Valuing the MFA

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Our culture often has a negative view of the MFA degree. With no guaranteed return on investment and a high cost, many see it as a waste of time and money. One can write, act, direct, or dramaturge without a degree. As evidenced by the recent MFA series on HowlRound, even among artists the value of this degree is not quite clear. This negativity and confusion must filter down into the decision-making process. Some people know exactly what kind of art or writing they want to do and pursue the degree to hone their craft, but there are others for whom the MFA is a gateway to their artistry. They need the discipline and focus, as well as the exploration, to help them grow into the artist they will become. I was one of those people, and I worry that MFA programs and therefore the larger theater community could lose valuable artists because potential students are at risk of simply dismissing the degree.

Nine years ago, when I was a college senior perusing books on graduate schools, I saw chapters on obtaining a law, business, or medical degree. In a small MFA section in the back, the first line read something like, "Make sure you are really sure you want to pursue this degree." Well, that was not encouraging. I am rarely sure of anything. I also heard friends and professors say that one should not go to graduate school unless it is completely paid for. For MFAs, especially programs that do not have a teaching component, those scholarships can be difficult to find. It’s a wonder I applied to an MFA program at all. Thankfully, I ignored the negativity and attended the two-year graduate program in musical theater writing at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts. It was two of the most challenging, stimulating, and fruitful years of my life.

I didn’t go to graduate school straight out of college. I had been accepted into a journalism program but on the eve of the first day of classes I decided not to attend. I love journalism, but I would have been going to graduate school because I had nothing else to do. I wanted to experience working, but had not yet gotten my first post-college job (even pre-recession it was difficult), and the program had always been what my mom had called “an option.” But there was another aspect that was keeping me from enrolling: I couldn’t see possibilities in a journalism degree. While it might not have been the case, at the time it seemed like getting a journalism degree meant I would only be doing one kind of writing for the rest of my life.

It might sound odd that I saw more possibilities in a musical theater writing MFA than I did in a journalism masters, but when I saw the list of Graduate Musical Theatre Writing alumni I was excited that their post-graduation work encompassed a wide variety of writing projects and experiences. Aside from musicals, alumni had written for television, film, plays, books, magazines, and opera. Before I even attended the program I saw musical theater writing as the foundation for all other forms of writing and storytelling instead of a narrow discipline, and this was the main reason I chose to apply and attend.

Still, when I told people that I was getting an MFA in musical theater writing, I would tack on, "Yeah, it's really random," because I was sure they were thinking, "Why are you paying all that money for that degree?" It may have been that I was not sure myself, as I had never officially written a musical before. After my first year of the program, however, when I realized how much I was growing as an artist and succeeding, my insecurity about the degree dissipated.

This degree was about learning and improving one’s craft, not about making specific connections to get jobs and opportunities afterward.

Before I officially enrolled, I spoke to two alumni about their thoughts on the program, both of whom cautioned me that this degree was about learning and improving one’s craft, not about making specific connections to get jobs and opportunities afterward. Now, I am one of those alumni that potential students might call upon for advice and to answer whether the program was worth the investment. I would tell them, absolutely, but you may not realize why or feel the effects of it until five years after you graduate, maybe even more. Musicals take years to write and develop—even more than plays because two or three writers’ schedules must coincide—and then to find producers and be programmed into a theater’s season. Many alumni who graduated five to ten years ago are just now enjoying larger successes, and a few made their off-Broadway debuts this year.

In the short-term, alumni gain a supportive community, and as someone who began my MFA program not sure of myself as a musical theater writer, I graduated calling myself a book writer and lyricist. I also gained more confidence and focus in all areas of my writing and am pursuing writing in many different forms like the alumni who initially inspired me to attend the program.

If I had decided to dismiss the MFA because I was not sure about it, or because it would not be paid in full, I most likely would not be a lyricist or book writer. More importantly, I would not be the writer I am now. My hope is that our culture will view the MFA degree as a way to both nurture and create artists, and that there will be more affordable ways for these degrees to be obtained. Not everyone is sure of what he or she wants to do and what kind of writer he or she wants to be. The MFA degree can help artists figure that out.

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Thoughts from the curators

A discussion of the pros and cons of an MFA program.

MFA Series

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Cost of program vs. potential earning capacity in one's chosen field is hella key here, not just on the part of the prospective student, but also on the part of the graduate school when developing and evolving curriculum. I'm speaking from a particular perspective here (went to a Dramaturgy MFA program at a working theater and teach at the same prog), but I think it's been a good idea to provide more opportunities for theater grad students across the board to flex their muscles as teaching artists and designers/facilitators of audience engagement programming; most theaters do these types of things nowadays, and there's a pedagogical benefit for emerging artists to have a strong backbone in facilitating education or enrichment experiences-- both in terms of developing leadership skills, but also liaising with the community, communicating one's perspective to a diverse set of audiences, and becoming comfortable collaborating with non-pros and across sectors. A good MFA program shouldn't just make you a better artist, it should make you a better, more creative and more collaboratively attuned teacher, community organizer, teaching artist, park ranger, copywriter, theater administrator, etc. Knowing from the get-go of the mutiplicity of professions in/out of the arts that an arts-integrated skillset can make you competitive for can (in a perfect world) lead to increased earning capacity.

I'm not sure you do your audience credit by suggesting they are or will "simply dismiss" getting an MFA. I think the question is whether an MFA is a good value. One way of assessing the value is to compare the education with the cost and the opportunities to offset the cost. In other words, you had a great experience getting an MFA, but will you be able to pay off your student debts while pursuing the work you got your MFA in? Or something related? Or, will you end up taking an unrelated and potentially unsatisfying job? If you end up taking on an unrelated job for an extended period of time it raises the question of how much value the MFA has. Perhaps there was a more affordable way to obtain the same knowledge and experience you got in graduate school. In which case, you'd be where you are without the debt and the pressure to meet your monthly payments. It might be helpful if, in the context of the educational experience you had, you also shared how much debt you have and how you plan to pay for it. Otherwise, you are only addressing half of the question that is being considered.

Thank you for your comment. I think there is a problem in equating the value of the MFA with whether or not you will be able to pay back the MFA debt by working in the field. Many people who get degrees, MFA or otherwise, don't end up paying them back with money from their fields. That doesn't mean the degree wasn't valuable. The value is in the experience and how you grow as an artist after, not in whether you can pay off the debt. That's why I hope there will be more affordable ways for the degree to be obtained.

I have never questioned the value of my degree. I've worked in related and unrelated fields, and all my jobs have been satisfying (and not all writing jobs or jobs in related fields are going to be satisfying). I never thought that the only job I would have post-graduation would be writing musicals, even if it were even possible to make a living that way straight out of graduate school. I don't know that I would even want that.

I'd rather not disclose my finances, but I believe that if you are an artist, then you work, and I plan to pay off my debts by working.

A lot of your positives hit home for me (MFA in Playwriting/Screenwriting, class of '10), especially the part about being able to actually finish projects! I would say with reservation that the main reason my parents footed the bill was mostly due to connections the school had to offer, particularly its various alumni orgs so as to get my foot in the door when I moved to an industry city. I wouldn't say I owe any of my residences, contest wins, or fellowships to those connections per se (maybe one job at most?), but I made the best friends I've ever had and grew as an artist.That said, one possible downside looking at it now was the relative youth of the program itself. We were only the third graduating class from the program ever! The upside being something that my old shrink used to say about going to a lesser-known program and getting more individualized attention and feedback being a huge plus, but, then again, I'm not sure what the program wanted itself to be at that point. It was valuable to get in on the ground floor but it was kind of a chicken without a head. And there were places I went where my recent-MFA-grad background was met with condescension (not around other playwrights, of course, just in the real world), whereas agents and maybe some producers saw it as a huge plus.I'm at kind of this crossroads where I really want to go back to school again to further my pursuit of the academic/teaching/scholar side, with more of a focus in an individualized area; initially it was going to be a PhD in, say, performance studies, but now I'm applying to get a second MFA in Musical Theatre from a program that is well over 30 years old! I fell in love with teaching because I was incredibly lucky to teach at my program. I may be an anomaly (and perhaps even in debt) if I get a second Masters as opposed to no third degree at all...but one goes where passion is, I guess, and this kind of academic risk might expand rather than limit my options of full-time employment and creating opportunities within writing. Or it might not...it could be totally superfluous if I don't have a game plan after graduating...again. Hopefully I'll be able to go to the "MFA at a later age, is it worth it?" (paraphrasing here) talk at this year's Dramatists' Guild confab to clear up all the unexpected confusion I've had since graduating...I'm wondering if there are any out there with more than one Masters or a PhD who could comment.

Thank you so much for this. As a playwright who discovered my voice and career in my mid-20's, after a few years of working other jobs, I felt enormous pressure to catch up quickly in a field that often defines emerging playwrights as young writers who have been living and breathing theatre for years.

I think storytelling is as much about perspective and experience as it is about craft. Studying history and literature as an undergrad gave me a particular framework for seeing the world that I wouldn't trade for anything. It's who I am and how I think. NYU's dramatic writing MFA in Singapore gave me tools with which to express that perspective. While everyone's artistic development is different, the MFA sharpened my craft at a point in my life when I was ready for it to do so effectively. Because I knew what it was like to founder, I was more empathic and more committed to playwriting than my college self would have been. Yes, I could have written plays without NYU, but it allowed me to develop my voice while living overseas, and it gave me community, focus, and practice that, without a program's structure, might have taken ten years to develop if they developed at all.

It was very expensive and will be a struggle to pay off. So far, just out of the gate, my career looks like a hybrid of playwriting, dramaturgy, screenwriting, and producing (with a little teaching and tutoring peppered in). Without the debt, it might have been simpler. But I would absolutely do it again. It was essential for me to become the writer that I am. And I hope that we actively cultivate and increase financial access to the MFA as an entry point for young adults who can bring new and diverse perspectives to our field.

I too was one of those people who needed the MFA as a "gateway to my artistry." I had lots of potential but very little experience. The majority of my writing background had been in poetry, even though I always felt like something was missing in my poems. My writing sample I sent to grad schools was basically my body of playwriting work to date at the time. I was lucky to even be accepted. But in my MFA program I was able to develop my skills in a setting where I didn't feel completely at a loss or clueless about the playwriting process. It totally turned my writing life around. Before the MFA I would start projects and leave them abandoned when the idea started to feel stupid or when I couldn't figure out how to make a handful of dialogue start to resemble a play. Now I no longer panic that if a first draft is just not working or if an idea turned out to be a total failure that it must mean that I shouldn't be in this field. Now it just means I try something else, and hold onto that "stupid" idea because it might be a great a idea for something else someday. I'm still waiting for the ever-elusive first full-length production, but I know I can do it now, and even just five or six years ago I wouldn't have believed that.

I really appreciate your thoughts, as someone who is applying to MFA programs, they mimic a lot of my own. "YOU MUST BE SURE." "DO NOT PAY FOR ANYTHING." have both been daunting pieces of advice for me, and while I"m not a musical theatre MFA candidate, I really appreciate your alternative point of view (alternative to many of the posts I feel I've seen on here.) Thank you!