MFA Programs and the Alternatives: A Consideration

Considering the MFA

So, I’m thinking about going for my MFA (Masters of Fine Arts). I love school (online school, not so much, but I wouldn’t have much of a choice) and I want to learn more about the craft of writing. I want to work with more writers. I want to be able to put some nice creds behind my name in the hope of being taken a little more seriously. All of that adds up to needing an MFA, right?

From what I’ve read, not exactly. And there are obstacles for me to consider first before laying down money.

Genre and the MFA

Some people complain that fantasy and science fiction are looked down on as a genre. Of the three low-residency programs nearest me, none of the faculty have credentials in writing fantasy or science fiction. At North Carolina State University, there is a science fiction writer on the faculty, but their program is full-residency. I would have to live on or near their campus. To add insult to injury, from what I have researched, NCSU is the only MFA program where there is a fantasy/sci-fi writer on staff. That kind of tells you something, doesn’t it?

That isn’t to say you can’t be in speculative fiction and in a MFA program at the same time.  Some fantasy/sci-fi people have had good experiences and there are examples of such writers getting a MFA.

However, for me personally, I can’t travel to programs in other states that would be open to fantasy, not even for a nine or ten day residency twice a year. If the three programs I’m looking at are not open to genre writing, then I have to decide whether or not it’s worth it to try to write in a different genre in the hopes of gaining some tools to help me.

Cost and the MFA

The MFA is expensive. I read somewhere once that it is the most expensive master’s program out there. The least expensive of the three programs I’m looking at is Converse College, who charge about $6,000 per semester, not counting books or travel and lodging during the residency periods preceding semesters. For a two year program, that means $24,000 at the very least.

That throws in a new wrinkle. First, we’re starting with a program that may not even be open to my genre and now we learn it is going to be expensive. So, it can either be an expensive-but-great experience or it can be an expensive-and-horrible experience that leaves me with regrets. Sadly, I’ve had experience with the latter.

While working at the library, I decided I wanted to get my Masters of Library Science. (Yes, that’s an actual degree.) Everyone kept telling me that it was just a piece of paper and I wouldn’t learn anything there that I couldn’t learn on the job. However, if I wanted a better paying job, I needed a MLS. So, I applied and was accepted at the University of South Carolina program…and hated every moment of it. I ended up dropping out after a semester and a half, which I paid for through a student loan. I’m still paying back that loan and resent every payment. I really don’t want to go into debt again for yet another regretful experience.

The Online Experience

While I would be able to meet my fellow students at the twice-yearly residencies, it would be via correspondence for the rest of the year. While I was at Library Science school, I came to dread chat sessions and doing most of my work on my own. This is probably because some of it was rather difficult (one word: cataloging *shudders*) but I also missed the class format. When you’re in a classroom, you can get those beautiful moments of humor and camaraderie. It’s a little difficult to pull that off via chat room, email, or letter.

Now, it might have just been the program. I was taking Library Science because I wanted a better position at my work place, not because I felt being a librarian was my calling. Being a writer is my calling. Therefore, perhaps the online and correspondence nature of it won’t be so bad. And writing has a solitary facet to it. A low-residency program with a long-distance education format may be ideal for this course of study.

MFA Alternatives

There are alternatives to the MFA. I could design my own program of study, selecting books on the craft of writing and books by authors I admire (McKinley, de Lint, etc) and joining online writing groups. There is the highly acclaimed Gotham Writers’ Workshop. They’ve been sending me catalogs for years now. There are writing coaches (like the Sherman Writing Services or Kate Tilton) who offer help by critiquing and beta reading.

I don’t have to enter a MFA program. If I write good work, isn’t that enough to be taken seriously? And what does being taken seriously mean, anyway? I’m not here for applause or money. I’m here to write. So, at the end of the day, I have to consider what I really want and need and what I’m willing to do to attain it.

Those are the issues weighing on my mind as I research programs, experiences, and alternatives. What do you all think? Should I give it a go at a university or shoot for a DIY approach? Comments are on.



  1. Kate Tilton said:

    Thanks for the shout out Suzanna. 🙂

    Personally I do not believe a writer has to enter into an MFA program to be a good writer. Can it help? Sure. But really writing is a matter of dedication and having a story to tell.

    March 7, 2015
    • Suzanna said:

      I agree. After a lot of thought, I’ve decided not to pursue a MFA at this time.

      And you’re welcomed for the shout out.^_~

      March 7, 2015

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