Teaching and publishing aren’t the only two tracks for post-M.F.A. employment. Many M.F.A. grads find their workshop-honed skills are powerful assets in fields that have little or nothing to do with writing. For example, few industries seem more immediately unlike the field of poetry than software engineering, but for Eric Weinstein, New Yorker–published poet, NYU M.F.A. grad, and senior software engineer at Condé Nast, the two complement each other in surprising ways. “I think of poems as programs designed to elicit particular emotional responses in the reader,” Weinstein says, “and by the same token, programs are really executable poems for the machine. Programs, like poems, employ white space, idiom, syntax, and form, and you’re ultimately working to communicate an idea clearly and elegantly.” Weinstein is one of many M.F.A. graduates who are applying the skills and lessons learned in the M.F.A. workshop to careers that are unconventional for writers, but make direct and indirect use of their literary skills.
Joshua Howes, a fiction writer with an M.F.A. from Columbia University, draws from his M.F.A.-trained communication abilities every day at J-Prep Tutoring, the company he founded as a graduate student that has seen significant growth since he graduated. “Communicating clearly and vividly is a major strength,” he says. “Running a tutoring business, I spend the bulk of my hours communicating—with parents and with tutors.” For Howes, who has published fiction in Ploughshares and elsewhere, the M.F.A. degree not only helps him run his business, it’s also a qualification he looks for in potential tutors: “When it comes to helping students with application essays for college or graduate school, there are no better tutors than M.F.A. students and graduates. They not only have the whetstone-sharpened writing skills that an English Ph.D. might bring to the table, but also a keen appreciation for narrative, emotional rhythm, and the vivid telling detail, which can tremendously enliven a personal statement.”
Clare FitzPatrick, a management support specialist at Google who helps businesses with their use of Google platforms, considers an M.F.A. degree an asset in employees. “I think if you’re the type of person who sees the world as an artist does, one way or another putting pieces together to make something that fills the soul, you’re a valuable asset to any job,” she says. FitzPatrick, who has an M.F.A. in fiction from St. Mary’s College, tries to maintain a spirit of creativity in the workplace. J. Scott Donoghue, another St. Mary’s College M.F.A. grad who works as a merchant operations specialist for Google via Vaco (a staffing and recruitment agency), agrees. “I’ve worked in tech for the past year, working on new products and platforms that are, in every sense of the word, works of art and have an everyday utility. I’ve been trained to think critically about what the product and its aesthetics achieve, or how the aesthetics can be improved.”
Kimberly Kreines, who works as a creative designer on the story team of the fantasy role-playing card game Magic: The Gathering, credits the writing education she got as a student in Solstice’s low-residency M.F.A. program for helping launch her successful career. Her time at Solstice, a program of Pine Manor College in Massachusetts, not only taught her to revise but also helped her make writing a daily habit—something she appreciates while working on Magic’s serialized story sagas. But, like Howes and Weinstein, Kreines is most grateful for the way her M.F.A. honed her ability to listen, communicate, and relate to others. “By learning to convey our thoughts with respect and compassion, we learned how to interact with writers and artists, and foster healthy creative environments. A big part of my job is working with other writers on the story team in our writers’ room—which is not at all dissimilar from the workshops that we participated in at Solstice,” she says.
Though Anna DeForest, who graduated from Brooklyn College’s M.F.A. program on the fiction track and is now enrolled in medical school, doesn’t know many doctors with M.F.A. degrees, she’s found that “medical schools are getting more and more interested in finding applicants who have these kinds of skills, because there is a lot of literature that suggests that being interested in the humanities makes you more humane.” DeForest credits her literary background with helping her embrace ambiguity, a fundamental part of the early stages of diagnosis. “The work of writing has taught me to be attentive, moment to moment. This attention is vital to the process,” DeForest says.”I am often excited when a story or a patient proves me wrong, and I don’t mind admitting when my scant fund of knowledge doesn’t cover a given question.”
Aside from the ability to communicate fluently and compellingly, the most valuable contribution M.F.A. grads offer might be their fresh perspective and outside passion. “My M.F.A. sets me apart—most software engineers don’t have master’s degrees in art,” Weinstein says. “I think that’s a part of my résumé that piques interest. In terms of my current work at Condé Nast, I mentioned when interviewing that I’d had a poem in the New Yorker a couple of years ago, and I think that also helped me stand out a bit.”
Julie Buntin is the associate editor and community manager at Catapult, a new publishing venture. Her debut novel is forthcoming in 2017 from Henry Holt.