MFA / MA - wtf?

First up, hi, new followers!  With particular reference to the guys from The MFA Chronicles, Jonterri and Raina. (Also, dudes, what unbelievably cool names you have!)  The MFA Chronicles, for those who haven't seen the site, is a blogging platform for a group of MFA students way over in the USA, who've set out to demystify the MFA process.  They're studying in a range of places, hi-res and low-res, poetry/prose/non-fiction and beyond, so it's a really revealing site, and I, for one, am very interested in seeing how it all pans out for everybody.

I find the MA/MFA distinction an interesting one.  Here in the UK, the standard qualification in creative writing is an MA.  People do study it at BA level, and I think that's becoming increasingly popular, but it's still a fairly minority interest, and it certainly isn't typically offered everywhere as a standard undergraduate module, like Modernism, or Beowulf, for example.  So, then, if you want a degree in CW, it usually tends to be an MA.  Kingston University, in the outskirts of London, offers what they claim to be the first MFA in Creative Writing in the UK.  I'm not sure when that course got up and running, so rival programs may have spring up in the meantime, but as a quick google hunt seems to only offer Kingston, I'll take them at their word.  Otherwise, it's MAs all the way to the finish line.

Now, as far as I understand it, in the USA, the point of an MFA is that it's a terminal degree.  It's a two or three year program, and as well as literary theory classes and workshops, you work as a TA.  With your MFA in hand, then, you're qualified to apply for university teaching posts, whereas with your MA, you're not so likely to get a  job like that, and you might be expected to carry on afterwards to do an MFA or PhD.  I'm not sure what the outlook on CW PhDs are in North America.  Does the MFA fulfill the same qualification criteria for CW as a PhD would for, say, a sociology student?  Is there any point in doing a PhD, and what's the stance on MA courses?  MFAs are seen, in many institutions, as very prestigious; where do MAs rank?  I know Eleanor Catton completed an MA in New Zealand and then hightailed it to Iowa for her MFA - was this, I wonder, because she thought she needed more lessons or workshops, or because it's harder to get by in certain parts of the world withouth that particular qualification - even if you have a good MA from another place and have been published to immense acclaim?

In the UK, with the MFA as something of an unknown quantity, MAs rule the roost, though, of course, as elsewhere, many writers steer well clear.  (They're not cheap courses - mine's £4,200, which may seem paltry on US standards, but funding is so sparse as to be non-existent, and I'm paying for mine out of a pretty meagre redundancy package from my former job; otherwise there'd be no way I'd be doing it.)  You can go on to do a PhD, but I'm not sure if the lack of one would prohibit you from a teaching position, or if a solid publication record would do the trick.  I don't think CW PhDs have been around for a tremendously long time, and I would guess that the older generations of teaching staff are more likely to be published than PhD'd, but that, perhaps, the PhD is increasingly listed as a requirement, as more places begin to offer them.  My partner's studying for his PhD in fine art practice, and he's found that the practice-based PhD raises eyebrows in some corners from the more traditional art historians - I reckon it's the same for CW students.  It's ploughing new ground.

Anyway, MA courses seem to vary between one and two years.  Mine is one year, full-time, and is split between critical seminars and workshops.  You specialise in either fiction or poetrym though you have the option to do workshops in both. (I'm doing fiction.) You don't get any teaching experience, and you submit a disseration (work-in-progress) of 15,000 words at the end of the twelve months.  I would imagine it's not as intensive as the MFA, though, with only a year, the students may well put a huge amount of pressure on themselves to write their masterpiece in ten months, rather than over a two or three year period.  I'm kind of jealous of the MFA students that get two years or more to concentrate on their craft, but, on the other hand, the terror of teaching must be a distraction from the writing itself at times.  Plus I'm reluctant to be so broke for so long.

But what do you think?  MFA'ers - what's the perception of the MA courses in the US, and how are us international types recieved over your way?  Are we doomed without the MFA?  European people, what do you think?  And has anyone done or considered doing a PhD; how's that working out?  Let's have a discussion!  Go on, go on!


JayTee said...

IMO the big difference is, like you said, that the MFA is a terminal degree and seems to be more craft based than an MA which may tend to be more lit/critically focused. I don't know that the MA holds less prestige, it's just not terminal. I always imagined that the only reason to get an MA would be if you intended to go on for the PhD for sure.

My take on the CW PhD is that it can make you more employable by qualifying you to teach Literature classes in addition to Creative Writing classes here in the US. These degrees are really like English PhD degrees with creative dissertations as far as I know. I'd love to hear about a CW PhD program that was truly Creative Writing focused.

Rachel M. said...

I just graduated with a MA degree from Northern Arizona University with a concentration in Creative Writing. During that application process, I applied to both MFA and MA programs, not quite sure if my poetry was ready for the MFA level. It wasn't, so the MA, with a 50/50 English/Creative Writing courseload and a creative writing thesis, gave me a few years to improve my writing AND figure out if Creative Writing OR Literature was the route I wanted to take.

Also, after watching several MA students graduate the year before me, unable to find suitable work in their field with their degree, I knew that more school was in the works. Two of the three "suffering MA graduates" ended up applying for Creative Writing PhD programs during this year off.

So that's why I'm in an MFA now...but I don't consider it to be a terminal degree for ME necessarily either. So much is changing in the world of academia. Some people have MAs, MFAs, some people have PhDs, ands some people have a combination of the three. Theoretically, an MFA should prepare you for a tenure track teaching job..but who can really tell with the economy being the way it is nowadays?

I'm young, and I'm not in a hurry. It'll be worth it for me to spend the extra couple years in a PhD program after I graduate with my MFA. I'm already planning for the 2010-2011 PhD application season.

I don't know ANYTHING about the transfer of international degrees to the US. This is something I'd be curious to find out more about too.


Valerie O'Riordan said...

Interesting points!

I think perhaps the lack of MFA programs in the UK indicates a certain circularity in the academic world; you don't need to be qualified to teach on courses that don't exist. But soon they'll start to exist (with one that I know of already out there) and perhaps it'll be come a self-fulfilling thing. At the moment, those who want the academic jobs are probably doing PhDs.

I don't know anybody over here that's doing an MA with a view to teaching in a university, so the lack of teaching experience isn't an issue for them; it's mainly, as I imagine for many MFA students, the chance of a 'legitimate' year to devote to the craft. I'm not sure what the post-MA PhD uptake is. The MA courses I'm aware of are pretty heavily craft-based - and, judging by the blurb on the Manchester University website, their PhD is very very craft based, rather than more English-lit oriented. Though it'll be interesting to ask the actual students about that when I get there. It's all very well to read stuff on the web and make assumptions.

I think, though, doing a higher degree in CW is probably seen as a little less odd in the US, as the MFA seems to lead naturally towards a professional teaching type career (as well as the writing, obviously); while our MAs aren't geared in that direction. I;ve got relations that have look edat me very askance!

It's really interesting to see how tihngs are done differently in the two regions. JayTee, I'll be following your progress! And Rachel - best of luck!

red newsom said...



I'm starting an MA in Creative Writing at Keele this month and it costs about 2,500. Now I feel very lucky.

Valerie O'Riordan said...

Red, that's not even the end of it! I was trying to do the online registration / fee-paying extravaganza yesterday, and the system tried to charge me £4,600! I emailed everyone in sight and am now waiting for the admin people to give me answers. Who has that cash?!

Valerie O'Riordan said...

And, by the way, best of luck at Keele! Joe Stretch teaches there, right? He was a writer-in-residence in Manchester, I think - I've been meaning to check out his stuff.

Polyunsaturated Reality said...

Well it's been awhile since anyone has posted to this topic..but I was glad to find it! My issue is though...I just accepted into the MFA Directing program at East 15 Acting school/University of Essex...(I'm from Ohio in US) and I'm concerned that I wont be able to teach in the US when I'm done with my MFA...something about not having enough credits as with a three year degree. Go figure. And I'm I dont have a ton of time like some folks do!

Valerie O'Riordan said...

Wow, that sounds like a fascinating course. All the best with it!

It's such a pain in the ass, these international distinctions. Sometimes there seems to be no flexibility in the job market - you'll have your MFA, you'll have experience, you could be a damn good teacher! Grrr.