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So, you’re a writer. And you’re serious about it. You’ve heard about this thing called an MFA. You’re doing research, trying to find out if it’s right for you. In doing your research you’ve stumbled upon this article by a recent MFA grad. This MFA thing, you ask, what’s it really about? What am I in for? Hopefully my rundown below can help clarify a few things.
Things to do and consider before applying for an MFA
Research the faculty. I cannot stress this enough. What books have they published? What styles are they partial to? What basic stats are represented?—gender, age, ethnic background, areas of study. How old is the program itself? Who founded it? These are the people who will make or break the experience for you. They are making every decision regarding your experience. Forget the rest of the marketing materials on the school’s website. Research the faculty.
Talk with alumni. They’re the ones who are going to be frank with you. If you’re wondering where to find them, scour the university’s website, also MFA Twitter is particularly active, and we’re writers, we love to talk! Sometimes in great detail. Many of us are happy to share our good and bad experiences with you.
Are you a person of color? LGBTQ? Seeking an MFA past your twenties? Research is all the more crucial. Not all MFAs are friendly spaces for underrepresented student populations, and it’s fairly easy to spot the ones that aren’t with a little digging. Some institutions will cull you into their program for diversity points, then fail to support you or your work. This is particularly problematic for Black students in this very white, male-dominated industry—please take a moment to peruse the #BlackintheIvory tag on Twitter. If you can, visit the campus, talk with current and past attendees, find out what their experiences were like. If possible, perhaps juxtapose “traditional” students’ experiences (Read: white, fresh out of undergrad) with those of non-traditional students—their stories will often be vastly different.
Do you write literary fiction or speculative fiction? Does it matter? At an MFA, hell yes. The literary industry sees these two things as binaries based on the commercial market—and MFA programs do, too. Traditional MFA programs are literary programs—that means realism—divorce, alcoholism, deep introspection into your relationships with your parents—warning: aliens, dragons, magic, etc. may confuse your faculty and peers. If you write primarily sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc., look specifically for any mention of speculative fiction or genre-bending on the program’s website, ask questions about genre when contacting faculty or alumni. I found it a bit odd that my MFA program primarily treated spec fic as if it were a different beast altogether, one they had never encountered—had they lived their whole literary careers without reading classics like Frankenstein, 1984, The Lord of the Rings for fuck’s sake? My spec work was accepted, even lauded at times, but not always understood in workshop by faculty or peers who were unfamiliar with genre nuances, and there was no one on the faculty who really specialized or had any experience with genre work—my bad in part for failing to do more thorough research. Some MFA programs cater specifically to spec fic writers and might be friendlier places—and no, it shouldn’t be binary—my work was often cross-genre, a hybrid between literary and speculative—again this false binary stems from the marketplace—but that’s the way it is.
Know that these programs are typically a little behind-the-times. For some institutions, that’s putting it mildly. Your professor may not have read anything new since their 1991 copy of The New Yorker. Tenured faculty sometimes do the work of staying up-to-date, sometimes they don’t. Some of their syllabi are outdated, some attempt to be diverse and current with different levels of success. Again, research the faculty, and/or reach out to them via phone or email. Try and gauge whether they will do the work to support your work, that is being written here, now—not 30 years ago.
Other key questions to ask
Are they funded? How much funding will you receive? Does fully funded really mean fully funded? Do some calculations and compare the estimated salary to the cost of living in the area. Remember to account for taxes. As a grad student, you will be paid poverty wages. I survived by having a second job. Personally, I do not think an MFA that isn’t funded is worth it, going into debt over an MFA was not an option I even considered, but it depends on your financial situation.
Do you get teaching experience out of the program? Do you want teaching experience? Besides the friends, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the two years of teaching experience my MFA gave me was the part of the program that was worth the most to me. If you don’t want to teach—don’t apply to a program that will make you teach, although some programs that fund you through teaching will also have alternate work assignments involving research and office work, but these can be in limited availability.
Low-Residency or Full-Residency? Are you older and financially stable enough to pay for your MFA?—Probably a low-residency. Are you fresh out of undergrad?—Probably a full-residency. That’s the tea. Somewhere in-between? Again, research and find out what might be the best fit for you. (Not sure what these terms are?)
Have you been accepted into an MFA program? Congratulations! Now you get to decide whether or not you actually want to go—it’s time for Phase II of your research. The high of the excitement of acceptance can often compel us to take whatever’s offered to us, but at least in a full-time program, this is going to fully encompass the next two or three years of your life—treat it with the utmost care and consideration.
Grad school is hard. You’ve heard it before. Do you like lots and lots of work? Do you want to be fully immersed in the world of the MFA? Between classes, teaching, and school-sponsored literary social events that were more or less mandatory, I personally found zero time for a life outside the MFA, though having one would have been a great asset to my mental health. Finding the time for self-care, even maintaining a proper eating and sleeping schedule became a failing uphill battle during grad school—the first year I got sick more times than I can count, and my stress levels were through the roof due to a combination of work and social pressure. Also, workshopping with the same group of people for two or three years can be amazing or it can be a nightmare depending on who’s in your cohort. I highly recommend taking courses at a local college first to at least get a taste of a more formal workshop space, as compared to writing groups which may be a bit more low-key. Imagine workshopping with the same group of people for years, reading and critiquing their work over and over and having them critique yours. Some in your workshop may be the best readers for your work you’ve ever encountered, but a few drama queens/kings can ruin a workshop space fast, and guess what? You’re stuck with them.
Do you need an MFA? Are you wondering where you might begin your search for the right program? See this post. My verdict—the world is changing rapidly, we all know that. The publishing industry is evolving, more indie and DIY opportunities are available. My personal experience, sample size of one at one institution—a traditional, full-residency MFA is not on the cusp of change, but rather a pillar of a decades-old institution which abides by very traditional writing standards and modes of operation while trying to understand and incorporate more progressive ideologies at a surface level, but again, just my personal experience at my MFA. It really depends on your goals—do you just want to write a book? I actually had zero time to work on either of my two novels-in-progress during my MFA—I turned in a collection of short stories for my thesis because my workshop more readily catered to short stories over novels, something I did not know going in. Do you want to workshop your writing with the same group of people for an extended period of time? Do you want to make friends in the literary industry? Do you want a Master’s degree so you can teach at the college level?—This was my primary motivation for attending an MFA, and in that regard, I got what I came for. What I also got were lifelong friends and some beautiful, cherished memories, along with a deeper understanding of the craft of writing and of the industry. What I got were some faculty members who understood and supported my work. What I got were some faculty members who did not understand and support my work. What I got was a rigid, underprepared administration who made things like interdisciplinary studies, understanding the logistical parts of the degree, and filing complaints difficult. I will not go into some of my more alarming experiences with my department here—that is for another article, saved for another day. Just know that I was alarmed—and that is a soft word choice—by the systemic issues within the university I attended.
All in all, would I do it again? The jury’s still out. I do know that two years ago, I wish I knew then what I know now, and hopefully, by passing some of that knowledge on to you—you can make a more informed decision when considering an MFA.