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You want to write—but who can find the time? Whether you’re still in college or out of school if you dreaming about writing and think you have the right stuff, a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing might be the advanced degree for you.

The M.F.A. in Creative Writing entails a combination of writing workshops, literature lectures and seminars, and elective courses intended to help writers improve upon their craft to the point where they’re able to find a public audience for their work. Most programs last two years, though some can extend beyond this. Regardless of the timetable, you probably won’t be able to call the degree your own until you’ve completed a manuscript of publishable quality—and it’ll be your professors, not you, who decide what that means.

Now before you start printing out your latest story and writing checks for app fees, there’s something you need to note about an M.F.A. in Creative Writing—or any other M.F.A. discipline, for that matter. An M.F.A. is not necessarily a job-preparation degree like a lot other graduate programs. Rather, an M.F.A. is largely an artistic endeavor.

If you’ve done a bit of research, you may have noticed that some schools offer an M.F.A., while others offer an M.A. with an emphasis on Creative Writing. Whereas an M.F.A. gives students more freedom to focus on their crafts as artists, an M.A. is more tightly structured within a grid of theory and literary criticism. Another difference: Most M.A. students will have to complete a critical thesis to earn their degree, while the M.F.A. students will need to write a creative manuscript.

One benefit of an M.F.A. is that it’s a terminal degree, so when you finish, you have completed the track of scholarship in your field. For this reason, the M.F.A. often requires more courses than the M.A. Prospective students need to do their research when choosing a program.

While poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and screenwriting are the most popular creative writing options, don’t forget that many programs boast slight deviations from the norm. A program might focus on writing children’s literature or be entirely open to any form of written expression.

Degree Information

A Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing takes from one to two years, and requires a thesis and often a comprehensive exam in English Literature. A Master of Fine Arts usually takes two to four years (though students can sometimes apply credits from an M.A.) and usually requires a manuscript of publishable quality.

Many programs offer a Ph.D. in English with a specialization in creative writing, though some now offer Ph.D.s in creative writing. A Ph.D. in English with a specialization in creative writing will require a good deal more analysis of literature. Both take between five and seven years, and require a creative dissertation. Comprehensive written and oral examinations are also often required.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a Degree Program

  • Is the program’s geographic location conducive to your creative process?
  • What kind of financial support does the program offer?
  • What kind of writing do the instructors produce? Is it similar to what I want to do?
  • Does the program specialize in the area of Creative Writing I’m interested in?
  • What guest instructors have been known to visit the school?
  • Will I be able to make connections that can help me publish?
  • What are the alumni doing now? Do they continue to support the school?

Career Overview

If you think that getting into the graduate program is trying, wait till the time to publish rolls around. The years you spend at a school are not just a time for experimenting and refining your craft but also for meeting the right people. A graduate degree from the right institution—and the connections that come with it—can often make the difference between publishing to great critical acclaim and seeing your manuscript languish in your attic.

Until your big break comes, however, many would-be novelists or poets have two jobs: writing and the one that pays the rent. Many M.F.A. graduates work in publishing themselves—either at magazines, publishing houses, or agencies—getting savvy about the business side and scribbling furiously at night. Others attempt to continue to find funding through fellowships and grants. The art may be its own reward, but a graduate degree in Creative Writing, unlike other degrees, does not guarantee a career upon completion.

As a payoff for the extra credits the M.F.A. student is required to take, graduates who aspire to teach writing have the credentials to do so. A graduate of an M.A. program, on the other hand, usually continues on to a Ph.D. in something like English Literature before finding her way to the college lectern. Still, those hoping to teach writing following graduation, will find it easier once they are published.

Career/Licensing Requirements

There are no specific licensing requirements for a career in Creative Writing.

Salary Information

While you’re working in a bookstore to support your short-story habit, you’ll earn about $10 per hour. Once you get your first advance, expect to earn around $30,000 a year. If you’re lucky enough to sell your second book to Hollywood, a $100,000 salary might be possible. If you become the next franchise writer, the big bucks will start rolling in.

Related Links

Poets & Writers
Poets & Writers is an organization that acts as a kind of clearinghouse of information for writers, with tips on everything from how to land an agent to how to polish your manuscript.

Other Creative Writing Resources
Follow trends in creative writing through the pages of smaller, more experimental journals like Pindeldyboz, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and One Story who all publish up-to-the-minute, bleeding-edge-of-cool fiction, as well as old tried and trues like The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine and The Paris Review.