have landed one and I did it because of my years of work experience before I got here more than my handful of graduate degrees. And then what do you do – hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, ten years into graduate school, no employment prospects and just hitting the job market? It sucks. It blows. It’s all that bad stuff. Do that part first and take your work experience to grad school, and you will be much more successful!

    But if you decide you MUST have a graduate degree (and they can be useful), think it through first. Talk to a LOT of people who have experience from as many perspectives as possible. Don’t assume “authority” figures know what is best for you.

    (Small example: my college advisor really encouraged me to go to an expensive fancy highly-ranked grad school instead of cheap state school. $100,000 worth of loans later for me, and I discovered this advice was given because they wanted to be able to put on their recruiting material that people went to fancy ranked schools. Which sucked, was too large and impersonal for me, and I hated every second I spent there. And then I did not get a job after graduation in that field. So, thanks expensive school I’ll never finish paying off!)

    You are the one who has to pay back the loans, so you should make the best, most informed, passion-less decision that you can. Which is hard, yes. But…avoid my mistakes!

    Interesting editorial you may also want to check out at the Chronicle of Higher Education on making a smart choice to avoid graduate school: http://chronicle.com/article/Making-a-Reasonable-Choice/65140/?sid=wb&utm_source=wb&utm_medium=en

    Just throwing in my own two cents to the conversation. :)

  16. Girl With English BA Says:

    I communicate with faculty of programs, trying to find the right fit for either MFA or an MA and they say that unless you’ve published in a journal or what-not they usually toss you in the “no” pile.

    The top programs are the “no mercy” programs. ;) Unless the world’s gone soft all of a sudden. Which would be a bloody shame. Or perhaps it’s my own vicious nature in which I workshop. You gotta dish it to get it.

    Experience is a must, I agree with everyone here, but curiosity is also something to have. The students who write about college life aren’t very curious about the world around them, it seems.

    I’m going to grad school because I am the first in my family to have a college degree and writing has been my life and my passion.

  17. Amy Says:

    MJ please do tell us more about your new book! Is it the London/supernatural/Jack-the-Ripper one? Do you have a title for it yet? Because I want to put a name to it on my books to die for in 2011 list, aside from Maureen-Johnson-super-kewl-new-paranormal-book :D

    Sorry for not addressing the main issue at hand-the MFA thing- and instead focusing on the tiny little smidgeon of info you mentioned about writing your new book, because I am still in HS and these things seem, in my point of view, a long way off for the time being. I am reveling in APs right now. Tehe.

  18. Made oF Awesome Says:

    I *just* finished my MFA this week (WOOT!). I agree with much of this post and I even think some things apply more broadly. For example, the work in between undergrad & graduate school. I think everyone should do this because you will more fully appreciate grad school if you’ve already tasted/touched/felt the “real world.”

    An MFA like any masters, qualifies you to teach at least at the community college level. So there’s that. Will it lead you to wealth and glory? Nope. But it is a pretty kickin way to impact lives of students and fight the man (aka overpriced often inaccessible education system).

    Finally, the best things I got out of my program were 1) the opportunity to spend a few years doing nothing but reading and writing and NOT feeling guilty for it 2) a community of writers (from my cohort) who want to see me and my work succeed (the feeling is mutual!) 3) the opportunity to make errors and learn from them and to sit at the feet of masters (hello, reading series!) 4) $ That’s right, there are ways to fund your program so that you not only get to do #1, but get paid for it.

    If you have realistic expectations, the MFA can mean Made oF Awesome. :)

  19. Paige Says:

    Maureen, I’m doing a school project, but none of my group members are doing any of the work. How do I make them stop being lazy so I don’t have to do it all?

  20. Paige Says:

    Oh, and I have another question: How do I think up an interesting blog name without having to expel tons of effort?

  21. Joan Says:

    This was a really helpful and interesting blog entry! And I’ve always been curious about your MFA… for some reason *shifty eyes*
    And it’s great that you’re back to updating your blog!!

    Let us all follow the path of writeousness!!

  22. pete Says:

    so what did Libba Bray do before writing? was she a pirate?

    (what? too soon?)

  23. Shelley Says:

    Writers need to spend more time than others studying history, politics, science, and classic writers: the hard ground, the firm grounding.

  24. Hilary Says:

    Definitely helpful! As a hardcore science major, this has no direct affect to me, but I know alot of people in some kind of arts or English type program (and a couple philosophy majors), so I have a better sense of what they’re working with.

    I’m still young, but grad school scares me just from this. Granted it won’t be an MFA program whatsoever, it still makes me think of what I SHOULD do instead of just getting a Masters.

  25. thisiscompletelyunrelated Says:

    I know you’re supposed to be writing a post about prom soon and you’ve asked for questions and I just happen have a question or ramble or something about that subject that is much to long to fit in an @reply (already).
    I’m actually in college, and have already attended my actual prom (so not worth the $70 I paid for the ticket alone, btw, but I wasn’t going for me anyway, I was going for my friend who really wanted to go but not without her friends, but I digress).
    But, next Saturday, I will be attending physics prom (provided I can find something awesome to wear). God knows why — I can’t dance, I HATE physics, I’ve never felt anything but awkward at a dance, I have social anxiety, and it’s not even like I have date or something. I’m going completely of my own volition. I think I’m going for the pretty dress. Advice?
    p.s. to any one who actually got through this: you must really be procrastinating, stop lying to yourself (“just one more post, ack! this is the most recent-must read comments”) and go read a book (or alternatively, actually study for that exam that’s in 36 hours).

  26. e.lee Says:

    after what you go through to obtain an ‘MFA’, don’t those 3 letters stand for some sort of profanity?

    I have an MA (because I went to graduate school in England) same crap, different pile.

  27. Ms. Yingling Says:

    The sad part is that the people who want to get an MFA will read this and disagree with all of it. I don’t know how useful graduate school is for writing, but if it’s anything like, oh, Classics, it is a HUGE joke. Graduate schools in the liberal arts exist primarily to keep professors in jobs.There really aren’t any jobs available at the end. Not that I’m bitter or anything!

  28. girl who wants chocolate Says:

    MJ, what do you do when the fake owls your mom has (don’t ask) STARE AT YOU?

  29. Helen Ellis Says:

    Great post. I got an MFA several years after college, and the best thing to come out of it was my two writing partners, Hannah Tinti and Ann Napolitano: two gals who write feverishly and are committed to the craft.

    Did I need an MFA to write books? No way. But I’m pretty sure I needed those two women who I still workshop (eat dinner and yap, yap, yap mostly) with once a week fifteen years later.

    Thanks so much for your creepy Catholic school keynote at BBC. Loved it!
    Helen Ellis

  30. Jess Says:

    I have a BA in writing. It did nothing for me. I completed two novels in the two years I completed the courses. By the time I did my senior thesis, I knew more about the craft and business of novel-length fiction than any of the professors (because of course you can’t focus on novel writing in these programs, a semester clearly isn’t long enough *snort*), and knew WAY more about genre fiction (because of course these programs are designed for literary snots). Now, I liked my professors, I had fun, but I would NEVER recommend it.

    Now that I’ve been out and have only been able to procure jobs as a glorified typist, I wish I’d studied something that could’ve led to a real job, or something that would have given me experience in something. Doing a BA or an MFA is simply to insular.

    And yes, three years post-grad, I worry I’m boring because of that insulation.

  31. Rachel Says:

    this post is scary…
    let me explain. (also, i don’t like to capitalize, sorry) i was directly quoted from my “four questions” outing in this, and, because i knew it was coming, i’m just now reading it. i’ll be graduating with a BA in writing (at my school, it requires courses in technical, creative, AND journalism writing) and my only real plan had been to go directly to an amazing MFA program the following fall. i’d been considering other types of programs, but the only field i could see myself studying further, despite getting a second major in french. considering anything outside of grad school freaks me out because it makes the possibilities much more numerous and thus scary. i still want to get an MFA, but i needed this post to get those blinders off, because it’s the only possibility i was considering.

  32. Mastering the Fine Arts « Words and Things Says:

    [...] YA author Maureen Johnson talks about the pros and cons of getting an MFA in writing in a blog post, and explains why she doesn’t recommend it. And I have to say I agree with some of her points. [...]

  33. link love: aug 1-aug 7 « waverly and waverly Says:

    [...] To MFA or not to MFA: the Paris Review attempts to answer this question plaguing many a young writer’s mind. For a more in depth look at the topic (whatever your stance, the Paris Review’s answer to this question is cursory at best), head over to Maureen Johnson’s blog post Ask MJ: How to Get an MFA [...]

  34. Tim Says:

    Reading through this post, I discovered that in many cases, your advice on MFA work can actually translate to other fields, both creative and scientific. You do need to know what you want, avoid the “holier than thou” people in your field, and go for the best possible school with no safeties.

    Your Bachelors degree proves that you know something, your Masters degree proves you want to know more, and your Doctorate proves that you want to help others know more. But in the end, you never know everything until you experience it.

  35. J.S. Lewis Says:

    What a great post. A friend pointed out your blog so I thought I’d check it out and this article drew my attention right away. What makes me sad about creative writing programs at the university level is that they don’t teach their students — who spend tens of thousands of dollars — how to recoup that investment.

    Writing is a business as much as an art, and the last MFA I had lunch with in hopes of helping them get published did not know what a query letter was. Say what?

    That makes me both sad and angry. What a ridiculous notion. Your advice to expand your knowledge and get a different degree (if indeed you feel called to get a Master’s) is amazing advice, and my hope and prayer is that everyone considering getting said MFA will read this blog prior to committing an awful lot of money for that degree.


Leave a Reply