About MFA Day Job

As writers, we spend time in MFA programs learning to read and critique, to teach if we’re lucky, and to navigate the academic world. If we’re luckier, we get to interact with writers and artists outside of the academic world–that is, whose work universities don’t directly support. But more likely, we’re exposed to the lives of our teachers and visiting writers, who have achieved what looks, from our vantage, like the pinnacle of professional achievement: a middle-class paycheck, flexible schedule, and a ready-made audience for their work. We are grateful for these teachers as models and as people–without them, we’d feel lost.

Yet there’s a forest-for-trees exchange that can go on during a writer’s time in an MFA program. During my first year at the University of Michigan, a teacher of mine organized what promised to be a useful panel on alternative–non-academic–careers for MFAs. Other humanities advanced degree programs have similar info sessions. The panel was composed of journalists, doctors, teachers, and editors. Some had MFAs, but some just seemed to have “the skills” that an MFA is supposed to impart. Their stories were absorbing, as stories of professional people who do what they love tend to be.

That panel is where the wheels of this blog started turning. Those panelists’ careers were as diverse as their birthplaces–and so are the careers of many writers long after they’ve finished their MFAs. Instead of focusing on jobs that use skills imparted specifically by an MFA degree program–those skills vary widely, and some detractors would argue they don’t exist at all–why not dedicate a space to careers and jobs that require the skills, personalities, and passions of the people who happen to get MFAs?

Some of the writers featured here love their jobs. Others are just getting through the day. Some wake up at four a.m. to write, and some squeeze writing time in every few weeks. Some don’t have paying jobs, but depend on parenthood or volunteerism to create balance in their lives. What they have in common, besides a misunderstood terminal (it’s terminal!) degree, is a creative outlook and a belief that their educational background, despite the doomsday warnings, is not a liability.

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