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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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).

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.

The Week in Day Jobs, Call for Submissions

In case you missed it, Ali Shapiro weighed in at the Rumpus with a brilliant cartoon on selling your poet-skills to hiring managers. And “being into day jobs is really trendy right now,” at least for the set that used to scorn them (James Bond?). According to Amy Gutman, quitting dramatically so you can go home and write = out, figuring out how to balance your job with your creative pursuits = in.

In other news, CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS: if you’re a writer with an MFA who has recently completed a job search, or is in the middle of one, I’m interested in your story. Send me a summary of what you’d like to write about or a completed piece (about 700 words max) and a little bit about who you are.

I Shall Have to Sew it on For You, My Little Man: The Shadow Resume

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A confession: I’m about to move halfway across the country and I don’t yet have a job offer in my new state. This is something I promised myself I would never do: I was lucky enough, for the three years between college and graduate school, never to be un- (or under-) employed. If I moved somewhere new after my M.F.A., I vowed, I would do it because exciting work, an invigorating office culture, and health insurance wooed me there.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve always been the kind of person who hates to procrastinate—I never pulled an all-nighter in high school or college, and I start thinking about work assignments weeks ahead of time. But despite my early efforts to ward off the unemployment reaper, I’m still pressing “send” on application after application.

And yet. I’m not freaking out. Partly because, I’m happy to say, my paranoia has encouraged me to keep a shadow resume current during my time in grad school. Over at Slate, Adam Kotsko writes about the benefits of the shadow (I’ll stick you on with soap!) resume for Ph.D. students—in a job market where it’s tougher than ever to land an academic job, and applying for a position with an unrelated advanced degree can be a liability, it’s essential to keep track of the work you’ve done outside the academy (or even work that counts in both courts). This can feel like living a double life, but we already know what that feels like, right?

When my summer writing students asked me a couple weeks ago “which was more useful, majoring in English or Creative Writing,” I sighed and wished there were a “the liberal arts are essential to living a good and curious life, but you might want to learn how to code, too” pill I could give each of them. Why can’t we have both? Superman had a secret, less airborne life as Clark Kent—you, too, can be an Excel expert by day and keep your long, flash-fiction-filled nights a secret from hiring managers everywhere.

Writing for Money, Writing for No Money

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As I write this post, I am supposed to be writing something else. I have been struggling to finish the “something else” for four days. It’s a short piece, something I know I’m capable of running off in a few hours. But instead I have swept the kitchen floor, finished a jar of jam, walked to CVS, called my parents, opened another jar of jam. This should be a familiar situation to anyone who has ever procrastinated doing anything.

But there’s another distinction between the writing I’m doing on this website and the writing I’m supposed to be doing: for writing the thing I’ve been putting off, I will eventually get paid. Not a lot, but more than zero dollars. And I wonder if that is part of the reason writing it has been like pulling teeth.

Technical writers, business writers, and grant writers take it for granted that their work will be paid, that writing is a skill that has monetary value. Poets and fiction writers, on the other hand, even as they begin to publish in good places, can never quite assume that a check will be in the mail. Especially now, some of the most interesting online places – where your work is perhaps more likely to be read by all your friends than in even the best print journal – don’t pay. What difference does this make to our writing, and how we think of it as work?

“I’m working,” or “I have to get back to work,” you have probably gchatted to someone who has interrupted your morning writing time (and what were you doing with that window open, huh?) and subsequently you might have felt a little dishonest as you glanced at your messy Word document and then clicked on “Can Men Breast Feed?” Calling our creative efforts work can be, variously, a way to impress our non-writer friends, a way to legitimize ourselves to ourselves, a way to apologize to the rest of the world for the fact that we actually kind of enjoy what we do, and many other things. But no matter what the word does for us, we probably have fewer doubts about it when it comes attached to some USD.

For most poets and fiction writers, of course, any money that elevates our work for the rest of the world probably comes after years of unpaid toil, if at all. There’s something freeing as well as frustrating in that fact – even if your mother gives you a side-eye when you disappear from a family gathering in order “to get some work done,” and even if a family friend sends you a congratulatory postcard upon hearing you have “sold a poem” (it happened to me), it’s nice to know that in the meantime, you can experiment, you can mess up, and you can take as long as you want.

But that’s just me, a worried person who hates to pull all-nighters. Is your writing work? Does your answer change based on whether you’ve been paid lately? What do you say when someone asks you what you “do”?