by Jody Lisberger Spalding MFA faculty, Fiction
Many people want to know, “What does an MFA in Writing at Spalding get me?” So we asked our alums of all ages and from all over the world to help us out.
Forty-eight graduates, 19 men and 29 women, starting with the first class of 2003 to the present, responded to our open question: How did the Spalding MFA in Writing low-residency program impact you professionally, creatively, and personally? Their responses extol and probe both surprising and not surprising reasons to pursue an MFA in general, and a Spalding MFA in particular.
Blog-entry author and MFA faculty member Jody Lisberger with her workshop at the Louisville residency
Across the board, graduates wrote about how the Spalding MFA “changed my life,” was “the most worthwhile achievement in my lifetime,” gave me a “deep knowledge” of writing craft, built life-long connections and friendships, and allowed me “to be 100% true to myself, my talents, and my goals in life.” They spoke of “the rigors of completing the MFA” as a means to earning a significant “credential” that “differentiated me from others, “gave me legitimacy as a writer,” and allowed me to thrive in a “venerable realm of writers.”
MFA alum Jackie Gorman’s “The Viewing Room received the Flanner O’Connor Award
MFA alum Frank X Walker, Kentucky Poet Laureate, 2013-15
Spalding graduates in every area of concentration revealed impressive national publication and production success. Graduates have won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, served as state poet laureate, won poetry book prizes, been named an NEA Fellow, written feature films that received wide theatrical distribution, won the Edgerton New American Play Award, won top awards in children’s literature, and published books with major New York houses and top literary presses. They also spoke of substantial grants and fellowships gleaned as a result of their Spalding MFA.
But what about the actual jobs and promotions they found with a Spalding MFA in hand?
Not surprisingly, of the 48 volunteer respondents, 14 acquired or got promoted to full-time (FT) teaching jobs and 14 acquired part-time (PT) teaching jobs. Of these, as a result of the MFA, 3 were promoted to Chair or Director positions; 3 were promoted to a higher faculty level; 3 were asked to develop MFA in Writing Programs, 1 in screenwriting, 1 online, and 2 were asked to develop undergraduate creative writing programs or majors. Two grads currently work as paid writing mentors or tutors in citywide and/or community-wide educational programs. Two were able to earn state K-12 teaching certification licenses incorporating their MFA credentials.
MFA grads were also quick to say, “teaching isn’t lucrative” or “possible” for all. They revealed well-known frustrations, especially being overwhelmed with expository writing classes instead of creative writing options. As one grad who left adjunct teaching wrote, “Fresh off the assembly line, all they pile us with are composition and rhetoric courses. Because of that, I often give an important warning for those thinking of going into teaching.”
But for several grads, earning an MFA allowed them to get shifted into creative writing courses, albeit as adjuncts. Several also were shifted from PT assignments to FT. One person mentioned that based on his Spalding MFA expertise, he now teaches a new “Writing for Comics and Graphic Novels” course.
Everyone echoed the sentiment that having an MFA has “given me a cache” that distinguishes me from other applicants. Especially “the vertical learning curve” experienced at Spalding made grads claim that gaining the MFA “opened so many doors for me.” Said one graduate, “I’d been teaching for years at a few schools—but the MFA made the difference.”
MFA students attend a plenary lecture at the Louisville residency
Equally impressive are the many professions MFA graduates work in outside of teaching. These 25 respondents, some of whom also teach part-time, voiced a significant increase in the confidence, “widely transferable skills,” and attractiveness as hires as a result of their Spalding MFAs. For some, having an MFA among others with MBA’s and other terminal degrees was seen as “unique” and valuable because they bring “something different to the table.”
The list of Spalding MFA grad professions and work sites speaks to their varied and enhanced career options and also suggests the usefulness of an MFA in professional circles:
Digital publishing company
Executive director state Humanities Council
Owner of a small press
Brand manager for autos and trucks
President of university planning and research
Writer for hire e.g. GURU
Independent press editor
Fiction editor Best New Writing Literary Magazine
Director of Communications and Engagement
Educational publisher in Australia
The Children’s Trust writer
Community columnist and blogger
Executive editor for newspapers
President of Unitarian Universalist congregation
Marketing copy writer McGraw-Hill
Book editing company
D. candidate in Educational Policy and Evaluation
MFA grads said having an MFA gave them new professional freedom and creativity in the workplace. “I love the flexible and creative ways I earn my dinner,” said one person. Another noted, “When I left the classroom to escape poverty and ventured into freelance editing, I was way ahead of the game with an MFA, including how much experience I had garnered working with The Louisville Review.”
Many grads echoed the view that as a result of their Spalding experience, “I’m a better listener, more open to constructive feedback,” and tend to “enjoy engaging in discourse… on a robust level.” One grad said she works “closely with other writers, designers, and creative directors,” and sees that “articulating a vision, listening to feedback, and working hard to find a solution to a creative problem was definitely a residual effect of my time at Spalding.”
The MFA also significantly opened up previously unexplored earning options. Moving into indie publishing, one grad wrote, “If I had a way to live for free I could have paid off my entire degree in just a few months. I don’t suspect many liberal arts students can say the same. It’s all about your angle, but there are definitely many ways to earn a good living with an MFA beyond publishing and teaching.”
Spalding’s MFA option to take a workshop on “Teaching Creative Writing” was also seen as a particular asset to the program. One grad coming up for teaching promotion next year wrote, “The teaching practicum… provided a unique direct observation opportunity coupled with the classic Spalding learning support needed to enhance my strengths and improve my weaknesses as an instructor.” In contrast, one graduate who didn’t have the “Teaching Creative Writing” option said, “I landed an adjunct position easily—very easily—but compared to my colleagues who had gone to MFA and MFA programs that required a teaching practicum… I was wildly ill-prepared.”
In all, based on Spalding’s “program structure and the outstanding, nurturing faculty [who] offer the best possible experience of perfecting the writing craft,” Spalding’s MFA grads in every genre have discovered a “life-changing” experience that has given them superb writing confidence, sense of belonging in the writing community, promotions, publications, prizes, and fellowships. Whether working with students or clients, they expressed their gained “depth of understanding… about craft issues” and their “ability and confidence in communicating my knowledge.” In the words of one grad, “Because of Spalding, I was able to achieve a goal that I thought was utterly impossible.”