AshEdit—News About Books & Writers

July 12, 2015

To MFA or Not to MFA—Part 2 by Lisa Ciarfella

Filed under: Uncategorized — ashedit @ 6:01 pm

Lisa headshotMA crop Lisa

As a first year university Grad student, I had a choice to make. I qualified for both avenues in the English department; the MA, (Masters of Art) as well as the MFA, (Master of Fine Arts) degree. It was up to me to decide which way to go. So I had to ask myself; did I really want to spend the next two plus years buried up to my eyeballs in the library’s dungeon-like cubicles, researching and writing about what others who came before me wrote, and who some in the industry affectionately call those “dead white guys.” Or, did I want to try and flex my own, original and budding creative writing talents, and maybe even become one of their contemporaries in the process, putting my own work out there for others to read and enjoy?English crop

The answer didn’t come easily. As everyone in academia knows, the MA seems to be the more practical choice, leading to many more actual teaching jobs and possibilities within the ivory tower walls, once graduated. The MFA, on the other hand, is considered far more of the “dare” option than the truth, much like in the kids’ game “Spin the Bottle.” It’s more akin to being dared to strip and run naked down the block, than playing it safe, staying put in the circle and just answering a simple question.

Did I have the guts, and the actual talent to push through and really go for the win, or would I play if safe instead, quite possibly locking up whatever stories I might have had inside forever, and always wondering, what if.

It seems the answer found me, more than the other way around. And after half a semester as an MA, having my hard earned, final 18th Century British Lit research paper torn to shreds, it hit me: Not only was this not fun, but I didn’t need it. I wanted to create, to spread my wings. To just be on paper, any way my imagination wanted to take me. And so I made the switch, and haven’t looked back once.

Sure the MFA has its own host of challenges. Having your original “babies” critiqued in weekly workshops by your peers and professors on a regular basis is always anxiety-provoking. And when your advisors seem to have different ideas about what kind of content and genre you should be writing, instead of what you really want to write, serious moments of self-doubt can and do set in. And granted, some MFA programs are bound to do a much better job preparing students for the real world authorial experience than others, by focusing on things like getting published, finding an agent, and finding work as a writer in general. But even so, for me, the choice has been clear. And I wouldn’t change back.

Freedom of expression is everything to an MFA student, especially when learning how to spread wings and make those pages fly, be it fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. And in spite of all the critics along the way, for me, it was an inevitable decision. For others, the MA is the right road to take. And who’s to say which is the better option? For that answer, you must give your own inner voice a good listen, and follow where it leads. †

Lisa headline

Master of Fine Arts (MFA):

 Two-year program; must specialize in either fiction or poetry (at other schools, there are more options, like scriptwriting, screenwriting, non-fiction, etc. My school just offers the two areas.) In place of research, a student creates original works in his/her area, and brings them to weekly workshops, where they are critiqued by peers and professors.

 To Graduate: you pick a three-chair, thesis-advising committee and are assigned a chairperson, who oversees your work.

  • Thesis: In my program we must have at least 100 pages of what the above-mentioned oversight group considers “publishable work.”

Master of Arts (MA):

  • Two-year program. Most have course “variety” requirements such as critical theory, 18th Century Lit, print culture, etc. but you specialize in one area of literature, which you pick.
  • Can be anything the department offers; ours offers American Lit, both early and modern/ British Lit; both early and modern/ 20th Century Lit/ Women authors/ and a few others.
  • MA Thesis: you must pass a comprehensive written exam in your area, or write a lengthy research paper on a topic in your area, pre-approved by your thesis advisor.

Coming soon: Steve Weddle, MFA grad, Sam Wiebe, MA grad

and Elaine Ash on why she’d choose an MA.

Also weighting in: Les Edgerton, Anthony Neil Smith and Josh Stallings!



  1. Reblogged this on Writing Fiction and commented:
    TO MFA or not??? That is our question of the day here.
    Find out the burning answers, as Elaine Ash, brilliant crime fiction author and editor at large, comes to me for my thoughts on the matter. And not surprisingly, as a current MFA’r, my musings on the matter were plenty!
    Read on, for an insider’s take on the topic.

    Comment by Lisa Ciarfella — July 13, 2015 @ 1:31 pm

  2. This comes up a lot in conversations with other writers. Now I know where to send them. Many thanks!

    Comment by Albert Tucher — July 13, 2015 @ 1:55 pm

  3. Al, lovely to hear from you. It’s going to be a whole series. I’ll be giving the MA thumbs-up later in the week. –Elaine

    Comment by ashedit — July 13, 2015 @ 1:58 pm

  4. Thanks for that Albert! So glad you enjoyed the article, and found it productive! Thanks much for leaving your thoughts!

    Comment by Lisa Ciarfella — July 13, 2015 @ 2:27 pm

  5. Great information! Terrific piece.

    Comment by Anonymous — July 13, 2015 @ 3:34 pm

  6. Maxine Nunes just emailed to say that last anonymous comment came from her. She is the author of DAZZLED. –Elaine Ash

    Comment by ashedit — July 13, 2015 @ 3:43 pm

  7. Thanks for that anonymous,. Glad you found it interesting.

    Comment by Lisa Ciarfella — July 13, 2015 @ 3:47 pm

  8. Now I know the difference. Thanks.

    Comment by Oscar Case — July 14, 2015 @ 11:26 am

  9. Hi Oscar! I never knew the difference, but I wish I had considered it back in the day. It would have suited me much better than a degree in radio and television. –Elaine

    Comment by ashedit — July 19, 2015 @ 4:58 pm

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