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John Merriman

Aug 24, 2005, 4:08 PM

Post #1 of 7 (3327 views)
Four years or two? Can't Post

I just got my B.A. in English this year and have been on a frustrating and fruitless search for editorial and production assistant positions in the publishing industry. On top of that, I've never had a strong desire to go into publishing, I just thought that it would be a good idea for me to get a "career" job that would somehow involve books and writers.

Anyway, now I'm at the point where I'm thinking I should devote time to my true passion, which of course is creative writing, and put job-hunting on hold. I'm beginning to look at MFA programs to get into Fall 2006, and a big question I have is, what are the main advantages and disadvantages about choosing a four-year as opposed to a two-year program? Anybody have a strong opinion either way? Any advice would be wonderful. Thank you!

(This post was edited by JWM on Aug 24, 2005, 4:17 PM)


Aug 24, 2005, 5:08 PM

Post #2 of 7 (3321 views)
Re: [JWM] Four years or two? Can't Post

I have two bits of advice for you, one of which, you asked for, the other, you didn't: I would wait a little longer before you get your MFA. I spent two years working at a newspaper before going to grad school, and for me, frankly, I think I should have waited a little longer. Your writing will grow and progress as you grow and process. It's also nice to have some time out of the classroom. While this certainly isn't true for everyone, it was for me and is worth considering. There is a considerable amount of critiscism that goes with being in an MFA program and it's better to be deeply rooted in your own voice before you start hearing too many other people's opinion on it.

That said: I've never heard of a four year MFA program. I have heard of three year programs. I learned a tremendous amount in my MFA. I was also awfully sick of workshops by the end of my two years. I would look at each program individually -- no matter how many years it takes -- and see which program looks like the best fit for you, regardless of the time frame. Look at who teaches there, look at how much funding you can possibly receive, look at class sizes etc. Also, talk to students, but be sure to talk to more than one. MFA students are notoriously cranky. Best of luck with writing, school and work.

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In Reply To

John Merriman

Aug 25, 2005, 10:20 AM

Post #3 of 7 (3298 views)
Re: [LookUp] Four years or two? Can't Post

Thanks for the response, and the good luck wishes...I'm of course still undecided about the job/grad school decision, so I'll definitely keep what you said in consideration. When you worked at the newspaper, did you still find the time and the mental energy to write creatively as much as you liked? That's one thing I've often wondered about working and trying to write on the side.


Aug 25, 2005, 10:48 AM

Post #4 of 7 (3294 views)
Re: [JWM] Four years or two? Can't Post

The only "residential" four-year MFA programs I know of are at Arkansas and Alabama (I think...). Alabama's web site could tell you for sure. I went through a two year MFA program which in a lot of ways seemed very short, while I think a lot of three year programs reserve most of that final year for working on your thesis, which to me makes sense. Four years seems like a LONG time, though people I know who went to Arkansas had a lot of lit coursework and teaching experience, which could be very helpful later on, especially if you were thinking about going even further with getting a PhD...

I also agree that you're wise to take a year or two off (at least) before going to an MFA program -- you're going to have a much richer experience with, for lack of a more elegant way to put it, simply more "stuff" to write about. FWIW...Good luck!

(This post was edited by rutha on Aug 25, 2005, 10:56 AM)


Aug 25, 2005, 11:31 AM

Post #5 of 7 (3289 views)
Re: [rutha] Four years or two? Can't Post


Don't be discouraged by a lengthy job search. Publishing, whether it's books, magazines, web sites, or newspapers, is a very difficult business to enter. It's not at all uncommon for a job search like yours to last up to a year or longer.

If you're determined to be a writer, though, you can definitely accomplish your goal. If you're not having any luck with full-time job prospects, there are a number of things you can do to improve your clips and add to your experience, thereby making you a more attractive candidate.

Every town has a local paper that needs freelance "stringers" to report things like high school sporting events, school board meetings, and the like. Start small. Call the local weekly and see if you can talk with an editor about such possiblities. Most likely, you can get a small assignment. If you work out well, you may find yourself writing another story the following week. Once you build up a few clips, you immediately become more attractive to other employers, and the chances of you landing a full time entry-level job increases accordiningly.

Similarly, there are hundreds of websites out there that need editorial content. If you're a book, movie, or video game fan, in particular, you could easily find a few sites that will accept your reviews (you'll be writing for free here most of the time)--a great way to add to your clips.

Anyway, the point is, I think you're much better off at this stage of your writing career to be looking for full-time employment. I say this for two reasons.

1. Getting an MFA does not make you any more employable that you already are. In fact, in your case, it can hurt you (maybe not hurt as much as hinder). I'm not saying it's right, but I've seen my share of MFA holders' resumes in the garbage can. Basically, as far as most entry-level publishing jobs are concered, an editor wants someone who will work hard for cheap and with no attitude. In the battle of undergrad with no job experience and MFA holder with no job experience, the undergrad always wins.

All of us MFA applicants fantasize about writing a best-selling, earth-shaking novel during the thesis year that will enable us to live a life of literary leisure for the rest of our days, but the fact is, that nearly never happens. For every MFA thesis "homerun," there are 500 pop fouls. You might be the guy who hits the homerun, but it would be awfully foolish of you to bank on that chance. The bottom line is, you need to be prepared for a real job when you come out the other end of this degree program.

2. Working will actually help you with your creative writing. If you're working in publishing, you're learning about the nuts and bolts of the craft you want to perfect. I promise you, a few years at a newspaper or magazine will galvanize your mechanics beyond belief. You won't even be able to read a restaraunt menu without noticing some bit of sloppy writing that you could fix.

Also, this experience will teach you more about the venues in which you hope to one day see your creative work. I'm always surprised to meet writers who couldn't tell a galley proof from a salad fork; a folio from fois gras.


I should say, JWM, that this won't be an easy task. Sitting down to write after a long day of real-world bullshit is sometimes the last thing you want to do. You have to be truly motivated. If you stick to it, though, you'll get more out of that MFA program that you want to attend.

Hope that's helpful.

(This post was edited by bighark on Aug 25, 2005, 11:42 AM)

Buy this book!

Aug 25, 2005, 12:50 PM

Post #6 of 7 (3279 views)
Re: [bighark] Four years or two? Can't Post

I did the last semester of my (low-residency) MFA while working as a staff writer on a newspaper. Didn't bother me at all, but I was in a position to work part-time while I finished my thesis novel. I did the newspaper work in their office, and my own in my own.

You do need to be able to compartmentalize, of course. I've got the trick, to some extent, but I couldn't teach it to someone else. I just set aside certain times of the day or week for writing, and that does it for me (assuming I have time).

As far as a two-year or longer program, consider what you want to write. Figure about half of that time you'll actually get to write (courses and so on take up the rest), so can you write the book you want to write for your thesis in a year of concentrated writing? Don't drag out the degree if you don't need to.

And I second what was said above about an MFA making you more employable -- the reverse is true, if anything.


The Review Mirror, available at

Difficult Listening, Sundays from ten to noon (Central time), at

John Merriman

Aug 27, 2005, 4:41 PM

Post #7 of 7 (3243 views)
Re: [pongo] Four years or two? Can't Post

Thanks all for taking the time to pass on your advice and sharing your experiences...I do feel better prepared about making a decision.


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