Choosing a Degree: MFA vs. MA


I am considering studying English at the graduate level at an accredited university. I am currently taking an online English Literature course with a school of journalism, which I am enjoying. I hold a Masters in Psychology and am a clinician working at a psych institute. I am using poetry as a medium for change and healing. I am also a published songwriter and am also writing prose–short stories–when I have the time.

My quandary: do I take a Masters in English Literature, or get an MFA in creative writing. They both have their pros and cons. I would also like to teach (later on that is, when I am semi-retired, won’t be long now.) Ultimately, I wish to write, teach, get the most out of my efforts, also would like to challenge myself and improve my English, literature and poetry knowledge and skills. Sorry to be so long winded.


Yours is a dilemma many students of English face: whether to undertake a Master of Arts in English Literature or a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. The two programs have very different emphases and lead in different career directions. The MA in English provides an academic education in English literature and trains students in literary analysis. The MFA is an applied arts degree that offers a formal environment for students to create and workshop their own creative writing. If you wish to combine both creative writing and literary study in one degree, look for a MA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing, or a MA/MFA program.

To Teach…

Either degree may qualify you to teach at the community college or secondary school level, but the MA in English lends itself more to teaching. MA programs not only cover the standard English literature curriculum, but they also provide teacher training in the form of pedagogy classes, lecture opportunities, and teaching assistant positions. MFA graduates typically focus on publishing their creative writing, and teach the craft of writing as a secondary source of income once they establish themselves as authors or poets. The MFA program does not cover the knowledge pertinent to a secondary or associate level curriculum, so you would likely have to supplement your MFA training in order to teach academic English courses.

To Create…

If developing your own creative writing is your true passion, however, the MFA is your best bet. The MFA will not only give you access to the pooled wisdom of the (published!) faculty and your talented classmates, but also offer the networking opportunities and insider information so crucial to getting published. A straight MA in English, by contrast, will give you no formal opportunity to create your own fiction–instead, you’ll be studying and writing critical essays about other people’s fiction.

To Heal…

The intriguing third ambition you mention–applying poetry as a healing medium for psychology patients–features a less straightforward educational path. How do you foresee using poetry? If you intend to teach patients to express themselves through the craft of creative writing, the MFA could be more appropriate. If you intend to connect patients with the powerful expressions already available in great literature, then you will find an MA valuable. If you hope to draw on both the craft and the study of fiction to help your patients–and I expect this might be the case–then consider a combined MA/MFA program or Creative Writing concentration. You’re at an exciting crossroads, with many promising options. Best of luck in discovering the next stage in your career path, whether it’s as a scholar, author, healer, teacher… or all of the above!

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