With both the academic job market and the publishing industry in less-than-optimal straits, it’s easy for MFA students to feel apprehensive and disheartened about their post-graduation prospects. Here are several strategies for keeping afloat in tough times.
Network with your peers.
MFA programs attract motivated and diverse students from a variety of employment backgrounds. Support each other by passing on tips, leads, and opportunities – and, yes, this sort of advice sounds like Career Building 101, but it really works! Some of the best freelancing gigs I’ve gotten have been courtesy of MFA program friends’ referrals.
Never be afraid to ask your program faculty for counsel – or a recommendation.
It took me a long time to get over my fear of “bugging” busy faculty members when I had questions about teaching jobs and academia, but I’m glad I did. Certainly you don’t want to monopolize your instructors’ time, but remember also that faculty advisers are there to do just that – advise you. Be gracious, send thank-you notes, and stay fearless but diplomatic when advocating for your own future.
Plan for further educational goals – and do it early.
As you move forward in your MFA program, take note of what areas you feel you need more experience in, and brainstorm possibilities for achieving that knowledge. The spring of your first year is an ideal time to take stock of whether you’d like to continue on with further graduate-level study, whether it’s a PhD in creative writing, a master’s degree in the teaching of secondary English, or further coursework in literature or rhetoric and composition.
Treat your critical papers as CV-building opportunities, not just busywork.
Even if you’re not planning to go on for a PhD, give your critical analyses the attention they deserve. Investigate journals in which they might be published, and consider presenting your research on a panel. (If you’ve got a particularly strong rapport or intersecting area of interest with a faculty member, ask him or her about collaborating on a paper or co-presenting.)
Adjunct, adjunct, adjunct.
This may not be as critical a directive for students with TA-ships, but for those without funding or in low-residency programs, obtaining some sort of teaching experience will be vital. Many community colleges (particularly those in rural or underserved areas) are open to the idea of graduate students teaching, particularly in freshman composition or developmental writing classes. If you can’t secure a paid adjunct position, consider offering your services as an unpaid teaching assistant (ideally as part of a documented field study or internship), or advertise on campus as an independent writing tutor.
Consider teaching secondary English.
In order to teach in public schools, you’ll need to obtain certification (and usually an additional masters degree), but for most private schools, your MFA will suffice. There are several national placement agencies that serve as matchmakers between prospective teachers and independent schools, at no charge to you; check out the websites of Carney, Sandoe, and Associates, or The Education Group, for starters. (Not sure if teaching high school is right for you? Consider first applying to your local Writers in the Schools program, or to a regional branch of the NCTE, to serve as a part-time workshop leader or conference presenter for a high school-aged audience.)
Apply for literary fellowships and grants.
Some of these, like the Stegner and Hodder fellowships, will be university-affiliated and quite competitive; others may be regional or state grants devoted to funding smaller endeavors like the design of an author website. An added benefit of applying for grants is that you’ll gain the resume-building skill of proposal writing, regardless of whether you actually receive the grant or not. (If your work is set in foreign locales, or you’re interested in advanced language study or translation projects, look into the Fulbright; it’s been awarded numerous times to scholars who are also creative writers, and it offers excellent stipends for projects that require foreign language support.)
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