The first, most honest, and initially least helpful answer I can toss your way is “Damned if I know.” It’s one of those questions where the pros and cons are all well known and all compelling. No, you don’t need the MFA to become a published writer. Yes, it’s possible to put together or locate writing groups on your own. Yes, unless you’re funded, the MFA really is either a luxury or a shortcut to heavy debt. No, it’s not an easy route to an agent, a publisher, or a tenure track faculty job. In the end, it comes down to what you want out of the experience, which I can’t really know.
But I can tell you a bit about which desires you can expect to fulfill at an MFA program, and which you (probably) can’t.
If you’re lucky, you’ll find least one or two accomplished readers who are both sympathetic and critical. This doesn’t always work out. There can be politics among MFA students, and some classes can become nauseatingly competitive. Still, if you chose your graduate school well, you should be able to find a student or two who understands what you’re trying to accomplish and is smart enough to help you realize your vision. (Hopefully, you can do likewise for them.)
If you’re lucky, you’ll find at least one smart and critical professor who can mentor you. If you’re really lucky, they’ll like your work enough to recommend it to their agent. (Just don’t go in expecting it. And don’t expect that their recommendation means their agent will take you on as a client.)
You may get a chance to work on the campus literary magazine as a reader or editor. If you do, take it. It’s helpful to see the submission process from the other side. It may be your entree into the poorly paid and obscure world of professional literary magazine publication.
You may get an opportunity to teach. It’ll be mostly comp at first, but if you stick with it long enough, they’ll let you lead some undergraduate fiction workshops. If you’d like to be a professor someday, this experience will get you over the “Experience teaching at the college level” hump–though it’s the same hump that almost all the other applicants will have also cleared.
You can expect to have time to complete at least a reasonable percentage of a substantial work of fiction or a substantial body of poetry. (I actually spent three years at an MFA program designed for two so that I could redraft the book that became Dismantle the Sun.) Granted, there are other ways to acquire that time–marrying a wealthy person, for instance–but for many writers the MFA provides the pressure and deadlines they need to get work done.
You can expect to have opportunities to read your fiction to small but interested audiences in your program’s area. It’s good practice for the future, especially for those who’ve never acted.
You can expect to feel a certain pressure to conform. MFA culture privileges certain writers and certain styles (Richard Yates, Raymond Carver, Joan Didion, high modernism, realism), though there are differences in emphasis between programs, (and usually within them). Whether you resist the pressure or not is up to you, of course.
Now, what can’t you expect?
Don’t expect a CW MFA program to be like an MFA program in acting or studio art. Very few of these programs have pipelines into jobs or literary agencies, and almost none regard themselves as professional training programs. For better or for worse, most creative writing programs assume that their students will, after graduation, return to whatever non-creative-writing job they had before. This assumption is largely correct.
Don’t expect to walk away with a contract or an agent. If none of the faculty at your program offered to help you that way, it may be a sign that you haven’t developed enough, or that your work was never to their taste. (In which case, you may have chosen your program badly.)
Don’t expect a tenure track job. You shouldn’t despair: a couple of my former classmates, at least, are teaching at the university level right now, in full time, permanent positions. So it’s possible. Just bear in mind that the job market in academia really does suck, and that the MFA won’t be enough. Teaching creative writing at the university level usually requires publication of at least one well-received book.
That’s about everything I can think of. Anyone with further advice can certainly post it in comments, but from I’ve said so far you should get at least a strong signal about what you should do. If you value security and are looking for a guaranteed return on your investment in your education, maybe an MFA in creative writing isn’t your thing. If, however, your primary mission in life is to create a worthwhile book of literary fiction or poetry, the resources of a well-chosen MFA program can be an enormous help. The students you work with will be far better, on average, then you’d find in any ordinary writing group; and your teachers may well be brilliant writers who can accelerate your development.
I was lucky that way. My creative thesis advisers were Charles Johnson and David Shields, two of the most insanely smart writers I’ve ever met. Though they come from very different aesthetic and cultural perspectives, they were able to help me tremendously, and I am deeply in their debt. (I’m also deeply in the government’s debt, but that’s another story. Suffice it to say that in these discussions, finance matters.) If you check the acknowledgements to my book, you’ll find Charles and David, along with my fellow students at the UW MFA program, listed. Maybe I could have done it without them, but it would have taken twice as long, and would probably have been only half as good.
So, we end where we began. Should you get an MFA? What do you think?