Why Writers Should (or Shouldn’t) get a Master’s in English

I completed my master’s in English this past May, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what that degree is doing for me. I’ve also chatted with undergrads and others who have been considering graduate school. It’s a big decision, and one you can’t go into lightly. I thought I’d share some of my observations and experiences in hopes that it might help you understand the process and the outcome.

Differences Between an MA and an MFA

First, let’s talk about the different degrees available.

If you are a writer, chances are you’re looking into a Master of Fine Arts, or MFA. These are available by genre – fiction, poetry, and nonfiction being the most common. An MFA is typically a three-year program, though more and more schools are offering low residency degrees – this means you can do it completely online or just be there for a few weeks or months per year.

Many writers might be looking at other options, however. There are also Master of Arts degrees in emphases such as Rhetoric and Composition (which is what I did) or Literature. These are usually two-year programs and are often seen as a necessary step on the path to a PhD.

The MFA is considered a terminal degree, that is, it is the highest degree available in the field (though there are a few PhDs in creative writing or something similar). This is mostly applicable when it comes to teaching. If you want to teach creative writing at the college level, an MFA is usually all you need in terms of education.

The MA is non-terminal, with a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) being the terminal degree in a field like rhetoric and composition or literature. For teaching, this means you can only really adjunct (teach part-time on a contract) or be hired on as a lecturer in some schools (with few exceptions). 

In Rhetoric and Composition (rhet/comp), you study rhetoric (theories of, ancient rhetoric, persuasive writing, and sometimes special topics like digital or feminist rhetorics) and composition (theories of writing and the teaching of writing). In my program, it felt like a balance of theoretical and practical. It’s heavily focused on writing and communication, but it’s a very versatile and complex field. In my cohort, there were five of us and all of our research interests were unique.

In a Literature MA, the focus is on, of course, literature. However, there are many different genres and types to study, and you learn different theories and approaches to reading and studying literature. This is not a field I’m super familiar with, but those I know who pursued an MA in lit had varied interests and many considered themselves writers. Both the literature MA and the rhet/comp MA (as well as any other English graduate degree) requires critical thinking, engaging with complex ideas, and writing and reading A LOT. Like, reading hundreds of pages a week and writing 20+ page seminar papers.

Either of these degrees can be excellent for writers, as both offer ways of studying language, communication, and writing. You read and write a ton in both. If you teach, you can also gain new understandings of the writing process because you’re so heavily invested in your students’ processes.

The MFA is obviously a dedicated creative writing program, so you’ll do a lot of workshops. Most programs also have requirements like form and theory courses, literature courses, and a combination of English electives. In an MFA program you can expect to do a ton of writing, but you can also expect to learn about the mechanics of writing in your genre, the history or various theories about your genre, and so forth.

What Happens in the Program

Once you’re in a master’s program, you’ll have course requirements, just like an undergraduate degree, but you’ll be in smaller classes and be part of a cohort of students who start along with you. You’ll see a lot of those people, taking most if not all of your courses with them. I was incredibly fortunate to have a wonderful cohort – my rhet/comp cohort became very close, and I liked everyone else in the TA cohort (which included literature MA and creative writing MFA).

If you get a teaching assistantship (which I strongly recommend), you will be required to teach classes – usually first-year writing; sometimes other courses (like undergraduate creative writing classes by those in an MFA). In most cases, you’ll take some sort of teaching seminar. In my university, TAs took a pre-semester workshop that lasted a few weeks prior to the start of the semester to help us prepare for the first class we taught. Then, we took a three credit seminar in the first semester which counted toward our degree requirements.

A teaching assistantship or other graduate assistantship usually covers the cost of tuition and provides you with a small stipend. Due to the high costs of these programs, this is the smartest way to do them. However, there are those who don’t get a TAship and still do the program – often part time – so it is absolutely possible. However, I think that most English master’s programs are geared toward those full-time TAs, so if you aren’t a TA, you might feel left out sometimes.

Teaching

When you get a TAship, you should be aware of a few things. First, teaching well takes time. If you’ve never taught before, it’s going to be scary. But, I really loved it. You learn so much about the writing process.

Thesis or Portfolio

Most master’s programs culminate with a large project. For English master’s degrees, that would be a thesis or (less commonly) a portfolio. MFAs usually do a “creative thesis” –sometimes part of a novel in progress, or a chapbook of poems, or a collection of short stories or essays. The last part of the program is focused on this activity, so typically you’ll get three or more credit hours to devote to writing and researching.

Usually students assemble a committee to work with on this. You’ll have a committee chair who you meet with frequently, and (if you’re lucky) who will give you lots of guidance and feedback. My program has a number of wonderful faculty members who are incredible mentors and committee members.

In my program, students had the option to conduct what is called “readings and conference,” which is essentially time to read, write, and talk with your committee chair. This gave me the opportunity to flesh out my research plan and develop ideas.

Reading and Writing…A Lot

I don’t want to sugar coat it or downplay this important fact: grad school is HARD. The stakes are higher, expectations are higher, and the workload is like your hardest undergrad course on steroids. Expect to read hundreds of pages per week and write and write and write and write. Also, not all the writing you do is work you actually want to do. However, it’s very valuable to do so much writing IF you let yourself be immersed in the process and set out to learn from it. Even if you follow a fairly standard formula for a seminar paper, for example, you can still gain insight and become a better writer.

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What Happens After the Program

If, like me, you go directly from your undergrad into a graduate program, the aftermath can throw you off a little bit. It’s weird being out of school all of the sudden and it can be hard to find the motivation to write. School gives you time to write, it forces you to write, and after that is gone, well, you have to find your own motivation.

Many MA graduates don’t immediately go on to a PhD – I think most of us are pretty burnt out by the time we finish. However, a lot of MA programs are sort of geared toward preparing you for a PhD, or at least there is the mentality that this is what we’re getting ready for. Thus, it can be disconcerting to finish up and not have any idea what to do next. I feel fortunate that my program and my cohort talked about other options and encouraged us to wait a bit before going into a doctoral program. Even so, I had a different idea of what would happen, and when that didn't happen, it was a pretty big adjustment. 

If you are a writer and want to do grad school to become a better writer, you have to figure out what being a writer after grad school looks like. It took me a bit to figure it out, but for me it’s working as a web content writer/developer and balancing that with my creative writing (not that I’ve figured it all out, of course, but I’m working on it). For others, it might mean being an adjunct to make ends meet, or working in an administrative role on campus, or freelancing.

Whatever the case, I’ll say this: It’s hard as hell to be a writer, no matter how much you’ve grown in your MFA or MA program. A master’s program encourages you to be a writer. You have classes and writer friends and mentors and a culture that supports writing. Outside of that, you’re kind of on your own. I struggled a lot with the separation from my mentors, with no longer having consistent feedback and time to share writing. I miss being an academic – miss the way it made me think about things in a way that hurt my brain, miss being inspired to write because of others’ writing or what we were reading or the prompts we were given.

I say this not to deter anyone, but to stress the fact that while getting an MFA or MA might open some doors for you, once you’re done you are just another writer trying to make it. I hate how bleak that sounds, but I want to be honest.

MA or MFA – Which Should I Pursue?

If you’ve followed along this far and I haven’t frightened you off, let’s talk about which path might be right for you.

An MFA will focus on your development as a writer. You’ll likely write exclusively in one genre, and you’ll study the hell out of it. You’ll finish with a lot of work that you can continue working with or submit. You should learn about submitting work, how literary magazines function, how to market yourself, and so forth. You will make great connections and have tons of opportunities to network with other writers.

HOWEVER. MFA programs are notoriously difficult to get into – especially the good ones, and especially ones that offer funding. Many (most?) are known for very rarely accepting students who completed their undergraduate at the school. So, you should expect to move and to be open to where you’ll move to (plenty of great MFAs are in locations that might not seem too exciting). You’ll want to apply to lots of them and have a solid writing sample to submit.

An MA program gives you the opportunity to research, teach, and find your niche. I’m partial to rhetoric and composition because I love the field and I love how versatile and diverse it is. A literature program is also a great option because if you’re a writer you probably love to read. You’ll study classics for sure, but there are lots of special topics and other electives or options that expand your horizons.

MA programs are a little easier to get into, but it can be tough to get a TAship. You’ll need to have had a high GPA in your undergrad, get a good score on the GRE, and have a solid writing sample. There are plenty of other MA programs with different variations of literature and rhet/comp, as well as other options like technical writing or linguistics (these two are pretty different from rhet/comp and literature, though), or language and culture, and so forth.

Do plenty of research on available programs, taking care to check out their requirements and the faculty. You should definitely find programs that align with your interests and faculty whose areas of research sound interesting to you.

Why You Should Go to Grad School

Bottom line: an MA or MFA is a great opportunity, but it’s a lot of work. Here are a few of the reasons why you might consider a master’s program:

  • Time, space, and encouragement to write
  • Lots of networking opportunities
  • Learn the ins and outs of the writing world
  • Expand your perspective and understanding of the world
  • The opportunity to teach college English
  • A PhD is in your future
  • You enjoy school, reading, writing, learning, and thinking
  • You intend to teach after you’re done

Why You Shouldn’t Go to Grad School

There are, of course, drawbacks to pursuing an MA or MFA. You’ll hear a lot of writers telling people that MFAs are unnecessary wastes of time or just generally speaking out against academia. While I personally don’t necessarily agree, it’s worth reading up on some of those arguments before you commit.

You shouldn’t go if you think it’s going to make you a writer, or if you expect getting published to be easy, or if you don’t like school. Grad school is hard and you have to be dedicated to forging your own path when you get out.

If you are the type who sailed through your undergraduate with minimal effort, grad school isn’t for you. If you can’t afford to make a very small wage for 2-3 years, grad school isn’t for you.

If you’re interested in teaching long term (with your MFA, or teaching as an adjunct or at a community college with your MA), it’s important to note that those positions are hard to get. Being an adjunct might be the easiest position of all to get, but there’s a reason why we hear so much about the poor conditions many adjuncts face (i.e. they are not paid well, do not get benefits, etc. Please do your research before planning to adjunct). Lecturer positions and teaching positions for MFAs are tough – there is a lot of competition.

 

Even though I’m not exactly where I thought I’d be after grad school, I’m still so grateful to have had the opportunity. I loved graduate school, but I had a supportive family and lots of wonderful mentors and colleagues. Grad school isn’t for everyone, but it’s definitely worth looking into if it’s something you want. Don’t be afraid to talk to people in the program, or graduates, or faculty at schools you’re interested in. You should be able to get a tour and chat with people before you even apply.

I’m happy to talk more about my experiences in my master’s program! Get in touch if you want to chat. 

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