What does an MFA get you? You might be surprised.

When I first announced to family and friends in 1996 that I was going to graduate school to earn a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing, reactions were mixed. OK, people thought I was nuts. They said things like, “But isn’t writing something you either know how to do or you don’t?” and “What does creative writing have to do with marketing?” and my personal favorite, “What the hell will that get you?”

I didn’t care. I was going to immerse myself in learning my craft. I wanted to be a better creative writer for my fiction and a better marketing copywriter. I wanted to train like Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill” and be a kick-ass warrior writer who could whip out a shiny pen and people would step back in awe and respect.

Truth? I’m no Uma Thurman. But going to grad school for my MFA was the best six and a half years of my life. I focused exclusively on craft–studying the process of great writers, learning more about my own process, I read great books by authors from all walks of life, discovered my love of 19th century Russian literature, learned how to give constructive creative feedback, and how to read my work in front of people–lots of people–without passing out from fear and anxiety.

I was 26 when I started. I worked full-time and went to school part-time, paying for it out of my own pocket and forgoing things like vacations and cute shoes. When I was 30, I quit my job to start my marketing business and helped my husband launch a contracting business. Kid #1 came when I was 30 and Kid #2 came two years later. I was 33 when I finally earned the three letters I yearned to hear: MFA. Clearly, I was not a “traditional” graduate student. Clearly, I didn’t pursue an MFA for the money.  It was a labor of love. I didn’t think about what it could “get” me. I thought about what it could give me. But I wondered, with so many professionals earning MBAs like they were candy corn on Halloween, had I made the right choice?

Sure, I loved learning the intricacies of my craft. I knew it made me a stronger writer and creative professional. But would anyone else? Then in 2005,  Daniel Pink came out with his book A Whole New Mind and declared that the “MFA is the new MBA.” Finally! Someone “got” it. So what exactly does an MFA “get” you? I’ve always wanted to answer that question. Whether you’re contemplating grad school or contemplating hiring an MFA student or graduate, you’ll get much more than you bargained for.

With an MFA, you’ll learn how to become a creative professional who:

1. Sees ideas and potential where others see nothing. Think about it–some people look at a blank canvas, page or stage and see nothing. Or worse, they see an insurmountable challenge. An artist or a writer or performer sees that blank space as an opportunity to create something new: new drama, new situations, new scenes, new colors, new images. We live for that. We love to create, to generate ideas, to play with the possibilities. MFA training often requires that you study creative process, so you learn how to hone and refine both your creative and your critical thinking skills. There’s no waiting for the muse; you know how to drill down into your “creative place” and get down to business fast. The result: more ideas, more creativity, in less time. GENIUS!

2. Gets the big picture. Fine arts training teaches us how to quickly assess any landscape–narrative, artistic or business–and think conceptually to identify what’s working…as well as the one thing that’s not. We are formally trained in brainstorming methods to spark new ideas and solutions, because that’s what we do on the page, canvas or stage: we solve creative conundrums. We put that same skill to work your business. Handy, right?

3. Lives with ambiguity. Pursuing an MFA is all about building up right brain muscles, and one of the benefits is that you get comfortable living with shades of gray. We understand that you don’t always need to have the right answer right away; there are many right answers and they will come to you, if you know how to cultivate it. Whereas some work requires left-brained, analytical thinking, creative problem solving often requires other skills: contemplation, a willingness to simmer on ideas; acceptance that ideas come more readily when you don’t reach too hard but set the stage for their arrival. This allows deeper reflection, stronger ideas, and the ability to make connections to seemingly disparate concepts. This is the stuff innovation is made of.

4. Reads between the lines. When was the last time you just sat and stared out the window and thought about stuff? No TV, no iPod, no Guitar Hero in the background? For an hour? Don’t laugh, I’m serious. A Master of Fine Art teaches you the fine art of contemplation. It teaches you that not everything is as it seems. That sometimes it’s not just what people say but how they say it. One professor always reminded us to “peel back the layers” of the story we were reading or writing–a great visual reminder that life, art and business is always deeper than what you see on the surface. Who wouldn’t want that kind of powerful thinking going to bat for their business every day?

5. Knows how to fail. Sounds contrary to the American way, right? When you pursue graduate studies in fine arts, you immerse yourself in a river of creative thoughts, ideas, images and words. You drink creativity in big thirsty gulps. You play with new techniques. You experiment with new stretches of the imagination. Sometimes, you fail. But you get up and come back for more because you learn that sometimes in your greatest failures lies a new path you hadn’t even considered when you started. Fine arts training makes you see failure like jumping on a trampoline–you’re jumping around and sometimes you get knocked on your ass–but you pop right back up again, jumping higher next time, maybe even adding a few flips and some fancy footwork. Fine arts training teaches you to be open to failure because you understand that sometimes, you have to fail to get to the really good stuff that lies beneath.

So if you’re thinking about going for your MBA, hey, that’s cool. But if you really want to push yourself to think differently–to see the world through fresh creative eyes, think about an MFA. You never know what you might get.

4 thoughts on “What does an MFA get you? You might be surprised.

  1. Congratulations on you MFA. It takes a strong character to pursue a degree like that, that doesn’t have an automatic financial payoff. I don’t buy in to the idea that only the things that our society put a high price tag on are valuable. I am glad to see that I am not alone.

  2. Hi Christy – great article. Very well-written and you make a compelling case for the practicality of an MFA in the practical-minded corporate world. You definitely seem to be able to live out what you preach in real life, too, bringing enthusiasm, new ideas, and lots o’ writing to the job. As long as you can keep the passion alive even in the more staid business environment, your reasoning makes a lot of sense.

    You are a river maker 🙂

    1. Hi Bill, thanks for the positive feedback! I’m not always as enthusiastic as I could be, but whenever there’s room for creative thinking, I always perk up. I think the hard part is seeing staid corporate environments as a place where creativity can live and breathe. It’s not always easy to do, so you’re absolutely right, passion is key. We’re all river makers, Bill! 🙂

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