Are there any alternatives to adjuncting for MFA students who hope to teach at the university level?


Joelle Renstrom, MFA graduate, writer, and professor

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I agree with what's stated above--it's an uphill battle without a PhD. I have my MFA and publish regularly, including a book last summer. I have yet to get an interview for a full-time position, including community colleges and junior colleges.

That said, experience does count for something. I've been teaching at my current university for over 7 years, and while I can't get full-time work through them, I've been able to put together part-time positions in two different departments and together that gets me close to a full-time position (and most importantly, I get medical benefits).

There are a couple ways to increase your chances of scoring work with an MFA. 1. Adjunct like crazy, make connections in the departments, and make yourself as indispensable as possible. 2. Focus your classes on something in high demand but also unusual. My writing and research seminars focus on science fiction, robotics, and space exploration. These aren't typical offerings, so the classes fill up fast and students are very enthusiastic about them, which helps a lot. I'm not sure how many other instructors could fill those voids at this point. 3. Make yourself available to fill last minute vacancies (August is a good time to check for these), summer classes, ESL classes, etc. Name all of the courses/subjects you're willing to teach and see if something sticks. 4. Charters and private high schools don't always require teaching certificates and can be a great way to find consistent work (I taught English at a charter school for five years). 5. Check out adult ed, teaching English as a second language, and other non-traditional learning institutions. 6. Offer tutoring for various ages and in various subjects (ie, college essays/applications, musical lessons, etc) whether on your own or through companies such as Kaplan. 7. Publish! The more work you get out there, especially book-length work, the better your chances.

Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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You are touching on a sore spot in the humanities for sure. Here's the truth: the market is glutted with folks with PhDs who are willing to take positions that often were held mostly by teachers with MFAs. I started my PhD in 2004 and watched the market for those with advanced degrees tank. I have been on hiring committees at my current place of employment and seen people ridiculously overqualified apply for one-year teaching positions. That being said, we do have a few folks with MFAs in our department, but university administrators seem to like to have PhDs teaching in their classrooms--for whatever reason. What I can tell you is that the more writing experience you have, the more a school will consider you (think PR, journalism, poetry, etc.). Experience does count for a lot in the marketplace.

Carrie Hagen, Nonfiction Writer and Researcher, Teacher

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Hi, I have an MFA and a book out, as do several of my MFA friends. I only know of one person who has successfully earned a tenure-track position with his MFA (and he doesn't yet have a book out), so while it is possible, the odds do not seem to be in our favor.

After pursuing positions that I felt fully qualified for, I made the choice to teach part-time at the high school level. I don't have the flexibility of a college schedule, but I do have full benefits at a job where I only work half a day, and I pursue my own writing with the other half of my work time. These positions are harder to come by, but they do exist at some public and private schools.

Lisa makes a great point about one's willingness to move. I live on the East Coast, where things seem to be more competitive for a denser population.

Lisa Hiton, Poet, Professor, Filmmaker, Writer, Arts Educator

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This is a complex question to answer given these dark times for teachers and professors. The glut of MFA programs has been great for learners, but the hiring for life after MFA has not quite caught up with the demands yet. The only things that matter for those associate and tenure jobs, really, are publication. After you have one to two books, you'll be able to get out of adjunct life (if you're willing to move to the places where there are openings available in a given year...). Some things I recommend (based on my own experience as well as the experiences of my students and peers):

  • Continue to adjunct and think of other things to bring into your schedule to make it feel fuller and to allow you more financial stability. Maybe teach just two or three classes in a semester instead of trying to get as many as possible. If you can rig your days right, you can use your days outside of the classroom to grade and prep a bit, but also to do something a bit more stable. For many that can range from: freelance writing, to nannying, part-time admin work (preferably on campus to keep you in the face of those who may hire you more full time), teaching yoga, tutoring, etc.

  • One full-blown alternative that keeps you teaching is to look for work at a private high school. You won't have to go through a state certification program. You'll be teaching everyday. And you'll have a lot more freedom than an average high school teacher as far as syllabus goes.

  • Freelance writing, full-time. If you're someone who knows writing everyday is important to you, this could become a very good alternative to adjuncting until further notice. Once you get started and start getting paid gigs, you can make good money doing this. It has other perks, like writing from wherever you may be on a given day.

  • Arts education is another under-tapped workspace by many MFA students. There are all kinds of amazing programs for young people, teenagers, college students, and in adult education. There could be opportunities to do program coordinating and teaching simultaneously. Many summer writing programs, for example, can offer full-time work with summer teaching during the actual program. I can get genre specific with this as requested. There are tons of non-profits everywhere for this kind of hybrid work.

  • City arts councils often have jobs and make jobs for people if a good enough case is brought to the table. I know someone, for example, who was working with Boston Public Schools and some foundations to do research on arts educators and ended up designing an arts residency at the Boston Children's Museum--she and another artist are the first two to hold this residency.

  • MFA Post-docs: There are a growing number of post-MFA fellowships for writers all over the country and abroad. Some are more well-known and well-financed than others. Poets & Writers does a pretty good job of curating these on their contests database. You can also search by school, region of the country, etc. for what suits you. These aren't easy to get, but of course, worth applying to!

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