13 June 2015

Two Years Later...is an MFA worth it?

 Ah, the creative writing MFA: hard work, and occasional
 solitary madness. Drinking and smoking may result.

The Internet is full of various articles on whether or not you should get that creative writing MFA degree...or a graduate degree, in general. (See here, here, here, here, here, and here.) Now that it's been two years since I walked onstage to collect my diploma from Seton Hill, I'm going to share with you my personal experiences. If you're considering getting an MFA, and especially if you want to teach at a college, I hope you'll find this helpful in some way. 


In early 2009, I applied to New York University's MFA in Musical Theater Writing with the hopes of starting the program that fall. NYU invited me to their Applicants Weekend and I was waitlisted, but withdrew because the Weekend showed me I clearly didn't have what it takes to write musicals for a living; I also learned that my heart wasn't 100% invested in the program, which was a surprise, but the truth. And...I realized that I actually hated Broadway-style musicals. Oops.

After walking away from my musical theater fantasy, I returned to my mundane life with my mundane retail and customer service jobs. I started having a quarter-life crisis, exacerbated by some significant health issues that had me in and out of hospitals and on disability and FMLA leave. I was pretty miserable with my life during this time and felt like I was moving further and further away from what I was meant to do: writing and teaching.

A few months later I tried to apply to grad school again, this time focusing on writing fiction--my first love--and after being accepted to almost all of my choices, I selected Goddard College. After paying my deposit and trying to plan for the Vermont residency, I found out my employer was not cool with the amount of work I'd have to miss for residencies. I didn't want to lose my job or upset anyone at work (which was silly, because I ended up having to quit anyway), so I withdrew my acceptance and got my deposit refunded, and settled on Seton Hill University instead. SHU was only four hours from where I lived in Columbus, which cut down on travelling time; their residencies were also shorter. Plus, SHU was all about learning to write excellent commercial genre fiction, which is what I wanted to write. I love literature, but I do not consider myself a literary writer by any means. I've always loved fantasy and horror, and I felt SHU could teach me quite a bit about that. And as you all know, I graduated SHU in June 2013 and wrote my very first novel, The Name and the Key.

After that preamble, this is what I can conclude about my MFA experience. And honestly, I loved it, but made a lot of stupid mistakes about my MFA, too. Please try not to make stupid mistakes if you can help it (but please forgive yourself if you do).

I became a better, smarter writer.

My mentors, critique partners, and workshops all played an integral part in this. I look at my old writing--even my shows--and kind of scratch my head. I thought I was good then, but, nope, not really. Not by a long shot. Now that I know what I'm capable of, I know I want to write fiction for the rest of my life. Even if I make mistakes, I know I won't make the same ones as before. I also know that what I'm writing is good, and it's something that can be verified by professionals--it's not ego this time around. And I can honestly say I don't think I could even stand a chance at publication if I continued to write the way I did before grad school.

Graduate school, despite its stressors, improved my well-being overall.

You can't deny how ridiculously ecstatic I look!
During graduation, before receiving my diploma,
June 2013. (c) KEB.
What can I say? I was miserable before I started graduate school. While enrolled in school, I had some stressful moments (and a bout of depression when my dad unexpectedly died during first semester). But I felt for the first time in years I had something to look forward to. It was a feeling like "coming home." For every step in my life that took me away from my dreams, grad school brought me back to them. It was one of the happiest times of my life; a genuinely wonderful and life-changing experience. It is this happiness that makes me not regret my decision to get my MFA.

I've met amazing people in the industry and formed a wonderful support system.

Fangirl moment here--I never imagined I'd meet literary agents, New York Times bestsellers, Bram Stoker Award-winners, etc. These are creme-de-la-creme writers, who also happened to be my fellow students, mentors, and teachers. I never in my life imagined I'd meet, let alone work with, such fabulous, highly-qualified people. Ever.

I should've worked harder to graduate on time. 

When Dad died September 2010, I sank into such a depression that I failed one of my courses because I fell behind on the work, then ultimately withdrew from the course after the 'W' period. If I would've just kept it together, I would've completed the course no problem--with my teacher's permission, I made up every assignment I missed, but withdrew before the final project was due. So, I failed with just one assignment short of passing. D'oh!

I also received a lot of miscommunication from the school on how financial aid worked when it came to how my student loans were applied and how the time-tables and credit hours worked. Also, I was given a lot of mixed information when it came to my own class requirements and deadlines for the larger projects required to graduate. I had multiple emails with very different details from varying, but credible, sources, so I made choices that I thought were necessary in order to keep myself from losing financial aid to attend the school. One of these choices was not attending a residency, when after the fact it turns out I should've (it would have worked out!); another was taking more electives than necessary; and lastly, enrolling in a course after I graduated in order to qualify for the federal loan I was awarded for Fall semester. So even though I had a diploma June 2013, I didn't actually wrap school until December 2013 (because June is considered "fall semester").

If I had more information, or the correct information, in addition to not withdrawing from my class,  I would've graduated a year earlier, period. This would've saved me TONS OF MONEY.

But...I wonder if I would've cracked under the pressure. Taking my time definitely helped keep me sane.

Between undergraduate and graduate school, I am over $90,000 in debt.

Goodbye, money! I'll never see you again!
Image licensed by Stock Unlimited.
I chose to attend private schools for both my undergraduate and graduate college experiences. I don't really know why. I don't remember anymore. I just picked the school I liked the most, and that was that. I wonder if I was brainwashed into thinking "private schools are more prestigious than public schools," which is a really stupid way to decide on which school to attend.

For undergrad, I secured a good deal of scholarships and awards that individually, weren't much, but compounded, meant a lot of money. However, despite the awards, my school was still expensive, and I had to take out subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans each year. I also borrowed the full amount (more than I needed for tuition) because despite also being employed while I was in school, I wasn't making enough money anyway.

Borrowing more than what I needed was a pretty big mistake. And I stupidly repeated it in graduate school.

SHU offered very little in terms of financial aid (but to its credit, none of the colleges to which I applied did, either). While I did snag some free money from the school, I had to take out student loans again to even afford classes. Because I didn't have enough money for residencies, I borrowed more than the cost of tuition to afford the travel and lodging expenses. While I was employed full-time for my first semester, the stress from work, and the grief from dealing with the loss of my father, played a role in me quitting my job. When my health improved dramatically from not working while in school, I did have to move back home with my mother, and borrow more money from the government to pay for the period I was unemployed.

I did find another job towards the end of school, so I was employed during my last semester. But once I left my full-time job in 2010, well...it turns out, that might've been the last time I'd be able to get a full-time position. Because, since then, every place I've worked and applied to only offers part-time hours. I honestly wonder if I will ever be able to work full-time ever again. I sure hope so.

Getting an MFA just so you can teach in college is not worth it financially. Yes, I teach at college. I love it to death. It is a satisfying and emotionally-fulfilling job. But...it doesn't pay.

My top choices, Goddard and SHU, were my top choices precisely because they both had a mandatory teaching component. I was not content to just learn how to write, but I genuinely wanted to teach writing at colleges, workshops, conventions, and conferences. But, mostly colleges.

This is something I want to smack myself in the head over, because while I did some research on this while I was enrolled in school, I didn't know how adjuncting worked, and I based a lot of my decisions on misinformation again.

When I was an undergrad, I saw the word "adjunct" in front of some of my professor's names, but never fully understood what it meant. I was told it meant "travelling professor," in that they rotate between colleges (didn't realize it was a euphemism!) and it wasn't until I was in graduate school that I was told an "adjunct" basically meant a part-time professor.

I didn't know about contracts, or contact hours, or any of that stuff yet, so I didn't see part-time teaching as an issue. I still thought it was a decent way to make a living, and here's why:

I thought of my professors at Capital and knew some of them made some major bank, and even if they were lower on the totem pole, they still were able to have houses or apartments of their own, own their own vehicles, have the opportunity to socialize, to travel, etc.

It never helped that this kind of information was floating around (click to enlarge):

The annual salaries of English professors in 2012-2013 school year. 
Screenshot from Higher-Ed Jobs website. Data is from the"Faculty in Higher Education Salary
Survey by Discipline, Rank and Tenure Status in Four-Year Colleges and Universities," conducted by CUPA-HR.

In my mind, if full-time English professors made $54,000 to $61,000 a year, then part-time professors made half as much ($27,000-$30,500), which was comparable to, but slightly less than, what I made at one of my full-time retail customer service jobs. With only myself to live for (no dependents), I lived incredibly well off of this type of annual salary. I was able to pay off all of my credit card debt, live on my own in a downtown apartment, and take small vacations to NYC to visit family. I was even able to make some payments on my undergraduate student loans, though not as much as I liked to (hospital bills are a bitch).

As you can see, my math and logic were very naive. But when I was looking for teaching work while in graduate school, I was comforted by actual numbers from job postings for adjuncts that I saw online. Like this, for example (what I'll call College A):

Screenshot from a real community college job posting in Ohio.
For professional reasons, I am not naming the college or source of this information.

Another example (aka College B):
Screenshot from a real community college job posting in  Ohio.
Again, for professional reasons, I am not naming the college or source of this information.

With these specific numbers, I did the math, believing that the hourly wages quoted were the actual rate of pay for every literal hour worked. So of course, when I was thinking about budgeting and what I could potentially make at either college, I came up with these numbers (click to enlarge):

(c) KEB.

I knew that it would be very difficult to get a teaching job right after graduation, so I expected to hop right back into retail or customer service again; in the meantime, I thought that if I did get to become an adjunct and teach part-time, it would be plenty enough for me to live off of.


Since becoming an adjunct professor (although I'm called a "lecturer," despite my terminal degree), I realize that these hourly wages quoted from the job postings are not literal wages for every hour that you work at your job; these are rates for the number of hours you spend in contact with your students in the classroom. So, if a class is 1.5/hrs a session, and you meet twice a week, that's 3 contact hours. This, and nothing else, is what you are paid for. 

Additional meetings with students, lesson preparation, grading, meetings with faculty and administration, writing recommendations--all of which I do or have done--is unpaid, but at the same time, is still counted as the part-time workload, which should never be more than 29 hours total, regardless of the amount of classes you teach. If you go above 29 hours, you've become a full-time employee, which entitles you to health care benefits, which colleges seem to be unable to afford. If you work more than 29 hours, regardless of how many classes you teach, you're violating your part-time contract--so you can definitely be fired over something like this. It is like this at nearly every college in the United States.

If you've ever seen headlines that mention professors on food stamps or how adjuncts are sucked into poverty due to their low wages, it's because of the contact vs. actual hours situation, and a slew of other issues on top of that (budgets cuts, low enrollment, contracts only lasting the duration of a semester, etc.).

Let's play with the wages posted by the two community colleges above in their job listings section of their websites, so you can see how the contact-hour payments really work (click to enlarge):

(c) KEB

The numbers in these charts are still not accurate, though, because they assume that whatever you teach each semester will be exactly the same for all twelve months of the year. Since contracts are only awarded on a per-term, as-needed basis, it becomes really difficult to budget when you're not entirely sure what your wages will be every five months or so. And good luck if you want to teach during the summer; these jobs are snatched up quickly. So 12 months of wages end up being more like 10 months of wages instead, with two full months completely unpaid (usually June and July for most colleges, if you can't teach summer classes).

With lower enrollment, budgeting constraints, and restructuring, you have absolutely no guarantee of the number of classes you'll be teaching. If you expect to teach four classes, but three are cut a week before the term starts because not enough students enrolled, it's tragic, and there's nothing you can do but scramble to find additional work, or have saved enough to accommodate sudden, substantial drops in income. In fact, many adjuncts work multiple jobs or teach at multiple schools just to make end's meet. And what that does is hurt students, because you can't give them the time they need when you're hopping between locations trying to stay out of poverty.

When newspapers and blogs say that adjuncts work for less than minimum wage, it's because of this math: say for example, you have a week where you need to do additional conferences with students, plus some departmental meetings, and you have to grade 15 five-page essays. Say this takes you the 29 hours maximum you've been allotted. However, you only teach one course for this school term, so even though you're working 29 hours, your paycheck reflects only 3 hours of work. Take your weekly contact hour pay and divide by actual hours worked, and the numbers get depressing. If you work for College A, that means during the week you were worth $4.96/hr; for College B, your work was worth $3.20/hr. Minimum wage in the state of Ohio is currently $8.10/hr, if you want some perspective. 

The 2015 poverty guidelines for Ohio are $11,770/yr for a 1-person household and $24,250/yr for a family of four.  If you work at College A, and you're single, you'd have to teach two classes just to break the poverty line; if you have a family of four, you'd have to teach at least four classes. If you work at College B, and want to break the poverty line, you'd need to teach three classes if you're single; if you have a family of four, then six classes. Again, these numbers only work if you teach the same amount of classes for twelve months consecutively. In all likelihood, in order to break the poverty line, you'd have to teach more than what I've listed. However, it's incredibly difficult to find a single institution that will let you teach that many courses, so most adjuncts teach on multiple campuses (hence the "travelling professor" explanation I got as an undergrad).

Whether you teach one class or six classes, no matter what, you cannot work more than 29 hours a week for a single employer. While teaching more classes earns you more money, it comes with an additional set of problems. For example, if you're teaching six classes, or 18 contact hours, that leaves you only eleven hours for the week for things like preparation, grading, meetings, etc. That means you can't even give two hours of your time to each class, because if you do, that's over the 29, and you can get fired. Knowing that teachers can't really do all the work required for a class in less than two hours, colleges prevent adjuncts from teaching a certain number of classes, or the adjuncts simply work more than 29 hours to accomplish the necessary tasks, but lie about it.

I don't feel comfortable disclosing my actual pay or workload (in fact, I don't know if I'm allowed to) but the numbers don't reflect the data for College A or College B. I can say that for the 2014 tax season, I barely broke $12,000 for my adjusted gross income, and that was with working for more than one employer in very different jobs. I've been applying for more work like crazy (49 jobs in one month at the time of this post!) and have discovered that now I've got my MFA and have some teaching credentials, it's become much harder to get hired back into retail and customer service. Go figure.

In the meantime, I can hardly pay my bills; moving out of my mother's house is fiscally impossible; and because my income is so low, my official IBR payment to direct loans servicing is currently at $0.  While having a $0 payment sounds amazing, it's not. I was told after 25 years of consecutive, on-time payments on my income-based repayment plan, any balance would be forgiven. Do I think I can pay $90,000 off in 25 years (except it won't be 90,000 because of interest)? If I'm able to put $300-400 down every month just for student loans, it's possible. But, not with the money I'm making. Even with two and three jobs at a time, I'm not making that kind of money. So the idea of having a $90,000 balance wiped clean sounds like a blessing, except...it then becomes taxable income (because the government decided to give you the money you borrowed). If I'm single for the next 25 years, and the federal income tax rate is the same as 2015's (ha!), I'm looking at owing the government at least $18,481.25 from that $90,000 (source) for that year's tax season, and this is calculated based on an amount with zero interest (therefore, it's inaccurate).

This is the reality of college teaching: it's a beautiful profession but unsustainable for living.

Now that you've read everything, what should you do?

Do what you want. Seriously. If you want that MFA, you should completely go for it! 

I don't regret my MFA one bit, but I do regret some of the choices I made while I was in grad school, and some of the choices I made immediately afterward. Of course, this all has to do with money. 

I should've stayed employed for every semester I was in grad school (instead of just the first and last semesters); I should've worked harder to graduate on time; I should've borrowed only what I needed in order to pay for tuition, instead of the maximum amount; and instead of jumping into adjuncting right after graduating--which was an incredibly lucky, magical situation--I should've waited (like, an entire year or two), and talked to real adjuncts about how pay and hours actually worked before making any decisions. Before applying to teach, I should've made a home with another employer, and then only when it was financially sound enough to, apply to teach. And instead of making college teaching a career, I should've instead treated it more like a supplement to a career. If I made smarter decisions, I would've had an easier time post-grad school. But, I've made my bed, and I must lie in it.

To end on a happy note: I never thought I was capable of writing a single book, but here I am, working on four of them at the same time. I never thought I would get anything published, and I have. I never thought anyone outside of my closest family and friends would believe I was a good writer with potential, but now I know otherwise. I never thought I'd be a convention panelist or college professor so soon after graduating.  I never thought I would grow so much as a human being. I never thought I could imagine what I have imagined, and that I could put all of that down on paper. All of this happened from my MFA.

If my story isn't enough, you can also look at what published authors say about the MFA process, and get a pretty blunt assessment of pros and cons here

Whatever you decide to do, good luck, and best wishes to you!

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