— Cathy Day (@daycathy) April 5, 2014
I can’t speak for Cathy, but I suspect that her interest in my post from last November (on which she commented at the time) may have been revived by some recent posts and discussions within a Facebook group on Creative Writing Pedagogy. These have included comments on Elizabeth Segran’s articles “What Can You Do with a Humanities PhD, Anyway?” and “The Dangers of Victimizing PhDs” (both of which, I argue, apply to some extent to the terminal MFA degree as well). Also noteworthy within the group lately: Stephanie Vanderslice’s link to a review that praises a book I’m reading right now: Now What: The Creative Writer’s Guide to Life After the MFA and Cathy’s own sharing of a survey on “Creative Writing Programs and the Business of Writing,” which includes questions about job preparation.
In any case, as I’ve told Cathy on Twitter, I’m eager to hear how this week’s class goes. In part, that’s because the weeks are ticking down to the session I’ll be moderating at The Muse & The Marketplace on “After the MFA: Constructing and Leading a Writing Life,” and I know that employment options will be part of that discussion. And in part, it’s because every single day I wake up to a reality in which I have both a PhD and an MFA and am NOT leading the faculty life that I anticipated.
Meantime, I’ve dug up this article on nonteaching jobs on college and university campuses to share with Cathy’s students, with my session’s participants, and with anyone else who may be interested.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2008 issue of The Writer magazine. This article may not be reprinted without permission.
MFA Grads Find Nonteaching Jobs on Campus
By Erika Dreifus
Many writers—and I’ll admit that I was one of them—enter graduate programs in creative writing thinking or hoping that they’ll one day land tenure-track jobs teaching that subject. What they don’t always realize is that the numbers of writers holding a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree is large, and getting larger all the time; that there are not enough teaching jobs in creative writing at the college and university level for each writer who seeks one; and that they may not truly want such a position, after all.
But writers have to eat. They must pay their bills and feed their families; they typically require health insurance and retirement benefits, too. And while colleges and universities may not offer enough teaching jobs for all the writers at their gates, they do need and hire writers for other positions. Job sites abound with position announcements in arts administration, communications and/or marketing, alumni relations and other fields. [See these resources.)
To explore this under-appreciated topic further, I asked four writers to share their experiences in non-teaching jobs at colleges and universities: Matt O’Donnell (MFA in poetry, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1998; currently associate editor, Bowdoin magazine, Bowdoin College); Gregg Rosenblum (MFA in fiction, Emerson College, 1999; currently editor, Office of Career Services, Harvard University, Faculty of Arts and Sciences); Margaret von Steinen (MFA in poetry, Western Michigan University, 2004; currently Prague Summer Program coordinator and communications officer for WMU’s Diether H. Haenicke Institute for Global Education); and Gabriel Welsch (MFA in fiction, The Pennsylvania State University, 1998; currently assistant vice president for marketing, Juniata College).
Why might writers find these jobs appealing, perhaps even preferable to faculty posts? “I like the people with whom I work,” says Rosenblum. “They’re intellectually curious and highly literate. Good writing, and the arts, are valued. It’s dangerous to generalize, but I think you’ll find these attitudes more often than not on a college campus.”
O’Donnell agrees. “I can’t imagine a better place to work than on a college campus,” he says. “I have all the benefits of the environment as my friends who teach, without the hassles and headaches I constantly hear about from them. To say nothing of the crazy and often petty politics of academia to contend with as a faculty member.”
Welsch, who says he was initially disappointed to receive a graduate editorial assistantship in arts marketing rather than a teaching assistantship, began his post-MFA professional life splitting his time between teaching writing and working as a development writer at Penn State. Gradually, his workload shifted entirely toward his non-teaching role.”At first, I lamented less time in the classroom,” he recalls. “But I soon saw the potential of what I was doing, in terms of earning power, yes, but also in terms of freedom. The less I taught, the less I had mornings, evenings and weekends consumed by grading and class prep, and so was writing more.”
Von Steinen, who says she never intended to teach, “can’t imagine a better job.” Her work with WMU’s Prague Summer Program, which features a large creative-writing component and a prominent faculty, “allows me to stay very much in touch with the creative-writing world and to meet authors.” The time she spends in Prague has inspired new poems and generated nonfiction as well.
But how do the skills one acquires as a creative writer translate into worklife in higher education? “The time I spent becoming a better fiction writer has served me well,” Rosenblum says. “Of course, I’m not writing short stories at work, but the skills do translate: line-by-line editing skills, the ability to organize your thoughts and write strategically for your audience. Also, the fiction workshop experience has helped me become a better professional editor. Being critical while supportive, helping a writer improve her work without stifling her voice—those skills apply to both fiction workshops and the office.” O’Donnell voices a similar sentiment: “The writing skills that I developed during my graduate program help me in my daily role now as well, whether writing pieces for the magazine or editing others’ work.”
Marketer Welsch adds: “The experience I have with narrative, metaphor and character development, as well as literary nonfiction, has been a boon for writing persuasive copy of various kinds.” He’s now grateful for that editorial assistantship, and he advises that writers, including those in MFA programs, avoiding narrowing their options or interests too early, “because you never know what odd internship or assistantship might set you off on a career you didn’t expect to love.”
For von Steinen, the MFA has proven useful in another way. “Studying poetry teaches a writer to use the least [number] of words to say what needs to be said, and to say it creatively. At work, I have to keep my creative side a bit in check, but the knowledge I have about paring back to the essential has made all my writing tighter and more interesting.” This skill, she believes, has wide applicability: to e-mails, Web-site stories, press releases and more.
Simply having earned an MFA can be a bonus. As O’Donnell notes, “Having an advanced degree in creative writing certainly helped me stand out among other applicants for the position that was, starting out, editorial assistant.”
There are drawbacks. “I have to give the first hour of the day to my writing or it doesn’t get done,” says von Steinen. “After the intensity of an eight-hour workday that involves a lot of business writing, I simply don’t have the energy to write at night.” Rosenblum shares that perspective: “When I’m in the office I’m not working on my own writing, and of course it’s hard, after a long day, to sit down at another computer screen.”
O’Donnell cautions that despite equal credentials, “there is often an academic prejudice toward nonfaculty members. One needs to be able to swallow some pride. Faculty come first. They receive resources not available to nonfaculty (grants, sabbatical, promotion of work, etc.), and their work is viewed as essential to the college mission.” For him, a comparable salary, “plus time to write, minus faculty support and prestige, equates to a better deal.”
Perhaps von Steinen sums it up best: “Good writing skills are invaluable, and always will be, at least until humans figure out how to communicate telepathically. If writers are flexible about the kind of writing they do for work, most will be able to find a satisfying day job that permits them to be a creative writer—without teaching.” Perhaps, even, within a world of teachers.