Why I Decided NOT to Go Back to College

I’m fresh off of WANAcon this weekend which was AMAZING! Seriously, if you get a chance to go (and it’s all online, so there’s no reason not to) you should go!

Rumor has it there’ll be another one in February…

WANAcon is an online writers conference hosted by social media guru and writer shepherd, Kristen Lamb. WANA stands for We Are Not Alone, which is the title of her first book. Big thanks to Kristen and her partners in crime – Jay at Tech Surgeons and Jami Gold – for helping host WANAcon this month.

The conference had a mixture of craft and business classes for writers with a slew of awesome presenters. One class alone made me sign up.


Several months ago I made the drastic decision to quit my job in sales management with the intent of getting my Master’s Degree in writing.

Like a good little student, I researched schools and programs, made lists of extracurricular writing opportunities, and talked to people who had completed the programs.

Then May rolled around and I jetted off to the Dallas/Fort Worth Writers Conference. Over lunch one day, with several of the WANA tribe, we were talking about our current writing plans. In my best puffed-up, “I’m not having a quarter life crisis AT ALL!” voice I shared my brilliant plan of going back to school and getting the education I needed to move forward. *hands on hips, matter of fact-style*

And then my friend, Rachel Funk Heller, asked me a question…

Why do you want to pay all that money for a glorified critique group?

I was stunned.

You mean, you don’t think my plan is brilliant??!

Well…it wasn’t.

Note:Β  This post is not a bashing of academia. I would never tell someone not to pursue their graduate degree if that was important to them. This post is my story about MY decision to pursue a different path on my road to publication. If you’re considering going back to school, then research it! Get all the information you can before making your decision because it matters.

Rachel’s point to me was that everything I had stated I needed help with was available…in our WANA community…for a lot less than that $40,000/year tuition I was looking at. She pointed out what’s available to learn at conferences and who to get in touch with online.

She was right.

All I want to do is write a book. I don’t need a Master’s Degree to do that.

If my goals had been to teach writing in a college environment or to open my own publishing house someday, then YES, a Master’s Degree would be necessary. To write a book? It’s just one path of many.

Making an Action Plan

What butt in chair writing looks like.

What butt in chair writing looks like.

Back from DFWcon, unemployed, and desperately wanting everyone to believe I’d made the right choice, I put together my action plan.

I wrote.

That was step number one. And in a little over 3 months, I completed the first draft of my book.


I found support all around me. I got a writing partner, one that I knew and shared a work ethic with *Hi Gene!*,Β I used social media to boost my word counts, and I joined a local writers group to get feedback on my work.


I admit I do not have all the answers. If I did, I’d be published by now! I also would’ve quit my life-suck of a past job a LONG TIME AGO!

Now, I read books on craft. I devour books in my genre to get a sense of pacing and voice. I read through Writer’s Digest and blogs about writing.

A bonus to not paying tuition money – I have money to attend conferences! It’s my plan to attend more writing conferences this next year.

Balance…As Much As Possible

This has always been my struggling point. I’m a yes-person. I think that I can do it all and then don’t ask for the lifesaver when I’m drowning.

It took me awhile to find a job that makes me happy and healthy. A job that challenges me, utilizes my talents, appreciates my input, and is flexible. That’s an incredibly rare find. And it took time.

In my past job I worked 50-60 hour work weeks where I was on my feet presenting “happy manager” face all day long. When I got home, I was exhausted! I wanted to write, but I never had energy to get far.

My unemployment, though incredibly difficult on my budget and my relationship, was a gift. It was time. Time to finish my book. And not having a paycheck was a damn big motivator to plant my butt in the chair and get that page count up, let me tell ya! Little things like Crystal Light packets became a huge treat when I got my writing done.


Before I was offered “Awesome Job,” I accepted “Get’s Me a Paycheck Job.” It was a drastic pay cut, where I was overqualified, and still putting in more hours than I asked for.

The Regional Manager literally spent half a day’s training discussing “The Importance of Using a Planner.”


It was another push. Take the job that is less stressful, and puts food on your table, and GET THAT WRITING DONE!

In order for that to happen, I had to let go of my pride and stop worrying what people would think of me.

So WANAcon had a class that really sparked my interest.

Gabriela Pereira’s DIY MFA

Is that not the coolest sounding program ever?!

Gabriela Pereira is the instigator behind Do It Yourself – Master’s Program for Writers! She has an MFA herself because she wanted to be a creditable individual that can teach Master’s level education to others having experienced the programs first hand.

After sitting through her presentation on the core areas of MFA programs, I was psyched to realize that I was already doing 75% of them! Adding in a few other elements and getting tips from Gabriela’s program will be a great resource to build my skills in the rest!

Check out her website DIY MFA: Tools and Techniques for the Serious Writer

She even offers a FREE DIY starter kit with over 30 pages of techniques and tips, so I encourage you to get more info if this interests you!


I’m grateful that Rachel took the time to ask me my true goals in life. I would much rather spend my hard earned money traveling across the country to network at writers conferences than rack up more debt in student loans that may or may not get me any closer to publication than I am now.

I realize that I was only able to make that decision after years of dealing with the things I knew I didn’t want.

I hope my blog post helps at least ONE person out there make a drastic change in their lives for the better. If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve made these changes a lot sooner.

I’ve read the books written by happiness experts and life coaches and the problem with those books is they gloss over the gritty parts. They quit their jobs like it’s no big deal while at the same time start a collection and go shopping for trends! Most of us cannot do that. I couldn’t do that!

It was a learning process the whole way. But ultimately, a good one.


If anyone wants more details or you’re looking for a listener who’s been there, please reach out to me! I’m more than happy to chat with you all in the comments, message me on Facebook, or send me an email (jessi(dot)witkins(at)gmail(dot)com)! You can vent to me in 140 characters or less on Twitter!

Knowing you have choices is an incredible empowerment, and you deserve that!

What were the tough decisions that you struggled with? What helped you survive?

47 responses

  1. I’m still in that place where I am struggling to figure out what I want to do with my life. I’ll let you know when I even get CLOSE to figuring it out. Good for you for taking that leap and taking it seriously, though, even without “formal education.” I’m glad you found your tribe and your path. Good job!

    1. That’s exactly what all the happiness books gloss over! And it’s soooo frustrating! I would read gobs of these books and be like “Yes, I want to do all this…..HOW?”

      None of the people writing them seemed real to me. Especially financially. Money just appeared to not be an issue, and it was a huge decision factor for me because I support myself.

      But change is scary and don’t feel bad for taking your time when it is a big life altering decision. I DO wish I’d made mine sooner, but then again, would I appreciate where I am now in life as much if I did? I don’t know.

      Now, I’m just trying to stay calm and ride the serendipitous road that I’ve finally landed on for awhile before things get crazy again. I’m trying to live really in the moment.

  2. Sounds like you’ve got it all going for you. I did go back to college to kick off my writing career, but it was because I never finished my undergraduate work. I’d spent several decades apologizing for the oversight, so I wanted to put that unfinished behind me. Then I started writing, but got sidetracked with a series of family crises. I finished the book, but didn’t have the energy or time to pursue publication. I’m on the cusp of my senior discount years, but hopefully my days as a primary caregiver will give way to the rest of my life AS A NOVELIST.

    1. Hey, I will never knock education! That’s phenomenal that you went back to finish your bachelor’s! I’m sooo grateful for mine because it really opened me up to great experiences and people. I’m sure if I did an MFA now, I’d love it just as much. But financially and career wise it simply wasn’t a NECESSARY thing.

      Jane, I really feel for you. I haven’t had to be a caretaker for my parents, but I was living at home when my Grandpa came to live with us, and it’s HARD. SO HARD! It’s emotionally draining. I see the WANAs championing you on on Facebook, so I hope that you know we’re all here to support you and don’t let age dictate your publishing dream! I wish you the best and I’ll keep watching those FB updates. Try to sneak in some writing when you have the time! *hugs*

  3. This was a great post, lots of food for thought. I’ve been through all of this recently and well am still going through it. πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks Madge! I appreciate how honest you are in your posts. And your amazing sense of humor! It’s funny, you just made me realize that some of my favorite books out there are written by humor authors like yourself! They’re awesome at taking crappy life situations and showing you the grit along with the moments all you can do is laugh at.

  4. Loved this post, Jess. I’ve grappled with going back to school myself. I’m about where you are so I’m motivated to stay the course and keep investing my time and effort and soul into Me and my dream. Thanks!!!

    1. Keep at it Ginger! All I needed was someone to point out the obvious to me -LOL – and I knew what I needed to do.

  5. I don’t have a master’s degree in writing, but I do have a writing-intensive bachelor’s and a master’s degree in a field that also involved writing a bit. I have told my kids over and over that I have learned more about writing on my own, from conferences and craft books and colleagues, in the last few years than I learned from any schooling experience before. That isn’t to knock the schooling experience, because I did have some stand-out classes that taught me a lot (and I have a family member who is AMAZING at teaching writing to kids). But overall, I’ve found that I can put together a program for myself better than a degree program could…and I can tailor it to where my own needs and weaknesses are.

    I hope one of those conferences you attend will be one I’m attending too! So thrilled to hear about your first draft DONE. Keep writing, friend!

    1. So true! And Gabriela’s class made the same point. Traditional MFA programs are outdated and a bit generalized. They have to be when they encompass so much. But when you make your own program you spend your money in the targeted areas you want to.

      And hell yah we need to go to the same conference!!!

  6. Great blog, Jess! Congratulations on making your decision, and on getting what sounds like a dream job! Happy writing – I know you will be a success!

    1. Thank you Dorie! I know you’re a fantastic advocate both for academia and self continued education! I truly appreciate the confidence and support book club has given me!

  7. Valerie Johnson | Reply

    Thank you for the post! I agree with you on this one and have made the same decision. Congrats on your first draft — so exciting!!

    1. Valerie from everything you’ve shared with me you’re on the right track and very dedicated. When I met you at the Madison conference you knew WAY more than I did about the business! You’re an awesome pal to conference with and you made me feel very welcome!

  8. Catherine Johnson | Reply

    This is a lovely story to read Jess! Best wishes, you sound totally on track. I missed so much of the conference I hope I find out how to get the recordings :0)

    1. I will be checking out the recordings as well! Glad you got to enjoy WANAcon too! Thanks for the support!

    2. Catherine,

      We’ll be sending out an email soon, but the recordings and presentation slides are on those same pages we had set up for the handouts. The links are up on the main WANACon page if you misplaced the email from last week. The passwords are the same ones we used for getting into the classrooms.

      And yes, all the links are up! Let me know if you have any questions. πŸ™‚

      1. Catherine Johnson | Reply

        Cheers, Jami!

  9. Great post, Jesse! I’m very excited for you that you are pursuing your dream.

    And I agree, most of those ‘here’s how to figure out what you really want to be doing’ books leave out that annoying little thing: money!

    I was a freshman adviser for awhile during my 3rd career as a college professor. I used to tell my advisees that there was a lot more to picking a profession than taking some test that matches up your talents and interests to some general career. I had them find someone who was already doing that job and ask them about their typical day, week, AND year (as well as find out what the jobs actually paid). I had about 20% change their path after that and rethink what they wanted to major in.

    1. I wish I’d encountered someone like you my senior year of my undergrad. I had a total panic attack that I’d wasted my education and should go back to school for sales. Yah…um NO.

      Great advice! Sometimes that shiny idea for the future is not so wonderful as you think.

  10. Great post, Jess! And thanks for the shout out!

    Isn’t Gabriela amazing? πŸ™‚ (*leans close and whispers* Of all the presenters I was working with pre-WANACon, she was the most organized and on the ball, so naturally I liked her. LOL!)

    Like you, I’m glad I have my bachelors, but it’s not something I use–or have ever used much in any of my jobs. I never seriously considered going for an MFA, especially after I heard that they’re often biased against genre. Ugh.

    I’m glad that you feel like you’re on the right path now, and I’m glad that WANA can be a part of that and help! πŸ™‚

    1. Ah-mazing job with WANAcon Jami!

      I will definitely be in touch with Gabriela. Her information was well organized and applicable to someone in my situation. I so appreciate the WANAs for all their help.

  11. OMG, you actually paid attention to what I said?!? But seriously, I’m so proud of you for having the courage to strike out on your own! I can’t tell you hiw many times I’ve heard people talk about changing their lives, but they never followed up and took ACTION to pursue their dreams. What you’ve done will teach you so much more about writing and about life then any Masters program ever will. You’ve done something that has taken other people years to do. Now the next challenge: keep on keeping on. Congratulations darling, and you do have one of the best support groups a writer could ever ask for with the WANAs. And you know how to find me when you need another pep talk. I’m looking forward to hearing more from you.

    1. *bear hug*

      Rachel, I probably didn’t show it or say it at the time – because I was pouting that you didn’t I was brilliant – haha. But, THANK YOU!

  12. I totally agree with your decision not to go back for your Master’s. Advanced education is appropriate when it will serve your career and offer more opportunities. But education in any form is just as good for most. Learning your craft and pursuing your passion works best for many people. Not knocking higher ed but, we do have to decide what it will net us and whether that expense is worth it.
    Glad you’re loving your job and getting your writing done! Keep moving forward!

    1. Thank you Marcia. I’m waiting with noisemakers and glow sticks to start cheering you and your writing on again!!!! *blows kazoo*

  13. There was a brief time, midway through my unemployment, when I too considered returning to school for a graduate degree in Creative Writing. Ironically, it was a woman who had a degree in Creative Writing who suggested this path might not make the most sense, either financially or career-wise. I’m glad I listened, because nowadays, I’ve got exactly the life I want – without being burdened by expensive student loans. Bottom line? I like the advice you’ve given here. Do what’s right for YOU. Conferences weren’t my thing, but hard work was, and that is what has paid off in the long run.

    1. Mark I must say thank you as well to you because your blog posts about your period of unemployment were honest. You shared the highs and lows of it and helped me be ok with the transition. Thank you!

  14. Thanks for this, Jess! I recently committed to being a “full-time” writer (in lieu of an MFA program, I guess) though I still take occasional overseas gigs to help pay the rent. I just got back from one, and was going through that “have I made the right decision?” moment. I’ll probably have many more of them, but your post was a nice reminder that I’m not the first one to go through this, and not the last!

    1. Kirsten! I was literally just thinking of you yesterday! I kept thinking that I needed to reach out to you. I wanted to say THANK YOU because your reading for me makes so much sense now. The biggest takeaway I had from it was that I needed to set a schedule for myself. And by doing that, I was able to accomplish the first big hurdle of draft #1.

      I’m glad that my post could offer comfort to you today because you sure gave that to me as well. Thank you and you’re not alone!

  15. I think this sounds VERY sensible!

    1. Thanks for the support Nina! I appreciate it!

  16. The best way to learn writing is to write. The other things you listed, such as reading craft books, reading in your genre, and searching out mentors (whether they know it or not) are superior methods to most programs for fiction writers. Proud of you for the choices and direction you’ve taken–but then you already know that. πŸ™‚

    While I did choose to go back to college during my unemployment, it was for business and marketing classes to support the coming writing career. It is also funded by a state program I qualified for–so no student debt to worry about. One thing I can say, is that I learned more about writing by reading others, sitting at my keyboard typing, and from craft books, then in the English classes I’ve taken as a part of this degree.

    By the way, Gabriela Pereira is one of my “core twelve”–those mentors I mentioned (whether they know it or not). A fantastic resource that I recommend to everyone. Fun. Friendly. And yes, very well organized.

    Thanks for the shout out, Jess. I’m proud to have a partner as amazing and inspirational as you! πŸ™‚

    1. Did you take a class or the DIY MFA with Gabriela? I admit I don’t get to everyone’s blog as much as I’d like so I miss stuff. Do share more!

      And Gene, you and Julie Glover are sooooooo freaking awesome at sharing writer resources and knowing who to contact. You are the writer whisperers! LOL Very honored to be working with you as well! And I hope school is going amazingly.

  17. Hi, Jess! What a fab post. It sounds like you are taking a big, daring step that’s paying off. You go, girl!

    You have some terrific tips in here (finding a writing partner – really gotta do that) that are really helpful to me. Will definitely be checking out Gabriela’s site!

    As a “recovering” academic with a Ph.D. in 19th century British Literature, I can tell you that a graduate degree will only get you so far – and that’s only if it’s a good program to begin with. For me, my goal was college teaching, and I loved it while I was doing it, but it wasn’t at the tenure-track level (which is cut-throat to get into, let me tell you), so there were some big drawbacks. Then I got bitten by the mystery writer muse, and that’s how I landed here.

    But I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything, and I’m actually getting to use them in my stories! I’ll bet those soul-sucking jobs you had will do the same for you!

    Good luck, honey!

    1. Wanna know the title of the book I’m planning to write about retail? It’s called “Where English Majors Go to Die.” πŸ˜€

      I’m a big fan of writing “what I know” so I totally support you using your knowledge as a professor to write about a great mystery series involving a professor. Dangerous and Unseemly is still on my To Read list! It’s been there since “unofficially” since the online Warrior Writers group! And now it’s moving up the pile! I keep telling Julie Glover to plan a writer’s READING retreat. All we need is a beach house, some painted patio chairs, and lots and lots of wine!!!

      1. LOL, I heartily recommend wine with Dangerous and Unseemly. πŸ˜‰

  18. Jess! What a happy post that sends a very clear message! You are doing what you have always wanted and you have discovered the best way to do it. Bravo to Rachel for asking her all-important question! Write on!

    1. Thank you Patricia! Part of me has to chuckle when I thank everyone for their support. It was not a fast or easy decision. I think I may have done my damnedest to find someone tell me an opinion OPPOSITE of Rachel’s!! LOL But, none of those plans made sense and I eventually realized it too.

  19. Wonderful post, Jess! So inspiring. Sounds like you’ve really made not just “the right decisions” but a whole series of right decisions, and they all took courage. Good for you!

    1. Almost as courageous as someone starting a blog for the first time! πŸ˜‰

      Thanks for being one of my many mentors along the way!

  20. Who said that we have to go it alone and cannot learn from others? Rachel speaks with wisdom that comes from experience. She’s a gem. And has apparently saved you tons of money. Go going Jess! Loved your post and awesome advice. πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks Karen! I’m so grateful for the WANA community! Your support truly fuels me to keep going!

  21. That’s awesome, Jess! I’ve thought about pursuing an advanced degree in writing, but came to the same conclusion – you can educate yourself and access the same tools for free!

    1. Yah, it was interesting the more I researched it. The graduate programs are kind of out-dated in terms of the publishing industry and really honing in that social media aspect that’s pretty much mandatory of writers now. There are other ways to get the info.

  22. […] ok. Say YES! It helps you figure out what it is you DOΒ want to do. My 20’s is when I figured out I did NOT want to do sales, but also where I learned I’m good at talking to people, being a […]

  23. […] y’all know I love me a good writers conference. After I left a career in corporate sales to be a writer, I made attending writers conferences part of my ongoing education goal. I’ve attended at […]

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