MA and MFA: The Final Word
John Poch | September 2012
While an MFA in creative writing is considered by most to be the terminal degree for those writers seeking academic training and the rewards thereof, many English departments and writing programs offer an MA in English (magister artium in the Latin) where creative writing can be chosen as a specialization area rather than technical communication, rhetoric/composition, literature, linguistics, or even film. In general, a student working in a creative writing MA program tends to follow a more rigorously structured degree plan than an MFA, fulfilling more scholarly/literary studies requirements. It may come as a surprise to some, but according to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs' recently updated figures, M.A. programs constitute one third of all the graduate degree programs in the United States.
I doubt you’ll see thrilling and controversial MA rankings any time soon in Poets & Writers, but the MA offers some fine possibilities for a young writer finding her way. One of those possibilities is NOT having to pay an enormous sum of money, as some MFA programs require of their students. I believe this is especially important for poets who won’t graduate from either program with a rosy financial outlook (prose writers can sometimes sell books and even write for the screen to make a living), especially if they need to take out loans to survive. Due to the fact that the most competitive MFA programs are receiving many hundreds of applicants, often for only a handful of funded positions, the MA degree can be quite an attractive option. Right now, an MA applicant is much more likely to be accepted.
Every MA program in creative writing has a long list of assets that make it unique, valuable, useful, and perhaps perfect for a young writer who for one reason or another doesn’t choose (or isn’t chosen by) the MFA program. Two of the more storied writing programs were, until recently, MA programs: Boston University and the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins now offer the MFA as their writing degree. From what I have heard, several of the programs that recently made this degree designation change did so in order to appear more writer-friendly and be more attractive to applicants; there wasn’t a big overhaul to how the program functioned. However, when the program at Hollins University underwent the degree change, they took the opportunity to restructure much of the program as they happily enjoyed an influx of money for endowed chairs and visiting writers.
The MFA is known as a studio degree, but then what does that mean? One could infer that the writing program is its own entity and thereby separate from the English department, but that is actually only true in a small number of cases. Most MFA programs are well-entrenched within and must work with their English departments, whether they like it or not.
So what’s the difference? In general, I believe many see the MFA as a degree that is more writer-ly. In other words, the MFA student aims to write literature more than writing about literature during his/her term. Obviously, any discrepancies will vary program by program. The difference between an MA and an MFA is probably as vast as the difference between any two given MA programs. Or the difference between any two MFA programs. Auburn, UC Davis, the University of Chicago, Western Washington, and many other programs still offer the MA as their signature writing degree. You can peruse the AWP Guide to Programs or the NewPages website to see the myriad possibilities.
The only actual difference might be that the M.A. does not usually claim to represent itself as the terminal degree, where the M.F.A. definitely does. Even so, with the proliferation of creative writing PhD programs (and MFA programs—there are hundreds), there is a general perception that the MFA has lost some of its luster. This has to do with a variety of issues and problems including but not limited to a decline in the quality of general education (especially of reading/writing) at our nation’s high schools and universities. When I finished my MFA at the University of Florida, William Logan mentioned to a few of us we need not pursue a PhD. We now were in possession of the terminal degree, he said. But I knew I needed more. Not that the MFA@UFL wasn’t a good program; it certainly was (I can name around ten poets within a three-year span who ended up publishing books with good presses). Rather, my earlier education was primarily physics/engineering-oriented, and I had a lot of holes to fill in my reading after the MFA I felt I needed more literary training, more teaching experience, and some time to get that first book published. The PhD at the University of North Texas ended up bolstering my writing and my preparation for teaching in academia. It is evident that PhD graduates are often more prepared to teach and have much more solid publishing credentials than do MFA graduates due to more time spent in the classroom on both sides of the podium. No doubt there are exceptions to the rule. Now many MFA programs are fortifying their degrees by offering three or four year programs. MFA@UFL is one of those programs. Yet the writing degree at Boston University remains a one-year program with their enviable Global Fellowships recently added to strengthen their offerings. That kind of intensity seems impossibly wonderful to me, though if I could choose any program I wanted perhaps it would be for a longer stay at a program like Cornell or Arkansas. But writing students don’t get to choose very often. Due to the numbers of applicants, many good writers are turned away from the best programs. It is hardly a mistake to consider the MA program either as a backup or even as a first choice for the student who realizes she isn’t coming in with a book nearly completed.
Obviously, I can speak most precisely of what the Texas Tech MA program offers: a degree in English with a specialization in creative writing. While our applicant pool has been growing recently, we still get very few applications in comparison with many MFA programs and in comparison with our more highly-visible PhD program. All our accepted students wishing to be funded receive very good financial support and teaching experience/training. Our teaching stipend is competitive, and the funding varies year to year, depending on which fellowships are available to us from the graduate school or the Provost’s Office or even from local philanthropic institutions such as the Helen Jones Foundation. While our entry-level literature and creative writing courses are most often taught by prepared PhD students, our MA students garner solid classroom experience by teaching composition. We even fly accepted graduate students in for a recruitment weekend so they can get a better idea of who we are and what we offer. Once students have visited, most of them accept our offers, but not all.
Most writing programs will have a vibrant reading series which brings in a wide array of authors and a literary magazine whereby one can gain some good editorial experience. Many larger universities will have a good library, which is important to any writer; ours has a special collections library focused on Southwestern and natural history writing. Every program has a department or program website that lists its greatest assets, though sometimes one has to research a bit more to see what other opportunities reside in or around an institution. A student planning on spending a few years in a writing program ought to spend a few days or weeks plowing through and sorting this information according to her needs.
In many MA programs, students have the opportunity to take four workshops, one each semester; this is no different than most MFA programs. The difference more likely lies in the other required classes that the students take. The strongest advantage for our M.A. students is probably two-fold: we work closely with these students on their writing, and the MA students take the same classes as the PhD students who are usually well-published, accomplished writers. Sometimes it is nice to be king of the hill, but if a student writer really wants to improve his writing, he tends to associate with others who can challenge him and who can push him into more interesting territory.
I urge my undergraduates looking for writing programs to consider MA programs as alternatives to the MFA programs they are already applying to. Especially those who are not near having a complete book manuscript of poems. One of my students was recently accepted to the MA program in English at the University of North Texas which has a program situated something like Texas Tech’s. She applied to this program as a backup to the MFA programs that she actually preferred. But since she was turned down by other institutions (or accepted with no funding at those MFA programs), she gets to study poetry with Bruce Bond, Corey Marks, B.H. Fairchild and the famed linguist, Haj Ross, besides completing the rest of her coursework under the other excellent faculty. We might have a fine opera program at TTU, but who can compete with the jazz program at UNT? Students out here on the high plains may feel a little isolated with their books (we do have an airport, though) while students in the Dallas Metroplex area have access to a different variety of culture and inspiration.
Any school or area is going to have its advantages, and students should take into account so much more than prestige and, in some cases, ancient history. What matters most is the here and now: a manageable cost of living, scholarships and fellowships beyond the teaching stipend, good literary instruction (reading, as well as writing!), travel money for graduate students, faculty who are approachable and capable teachers and not just famous writers, etc.
The final word in both degrees is “art,” and if a degree gives you access to the art of writing or keeps you from it, then there is the foundation for your decision. If you end up writing and reading the rest of your life, either one is fine.
John Poch teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech. His most recent book of poems is Dolls (Orchises Press 2009). He is editor of 32 Poems Magazine.