Every now and then, I see the initials MFA crop up in forum posts and articles on Scribophile. I’ve mentioned them myself a few times, and I’ve seen them in other places, and judging from the comments I’ve seen, it occurred to me that it might not be a bad idea to discuss what an MFA actually does and does not signify. If nothing else, it might help clarify the goals of a college student or two, of which there seem to be a number in our community, and that’s not a bad goal, methinks.

So, let’s talk about the MFA and what it means to writers. MFA, if you’re not already aware, stands for master’s of fine arts, and is a graduate degree offered by many universities in artistic fields. You can get an MFA in damn near any of the fine arts—sculpting, painting, photography, acting, music, and so on—but we’re going to be focusing on the writing programs here. Most universities, if they have a creative writing MFA program, will offer degrees in fiction, poetry and nonfiction, although other alternatives exist. Generally, the MFA track is a two-year or three-year program, depending on the focus and the university, and requires a thesis defense at the end of it, which can mean either a public reading session (which is how the university I work at now does it), a closed session where you get grilled on your thesis by a committee (which is how I defended mine), or some other horribly nerve-wracking combination of events.

In a nutshell, that’s what an MFA is. The question that most people want to pose at this point is why get one, and there are two primary reasons cited by degree-seekers. The first, and most common, is that an MFA in creative writing is a terminal degree. I usually tell people that it’s a terminal degree because trying to get one kills you, but the truth is more prosaic: in creative writing programs, an MFA is all the academic credential you need to become a tenured professor. Oh, you can get a Ph.D. in creative writing if you feel like it: I know of at least two universities that offer one, but it’s not necessary. All the creative writing professors I’ve ever studied with only had MFAs. Thus, the MFA is commonly seen as a way to snag a job while a writer is working on the Great American Novel or this century’s answer to The Waste Land or (fill in your favorite famous poem here). This is by far the most common reason MFA students get into the program, because there’s not a hell of a lot else you can do with it.

The second reason is not as widespread, but is one more dear to my heart, because it’s the reason I did it: to get better at writing. When I entered graduate school, I had been a working writer and editor for several years, and had managed to get published in a few small magazines. I wasn’t getting rich, but I felt like I was doing OK on the publishing front. The real problem was that I’d hit a plateau in my writing, and the writer communities I was part of, such as the first Web version of Zoetrope, weren’t providing quite what I seemed to need. So, after looking around and evaluating my options, I decided to go back to school and get an MFA. Although it was tough, and at times isolating (most of my peers were planning on teaching, making me a definite odd man out), it was the right choice. I learned a great deal about the art, how to think analytically about it and how to write with more finesse and skill than I might have managed on my own. I’m glad I did it, and I’m proud that I succeeded in getting my degree.

Having said that, one might reasonably ask, would I recommend the MFA course to writers? In general, I’d say my answer would be, “Hell, no.” First off, the MFA as a degree is very focused on the academic side of things, and if teaching is not your bag, much of what you will learn will be of only incidental use to you. I am technically qualified to teach at the university level, but I wouldn’t do it, not because I didn’t do it as a grad student (I’ve been a tutor and corporate trainer, so the experience is not an issue; most TAs probably have less practical experience than I do), but because I don’t love it. Teaching, to me, should be like the priesthood: if you don’t feel the call, skip it and do something else. Anyway, I digress. The point: much of the MFA coursework won’t necessarily be of use to you if you want to write and only write.

More importantly, the most important thing you can do as a writer is to practice, and you don’t need graduate school to do that. You don’t need a peer community, either, but it can help immensely, and so can graduate school…but only if you’re in the right mindset and skill level. It did help me, but it wasn’t without problems. At times, the only thing that kept me going was my own stubbornness, and the knowledge that what I was learning would help me improve as a writer and overcome my particular set of issues. Thus, even if you want an MFA to improve yourself as a writer and don’t give a rat’s ass about teaching, you’ll want to think long and hard about what it will mean to you as a writer. If you’re a die-hard genre writer, this goes double for you: I can only think of a tiny handful of programs that don’t think of genre writing as a step above the dribbling of morons, and this ingrained attitude—despite the fact that “literary” is just as much a genre as any other—can be bruising and demoralizing over the long run.

So, to sum up, the MFA is a tough row to hoe, but it has its rewards. I wouldn’t recommend it for most writers—after all, all you really need is talent, the willingness to work at it, and a love of reading, even if you don’t do a ton—but if you feel it’s a worthy goal for you personally, or you want to teach in a collegiate creative writing program, go for it. Just be aware that it’s not as easy as you might think, and if the program’s worth a damn, there will be blood on the page at some point. Metaphorically, of course, although I did have this one professor…Anyway, if it’s what you want, just walk into it with your eyes open, and keep in mind that having a master’s in fine arts doesn’t make you a master of fine arts. It’s a worthy goal, but it’s only one step along the way. Believe me, you’ll still have plenty of steps to go.