Post-low-res-MFA, Dipping Toe into Academic Job Market

Last night I gave a reading at a great school where a faculty member who got an MFA from a low-residency program is now in a wonderful tenure-track faculty position. It can be done, but unfortunately winning a tenure-track position is a leap that is difficult for both candidates from high-residency and low-residency MFA programs. High-residency program students, however, have been circulating around PhDs for years in the hallways and the bars, so they know a bit more about the nature of academic and the absolutely intense nature of the academic job market. To be clear: it is TOUGH to get an academic job. This is mostly because the number of tenure-track jobs have been shrinking and shrinking over the decades.

The other challenge for any MFA (I’ll just speak to that crowd because that’s what I know) is what I described the other day to an undergraduate student as “The River of Fire.”

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The student wanted to know how to get a job like mine, and I said that after graduation comes the River of Fire. I didn’t want to sugar-coat the intense post-degree experience (yes, that’s post degree) when, without the support of a program, I had to make my thesis into a book, keep publishing short stuff, get the book published, and keep accumulating teaching experience. And I had to keep writing with even greater focus than I did in graduate school.

In my case, I did this while my son was a toddler. Holy moly.

I luckily got a job teaching a few classes at Ohio State’s College of Engineering teaching writing classes for engineers (I went to OSU for a high-res MFA). And I did a lot of freelance proofreading. And when I had any extra money I paid for daycare so I could finish the book, and it took two more years, and my book didn’t come out until 4 years after graduation. Along the way I was also publishing in literary journals.

I’m describing this because I want to be clear that your odds of getting a tenure-track job as an MFA can depend completely on your published work, with teaching experience as second. That means you need a book and you need to teach. You can, however, also go for a tenure-track job at the community college level. That, I think, is a completely different kettle of fish. They may look for a book, or they may not, but they will want some teaching experience. What community colleges want is specifically community college teaching experience. So if you can get into a community college as an adjunct, take that opportunity. Community colleges tend to have heavier teaching loads, so they want to know that you have experience with their specific population as well.

So what is a person to do if they need to eat and survive during this process? What if you already have a full-time job and want to transition, or at least think about it? Work on your book like a house on fire next to that river of fire. Pick up an evening class adjuncting if you can (no need to quit the day job as long as this mix of multiple responsibilities doesn’t make you crazy).

Then, begin to learn about the academic job market by reading job ads.

1. To find jobs, you should join CRWR-OPPS, which is a listserv that offers many job listings as well as places to publish. To join, send a blank email to CRWROPPS-B-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

2. More job listings are available through the job list within AWP, so you should join AWP and get access to those listings. You can also look at the extensive list offered by the Modern Languages Association. This includes academic PhD level jobs; read each job carefully, as most in this list are looking only for PhDs. The job “season” begins in the fall, with interviewing beginning in January, sometimes via phone, with finalists brought to campus for visits.

3. The academic job market normally focuses on two kinds of production: scholarly work or creative work (i.e., at least one book of creative work). Jobs that require fewer publications tend to come with higher teaching loads. If you have ANY teaching experience, such as leading workshops, community education–anything at all–you do want to list it on your CV.

4. That’s right, you need a CV instead of a resume. A CV, or curriculum vitae, lists everything you’ve ever done that’s teaching or writing related. It’s the pizza with everything instead of the pared down resume you’re used to. Here’s one sample. Here’s a guide from Sarah Lawrence College. There are many others online.

5. Anything having to do with organizational work in creative writing counts as service to the profession and should also be listed, so that includes your work in helping to organize conferences. The philosophy of a CV–unlike a resume–is that it’s much longer and anything possible goes in.

Know that every single person who has an MFA who is teaching at a university wakes up and looks around and says, “Huh, I can’t believe this actually worked. They let me it.” So it’s a tough road, it can totally be done, but read and be aware of how tough it is.

And more good resources: A wonderful PDF from Natasha Sajé through AWP about preparing for the job market as an MFA. (That certainly is a mouthful of acronyms). And here is a fantastic and honest reflection on working in academia as an MFA by Karin Lin-Greenburg.

To sum up: Don’t go in alone. Go in aware and research. Write that CV. And then dive into the river of fire.

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