A little over two years ago, I wrote my very first article for Hellogiggles. My cheeks were still sunburnt from my graduation ceremony when I started typing, and I was overwhelmed with a contradicting cocktail of gratitude, hope, and discouragement. I had graduated from college knowing I had been accepted into an MFA program, which I had applied to because I was scared of how little a Bachelor’s in English could accomplish.
When you graduate with a degree in English, be prepared with a stockpile of answers when people ask you what you’re going to do with it. Annoyed with saying, “teach, write, work in publishing, work in marketing, television writing, speech writing, practically anything that involves a pen and paper,” I started responding self-deprecatingly. I would say, “haha nothing I get to watch Netflix all day,” or “master the craft of latte art, what did you think?” And that’s when the brilliant idea came to me: why don’t I actually use what I learned in college to do what I dreamed of doing? So, I wrote an essay for Hellogiggles that discussed how to protect your vulnerable liberal artsy self from the cruel, practical world, and ironically enough, that’s how I started actually writing for other people, not just my composition notebook.
So, think of this as Part II, since I’ve almost come full circle (yay!). After you’ve made your peace with your BFA in Creative Writing, you may decide to go get your MFA. Or your MA, if Literature is more up your alley. No one in my graduating class continued their academic odyssey, so I didn’t exactly have a rallying support group. Online, you’ll find the pros and cons of a Masters in English, but you probably won’t find the answers you so desperately want. If you want some honest advice, here it is.
1. Your first year as a grad school will be emotionally draining.
My friend who’s in the program with me once told me that if you’re not breaking down at least once a week during your first year of graduate school, then you’re a monster. Absolutely true. Especially in an MFA program, you are essentially competing with 5-20 other writers who very, very badly want to be published. No one really talks about it, but every small victory, every subtle compliment from a professor, every internship offer causes a riff within your small group. If someone is getting something, that means you are not.
Another thing about MFA programs specifically, is that you go in expecting professors to be your best friends. Your mentors. Your very own Albus Dumbledores. They will not be, because they are under pressure to write another book, or scholarly paper. Your needs are the least of their concerns. Sure, they might support you any way they physically can, but the education industry isn’t like Dead Poets Society. Robin Williams isn’t going to encourage you to embrace poetry like you’ve never embraced poetry before. You are very much your own motivator, which is, in its own way, a good thing. You will learn more this way, and you will grow tougher skin — you absolutely need tough skin to survive as a writer, because you will face a walloping amount of rejection before you are awarded with recognition.
2. Just because you’re in graduate school, doesn’t mean literary journals will beckon you to submit your work
Literary journals are comprised of a small group of interns who can barely afford Chipotle for lunch, and a managing editor who is probably working on six different projects of her own. They have hundreds (perhaps thousands, depending on the journal) of submissions to wade through, so no, they will not be reaching out to a graduate student for their unfamiliar work. In fact, some programs don’t even tell you how to go about submitting your work. Mine sure didn’t; I Googled how to write a proper cover letter and which journals and magazines to submit to. It is utterly up to you to put yourself out there. Don’t listen to people if they tell you to wait until your work is “ready.” Your work is NEVER one-hundred percent ready, and you don’t have the time or luxury to wait on establishing yourself as a fiction, non-fiction, or poetry writer. Once you think your work is good, you dedicate a few hours to sending your work out (luckily, almost all of it is done online these days, so you don’t have to deal with licking envelopes), and you wait. Want to write for a website? Then you better get writing and submitting (repeat x100).
3. You will know MLA exceptionally well.
Did you think you mastered that sh*t in college? Think again. I had a professor essentially call my Work Cited page “garbage” in front of an entire class of students because I had accidentally italicized a journal name.
4. Your love life will temporarily be on hold.
It’s very difficult to work on a manuscript, read a novel a week, write a 20-page paper on said novels, intern for your program’s literary journal (you should absolutely do this), and work on the side because the rent isn’t going to pay itself, AND spend quality time with your SO. You will feel betrayed when you have to stay in all weekend grading papers while your boyfriend gets to absorb precious Vitamin D and enjoy his two days off like a normal human being.
When you’re in grad school, the word “weekends” is not part of your vocabulary anymore. If you’re single and trying to put yourself out there, just know that scheduling dates around your grad school life is tremendously hard. If you end up dating someone in the program, it’s more convenient, but risky. If or when you break up, they will still be there. In most of your classes. Reading and critiquing your work, trying to pretend that they haven’t seen you naked. Now that is painful.
5. Your parents and friends will still have no idea what you’re doing
You can explain all you want, that you’re working on a manuscript, that you’re writing a thesis, that you’re going to get your PhD after this. They. Will. Have. No. Clue. Just accept this for what it is.
6. You might have the glorious opportunity to be a Teaching Associate
During your second year (sometimes first), you can apply to teach a freshman composition course, intro to literature, or intro to creative writing class. At some schools, these positions are incredibly coveted, whereas other universities hand out classes like free t-shirts. You most likely will be given a class or two because the university can profit much more from a grad student getting paid less than ten dollars an hour than an adjunct or full-time professor making $50k a year. And oh, you will be trembling before your first class, worried you will mess up or seem like you have no idea what you’re doing. You actually will mess up because you don’t have any idea what you’re doing. You will receive angry e-mails about the F you gave a student because they submitted their paper three weeks late. You will sob into the pile of papers that rivals the height of your nightstand. You will wonder if you’re even making a difference, because it sure doesn’t feel like it. But you know what? You either learn to absolutely adore teaching college students, or you hate it and move on. Either way, you learn.
7. No, you are not guaranteed anything
Nothing in life is guaranteed, and that applies here, too. Take all opportunities given to you, work hard, come up with unique ideas, make yourself indispensable, don’t compare your success to others’, put every precious drop of energy you have into your projects, and don’t take your talent for granted.
8. You will constantly wonder if you made the right decision
Getting your Masters takes 2-3 years. It’s a commitment, and you will sometimes fall into the trap of fantasizing about what you could have done instead, or whether you are even cut out for this industry. I’m not sugar-coating anything here: if you are constantly feeling like you have taken the wrong road, then stop traveling down the wrong freaking road. Choose another one, because trust me, there are plenty. However, if you’re getting stories published, if novels are speaking to you in ways they have never done before, if you’re feeling so passionate about language, and the way your fingers sound as they tap the keyboard, then you are making the right decision. Stick with it. You’ll be okay.