What are you going to do with an MFA?

People have been asking me, from the moment I announced that I was going back to school to get an MFA, “What are you going to do with that?”

My preferred answer has been, “That’s not the point.” And it wasn’t. If I wanted to use grad school as a stepping stone to some kind of traditional career path, I might have gone back to journalism school (which I attended for a year and then quit), or gotten some other kind of professional degree. Still, I feel like I have to have an answer to this question, especially these days, when the question gets fired at me more and more frequently. The closer I get to finishing, the more people seem to believe that radical career developments are in my future.

There are many people, both friends and strangers, who don’t understand this kind of thinking. They don’t understand that I went to get an MFA simply because a) it was something I had wanted to do for a long time, b) something that I felt I might never do if I didn’t do it at that point in time, and c) something I felt I needed to do to take my writing further. I was stuck, and I needed outside help.

There are quite a few people who don’t understand why a rational person earning decent money in a good job would drop everything and go into debt to pursue a passion that might not provide any (or at least not very much) income. And I get that, I see where they are coming from. Sometimes, though I wouldn’t trade the writing workshops and publishing-industry experience I have gotten, the practical side of me has had doubts that this was a good plan, believe me.

I have been thinking all summer about what I will do after I finish my thesis. Partly this is because I feel a lot of pressure to jump back into some kind of 9-to-5 job, but the thought of actually having any of the writing/editing jobs I see on Craigslist makes me feel sick. Sometimes I can’t even finish reading the ad, I am already so bored. The pressure to consider these jobs is, oddly, mostly self-imposed. It seems like the right thing to do. (There is also the delicious knowledge that job hunting means the thesis is done, and I cannot wait for that to be the case. So much so that job hunting now, before the thesis is done, is a nice way of procrastinating without feeling guilty about it.)

All summer I have been side-stepping the predictable questions about what I want to do next. I answer depending on how I feel that day. Freelance writing. Go back into journalism in some capacity. Book publishing. Freelance editing. I consider telling people other kinds of jobs — truck driver, pastry chef, dog groomer – just to throw them off.

I feel qualified to do lots of things and at the same time nothing at all.

But when I take the pressure off myself to get some 9-to-5 job in the financial district I can start to see other possibilities. I get a vision of myself doing a combination of things, which is probably what would make me happiest. I get bored easily.

And so: freelance writing, freelance editing. Maybe a little teaching. Maybe a little ESL-related teaching or tutoring. It may be a patchwork rather than one complete whole.

So what?

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3 thoughts on “What are you going to do with an MFA?

  1. I don’t know you, and I just found your blog today, but THANK YOU!!!!

    I have been a good career worker for far too long, and have hated it the whole time. I sell advertising, and just lately I have decided in my head that no matter what, I am never going to fit into the mold I have been desperately pouring myself into trying to be happy.

    I Googled “What to do with an MFA” and found your post from August 2006. It’s now March 2007 and I have finally admitted defeat.

    It all started with a freelance writing gig I have been doing. It reawakened in me my original love of writing I have been ignoring because “I can never make a living with an MFA and the debt will kill me”. I have gotten to the point where I realized that:

    1. I have not been professionally happy– period.

    2. More money will not make me happier if I have to keep doing this.

    3. I have been racing through my mind with what I will tell friends/family when they hear I want to chuck it all and go to grad school for an MFA– “What are you going to do with that?”

    I started to set up my own wordpress blog (not done yet, but it will) and I need an escape hatch, more debt or no.

    I found your blog just now, and another earlier today and realized that I am not alone– I was starting to think something was wrong with me for not fitting into corporate America all these years. There are others out there!!

    Your blog was the searchlight today cutting through the intense fog that has been hanging over me for years. I can see the shore, and screw it all– I’m going to swim for it.

    Keep up the good work– if I found your blog this way, there have to be others like me. And if not, you just helped me make a huge choice that I had thought about and pushed away for years, then thought about and pushed away, over and over and over.

    If this message seems a bit desperate– well, I am writing it from my cube. With gray walls. In my gray office.

    Keep up the good work!!!!!

  2. Hi there. I also googled “what to do with an mfa” this morning and found this blog of yours. Thanks for writing it; you sound just like me. I am currently a senior in college and I’m hoping to pursue an MFA after I graduate though I’m not really sure that is the wisest thing to do. What I really want is to be a creative writing professor at a university level but I know the MFA does not necessarily make you a marketable candidate in the workplace. I don’t know what to do either. Any advice?

  3. In response to the question “What are you going to do with with an MFA?”

    I think the answer is simple. Whatever you want.

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