The MFA and Jobs

When I was in the process of applying to MFA programs, I was warned again and again that there may not be a job available for me once I graduate, that the landscape of academia had changed, and that I might even want to consider whether an MBA might make more sense. Aware of these warnings, I still enrolled in an MFA program, but I diligently followed instructions. I was not going to “waste” my time in a program. I was going to follow every suggestion I could to ensure I wouldn’t sink once I graduated.

I was told to “go where the money is.” I went to a program that was going to waive my tuition and pay me a stipend. Instead of taking out a loan to make up for the deficit in my stipend (because less than $1000 a month can be pretty hard to live off of), I worked a part-time job around my graduate and teaching assistant duties.

I was told to get connected through social media. The now famous Rebecca Skloot even dedicated an entire class to how to use Twitter. I started an account, and I tweeted and retweeted and hashtagged things related to writing. I turned my Facebook from a private THESE-ARE-MY-FEELINGS-AND-STUFF page with pictures from all the way back to my fledgling years in undergrad to a more professional/public one where I only post things related to writing or things I am comfortable with the world knowing.

I was told to start submitting, and even was required to show proof that I had as part of a grade for a class. By the January following my first semester, I got my first acceptance in a very small journal. Get in the best journals, I was told. I kept submitting, and I got published in better and better journals. Get published in other genresDiversify, I was told. So I took a fiction class and worked on a couple of stories. Then I worked on CNF. I got a story published and a couple of essays.

I applied for exclusive fellowships and teaching positions during my final year. I even sent a revised version of my thesis out to book contests. I was told, Get a teaching job. Get a fellowship. Win a book contest. So I applied; I revised; I entered. The exclusive fellowships and teaching positions went to individuals with lists of publication credits, awards, and honors that rivaled Santa’s Naughty list. Other people’s books won.

I was lucky that the part-time job I’d been working at the entire time I was pursuing my graduate degree took me on full-time. I was lucky that my full-time job allowed me to choose my own hours and that, occasionally, I’d have downtime in the middle of the day to be able to write, read, revise, submit, apply, tweet, post. I knew I wouldn’t work at this job forever, but without an idea where I would move next, I kept at what I was doing, thinking, If my book won a prestigious contest, I could get an academic job. 

All of the writers I follow and am friends with on Twitter and Facebook mostly work in academia at the collegiate level, and I saw that as my real goal, like Annette Bening in American Beauty whispering as she cleaned the blinds, I will sell this house today. I will sell this house today. I whispered, I will get an academic job. I will get an academic job. I dreamed of tweed and the same bright-faced students I had taught as a teaching assistant filling my semesters, of readings and book tours.

Then a dear friend of mine sent me a text message saying a position was open at a private school I really respected and had previously interviewed with. After reading the thoughts of other writers who had gone this route, I applied again, and after a rigorous process, was offered the job. This job not only allows me to do something I love (teach), but also gives me what I’ve been seeking this entire time: stability and security.

As the reality of this new job has sunk in, I’ve found myself withdrawing from the “world” of writers, though not from my private acts of writing. I’m not keeping tabs on open reading periods for journals, not stalking the progress of my submissions on Submittable, not posting who won what contest. I’ve noticed my detachment by just…noticing it. “Oh, I don’t care that guy got his panel accepted? Oh, I don’t care that woman’s book got published?”

My desire to submit to prestigious book contests has waned too. They cost money, yes, but I also don’t necessarily want what comes with a huge book prize. I’m an introvert at heart, and it takes a lot of coaxing and breathing to get through a lot of extroverted interaction. While I can teach my classes with passion and engagement, a book tour where I’d meet a lot of strangers and spend lonely nights in hotel rooms sounds awful. What I really want is to hold my book in my hands and for it to have a really lovely cover (my poet self does have some vanity when it comes to book covers…), and so I’m supplementing my contest submissions (since I haven’t let those go as of yet) with querying small presses that focus on the art that’s paired for the book.

When I was maybe in the first year in my MFA program, I interviewed Beth Ann Fennelly. I remember asking her something like, “What would you say to graduating MFA poets now?” She responded with something like, “It’s hard!” and I was surprised by the forceful way she said it, and that was maybe the first time I let that little voice of reason creep in and say, “Maybe it will be.”

My advice to graduating MFA students?

*Don’t stop writing. Ever.

*Blaze your own trail. You might be meant to teach at the college level. You might also be meant to be a waiter, a yoga instructor, or a corporate lawyer. Find what fits for you, and don’t stop writing. If you find yourself jealous of someone else, figure out what you can do to get what they have (submit more, apply to teach at a college, submit to a contest, etc.). Use your jealousy to find out what you really want.

*Submit. Write because you want to write, because you need to write. Then when you have something, submit it. Submit frequently. Submit because you want to be part of a literary conversation, because you love journals and love to receive them.

*Subscribe to journals. Do it because you want to be part of a literary conversation and because you love them. Do it because you want words to stay adrift in the wind.

*If you decide to or do write a book/collection, decide what you want in terms of getting it published. Do you want it published? If so, by whom? What comes with your book publication? Are you prepared for that? Do you want the things that come with it (a book tour, an aggressive Twitter campaign)?

*Don’t stop writing. Ever.


Other thoughts:


21 thoughts on “The MFA and Jobs

  1. What a wonderful post! Wish I’d read something like this in my twenties. I just turned 40, and I’m still trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do with my life, job-wise – but yes, writing is probably the one constant I’ve had. Everything else waxes and wanes, and hardly anyone just has one job for the rest of their life – they dip in and out of career paths, skidding to one extreme and then the other.
    I would add one piece of advice for your younger MFA-seeking readers: don’t focus so much on winning a book prize, focus on getting your book out there. There are lots of publishers that take open submissions that don’t demand $30 fees, etc. These days, big press or small press, most poets are left do to most of the book publicity and marketing on their own, and if you’re worried about that – don’t! Some poets I know really kill themselves doing all the publicity stuff for their books, others do minimal amounts. In the world of poetry book sales, you’re talking about the difference between selling, say, 500 books or 2000 books.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I also need to hear from more people that it’s okay not to win a book prize. After being in academia where I felt like everyone was pushing for that, it’s hard to let that go.

  2. Reblogged this on Literary Citizenship and commented:
    I really like this post. I think it speaks to what I’ll call “Literary Citizenship Burnout.” And how important it is to find your own way of feeling “connected,” or why you might need to disconnect as well. Very honest description of what creative writing students face once they’re out of school.

  3. this is such a wonderful post. it took getting accepted at a small press for me to realize that what all comes with winning a contest is Not something i want–the traveling and book tours sound horrendous to me too! especially with my babies at home–i just can’t do it. you’ll get your book out there–and i think its awesome that you Know what you want!

    1. Fantastic post that was recommended to be by an MFA graduate! I graduate this summer. You just confirmed everything I have already been thinking!

  4. Really enjoyed your post. I just finished a class taught by a Cathy Day (at Ball State University) who was very pro-active about being an “open node” for other writers and building connections between them. The timing of this post was great. (Cathy’s blog:

  5. This post arrived in my Inbox at the right time. I just finished my first year in an MFA program focused on Writing and Publishing. Having a full time job where I have time to write during the day and part of my responsibilities are researching and developing Newsletter content – I felt guilty initially for feeling okay with my current situation and not shucking it all off to live as a destitute TA. I will still get my teaching cred if it’s something I want to do in the future, and I will still have my MFA, but it will be in my own time and my own way. Writing is the most important aspect of this additional schooling; shaping my craft and learning about publishing. Reading about your journey has just confirmed what I’ve known all along, which is to become a better writer but don’t let the pressure of fitting into the writing “world” become a deterrent for developing my craft. Thank you! I’m so glad I found your blog and subscribed.

    1. Thanks for reading and your comment! I feel like I’m a better writer because I wasn’t “isolated” in an MFA program (taking classes, teaching classes). I had my real-life experiences and also checked in and stayed a part of a writing community. I also don’t think anyone should go into debt pursuing an MFA. Things are just too uncertain once you’re done. I’m glad I didn’t, and I’d encourage anyone to avoid it as much as possible. Good luck on your journey!

  6. What an honest and moving post, Tara Mae. I’ve been thinking about post-MFA life as I’m due to graduate in early July and just completed my last required writing for the program. Now mine is a low-residency program (VCFA), and those aren’t as focused as producing instructors, I don’t believe, because you don’t have a chance to TA in classes. But I was surprised at how many of my classmates wanted that degree in significant part to teach. I kept thinking about how many MFA programs are out there, and how many teachers we need for them vs. how many are graduating. And I kept thinking about whether I would feel ready to teach just because I had the degree. Didn’t I need to keep growing as a writer first? Would I have wanted one of my VCFA instructors to have just graduated right before I arrived?

    I pursued the MFA to grow as a writer, and I have definitely done so. I’ve also emerged with some publishable work and a better understanding of the CNF world. I am pleased that I’ll have that terminal degree, however, should I decide to pursue that down the road (I teach a bit now, including online through The Loft Literary Center, but not at a university level).

    I found it interesting how when you started teaching you drifted from your writing world. I think that is both common and unfortunate. I know many writers do that post-MFA even when not going into teaching jobs. I also have noticed some writing professors never seem to publish anything; it’s like they did enough to secure the job and then stop writing. That seems odd, and sad, but is common and understandable.

    Your to-do’s at the bottom work for everyone, MFA grads or not.

    Sorry for the length of this comment! You’ve just hit on something I’ve been thinking about lately.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Patrick! Good luck on figuring out what you’re going to do once you graduate. I’d be scared to teach without any experience teaching, but maybe plenty of people are comfortable and able to do that. The MFA is sadly also becoming not so much a terminal degree since so many schools are coming out with a PhD in creative writing.

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