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Given that there are a few jobs where an MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) in creative writing is preferred as a writer or editor, is it possible figure out the ROI (return on investment) of acquiring the degree? Obviously there are a lot of variables in figuring out the ROI of any degree - how much is the degree? What of the possible job options does the degree land you? However it seems like with an MFA in Creative Writing especially it gets even more complex because it is hard to quantify how much "better" a writer a particular MFA might get you and therefore how much more likely you will be to succeed as a writer. It isn't quite as straight-forward as a degree such as an MBA, which is more like a simple gating mechanism. Is there any fairly accurate way to determine if an MFA is really worth it for a given writer?

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Unfortunately- no.

A ROI would suggest that just the "skills" learned are the only skills needed. If one intends to be a "writer" there are considerations such as "creativity" and being in "the right place at the right time" that the MFA doesn't even attempt to teach.

Yes, the same could be said for other degrees but the fact of the matter is that a degree in accounting (plus certification) are required for some jobs. I dare say that William Faulkner wasn't hired to teach at UVA because of a degree. The same thing could be said for lots of of "Top Ten" book list authors. Quick! Where did Dan Brown get his degree? J.D. Salinger? Eco? Rowling? Nabokov? Puzo? and lots of others.

Can a dedicated "student" learn something in an MFA program? Yes. Does that translate into a ROI? It depends on the student and too many other variables.

The question really should be WHAT do you want to get out of an MFA program and can the selected MFA program provide this?

Hopefully most MFA programs are telling their students (before signing up) the entire publishing industry is being changed just like the entire field of journalism. With a degree in journalism (news) trying to find a newspaper that is hiring and not firing is the real challenge.

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I think to some extent, you CAN simplify it the same way as for an MBA, because there are so many other (free or low cost) ways to improve your writing. So what does the program offer, other than the letters?

I guess it gives structure and discipline. There ARE other ways to improve your writing, but maybe some writers want to be given assignments and deadlines in order to force them to work. Fair enough, except that learning to work on your own, without immediate external incentives, is a pretty important skill for a writer to pick up. So the MFA programs help writers with a weakness, but they may only provide a bandaid solution.

MFAs also give access to professional writers and publishing insiders, but from what I've heard, the quality of these 'experts' varies greatly. And in these days of blogs, conferences, etc., I don't think MFAs are the only way to get access to these people. Sure, conferences cost money, but nowhere near as much as taking a year or two off work AND paying tuition to an MFA program.

Writers groups, whether in person or on line, give as much feedback as one would get in an MFA program, and while some of the feedback isn't valuable, I think sorting through that is another skill that a writer needs to develop.

I don't mean to argue against taking an MFA. If I had the time and the money, I'd love to do it. It would be incredible to have that much time set aside for writing, and that much support and encouragement close at hand. But it's not necessary to become a better writer. I think an MFA is a luxury. And luxury items don't have an ROI.

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I think the MFA gives you more than just the information you learn in the classes. It shows employers (in this case, usually publishing houses) that you're dedicated enough to pursue an MFA and spend an extra 2-3 years in school. It shows them you're willing to put in the effort to make yourself a better candidate. –  Ralph Gallagher Aug 22 '11 at 15:02
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That's pretty much what I meant by all you get is the letters. It's symbolic, rather than concretely useful. You could be further ahead in terms of useful knowledge by spending one of those years volunteering/interning at a publishing house (I know, these positions are hard to find, but not impossible), one year working part-time at a bookstore while writing your own stuff and going to every writing conference on the continent to network, and one year... I don't even know... interning at a whole different company? Self-publishing? Working as a freelance editor? –  Kate Sherwood Aug 22 '11 at 16:01
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I think part of most MFA programs is internships. I'm planning on trying for an internship at one of the Big 6 houses during my MFA program. –  Ralph Gallagher Aug 22 '11 at 21:47
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No one was ever published strictly because they had an MFA. If you wish to be a writer, then writing should be your first goal. If you wish to get on as an editor somewhere, show your editing experience. An MFA may get you in the door for a low-level position in publishing, but it's more likely that you will need other connections.

This question reminds me of something the great pianist and teacher Rosina Lhévinne is supposed to have said when asked by a student if she thought he had what it takes to be a musician. "Can you do anything else?" she asked him.

"Well," the student said, "I supposed I could get a law degree if this doesn't work out."

"Then do that," she said. "If you can do anything else, then you should. If all you can do is music, then be a musician."

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Get an MFA if you want to teach. There's some palpable ROI. Don't bother if you want to write.

When it comes to writing, getting an MFA isn't going to improve your skill that much more than self-study. If you're intelligent enough to write well, you're intelligent enough to learn it on your own, with a writing group, and via one-off workshops. Ultimately, it's not about how many classes you have taken. It's about how hard (and smart) you work at it. And don't forget the peer review.

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I'm working on a BFA where I have to study with MFA students in their classes, and I can safely say that I've learned more in a short time than a year of self study, two years of AFA study, and a year of BFA studies. –  Chris Kinniburgh Oct 16 '11 at 2:00
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