Poets and Writers, an organization devoted to a literary subculture most of the world knows little to nothing about, ranks the top MFA programs in Creative Writing each year. The rankings are determined based on criteria that are important to undergraduates applying to graduate school in creative writing, so cost of living, amount of aid, and number of fellowships offered all factor in. Unfortunately, there's no column for "Useless Waste of Time and Money." That column would be solid "Yes" all the way down. An MFA in Creative Writing is to "job" as leash is to "cat."
I received my MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University in 1999, only a few weeks after this article documenting the general uselessness of the degree was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. These articles are somewhat of an annual tradition in academic publications. In 2011, Elise Blackwell, who has published four small-press novels, has a permanent cover blurb agreement with South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, and directs the MFA program at the University of South Carolina, discussed the definition of "success" for a post-MFA career. Actually, rather than defining "success," she spent most of the article talking about the university's external review process, mocking a genre author who criticized the Poets & Writers MFA program rankings, and suggesting that the appalling job placement rates of even the most prestigious MFA programs (8 to 20%) would soon become a factor for non-arts degree programs. In that prediction, she was correct.
The truth is, the "job placement rate" for the majority of the estimated 700 to 800 graduate creative writing programs in the United States has declined to zero in recent years. Blackwell discusses the traditional anti-genre bias of the majority of ranked MFA Creative Writing programs in the context of current bestselling authors, including Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, who does not have a graduate writing degree. Acknowledging Meyer's success, Blackwell asks, "What about a young Kafka?"
Well, first, Kafka never went to any writing program. He worked for his entire life at an insurance company, a soul-killing experience which gave rise to The Metamorphosis, which is a story about a young man working in a soul-killing job who turns into a man-sized cockroach. Hilarity ensues. Kafka was not only not an MFA program graduate, he was one of those dreadful genre writers. I believe he would appreciate the irony of the stories he wrote which he found hilarious, reportedly unable to complete reading any of them without bursting into laughter, being regarded as "serious literature" today. Blackwell further compounds her ill-chosen examples meant to promote serious literary writing with no commercial aims by giving Arthur Conan Doyle as another example of a writer who wrote for years without much recognition, then became an "overnight success."
Doyle wrote at least a couple of novels before publishing the first Sherlock Holmes tale four years after he took up writing in his spare time. He is considered one of the fathers of modern crime fiction and of course, invented two of literature's most beloved characters: Holmes and Watson. He also wrote in another genre: science fiction (The Lost World and other Professor Challenger stories).
Even someone who has benefited greatly from the academic structure that created, feeds and maintains graduate writing programs, Elise Blackwell, cannot coherently defend their existence. A brief examination of Poets & Writers and Associated Writing Programs websites and print publications shows a shocking degree of disconnect from any worlds other than the world of graduate creative writing programs.
If you want to be a part of this world, then yes, you need to enroll in and graduate from an MFA creative writing program. It is uncertain how much longer thousands of people each year are going to be willing to pay $30,000 for an approximate 5% chance of getting a job, even from the best programs. Getting an MFA will not assist you in "publishing," and if you are proceeding on that assumption, you need to learn what publishing is today. None of faculty involved in the MFA programs I looked at while writing this article seemed remotely aware of the titanic shifts in publishing in the past few years. It's a good bet someone with a permanent cover blurb from J.M. Coetzee doesn't have her finger on the pulse of today's readers.
Blackwell gives the example of Stephenie Meyer as an author who achieved commercial success without a graduate writing degree. I will give the example of E.L. James, who first achieved commercial success without a mainstream publisher.
I am one of those employed, published graduates with my shockingly useless degree. I actually pay my bills from writing. However, I had published prior to entering my MFA program, and I would have had a career as a writer regardless. My motive to obtain the degree was to be able to teach college writing and I achieved that goal. No one has precisely enumerated just how many thousands of new MFA graduates join the ranks of job applicants each year. Let's say there are 600 active programs and they admit an average of 20 students a year — so 12,000 graduates each year. I just counted approximately 100 jobs listed for English and Literature advertised in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Of those, at least half are literature positions open only to Ph.D holders, and 20% are part-time positions or writing center tutor positions. Only a handful are a good match for a candidate with an MFA in creative writing.
Let's see. An MFA is to "job" as Myspace is to "music career." That is a word pair analogy. They start teaching them in first grade.