• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

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To Potential MFA Students: There Are No Academic Jobs

Do not go to grad school thinking you'll become your favorite professor someday.

September 14, 2014
 

I am nowhere near the first to say it, nor will I be the last, but to be clear: there is no sustainable career path in academia for MFA holders in creative writing.

If you ask me, that should be printed as a disclaimer at the top of every graduate program application.

I implore you, do not think you’re the exception to these realities[1]. You are not.

Each year, we graduate thousands of newly minted degree holders and there are very, very few career-type teaching jobs to absorb them.

As of this writing, according to the listings at the Academic Jobs Wiki, there are 13 jobs for fiction, 6 for poetry, 7 for creative nonfiction and 16 “mixed.”

Almost every single one of those job listings requires that applicants have a “strong” or “significant” record of publication, which is code for “book,” and may even mean multiple books. Many of them declare that secondary expertise in things like “screenwriting,” “digital humanities,” or “graphic narratives” are desirable, as departments look for their unicorns to plug every last curricular hole.

Some of these jobs are so rarified that unless you have something akin to “Pulitzer Prize Finalist” in front of your name, you will not be considered, as is likely the case with the University of Michigan’s search for a fiction writer of “open” rank.

Believing that you might be in the running for this job is like someone who’s batting .300 for the high school varsity will be plucked by the Yankees to replace Derek Jeter.

I do not say these things to be mean or dismissive, but in the interest of honesty. The message is to myself as much as anyone. With 15 years teaching experience, having published five books and even possessing one or two unicorn traits acquired over the years, were I to go on the market (which I am not), I would rate my own chances of receiving a job offer at something like 5% or less. It would not surprise me for a moment if I could not score a single on-campus interview.

This does not mean that you shouldn’t go ahead and get an MFA degree. If you are dead passionate about writing, can do it without going into debt, and you come out ready to do something else to make a living, you should go for it[2]. My MFA years are among the most important in my life. I was profoundly changed by the experience. While I was broke when I finished, I was not in debt, and was able to score a decent-paying job reasonably quickly, which allowed me to start my “adult” life (I was already 28-years-old) with some success and reasonable security.

If your desire to pursue an MFA degree is rooted in a goal of having a life like your wonderful creative writing teacher/mentor, don’t do it. The only teaching jobs waiting for you are adjunct positions. These are not sustainable, and there is little indication that higher education is going to reform its exploitative labor practices – despite the best efforts by both adjuncts and tenured faculty to change things – any time soon.

This does not mean you don’t have value, or the degree is worthless. After finishing your degree, you are likely capable of doing great things. I found what I learned in graduate school invaluable in my “real world” career.

You will deserve much more than the academic labor market has to give. This is not your fault, but neither can you change reality.

When you graduate, if you want to continue to write, the most precious commodity will be freedom. You will need to be free to carve out time for your writing. You will need to be free from economic anxiety. Taking a series of adjunct or visiting teaching jobs is not the kind of life that will allow you to write.

The heart wants what it wants, and it’s possible your heart is full to bursting with a desire to live a life that is meaningful to you, the kind of life that your teachers seem to have for themselves.

But as Coach Taylor tells us in Friday Night Lights, the saying is “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”

Please embark on this adventure with your eyes as clear as your heart is full.

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Many of the most successful writers I know don't even have Twitter accounts. Maybe that's my problem.

 


[1] I am close friends with some of these exceptions, but know that they are truly exceptional. For everyone who “made” it to the tenure track, there are scores and scores who didn’t.

[2] Here’s what 27 authors far more successful than me have to say about getting an MFA.

 

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