Expectations After Receiving Your MFA
Nick Courtright is the author of Punchline, a National Poetry Series finalist published in 2012 by Gold Wake Press. His work has appeared in journals such as The Southern Review, Boston Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Iowa Review, and many others, and a chapbook, Elegy for the Builder’s Wife, is available from Blue Hour Press. He’s Interviews Editor of the Austinist, an arts and culture website based in Austin, Texas, where he teaches English, Humanities, and Philosophy, and lives with his wife, Michelle, and son, William.
Author: Nick Courtright
What were your expectations after graduating from an MFA program?
I graduated in 2007 with only the vaguest expectations, as I recall—there was no expectation that a great job would be waiting for me, and I don’t think I really had much of a concept of how employment would go from there. I think a lot of this had to do with that thing that can happen when you’re in an MFA program: you’re so busy focusing on creating art and finding yourself as a writer, and perhaps also worrying a great deal about getting work published, that the whole practical matter of making ends meet ends up de-prioritized. Or, if it isn’t de-prioritized, it at least seems mystifying and distant. I know this happened for me, and it took some tough lessons to be able to put all aspects of the post-MFA life into their proper context.
What sort of jobs did you have when you first graduated from your MFA?
I was lucky enough to find a job right after I graduated, though unlucky enough that it was a job I hated. I was a technical writer for a software company, and it was a terrible match—I went from discussing the merits of Joyce’s later works and Merwin’s lack of punctuation to being surrounded by people who couldn’t care less about such things, if they’d even heard the names “Joyce” and “Merwin” at all. I remember one event in particular that made it painfully clear that I was out of place: I was in the kitchen at the office getting a cup of coffee, and it had been raining outside all morning. I said to a coworker, “the weather sure has been weathering, hasn’t it?” and she looked at me like I was a total psycho. At that point I knew my stay there wouldn’t last, and, sure enough, it didn’t. After that, I had a brief go as a salesman, but then realized my love truly was in teaching, for better or for worse, so I got back to that.
What sort of piece of advice would you give to someone in the final year of their MFA program?
Be realistic, and don’t get caught up in social drama. An MFA program can be a crazy little small world, but the world beyond it is a large one. Cast a wide net, and try not to settle. But also, be reasonable—the odds of finding a tenure-track job teaching art are pretty abysmal, so remember that life is a long haul. Adjuncting sucks, but it doesn’t suck as bad as a “real job,” I’ve found. But more than anything, just try to keep the blood pressure down, make connections with prospective employers before you actually need the job, and try to enjoy that last year while it’s still there.
How do you feel that having a family has changed your attitude toward the job search?
It’s made it very real. As in, before I wouldn’t worry so much about whether all my classes would make, because in the worst case scenario I’d have to eat ramen for a few months or find another part time job. Now, with a wife and child and mortgage and all that good stuff, it makes finding steady work all the more requisite. Since I’m not exploring the job market nationally due to my being pretty bound to my present location, I don’t sweat the big picture job search scene, but I suppose that’s part of how my attitude’s changed: before I would have been looking all over the world for a full time job, but now I just do what I can to make a go of it in my own area. I find I like the freedom in that constriction, though, because it makes me have to accept the circumstances as they are, rather than always looking elsewhere for a “better” situation that in all likelihood wouldn’t actually be better. So having a family keeps me dedicated and focused, even if I must admit the pressure to make money is more, um, pressing.
Do you feel publication has increased your prospects of employment? If so, how?
I do feel like it’s given me an added layer of legitimacy when going into job interviews. Rather than just saying “I’ve taught classes before,” I can say that and that I’ve also been published in all these journals, and now, with a book out, that effect is enhanced—I get the feeling that it helps because it shows your dedication to the discipline, and it also can’t hurt that you’d potentially be publishing while associated with the college or university; I do know that schools like seeing a bio that has their name in it. So yeah, publishing I do believe has helped. It hasn’t been a slam-dunk, though, as I still have to dig and work and prove myself beyond that, but it is a solid line item on the CV and in the ears of prospective employers.