First of all: yes, your professors are right when they tell you it is very difficult to get a tenure track teaching job at a college or university. It is very, very difficult. No, actually, it’s very very very very very very difficult. It’s getting close to impossible, in fact, and that’s because, in the last 30 years or so, American colleges and universities have flipped, so that while adjuncts used to teach maybe 25 percent of college classes, they now teach 75 percent. Oh, it’s part of the overall economy and culture, the one we live in that’s screwing everybody except the ultra-rich, but let me be honest here: creative people are getting kicked in the ovaries extra hard.
But you can go elsewhere to find out the heartbreaking state of higher education. What I want to tell you is what I wish I’d known when I started out 25 years ago. When my law school professor counseled me to go ahead and drop out of law school to pursue an MFA in poetry, because “Law’s not a 40-hour-per-week job; you should love it, if you’re going to do it,” he followed that up with “Of course, being a college teacher isn’t easy, either. It’s very competitive.” Foolish and arrogant (and cliché), I said, “But there’s always room at the top, right?”
Answer: No. Absolutely not. There is NOT always room at the top. In part because the top is so fucking impossible to define, what with the same writers being hailed as geniuses and hacks simultaneously—and those are the lucky ones, the writers anyone gives enough of a damn about to say anything at all. The other reason is that the top keeps getting smaller and more precarious, as the iceberg melts and the part above water shrinks. That’s not a pessimist’s view of the situation, people; it’s just how things are right now. Maybe y’all can shake up higher education, change things so the value of good teaching and good writing is recognized. But unfortunately, you also need to be able to eat.
So here are some things I wish I’d done, and some warnings against things I’ve seen others do, in no particular order. Many items on this list will assume that you, like me, fell in love with college teaching. But even if you didn’t, this will hopefully be of some use.
- Get your PhD. Yes, the MFA is a terminal degree, but with hundreds of amazingly qualified writers applying for every teaching position—including those in Podunkville—even Podunk College can afford to be picky. Colleges LOVE to brag that a high percentage of their faculty has a PhD. They also think that someone who has both the MFA and PhD will be able to teach a broader range of classes, not just composition and creative writing but literary theory and literature classes.
- STRONGLY consider teaching overseas. You may not get to teach college, but in many other countries, the education system is so much better than the U.S. that high school will be barely recognizable. Research which countries are ahead in education, and while you’re at it, which countries have political systems that resonate the most with you. Start looking at international job listings now, so you get a sense of what’s out there and what they require. Many of you are introverts—I get it, so am I—and the idea of going somewhere wholly new is terrifying. But long-term happiness in your career may absolutely depend on it.
- Learn—or keep up—a language other than English. Good translations are often more in demand than good creative work. Also, this will help with 1 and 2.
- Submit your creative work frequently and well. Aim high. A single publication in a very competitive magazine counts more on your c.v. than 5 in small magazines no one has ever heard of. Yes, absolutely you’ll get rejected more frequently if you aim high, and that sucks. But the more success you have, the more opportunities you’ll have for more exposure and more success. This counts for books as well, particularly for poets: 2-3 books from a press no one has heard of (that doesn’t have a table at AWP, or that publishes not very good books alongside very good ones) can actually undermine your chances, placing you in a “mediocre” category forever in the minds of search committee members.
- Go to conferences, and present at conferences whenever you can. But when you DO present, write that conference paper as well as you’d write any creative piece of prose for a demanding professor. Time after time, I’ve seen famous writers bore audiences with talks weighed down by overly intellectual quotes or a “casual” approach that really means they didn’t prepare. But I’ve seen beautifully written papers that captured audiences (as any good speech should), and watched editors come up after the panel to ask if they can publish the paper of the least-known writer because it was just that good.
- DO NOT ADJUNCT. I hate to say this; I hate it, because I know many of you love teaching so much you’d do it for free. But unless you’re independently wealthy or married to a dentist, DON’T ADJUNCT. They have actually done studies that show every year you adjunct makes you less likely to get a tenure-track position. Academia doesn’t care at all whether you’re “keeping your hand in.” They think you have already failed, that you’re contaminated with failure, if you’ve lowered yourself to teach as an adjunct. The deans and the chairs and the tenured know the pay and treatment of adjuncts is absolute shit, and they think anyone who would accept being treated like that must be defective. They are so far removed from their job search days that they believe they have their positions because they deserve them. They don’t remember—or they never knew, because they were lucky themselves—that it’s mostly about chance.
- What should you do after your MFA if not adjunct? You were trained to be a college teacher, after all. Well, there’s 1 and 2 above. There’s also getting your education degree so you can teach high school here in the States, and teaching at private schools. But if not any of these, then I advise you to get the most interesting and weird job you possibly can. Writers’ bios are filled with non-academic jobs like “veterinary assistant to a reptile specialist”; it’s like a contest to show you’re also a “regular person.” For some people, making money from something not related to writing/academia is a relief, something that doesn’t remind them daily of their failures.
- Be a good literary citizen. Others have written extensively about this, but I’ll add that it’s the primary way networking is done now. If you do meet a writer in person, in a social situation, it’s often a good strategy to ask questions that are not writing-related. Ask about their kids, pets, sports teams, where they live, movies, etc. It’s not that writing is off-limits, but you’ve probably met them after a reading or talk, and they may be ready for some regular human interaction.
- Learn how to pitch journalistic, or semi-journalistic, pieces to paying magazines. If your MFA doesn’t offer such a class, seek one out in the journalism department. Or ask your professors to bring a freelance writer to campus to do a workshop. There’s money to be made as a writer, particularly if you can stand to be a “content producer” when you’re not actually writing the stuff you love.
- Don’t be an asshole. Don’t assume that every successful writer must be an ass-kissing, talentless fool. Don’t complain about how much work you have to do as a grad student—or rather, don’t complain about that to your teachers or other people who aren’t your fellow grad students. Who’s going to recommend a whiner? Believe it or not, your teachers work even harder than you do. Yes, they’re better compensated (the tenured ones, anyway). But if you can’t handle being a student, you can’t handle being a teacher. And don’t decide that you absolutely know what’s great writing and what’s not—your taste and understanding will change as you gain age and experience, and not only that but your loud criticisms of Writer A may just get around and screw you when you least expect it. Also, if you thought you were far more talented than your classmates and let them know it in no uncertain terms, expect that negativity to affect your career.
Remember: you’re not a failure if you get rejected, take breaks from submitting, don’t win the academic lottery. You’re not a failure if you become a forklift operator or a manager at an office supply store or if you go back to school and become an accountant after all. You’re not a failure if you decide to stop writing for a while. But I hope you keep writing, no matter what you do for a living. I hope you keep writing through the hopeless times and the self-doubt, through the times when everything else seems more important, through being in love and through crying on the bathroom floor. Not because you invested money and time and hope in a degree, but because you’re one of the few who knows this secret: how to use words like duct tape to hold this world together just a little longer, to make us see it again and again, to see in ourselves again and again the possibility of meaning.