Post-MFA Advice: Part Two

My post last week, in which I offered some advice to those about to graduate with their MFAs, got a good deal of response along with a request to offer more information about the sorts of jobs that might be possible. I decided, then, to go to folks more expert than I, recent grads from the MFA program at Ohio State. I asked them to share their experiences in those first few years after graduation and to offer any advice that they might have.

Some folks made teaching their priority even if it meant having to adjunct or take a non-tenure-track lectureship or a visiting appointment. Those temporary gigs better prepared folks for their first tenure-track positions. One person outlined the benefits of following this path:

1. I gained valuable post-MFA teaching experience, which made my application much stronger when I went on the job market the next year.

2. I made new friends and professional contacts

3. VAP positions are obviously less competitive than tenure-track jobs

4. Spending one year in a new part of the country often felt less like work and more like an extended vacation (which is not to say that the work was easy)

 Some folks talked about going straight from the MFA to a Ph.D. program. One person offered the following advice:

I’m always happy to talk with folks about Ph.D. programs, mistakes I made and things I  would do differently–like choosing your subject areas WISELY and diversifying your  creative and critical output. Colleges and universities these days love people who can do  EVERYTHING. (I’ll add that I found this to be true of my own Ph.D. experience. I chose Composition Theory as one of my secondary areas and Modern British and American Literature as the other so I could market myself as a generalist who could teach creative writing, composition, and lit. surveys.)

 I should add here that at least one person I talked to decided to return for a graduate degree in Social Work with the hopes of landing a job with benefits, rather than continuing with adjunct teaching. “I love teaching,” she says, “but it’s a hobby I can’t afford as a single mom. I’m still writing, though! Free advice: you don’t have to take the GRE again if you want to get another grad degree at OSU, no matter how long you’ve been out. Once a grad student, always a grad student.”

One person went to law school and then practiced law for a year before landing a fellowship that allowed her to get back into teaching. I imagine a law degree would always provide a nice fall-back option if needed.

Other folks got jobs in academic advising. In fact, I know more than one OSU alum who has secured these sorts of jobs at OSU. One of these folks said, “I would agree that finding time for writing and publishing is key, and I think it can be done with a full time job, but you have to be pretty ruthlessly willing to write when you can write.” Another person had this to say:

 In terms of how this sort of job (which is 8-5, M-F, year-round) fits in with my creative writing pursuits, it’s a better fit for me than teaching because I feel I am using a different  skill set that compliments my writing rather than tiring me out (which teaching writing can sometimes do–especially when grading lots of composition papers). The downside is that the schedule of an advisor can be rigid and we don’t have the opportunity for breaks between semesters (in fact the “breaks” in semesters are when we are the busiest).

 This same person offered this excellent job-seeking advice:

 In terms of words of advice for those about to graduate–be hopeful–talk to your thesis   advisor, talk to your friends, and family members about possible job opportunities.   Don’t   underestimate the skills you have! Apply for all the post-MFA fellowships out there but also use Career Connection: to have your resume reviewed and to practice your interviewing skills.

 Another person landed a job as a Program Coordinator with the Migrant Education Program:

Although I work in rural small valley towns where they grow rice, walnuts, almonds, grapes, beans, I do a lot of writing, analyzing, managing, planning, negotiating, and training of staff.  I get paid a mid-level teacher salary with benefits and retirement.  The job depended more on my years as a high school teacher and my teaching credential more  than the MFA.  However, the MFA has made my job so much easier.  I’m not sure how, but I picked up the academic government language fairly quickly.  So I write sentences such as “According to the data from the California Department of Education, 20% of  migrant students scored at Proficient or Advanced on the . . .” for pages and pages.  It’s like creative writing because often the data we get is flawed. But the flow and confidence from the MFA program and the teaching opportunities have really helped.

 Another person described his search for a job in advertising, publishing, university administration, and the nonprofit sector. Here’s his advice:

   1) Apply far and wide. Job searching is a full-time gig in this difficult job market. I was at my desk from 8-5 during the week seeking open positions and applying for them. It sucked. But it worked out eventually.
2) Gather a sample of professional writing. Writing-intensive jobs often require you  provide a sample of professional writing. Be prepared for this.
3) Teaching, coursework, and any other part-time professional experience completed during the MFA is valid. But it has to be sold as such. Every cover letter and resume is an argument for why your experience makes you capable of excelling in the vacant position. There are a lot of skills in teaching that translate to other jobs, and I found interviewers were cognizant of that.
4) Freelance-to-hire, contract, and contract-to-hire work may be worth looking into, depending on the field you’re looking at.

 In similar fashion, another recent grad ended up working as a web producer, managing editorial projects for publication. “It’s a demanding full-time job,” she says, “and carving out time for writing is a balancing act, but it can be done, with difficulty.” I’ll attest to that. I know that this person just had a piece accepted at a premier literary journal.

Another recent grad ended up in Los Angeles writing for television shows:

 It’s a great job that pays very well and it’s more fun than a job should be, but it’s also very inconsistent. In 2011, I didn’t work much and I was officially employed for about 3/4 of 2012. Much of my fiction-writing energy is taken up by my tv writing now, but lately I’ve been better about carving out time to work on my own prose projects.

 Another person spoke about the importance of protecting writing time by free-lancing for the first five years after graduation: “conducting focus groups, writing corporate reports, some editing freelance work.” In this same vein, another recent grad said,

My big advice, which I followed, was to find a job that required no more than 40 hours of  work, including commuting, so that I could finagle at least 10 hours of writing time a  week. Prioritize writing; then let everything else fall into place. That’s my advice.

 A few people talked about the harsh realities of our personal lives that can sometimes stand in the way of our writing careers. Tremendous losses, illnesses, self-doubt, disappointments, questions of whether the degree was worth the effort. One person wished that she’d known that others have felt the same way before she walked away with that MFA in hand and so many hopes for the future. “I think post-MFAs should be prepared for the potential feeling of hitting a wall and not knowing what to do about it,” this person said.

I quite agree. It can be a shock to find yourself away from the setting that meant so much to you, that workshop room where people paid such close attention to your work, those professors’ offices where your mentors did their very best to help your talents develop. It’s doubly hard if your life hands you some sadness to deal with at the same time you doubt your abilities. The MFA is not always a golden ticket. That’s for sure.

Here’s something I’ll confess: that feeling of self-doubt has never completely disappeared for me. I still have times when I wonder whether I’m good enough; I imagine other writers feel the same way. The one thing I know for sure (and I think everyone who so kindly responded to my call for their post-MFA stories would agree) is that writing is a necessity for me, and it always was even in those days when I wasn’t publishing and was seriously thinking about giving it all up. The only problem was I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop thinking of story ideas, couldn’t stop shaping sentences until they pleased me, couldn’t stop “writing” even when I wasn’t.

I sometimes worry about how easily we seduce so many young writers into our MFA programs, all of them with dreams of publication in their eyes. We know the market for teachers is glutted. We know that our students will sometimes incur a good deal of debt with student loans. We know that not every student will achieve the goals that he or she has. We owe our students some straight talk about the odds. We owe them our support even after they’ve left our programs. We owe them options and advice. I apologize for the length of this post, but this is important, and I hope it’ll be helpful. I’ll close with my thanks to those who spoke so eloquently and urgently about their own experiences, and with all good wishes and blessings for those of you about to graduate.



  1. […] “Post-MFA Advice” by Lee Martin […]

  2. CathyShouse on February 25, 2013 at 10:06 am

    Thank you for pulling all of this together, Lee. I think it’s helpful to writers who don’t have MFA’s as well.

    • Lee Martin on February 25, 2013 at 10:19 am

      Thanks for your comment, Cathy.

  3. Benjamin Vogt on February 25, 2013 at 10:21 am

    And follow side interests. Maybe volunteer work will lead to a paid position, either directly or indirectly as connections are built. I can say with experience that volunteer organizations are hungry for folks with writing and marketing skills, but of course you have to balance volunteerism with paying the billsism (and writingism).

    • Lee Martin on February 25, 2013 at 10:24 am

      Thanks for that good advice, Ben.

  4. Jenny McKeel on February 25, 2013 at 9:13 pm


    Thanks for this wonderful post — I really got a lot out of learning about others’ experiences.

    A few other thoughts: My professional life has and continues to be a long and winding road. After I received my MFA I wanted:
    A. a job that pays enough for me to live comfortably in one of the most expensive cities in the country.
    B. a job that I can leave at the office (no papers to grade, etc.)
    C. a job that ideally places me in the context of words and ideas and thinking but does not require me to write or edit. When I was a copy editor for four years, at the end of the day I was too tired from staring at words all day to muster enthusiasm for my own writing.
    D. A job that I like.

    I found those things, but still my situation is far from perfect. My work life is always a work in progress, but something that helped me in the past was consulting with a career counselor. I found a counselor who helped me identify my core values, strengths, and passions. She helped me work towards my employment goals, one step at a time. I also believe that — while it is much harder during an economic downturn — an MFA in writing from OSU qualifies me to do any number of things — including but not limited to teaching. Some MFAs don’t seem to believe that. It’s just about working toward it through research, networking, and taking classes. Also, I have gotten the past three professional jobs through networking and contacts, so that does make a difference.

    And it is very hard for me to balance writing with a demanding professional job — but not impossible.

    • Lee Martin on February 26, 2013 at 10:05 am

      Jenny, thank so much for these additional thoughts. They’re very helpful to those who are willing to think outside the box.

      • Lee Martin on March 23, 2013 at 4:28 pm

        Thanks for you comment, Cheryl. I’m so glad that you found the writing family that was right for you at VCFA. There are some marvelous folks there. I’ve been teaching in the summer post-graduate writers’ conference for a few years now, and I always look forward to that week in Montpelier. And now I’ll look forward to meeting you in Oxford in May. Heck, I’ll look forward to May! It’s been a long winter here in Ohio. Take good care, and I’ll see you soon.

  5. Cheryl Wright-Watkins on March 23, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    Thank you, Lee, for these helpful essays about life after the MFA. I graduated from VCFA two months ago. For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of being a writer, but I shelved the dream in 1981 (after the PATCO strike) and spent twenty-five years in air traffic control. I retired on my 50th birthday to concentrate on writing. I attended the (now defunct) Writers Symposium at Brown University in 2008 and 2009, where I worked with Dr. Carol DeBoer-Langworthy, who urged me toward the MFA. I came home, submitted the application, and began the VCFA low-residency program a few months later. It was an invaluable, validating, fulfilling experience that I will always treasure. I worked with amazing writers and teachers, and I grew, not only as a writer, but as a person. I treasure my ongoing friendships with my advisors and with many of my classmates. I realize that I’m in the unusual and fortunate position of having a lifetime pension and not needing a job, but I’m searching for a way to give back to my community and to hone my craft. These articles have given me some excellent ideas about how to build my life as a writer. Thank you. I’ve enrolled for your Friday workshop at the conference in Oxford, and I look forward to meeting you in May.

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