Tears, Tassels, and Terminal Degrees

May 08, 2015143I chose to pursue the MFA to extend my academic career and study writing, an act I had always loved and enjoyed for as long as I can remember. I could insert the obligatory “You don’t need an MFA to be a writer” here, but I’ imagine pursuants of the terminal degree have already read all the arguments, and my comments won’t present anything new. I wanted to stay in school. I wanted to teach. I wanted to join a community of writers. I wanted to make myself more marketable. The latter being a top priority, I enrolled in the MFA program at Western Connecticut State University in 2013 and walked across the stage at the graduate commencement ceremony two years later.

There’s something very special about the MFA, particularly in my program which engages students with two genres of study: one creative and one practical. The idea is that students should be able to expand their abilities in their creative genres (in my case, speculative fiction) while pursuing training in a practical genre (in my case, writing for the web) that can aid a writer in earning a living.  The MFA at WCSU’s motto is “Food for the table, and food for the soul.”

I worked hard to accomplish my goals in both genres and eventually came out at the end of the MFA tunnel with a book-length creative thesis and hands-on experience writing content and copy for web audiences. I taught. I enjoyed the vibrant online community offered by the low-residency program. I made myself more marketable. Despite waiting for final approval of my thesis project, I’ve completed every other requirement and have set foot into the real world where many people have lives and jobs without an attached educational commitment. Who knew this existed? After about 20 years of school with no breaks in between, I’ve learned how to write, I’ve enjoyed my passion, and I’ve qualified it with academic credentials. Now I’m wondering about the future, and not just the distant future but the one awaiting me next week and the week after that. The near future involves job interviews and applications, scrounging the internet for freelance gigs, and taking a couple moments of free time for reading books that haven’t been assigned on syllabi. I won’t relax too much for now. As my lovable, observant boyfriend has noted: I’m allergic to free time.

Still, the act of finishing a graduate program and setting one’s sights on the real world is an emotional experience, one that shouldn’t be brushed aside and set in a box of things to be thought about later. In the chaos of commencement preparation, I submitted registrations, cleaned up my work space in the office where I was a graduate assistant, dashed from one side of the campus to the next to collect my paid for regalia, made appointments, realized my tassel was NOT included in my regalia package, was rudely informed that I would need to pay for another one, dashed back to campus (an hour commute) to retrieve said tassel, made arrangements with family for commencement day travel, said goodbye to my coordinator, cried in the office when everyone was gone, and, finally, walked at the commencement ceremony. I received the large diploma holder with the note mentioning that, no, my degree would not be awarded right away and that I would likely have to wait some time for final requirements to be completed and processed.

The MFA is a terminal degree and that means it’s considered the highest degree in its particular field of study. While there are some “practice-based” PHD programs in creative writing, I don’t see myself aiming for another degree any time soon. My life has been about studying and practicing for far too long; as is the case in any field, eventually one must stop practicing and start doing. This is where I starting “doing” what I’ve been preparing to do my entire life, without the security-blanket that is academia.

The commencement speaker, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, interrupted the typical commencement speech doldrums with a fun fact: 8% of the U.S. population holds some sort of graduate degree, which is a 43% increase from 2002. The degree may not make me a writer and it will certainly not make me a success, but it has given me discipline and a sense of accomplishment. Without both, I’m not sure if I could pursue the kind of writing I intend to pursue. Does that make me less of a writer, or a bad writer? Should I have written professionally before pursuing the degree? I don’t know. The MFA has only brought me happiness and satisfaction, and that is all I can hope for as I set out to live a writing life.

2 thoughts on “Tears, Tassels, and Terminal Degrees

  1. Cara, thank you for this post. You continue to be an inspiration to those of us who hope and imagine that completing the MFA will be bring this kind of insight and spirit. It is quite the beautifully exhausting journey! I’m so grateful to have worked with you in the practical and creative parts of the MFA program, your “allergy to free time” and need for professional quality and creative spark is something I have loved loved loved having around. Thank you. I can’t wait to see what you end up doing next week, the week after, and months and years to come. -Melissa 🙂

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