Selling Your Secret Life: MFA Lessons for the Entry-Level Job Search

Today, something a little different. Wendy Fox, who holds an MFA from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers and by day works as the marketing director for a technology company, offers some job-searching advice with MFA-colored glasses. 

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Going out on the job market fresh from an MFA can be daunting. It’s hard enough for new grads with degrees that lead more obviously to gainful employment, like business or accounting. Yet creative writers are marketable and skills like knowing how to meet deadlines and communicate effectively are both useful and in demand in a variety of professional settings). Continue reading

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A Day Job More Distant: An Interview with Paul Kerschen

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Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?

All sorts of reasons, the worst of which was thinking that the credential in itself would lead straight to literary success. The day my acceptance letter came from Iowa, I went bouncing around my dorm room with the Pixies blasting; I thought I was made as a writer. It didn’t occur to me that I hadn’t written anything yet.

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Enormous Changes at the Last Minute

Ann Arbor, August. I am packing my “relo-cube” with the contents of my one-bedroom apartment. Proust had madeleines, I have a scratched dining table my father owned in his grad school days; boxes of poetry books signed by their authors; end-tables my mother painted and decoupaged with pressed flowers; a red Schwinn road bike gifted to me by a friend; photos of my mother and father and grandmother, each at twenty; a print of Klee’s “Angelus Novus” my brother bought for me in Jerusalem; and, toward the end, lone shampoo bottles and boxes with labels like “printer/ pizza peel/ scraps of fabric.”

Despite a year-old agreement with my partner that we’d move together “wherever I got a job,” I am done with my M.F.A. and jobless and moving to live with him in Brooklyn, where I never wished to move. “Leah Falk lives in Brooklyn” is a sentence I did not want ever to have to put in a contributor’s bio – it felt like a cliché, a naïvely conceived dreamscape for hundreds of artists who didn’t realize that New York had become too recognizable, too expensive for them to live out their dreams. But as a fiction writer friend reminded me before she made the same Michigan-Brooklyn move a year earlier (in the words of The Goon Show’s Spike Milligan): “Everybody’s got to be somewhere!”

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Two roads diverged in a yellow wood? Autumn in Schenley Park, Pittsburgh.

And so I am stuffing toiletries into bags that once contained sheet sets. I am renting Zipcars to take paper bags of dishes to Goodwill. I am eating tuna sandwiches from the deli down the block standing up at my kitchen counter. I am taking walk after walk to say goodbye to Ann Arbor’s bulk food stores, its running trails along the Huron River, its chicken coops, its starry night sky. Days before the cube is due to be picked up, I receive an email from the English department at my university. They offer me the opportunity to teach three courses in the coming semester—a semester that begins in two weeks.

As in many humanities departments across the country, in ours graduate students teach an average of a course per semester while they complete their degrees. When we finish, many of us apply to work as adjunct instructors, or lecturers. Michigan treats its non-tenure-track faculty better than many places I can think of: despite anti-union sentiment in Lansing, the state’s capital, both graduate student instructors and lecturers are unionized; they receive excellent health benefits, help with childcare, and most enjoy a strong sense of community within their departments. Historically, many finishing M.F.A. students there have applied for, and gotten, work as lecturers after their degrees for at least a semester.

This past year, due to a quagmire of right-to-work legislation and games of chicken between the state government and its flagship university, a hiring freeze was in effect when most brand-new hires might have expected an offer letter in their mailboxes, back in May or June. Most of us did what any job candidate is advised to do when his prospects look less than hopeful with an employer: we moved on. In August, I didn’t know what I was moving on to, but I had, weeks earlier, decided not to wait around for the email that popped into my inbox just as I slid the lock closed on my moving cube.

Nevertheless, it took me two days to write an email declining the offer. Why? I had already begun this blog, and had had countless conversations with other writers whose view I shared that adjunct work was not the means to the life we wanted: creative, professional, economic, or otherwise. But I couldn’t shake the feeling, as I pressed “send,” that I was leaving something important behind, making, in the words of G.O.B. Bluth, “a huge mistake.” Lately, I’ve been considering where exactly that feeling comes from.

In two important stages of my life, childhood and college, my models of working people were all professors. All of them. My father was a professor, and his best friends were, too. They taught subjects ranging from chemistry to law to history to engineering, but dinner party conversations clustered around higher education, student performance, and administrative issues. These were men and women whose daily habit was knowledge for its own sake – even those whose academic research often had direct bearing on the private sector.

Besides being my parents’ friends, these people were in effect my second extended family: we were at their Passover and Thanksgiving tables, they babysat us, we attended each other’s families’ weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals. On Saturdays, my father and his friends, sometimes accompanied by my brother and me, followed a run in the city parks with coffee and bagels, as they had for almost thirty years.

I didn’t follow any of these people into their fields, but in a sense I did follow them into higher education: I wanted to reproduce a working atmosphere where being surrounded by challenging ideas was normal, where creating new knowledge was the source of workplace collaboration and celebration. And I followed my teachers, too – the next adults with whom I had thought-provoking conversations about learning and writing and art were my college professors.

But many of these adults worked in fields where, if they hadn’t worked in academia, they could have turned to industry. Others, like my English professors in college, entered the academy at a time when adjuncts didn’t make up nearly two-thirds of the workforce. If they taught in creative writing programs, they had often earned Ph.D.’s in English, before the M.F.A. became first the standard terminal degree in the field and then, like a wartime currency, slowly dwindled in value.

So when I declined my university’s offer, as I had to, because there was a cube full of my stuff and a person I loved and a city I hadn’t ever meant to live in awaiting me, I wasn’t just declining a one-semester position (although it was possible that was all it would be) and the opportunity to teach a course I had designed. I was acknowledging that in order to find the things I cared about – people who valued ideas, people who wanted to continue learning their whole lives, work that used my skills in the service of values I held dear – I might have to look elsewhere. That universities – institutions that surrounded me as a child, that helped build my conversations, my education, and my family – might, for my generation, might not be the only place, or even the best place, to look for those things.

(I stole the title of this post from Grace Paley.)

Just How Bad Can a Life of Adjuncting Be? Pretty Bad.

My hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, covers this very sad story of an adjunct French professor who died without health insurance or retirement benefits, and who, despite her “professor” title, lived out her last years close to the poverty line and suffering from cancer.

Worst is the information that her employer, the Catholic-affiliated Duquesne University, declined to recognize its adjuncts’ vote to join the United Steelworkers Union, begging religious exemption — while Georgetown, another Catholic university, recognized its adjuncts’ unionization, citing Catholic values of social justice. This is particularly sad in Pittsburgh, an historically strong union city (and a very Catholic one).

If this woman had held an M.F.A. rather than a Ph.D. or M.A., would we read this story differently? Does a fine arts degree somehow make us feel more licensed to look for work outside the academy than scholars? It’s worth pointing out that if someone performs well for 25 years in the private sector, they’re likely to  move up in the ranks, earn more money, and see their quality of life improve. Young professors starting out in 1969, when 78% of faculty had a chance of getting tenure, could expect the same. Margaret Mary’s quality of life, in contrast, stagnated and then took a turn for the worse, and when she was already in her eighties, a time when most people might like to be sitting on their porches enjoying their grandchildren.

As we search for and work at jobs outside the academy, let’s not forget to advocate on behalf of the nearly 50% (or, by some counts, two thirds) of university teachers who work with no chance at tenure and benefits. (Not to mention, increasingly, in climates hostile to unionization).

Let’s Not Forget an MFA is a Fine Arts Degree: An Interview with Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

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Why did you decide to pursue an M.F.A.? 

I wanted to be a poet. I already was, technically, when I made this decision in my second year of undergrad at Virginia Tech to be an English major. I had published some poems, was doing well in my poetry classes, and was in the process of forming The Brush Mountain Review at the time, but I also knew I wasn’t very good at it.

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Another Side of Higher Ed: Chris L. Terry

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I am the Coordinator of Student Engagement and Culture at Columbia College Chicago. It’s a broad title because I do a variety of things, and love it. Last week, I saw scholarship students’ faces as they read about Fred Hampton’s murder for the first time in my Chicago African-American History discussion group; trained a group of peer mentors; and was in Grant Park at 4 a.m. on Friday, supervising the set up of tents and stages for the New Student Convocation.

There’s something different to do every day and it keeps me from being bored. The more that I see and do, the more that I can write about.

This position is the culmination of four years of work. I entered Columbia’s Fiction Writing MFA program in 2008, wanting to become a better writer and to find work that was more fulfilling than my old career editing make-up catalogues. I wasn’t sure what that work would be, but I wanted to use grad school to make my world bigger, to say “yes” to everything. I figured that the answers would present themselves. They did.

I posted a resume to Columbia’s campus job site, hoping to get work in the Fiction Writing office. Instead, Student Engagement contacted me about working as an assistant to the Director of African-American Cultural Affairs. It was perfect. I’d been writing a lot about my black/white mixed race identity and wanted to get to know myself better as a black man. Surely, this job would enrich me far more than checking the spelling of lipstick shades ever did.

Immediately, working in Student Engagement made me feel tapped into the world. I met a variety of students and participated in a million discussions about race, masculinity and relationships – all topics that helped my writing as I sorted out my own identity through stories.

At first I was scared. I’m pale, and was worried that people wondered why a white guy worked in the black office. My first week, my boss’s boss asked me if I was Greek, and I said, “No. I’m black and Irish.” Imagine my embarrassment when she said, “Chris, we know that. I meant, like, are you in a fraternity?”

That was my welcome. I was there. I was accepted.

I graduated in 2012, after spreading my thesis hours out over an extra year to keep my campus job. Shortly after, I was hired as staff. My first full-time job with benefits.

This job is in conversation with my writing, instead of making it feel like an after-hours secret life. That first year in Student Engagement quieted the internal voices that tell me I’m not black enough. It shook loose the thirty years of significant moments where I had to consider my identity, that became turning points in the stories that I write before work, after work, and that I can mull over out loud while on the clock.

Chris L. Terry has a Fiction Writing MFA from Columbia College Chicago. His debut novel Zero Fade will be released by Curbside Splendor on September 16, 2013. Visit www.chrislterry.com for more of his writing.