The answer to the “to pursue or not to pursue a MFA” question is maybe, and only with thorough evaluation. The maybe also depends on your goals, expectations and where you are in your life. If you are anywhere near where I was in life when I applied to a MFA program, weigh the odds, consider potential outcomes and think it over carefully.
Here’s how it went for me – in early 2008 I applied and was accepted to a low residency MFA program on the heels of a separation and impending divorce. My daughter was six. I always wanted an advanced art degree not only to legitimize my artwork, but also to teach. I should have pursued the degree twenty years earlier than I did but the time was never right, my work was never “good” enough and my financial situation was always bleak. The only job I could ever imagine liking was teaching college photography. The only obstacle in my path from securing that position was a Master of Fine Arts degree. I left for my first of five ten-day residencies in Vermont in late July 2008.
I suppose I should I remind you that there was something called a housing crisis in 2008. The housing bubble burst and I had just purchased a townhome and almost immediately lost more than $30,000 value in said townhome. The U.S. housing collapse was far-reaching; it reached into every department of higher learning, especially art. Professors started working past retirement age due to 401K losses, institutions started hiring more adjuncts they could pay minimally without benefits, and parents began to seriously evaluate the economics of a college art education for their children. I could only hope that the market would recover, that colleges and universities would hire full-time professors again, and that parents would learn the value of their children pursuing an art degree before my upcoming graduation in 2010. It was a long shot for sure. In my fly by the seat of my pants style, I didn’t pay attention to the interest rates of the student loans I secured and I certainly didn’t pay attention to the fact that MFA programs were churning out more graduates than there were jobs. Surely, I won’t end up working at Starbucks after grad school?
I landed a teaching job as an adjunct photography instructor in January 2010, six months before my graduation. I was elated. I believed that if I worked hard, spread my passion and love for photography to each and every student that I would be rewarded; I would become tenure track, even though the chair of my department made no promises and discouraged my tenure track thinking. Consequently, I started a national job search.
By 2011, it seemed as if the jobs appearing on photo faculty searches on the CAA and Chronicle for Higher Education websites had an unusually long list of required qualifications including new media, video, darkroom, digital imaging, alternative processes, the history of photography, lighting, 2D design, five years teaching experience and killing yourself for tenure track. I convinced myself that due to my age and lack of interview requests, I had missed the window of teaching opportunity, that the new-hire tenure track photo job folks were fresh-faced twenty somethings straight out of the School of Visual Arts, Pratt, or RISD, and with contemporary photography skills and theories in their photo vests and video, new media and brilliant postmodern installations in their portfolios. I sucked at interviews, especially the awkward phone and Skype interviews. Let’s just say that the four years of applying for positions and occasional interviews were a waste of time, theirs and mine. I had a nine-year-old that couldn’t move out of state with me due to custody obligations even if I was to land that coveted tenure track “big job at big institution with major benefits.” I needed to stay right here working adjunct, in a small southern city, all the while watching my student loans accrue interest.
Three years into my adjunct position, after teaching three 2.5-hour studio classes back to back twice weekly, I had built a following of students that fell in love with photography, my classes always filled. My university did not have a concentration in photo but due to student interest they wanted to make an effort in that direction. I was hired as lecturer. I would be paid less than $30,000 and could be asked to teach up to five classes. I had to maintain seven office hours a week. I had benefits. I would be held to all the same standards for review that tenure track would be, with the exception of committee work. I would drive forty-five minutes to and from school; I had 8:00 AM classes. I was teaching and “photo-art-speaking” with young excited minds and that made me happy for a while.
Reality: I was teaching four studio classes and one seminar. I wasn’t making enough money to live, pay loans, or buy decent wine to forget about the loans. It began to weigh on me. Eventually, my teaching suffered, my enthusiasm vanished and a new cynicism moved loudly to the forefront of my mind. Towards the end of my second year as lecturer, my chair (the best boss and nicest person in the state of SC) approached me about writing the curriculum for the proposed photography concentration. She prefaced the request with, “If you do this, it doesn’t mean you will be promoted to Assistant Professor, the administration says we don’t have the tuition enrollment to financially support it.” After careful consideration and deciding to cut off my nose to spite my face, I said, “No.” I had already devoted five years to building the photography program and was still not making enough money to support my child, my student loans, my mortgage and myself. I was tired. I had run out of steam, desire and the necessary brain power to develop a grocery list, much less a curriculum. I decided it best to go back to being an adjunct and find an additional part-time opportunity to increase my income. I also filed for bankruptcy, I was stretched too thin paying both credit card debt and student loans. Student loans can’t be forgiven in bankruptcy, therefore I opted to forego the credit card debt to focus my efforts on paying the loans. It seemed like a good strategy.
Reality: Being an adjunct teacher and having a second job is demanding, the constant shifting of hats is hard and I reluctantly realized the tenure track position was never going to happen. After all, didn’t the graduate faculty warn me that securing a full-time position was difficult? It is extremely difficult, even for someone young, without children, homeowner responsibilities and who doesn’t need additional income for decent wine. In December 2015, after six years of teaching, I applied for a Communications Manager position with a non-profit arts festival. I took the job and resigned from teaching, sadly handing over the school’s Nikons to the next photography adjunct.
The non-profit art festival job salary is questionable (as many non-profit salaries are) but because I am a full-time non-profit employee, I am eligible for the Federal Student Loan Forgiveness Program. Ultimately, that was my reasoning in accepting a position that doesn’t quite fit me. (Unfortunately the federal forgiveness program is only available to full-time teachers in public institutions. I had taught at a private university). The FSLFP allows one to make payments on loans based on your salary and if you don’t miss a payment and you make them on time, your loans will be forgiven in ten years. Reality: You must fit the criteria by working in a job like a non-profit CONTINUOUSLY for ten years for the loans to be forgiven. If you change jobs to a position that doesn’t qualify for FSLFP, you are responsible for the loans and all the interest accrued. Furthermore, the interest rate for FSLFP is like most student loans, over 6%. Reality: Can I stay in the communications job for ten years? Probably not.
I’ve accrued more than $10,000 on the loans I took out for my MFA beginning in 2008. This is my fault; I should have been smarter with money. Was it worth the price for me personally? Mostly yes. The network of artist friends I made in grad school goes without measure. In fact, they are still most of my “likers” and encouragers on social media. They send messages to say, “Thank you for sharing that,” or “What kind of work are you doing now?” They post interesting reads, they spread the word about jobs and shows, and they are worth knowing. They are like-minded people that I bonded with as we dredged through the art speak of postmodern lectures and talked of feminist discourse as we walked back to the dorms before having beers in freezing Vermont temperatures and again on beautiful Vermont August evenings. They are people doing things much like me, trying to do their best and make the most of post-grad life. They are trying to make art, they are teaching, exhibiting, asking questions worth asking, raising families, they are wonderful and I am lucky to know them. They unknowingly nudge me to get back to the studio and make art (thank you Karen Hipsher, Renee Couture, Rod Vesper, Kathy Couch, Sarah Guthrie and Betsy Fogarty). Separated by miles, we continue to be in a discourse of post grad life together. I miss them. I feel the same about some of the faculty advisors I had: the late Janet Kaplan who taught me to be a better writer (although I am still longwinded and repetitive), and the gently wise Mario Ontiveros who pulled me through my thesis kicking, whining and crying.
If you are considering pursing a MFA, do a reality check of your expectations and your current life situation. Can you make it without student loans? Do you have a financial support system? Do you have a shoulder to cry on? What do you want to do with the degree? What if you can’t find a teaching job? Can you go to a state school and get a graduate assistantship to cover your tuition?
Please DON’T go to grad school to be an art star, we all want or wanted that and it becomes less important over time. Get down beneath the art star gibberish and really evaluate your own reasoning. Unfortunately, you do need to consider the timing in your life. Can you afford student loan payments if you have to have them or would you be better off putting money into a retirement plan? Be honest with yourself. Run the numbers.
Reality: I did learn to be a better editor and critic of my own work in grad school. I don’t know that my work changed drastically, but, I did, and I’m thankful for it. I am also grateful for my teaching experiences and each student note I’ve received saying, “Thank you for teaching me photography.” I’m happy for the four summers I taught in study abroad programs - this would not have been possible without a MFA. I’m appreciative that my former students want to friend me on Facebook, that they still contact me with photo questions, and that I was able to see their faces when the first developed film or made a print (that was worth more than $10,000). Maybe the tenure track thing didn’t work out for me and maybe I’m not in a job that suits me completely but I haven’t applied to Starbucks yet and I rather like the letters M F A after my name.
Polly Gaillard, MFA