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: http://careerconnection.osu.edu/ 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.