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). What MFAs in particular must remember is that many hiring managers may not understand the rigor of arts programs, so it’s easy to send these résumés to the bottom of the slush pile.

The good news is that MFAs looking for work can use what they’ve learned in their programs to put together applications that get attention and interview opportunities.

Find the voice (of the cover letter)

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Not writing a cover letter—or reusing the same form cover letter—is one of the biggest mistakes entry-level job seekers make. A cover letter is the first chance to differentiate yourself and show off some of your writing chops, even if you are not applying for a writing job. While cover letters should indicate you’ve done your homework by specifically addressing the company and some of the requirements of the listing, it’s also the only place where you have the opportunity to tell some of your story, in your own voice. Fake chumminess or obnoxious horn-tooting will not score any points, but personality will.

Hiring managers will wonder why an MFA is applying for a job in marketing, or as an office manager, so this is your chance to explain. Maybe completing your degree has taken you to a new city that you’ve fallen in love with. Perhaps you are interested in a technology company because you use their software or platform. Maybe you were impressed by the business’s customer reviews. Say so. Then, ask yourself what you would be able to contribute to the role, why the company should be interested in you, and make sure these questions are answered, in your own words.

The cover letter, in addition to serving as an introduction, is a good barometer for hiring managers regarding whether applicants are a good cultural fit which is why it is even more important to sound like yourself. It’s bad for companies and worse for new employees to discover a few weeks in that there’s an awful lot of disconnect. In your MFA program, you’ve sat through countless workshops and seminars and likely devoted a great deal of discussion to voice; you can probably name characters whose voices have drawn you in, and by now, you have your own. Use it. Honest cover letters help ensure poor matches don’t even make it to the interview stage and that good matches are advanced more quickly. And well-written cover letters can go a long way in making up for résumés that don’t have many lines yet.

Show, don’t tell (on your résumé) 

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Writers are going to be good at compiling a resume that is free of typos and grammatical errors, and this will already help elevate the application. But the résumé can’t be just a list, and here is where you have to translate how your degree is relevant to prospective employers. You’ve come out of a program with some combination of skills from teaching, working on journals or at the university press, and completing your thesis. Trust that outside of academia, no one will actually care what your thesis is about, or what your curriculum philosophy is. Even if your school’s lit mag or press is one of the best, unless you are staying close to the arts no one will have heard of it. Likewise, very few organizations will be interested in your GPA, even if it is excellent.

So, don’t tell what you’ve done, show what you’ve accomplished. The bullet point “Instructed English 101” is fine, as long as it’s followed by explanation—it means you’ve supervised large groups, maintained a high retention rate, and contributed to departmental metrics. Ditto for working with magazines or presses. Rather than just “reading” or “editing,” frame this around decision making and emphasize the responsibility placed in your hands. Mention the volume of submissions, the tracking process, and your contributions to the finished product. And finally, that thesis. A year (at least!) of managing a very large project, in a self-directed way, and presented to a panel of industry experts, successfully. If you didn’t have a TA or any internships, find something else you have achieved, and articulate it. Work experience, even at a grocery store or a coffee shop, is valuable, so do not hesitate to include this even when applying for desk jobs. Never fabricate, but don’t be shy about being creative.

Dealing with rejection (in your job search)

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Writers are—or should be—very adept at handling rejection. There is no doubt that sending out application after application (or stories, or poems, or essays) and getting form or no responses is frustrating and discouraging. Yet, if a writer believes in her piece, she doesn’t toss it after a single rejection. Or after forty rejections. Or maybe even a hundred and forty.

Whatever strategy you have in your writing life that helps keep you going should be applied to a job search. Remember that hiring managers, just like journals and presses, are getting hundreds of applications for single openings. The better the pay or caché, the more interest there will be.

I work and hire in marketing, and I’m always more impressed by someone’s ability to package themselves than a dry description of their experience. When I look at a résumé, I need to understand immediately what someone is good at, so that I can figure out how they might complement the team. This could be someone who is a good project manager (turned in their thesis early) or someone who is very self-directed (organized a reading series). Outside of specialized professions, the degree subject isn’t usually that important, and good managers are willing to train new hires who show promise.

One last note: don’t pass over a job posting just because you don’t meet every single bullet point in the posting—very few people ever do. Focus on the areas you know you can excel at, and just like you would with a manuscript, take a chance.

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Wendy Fox is a fiction writer who is also the marketing director for a technology company. Her complete list of publications can be found at www.wendyjfox.com, her professional profile at www.linkedin.com/in/wendyfox, or follow her on Twitter @wendyjeanfox.

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