Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Was my MFA worth it?

On Facebook, Seth Abramson pointed to this HuffPo piece by Lev Raphael defending his MFA, and then wrote “as time goes on hopefully we’ll hear more and more MFA graduates speak out.” Raphael doesn’t say how long ago he did his MFA, but I suspect, given his output, it’s more than the seven years since I finished mine. At any rate, my addition to the conversation can’t hurt, right?

I did my MFA at the University of Arkansas from 1999-2003, and yeah, it was worth it. That’s not to suggest that everything was unicorns and daffodils or that I joined a community of writers I still lean on to this day. I made friends I’m still in varying degrees of contact with but we rarely talk about our work now. But that’s not a statement about Arkansas so much as it’s a statement about me. I had a much more congenial workshop atmosphere and closer relationships with the people I was a Stegner Fellow with and we don’t talk much about our work either. That’s just not me.

But the program as a whole was worth it for a few important reasons. The first is that the Arkansas program is a long program–60 hours if you come in with a Bachelor’s degree. That’s four years, fully-supported if you want to teach. That’s a lot of time to develop as a writer, and man did I need it. I don’t think I started doing anything approaching marginal work until my third year; I exploded in my fourth.

But it’s more than just time (though you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of that); the program there was flexible. Did you want to take classes in art history? They’d fit them in. Translation? No problem. (Arkansas boasts one of the two translation MFAs in the US–Iowa has the other.) The program was willing to let you explore possibilities outside the English department if you wanted. Not everyone I went to school with wanted to do this–some people took the same class two or three times, getting credit for it as a “readings course”–but others (myself included) used that flexibility to widen our educations. Most of my dabbling was in the translation program–perhaps the best lesson I learned was one of humility–and it gave me an appreciation of Dante and French Romantic poetry that lasts to this day.

The last thing that Arkansas gave me was teaching experience. Like I said, they funded me for four years, teaching two classes a term, but we weren’t stuck teaching comp the whole time (at least, not if you were an able teacher). In four years, I taught seven different classes, from freshman comp to tech writing to creative writing to World Lit to essay writing. That came in handy when I applied for the job I currently hold. That’s more teaching experience than a lot of PhD candidates have. Now, not every MFA program provides that opportunity, but this is about whether my MFA was worth it, after all.

Not all MFA programs are created equally, and I’ll admit that some of my non-Arkansas friends have expressed shock at the length of the program there. It worked for me. It didn’t work for everyone I was there with. And I’ll admit that sometimes I bristle when I think of my MFA being lumped in with some other programs that I consider (at a remove) to be less strenuous, as though my degree has been cheapened somehow. But even if it has been cheapened, the fact is that I wouldn’t be the writer I am now without it.

One last thing: I met Amy there, and we’ve been together nearly ten years. Damn right it was worth it.


August 12, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. I didn’t know there were 4 year MFAs! Very interesting. Question: since you feel you didn’t start doing decent work till the latter half of the program, do you think you might have a different view on MFAs on the whole if you had done a shorter one? What about low-residency ones?

    Comment by Sharanya Manivannan | August 12, 2010 | Reply

  2. Well I agree with all of that, including the part about meeting you. 🙂 It’s such a variable experience, and defined in such a large part by a group of people who are there one year and gone the next, that I think it’s just stupid to make any all-encompassing generalizations about the value of MFAs in writing. Like so many things, it is what you make it.

    Comment by amy | August 12, 2010 | Reply

  3. Wow, four years and the freedom to go study in other departments. While my MFA at FAU can’t really compare to that level of opportunity for outside study & time to develop, I’d say it was also worth it. And the main reason that I picked it was similar–I liked the fact that I’d have as many credits from critical courses as I’d have from workshops. As it turned out, I wouldn’t have been able to take my next step (into a PhD program in English) without that breadth.

    Comment by LS | August 12, 2010 | Reply

  4. Brian, thanks for this post. I think it’s great that your program was long. Mine was three years, and really, like you, I didn’t find a groove until later. My first year, I was adrift. I think it’s interesting (and telling?) that what I hear of MFA-kvetching in e-spaces rarely talk about developing as a writer, whether through the exposure to lit not previously considered, or because of what we learn about our own poetries in workshop, or because we found helpful and critical readers of our work (colleagues and/or teachers).

    Comment by bjr | August 12, 2010 | Reply

  5. At AWP in New York (2008), I was on a panel that was discussing the relative merits of the Creative Writing Ph.D. and the MFA. Michael Heffernan was in the audience, and he spoke up, saying that Arkansas was planning to turn its MFA into a doctoral program. Are they still moving in that direction? I hope they do. You were at Arkansas from 1999-2003 and they gave you a masters at the end; I was at Florida State from 2000-2003 and they gave me a doctorate at the end. Also I accepted a tenure track job in January 2003, midway through my third year there (my fifth year of graduate school altogether — I earned an MFA at Eastern Washington University in 1996, studying with Heffernan and others). My point is that the four year MFA seems like a bad deal in some ways.

    Comment by Tom C. Hunley | August 12, 2010 | Reply

    • Hi Tom,
      I have no idea if they’re moving in that direction or not, and I have mixed feelings about it. No question I feel that the work I did at Arkansas could have merited a creative writing PhD, and I’d certainly have done whatever was necessary if that had been an option, but I also feel like a PhD is a scholarly degree, and I’m not trying to be a scholar. I’m an artist, and so the MFA works for me in that sense. It’s a terminal arts degree, and should be respected as such. This is where the idealistic part of me and the “I want a tenure track job” part of me conflict, because the market is becoming chillier toward MFAs, and it’s a difficult market at the best of times. It’s a complicated issue all the way around.

      Comment by Brian | August 12, 2010 | Reply

  6. I agree about the creative writing Ph.D. is more of a scholarly degree (or should be). I’d like to see program administrators do more to differentiate the degrees. Actually, based on my experience and on conversations I’ve had with people from other programs, there’s still a lot of “artist first” ethos at a lot of the Ph.D. programs — even a kind of anti-academic posturing that seems really odd, given the setting. Anyway, the Arkansas progam seems very unuaual to me. Are there four year masters programs in other fields? Four year MFAs in sculpting, for example?

    Nice to “meet” you, by the way.

    Comment by Tom C. Hunley | August 12, 2010 | Reply

  7. My MFA was in film, not writing. Even though I don’t work in the field anymore, I’m still glad I did the program. I got a lot out of it, and have no regrets.

    What concerns me about poetry MFAs is how academic poetry seems to be becoming. This doesn’t seem to be as much of a risk with either film or prose writing– perhaps because there’s enough non-academic work being produced that keeps it relevant to the everyday person. There appears to me in poets I encounter (and I may well be wrong) the kind of idea that the life of the poetic mind only flourishes in publishing or academe (with the occasional idealized view of farming or manual labor) and I’m not sure it’s good for the overall body of work. But this is not the problem of MFA programs, exactly. More an atmospheric worry.

    Comment by Cheryl Gilbert | August 15, 2010 | Reply

  8. I also feel like I’m a fine artist, not an academic, and the difference is important to me. I’ve compared my 4 year MFA to some PhD programs and find it’s equal to some and more rigorous than others — and I find that people holding those CRW PhDs get very tetchy if I mention that. It sometimes seems like the whole point of the CRW PhD is just to “one-up” the CRW MFA, not just on the job market, but during the “I did something harder than you” scar-comparison over drinks.

    I completely respect that rare person who really is an “artist and a scholar,” but it’s hard to believe all the CRW PhDs out there really are that. It’s more likely that we’re just slapping a new more impressive-sounding name on the MFA. This is really hard to talk about, though, because CRW PhDs get to play both ends by official decree. Half the time they tell me their degrees are every bit the same as the scholar’s who an original thesis on Medieval dramatic methods, the other half the time they play rough-n-ready writer.

    If there’s one nice thing about NOT having a PhD, it’s that there’s no temptation to pretend you’re anything other than you are: I am a writer and an artist; I pursue my art; how I pay my rent is an entirely separate thing. Without that separation, I think it’s too easy to slip from “writer happens to teach” to “teacher who happens to write,” or worse, “teacher who used to publish” or “teacher who writes when he finds the time.”

    At least, it would be a danger for me.

    Comment by amy | August 16, 2010 | Reply

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