How Old is Too Old for a Traditional MFA Program?

As a group, you have proven to be such a wonderful source of knowledge (see, for instance, the recents posts on prose poetry and reading Dickens) that I am going to turn to you once again for your wisdom and advice.

An anonymous reader recently left this comment:

I have a question. What age is too old for a traditional MFA program? Everybody seems to be in their 20s. I’m currently in an excellent low-res program for what is but I crave a more full-time program that more mimics the life of a student, and I’m 46, only now discovering creative writing after a lifetime in journalism.

Back when I was applying to (low-res) programs, low-res definitely had the reputation for appealing more to the older set, those more likely to have careers and family commitments that made it seem very difficult, if not impossible, to consider the range of possible programs across the country that the recently-out-of-college set favored. But just as it’s true that the more recent grads are also turning to low-res programs (there were many in my program as the semesters went on), I know of older students who have decided to go the traditional, “full-res” route. What about the rest of you? Any comments to offer our anonymous colleague?

By the way, since we’re speaking of MFA programs, I should probably point out that Poets & Writers has just added a searchable MA/MFA/PhD program database to its site as well as a feature listing literary journals associated with MFA programs. I don’t really want to get into the new set of rankings the magazine has also published, but I will say that based on what I’ve read so far about the methodology behind it, I’m really not sure how useful these rankings are.

13 thoughts on “How Old is Too Old for a Traditional MFA Program?

  1. b.mousli says:

    More than a comment I would like to add a question : is it necessary to have an MFA to teach in a creative writing program? I have a phD in literature (not English)and I would like to switch career, but do not know if acquiring a phd (would have to be a low-res or a Master of Professional writing, that's all available around me and I am a working mom with limited mobility).
    By the way, Erika, thanks so much for mentioning the BIO group (Biography International Organization), it opened a new world to me!
    thanks for your blog and newsletter.

  2. Dana says:

    I am in my third year as a full residency MFA program. I was concerned when I started that I was too old, in relation to the other students. Since then, I have met many other "older" students and have heard from many instructors that their "older" students provide another perspective, much appreciated in discussions. I am moving slowly through the program- one class a term- and it works well for me. I have time for the massive amount of required reading, the writing I want to do, and I can still fulfill my work obligations. Several of my fellow students are full time students, having waited until retirement to pursue their MFA.
    Every program is a little different, but there are many out there that have the flexibility to meet the needs of both the "youngsters" and the "oldsters" in the same program.

  3. IRIS says:

    Hi all,
    I got my second Masters at 47yrs and have submitted my doc.dissertation at 68 yrs , two yrs after retirement.
    My Masters degrees are in Lit, Applied linguistics and ESP:teaching ( English for specific purposes)…. to theology students in fact.
    Age is no limit if you have imagination:the Divine I AM, as Coleridge defined it.I am still teaching .

  4. Mark Rennella says:

    I don't think there's any age limit per se. There will be an age gap between you and most of the other students, that's for sure. If you think that the 20 somethings are just too different, or that you don't want to be mainly with 20 somethings (i.e., a narrow slice of life), then you shouldn't go to a full residency program.

    My gut instinct is that their youth could give you an energy boost. They could also see your experience as an asset to class discussion. If you don't restrict your social life to the people in the graduate program, then it seems like a good thing to do.

  5. Anonymous says:

    The main question is how you think you'll feel being in workshop with students who on average will most likely be in their late 20s. Still, most programs have a range of students; I was 34 when I started my MFA and I was not the oldest person in the group. Many older writers don't go to residential programs because they don't want to relocate, or because of the cost. If those issues are not obstacles, and if you are going for the right reasons — i.e., to work on your writing, for the gift of time to write, for the community of writing friends — then I would go for it. I would not, however, get an MFA hoping that it will get you a job. It's art school, not professional school. The academic job market is extremely tight and few MFAs get teaching jobs without significant rock star publications. Hope that helps.

  6. Julie Dao says:

    I don't really think age should be an issue when it comes to writing. I'm in that 20-something demographic and personally would find that sharing classes with a more experienced writer to be informative and enlightening, no matter their age.

  7. Erika D. says:

    Thank you all for your comments. I appreciate them all. Béatrice, I'm really not sure how to answer you. If you're saying that you have a PhD that isn't in English literature, a more closely linked degree may be useful, but Anonymous is right: Publications–the more prestigious, the better–are imperative. You might find it helpful to look back through our Monday Morning posts, because the teaching job announcements in creative writing that are linked there tend to spell out the requirements. And I'm glad to hear that you've enjoyed learning about BIO!

  8. Cyn says:

    I went through an MFA program while in my late 30s. One of the other students was in her 70s. Many more were my age and older. Indeed, the 20-somethings were minority. I graduated five years ago.

  9. LCS249 says:

    In response to MFA vs. PhD, my understanding is that they are equivalent, both "terminal" degrees and both at the same pay scale.

    As for being too old … my eventual decision to quit pursuing one (in my mid-50s) was that I'd likely want to retire by the time I achieved tenure.

    If you really want one, get one and the age of the people around you be damned. In addition, there are several "distance" programs, as Erika knows. You'd never have to sit next to anyone.

  10. deonne kahler says:

    Great conversation! I'm in the two-year full-residency MFA at Queens College, CUNY, and started when I was 43.

    One of the reasons I chose Queens is because of the age diversity, which seems unusual for a full-res program. Many of my classmates are 20-somethings, but there are also students in their 30s, 40s, and two in their 50s.

    I'm thrilled with my program, and one of the reasons is the diverse mix of ages. But if you're driven to get your MFA at a certain school, it shouldn't matter how old your classmates are. Do the research, talk to the director and students (past and present, if possible), and make a decision. For me it was really about vibe more than anything else.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Thank you, Erica, for putting my question out there, and to everybody for answering. I entered a low-res program for the reasons people are citing here — to work on my writing, a gift to myself, etc. But with so little contact with profs and other students it doesn't feel like school at all. I'm just worried that no full-res program would want me because of my age, but there's only one way to find out.

  12. Lexington girl says:

    Just to throw my 2 cents into the conversation–I am in my mid-twenties in a low-res MFA program and there are ALL ages represented in the small program I am in! The variety in ages adds a great deal to the conversations and discussions we have online. I would encourage you to apply.

  13. Orville says:

    At least you Americans have an MFA program.
    I don't think age should be an issue. I believe it is all about self confidence. If you believe in yourself the rest will follow.
    Sure most MFA programs I imagine will be with 20somethings but they don't know everything. I am in my early 30s and I am back in university.
    I already have a B.A. degree but I messed up my 20s goofing off not taking school seriously.

    I admit I had thoughts that maybe I was too old but guess what I want an education. I have goals and I decided I can't wait anymore!

    In Canada we only have one MFA low residency program I believe it is at the University Of British Columbia in Vancouver. I wish in Canada we had the opportunities Americans have. You Americans are so lucky. I got accpeted to Wilkes University's MFA low residency program last year but it was simply too expensive. I tried contacting the Canadian government there are not a lot of funding for Canadians that want to study in America. America has so much artistic opportunities to be an artist. In Canada, it seems you got to be real old like 50 or 60 something to be "considered" a writer like Margaret Atwood or whatever. Just my opinion.

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