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Jason is wrestling with the prospect of graduate school, and Mary Anne recently had some good advice on the subject (said advice being: write a novel for your dissertation, because that's easier to get published than a story collection, and publication is a pre-requisite for a decent job teaching creative writing). This got me thinking again about my own decisions regarding post-collegiate study.

I struggled a lot with the question of whether or not to go to graduate school a few years ago (I got my undergrad degree in 1999). I wanted to do a poetry MFA at first, then I thought about an MFA in fiction, then an MA in literature. After much soul-searching, I realized those weren't the best paths for me. I did well in academia (won all the scholarships that could be won in the English department, had a 4.0 major GPA, was chief marshal at graduation my junior year, magna cum laude, yadda yadda -- all big-fish-in-small-pond stuff, though, as this was a small regional university, albeit with top-notch poetry and folklore teachers) and I liked teaching -- I ran a few poetry workshops, was teacher's assistant for the school's best poetry teacher, etc. But ultimately, I decided that school got in the way of my writing more than anything else. I realized that, if I wanted to do graduate school, it would make a lot more sense for me to take a degree in history or folklore, to study something that would feed my writing. And from that realization, I quickly understood that I'd be better off just reading a hell of a lot about history and folklore, and letting that feed my writing, and saving my tuition money.

Because, see, I never wanted to be a professor. I saw a fair bit of the politics and hoop-jumping required of professors, because I worked for four years in the Dean's office of the college of arts and sciences. My writer-professors longed desperately for summer, when they had light or no courseloads, because that was the only time they could write. That sounded like a hellish existence to me, because while teaching was fine and fun, becoming a college professor wasn't what I wanted to do. And that's mostly what graduate programs in writing groom you for. (Granted, there are exceptions -- Michael Chabon's master's thesis went on to become a bestseller, and he was a full-time writer from there on out. But those are rare.) I earned an English BA with an emphasis in creative writing, and sold more fiction in college than my fiction teacher did!

What I wanted, what I still want, is to be a full-time novelist. I'm not there yet (though I'm a lot closer now than I was a year ago!), and I may never achieve it, but at least I know, every day, that I'm striving toward my dream. If I'd gone to grad school, I wouldn't have been striving for my dreams, and I would have been running up a mountain of debt in the process. So if your dream is to teach college, by all means, go for the best grad schools, study your heart out, write your guts out, and good luck! That's not for me, though I wouldn't mind teaching the occasional workshop. I decided not to go to grad school when I realized I was happiest working random jobs, scraping by financially, and writing, writing, writing. Being in school just meant I was still scraping by financially, and had less time to write, write, write. So I've followed the random job-having, lots-of-writing-doing path (though I lucked into a job at A Certain Magazine, which is close enough to what I love to keep me interested). I think I made the right choice, for me, but I can see why it's the source of soul-searching for a lot of people. I did the same searching myself. (It's even the source of some character conflict in Rangergirl, with one character pursuing a graduate degree in art with plans to teach, and another one working a shitty job and doing art, each thinking the other one is crazy.)

I wish you good luck, Jason, in your graduate-degree-seeking endeavors. Just keep writing -- it's the stories that matter.

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