Reginald Shepherd on MFA Programs

Reginald Shepherd, a poet who passed away last September, blogged regularly for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet up until the last month of his life. I’ve been reading his entries again lately and recently came across one he wrote about MFA programs. It worth reading in whole, but here’s an excerpt:

While an MFA or a PhD is for the most part necessary to get a teaching position, the vast majority of MFA graduates don’t get such jobs (and the teaching jobs they get are in general poorly paid adjunct jobs with no security and no benefits—I’ve done that too). It’s not a practical degree, and no one should pay or put themselves in a lot of debt to get an MFA. But in general MFA programs have fairly good financial aid, usually in the form of teaching assistantships.
Despite many people’s reasonable doubts (and many other people’s unreasonable attacks or dismissals), MFA programs are in general a good thing. Mine gave me several years to focus on reading and writing, during which I didn’t have to worry about looking for or working at a job.
What was most important about my time at the two MFA programs I attended was that I met several fellow students with whom I clicked as people and as poets, many of whom are still among my closest friends. Having felt very isolated as a writer for much of my life, especially during the several years I was out of school before finishing my BA, that was very important to me. It’s very valuable in general to get outside perspectives on one’s work, even if one doesn’t agree with all of them, as one never will. To imagine one’s work through other eyes is absolutely crucial for a writer.
If one goes to an MFA program without any illusions about what it will do for one professionally or practically, and if one doesn’t pay through the nose or put oneself in debt to do it, it can be a very rewarding experience. Whatever one does afterward, one will still have had that time to focus on what one wants to do, which is a rare opportunity in our society.

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