Five Reasons Not to Get an MFA - Reason #3
Written by
Michelle Haimoff
February 2012
Written by
Michelle Haimoff
February 2012

3. Reason #3 not to get an MFA: Cost

Let’s say that getting an MFA costs around $50,000 (not including housing, books, health insurance, etc). That’s two years and a significant amount of money that you could spend in a myriad of other ways. If you took just a fifth of that money, you could spend it on lectures, workshops, books, week long writing retreats, a personal computer just for your creative writing, or any other number of writing related activities. I did that math some time back and decided to create my own MFA program. I was living in New York and went to lectures (MediaBistro has some great ones), took continuing education classes at The New School, and participated in retreats at Iowa Summer Writing Festival and UCLA Extension. I read books by authors I loved and underlined like crazy. I made myself an arbitrary deadline of finishing my novel by December 31st, and after Thanksgiving I locked myself in my apartment until it was done.

I felt guilty about not making money during that time and I felt stupid for putting so much effort into a project that might have never seen the light of day. And I imagine that you too will try to talk yourself out of going on writer’s retreats in random cities and think obsessively about the ways in which the money you’re spending could be used for other things. But then you will read this again or call a supportive friend, and rationalize that if you spend $10,000 on this thing that is so very important to you, if you force yourself to spend $10,000, it will still pale in comparison to what so many others spend on grad school.

And now for my feminist rant about investing in yourself:

Our society belittles the ambition of women and the ambition of artists in ways that are so ingrained that people don’t realize that they’re doing it, and we don’t realize that we’re hearing it. If your experience is like mine, you’ve repeatedly heard some variation of writing not being a “real” job. Maybe people have belittled your work, maybe they haven’t. Either way our culture is one that glorifies money and its every acquisition over less lucrative pursuits like writing poems and stories.

Please don’t let a lifetime of direct and indirect patronizing messages get in the way of your work. Prioritize your work. Back it up with your money. Back it up with your time. Just because you don’t go to graduate school, don’t dismiss the whole thing. Do what you need to do to get your writing done, even if it means paying for a hotel room in the city where you live when you have a perfectly good room at home, and even if it means that you’re not doing the dishes, laundry, or responding to email because you’re writing. Create your own space in whatever form that takes. And don’t apologize for it.
Ok, rant over. Tomorrow we’ll talk about my fourth reason for not getting an MFA: Timeframe.

My book THESE DAYS ARE OURS is available this week! Tweet about it with me with #tdao or find me on Facebook. Do you live in NY or LA? Come to one of the book events.

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  • Michelle Haimoff

    Great point Stevie and Janet. Barbara I'm so happy to hear that you're finally investing in yourself and in your writing! Ren, I think you might like my novel, "These Days Are Ours." It's about 20-somethings trying to figure out their lives after college. Your comment reminds me of some of the conversations the characters have. 

  • Stevie Edwards

    These sound more like good reasons not to go to an un-funded MFA. At Cornell, I'm getting paid to be a full-time writer for the first time in my life. I certainly don't think it's a good idea to go thousands of dollars in debt for a creative writing degree, but there are many programs with full-funding that are worth looking into. 

  • Barbara L.W. Myers

    I've been planning to take myself on a "Writer's Retreat" this spring in a nice, clean hotel ten minutes from my house--just as you suggested. I'm really looking forward to it, and the thought of how far I could go with $10,000 in one year is dead-on. I am the last person in my family I invest in (Husband? Check, Kids? Check. Cat? Check), even though they all (save the cat) encourage me to put time and money into me. I've started getting more and more comfortable with it, and the points raised in this post only solidify that goal.

  • Janet McAdams


    Although I agree with your overall premise (that for some/ many writers there are good reasons NOT to get an MFA), I do want to correct one thing. Very few people actually pay out of pocket for an MFA. I know/ have known hundreds (literally) people with or pursuing or applying to MFA programs and can only think of one who was paying for it (at Columbia & the amount of debt was, to be sure, staggering).

    In fact, I would argue that one of the reasons TO get an MFA, if you're willing to live modestly, is that you can focus on your work for a few years, with the support the program gives you to live.

  • Michelle Haimoff

    Penny, that is so well said. Kate, thank you for sharing your story with other writers that may be in similar financial situations. Kattalina, it's true, sometimes you have to do what you have to do and worry about the consequences later. For those struggling with their writing right now, I genuinely believe it's never too late to finish a project. The middle of the journey, where you can't yet see the light at the end of the tunnel, can be the most agonizing part.   

  • Kattalina M Kazunas

    Well, as someone who  did go for an MFA at what i consider to be a much later age  than most ( late 30s),  reading this was difficult.  Because, i didn't get my MFA to impress anyone  or even to teach ( although that IS what I THOUGHT I  was going for as an end goal.) In fact, it was a last minute ( perhaps even rash) decision, and sometimes i DO think to myself, " What was I thinking?"  Because i financed this with student loans, and I might be paying on these for a long time.  I didn't consult with anyone on this either ( i am single) and that too was probably a mistake. IN truth, I started graduate school to save my ass, my soul, my spirit.  Through my MFA program,  I discovered that I DO have more writing ability than I thought I did, and also that I LOVE poetry, AND that I can write it. I studied with some wonderful inspiring teachers, Audrey Niffenanger, for one, and my art, my mind, and my spirit were greatly expanded by the entire experience. I discovered more of WHO I really AM through my MFA.  I still don't know how I am going to pay off this loan.  So what I would say here is, do your homework before you go, yes, but if a program calls you,  just do it. You CANNOT know where it will take you. You cannot know how it might change your life. You cannot know how it might SAVE your very life. 

  • Kate Cone

    Hi Michelle: I agree with a lot of what you say. Most of it actually. But I DID get  my MFA, and I can't take it back. I took student loans to live on plus pay for tuition which meant for me having a $55,000 loan. So....I was underemployed, taking job after job to pay my monthly student loan payment. I paid on it for 2 years, put it into forbearance so I could job hunt, got a job and I now see that my balance has gotten back up to the full $55,000 again. I am still struggling to finish the novel that was my creative thesis in the MFA program. I now have a full time day job in a different field. I have a retired husband who likes to talk to me when I get home. And a dog who likes to be exercised. So I have a huge loan, and no time to write. I am not alone. My focus now is to keep my day job, pay down the loan in 3 to 5 years (thanks to husband who pays for all the day to day bills), leaving me the freedom to pay down the loan) and try to write in lunch hour, pen on napkin or whatever else I can grab. There are 2 ways to think about this: do what you suggest (I wish I had your wisdom back when I applied to my mfa program) or get the degree which is "terminal," which means you can teach at the college level. Some MFA programs offer scholarships. Do your homework before you apply.

  • Penny J. Leisch

    You are right that the unspoken message is there in many ways. It's there when people don't respect your time when you work at home. It's there when people don't credit you with "working" because there's no regular paycheck or because you don't go to an office every day. It's even there when your family doesn't have any idea what you've published and says you "don't work", even when you've been published many times.

  • Kerina Pharr

    another great alternative, Michelle. Can't wait to see #4 and #5!

  • Michelle Haimoff

    Carrie, that's fantastic! It's rare to find a writing partner like that, and invaluable. I've found that free writing events exist if you look for them. You can also ask a workshop or retreat if they'll take you for free or for a reduced price, or to try to write about the retreat for a travel magazine or blog and get a press pass. I commend you for prioritizing your writing over material things. It can't be easy. Liz, it is really difficult to write and work at the same time, but it sounds like you're pulling it off, which is inspiring. Susan, I agree, simplification is so important. That's a great little quote.  

  • Victoria Brown

    Definitely no to spending big bucks on an MFA. My degree is from a public university and after some generous funding for the first year, ended up not costing that much. I learned a lot about writing from the program, but the best lessons were about discipline. There's no procrastinating when eleven other students are waiting for your story. All of our classes began after 5, and many of us worked full or part time jobs while taking the required load of courses and research fellowship. You figure out the ways to make it happen (which isn't the best circumstance for creativity to flourish, but you begin to learn what's doable). I think if you're looking for a terminal degree as a path to teaching, then the financial investment can be worth it. But, there are many other ways of participating in viable writing communities that don't cost $50,000.  

  • Carrie Ann Lahain

    My Art is necessary. But so is money. I am in the fortunate position of not having to work a day job because of a generous and supportive husband. However, this investment in my dreams--time, pure and simple--limits the amount available for things like workshops and retreats. My husband is not a corporate executive or lawyer or a doctor. He's a bus driver. He makes a middle-of-the-road living that I stretch through thrift and sound planning. It's only in the last year, through a fellowship awarded by the state of Nevada, that I have been able to contribute anything significant moneywise. I took the prize and opened an IRA. We're getting into our forties now, and all the years of one-income living mean less has been accumulated for the future than makes us comfortable. And yet having my writing makes me pretty content. I don't need lots of stuff to be happy. Still, I have to be creative and picky about the writer events/books/experiences I invest our money in. Luckily, I've hooked up with another frugal author and we constantly trade our work for slash-and-burn critiques sessions. Nothing held back. We also evaluate books and events and talk about the costs/benefits of taking part.  Since we're in different states, we can "pool" what we learn from our individual activities. Her friendship--personal and professional--is essential to me.  

  • L. A. Howard

    "Either way our culture is one that glorifies money and its every acquisition over less lucrative pursuits like writing poems and stories."

    I'll be honest; I simply can't afford to quit my day job to write.  I'd love to...hoo BOY would I!  But given the small bit that my husband and I make right now, it's just not feasible...not with a house payment, groceries, etc.  

    I DO agree that we shouldn't listen to negative messages about our hopes, dreams, or hobbies, but we also need to be smart about what we do.  It IS possible to write -and- work.  Not fun, but possible.  :)  

    (Everything I needed to know about how to both work and write I learned from the book "Quitter" by Jon Acuff! :D ) 

  • Susan McDonlad

    Amen. The main thing an MFA offers is time to write. If you take your writing seriously, you will make the choices you need to make to fit writing into your day, every day. Thoreau said most of us fritter away our lives with details. "Simply, simplify, simplify." I think that's the key to freeing up time for what's really important.