Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Choosing an MFA Program: 10 Ideal Considerations

I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding advice on how to choose an MFA program in creative writing, but it always strikes me as funny (in a sad kind of way!) how people who are in the process of selecting an MFA program often stop at two considerations: Can I afford it? and Can I get in? While these are certainly valid considerations, ideally you should not stop at these. MFA programs vary widely and choosing the right one can make a huge difference in how happy you are with the outcome. Below are some more things to think about.

1.     Don’t automatically discount the more expensive programs just because you think you can’t afford them. Too many people these days only think of two ways of paying for their education: up front, or with loans. Student loans are particularly scary, especially when used to pay for a degree not often seen as “lucrative,” like an MFA. Who wants to graduate with thousands of dollars in debt, only to face iffy job possibilities?

Loans are only one option, however. Take the time to investigate if you qualify for other types of aid, like scholarships, fellowships, grants, and assistantships. If you belong to any kind of minority at all, milk it for all it’s worth! There are lots of awards that are not need or merit based, should you belong to that marginal income bracket where you can’t afford school but are not “poor enough” to qualify for aid, or if your grades or test scores aren’t the best. By far, the best kind of financial assistance is a teaching assistantship. Let’s face it: while you’re working on your GAM (Great American Novel), you’re probably going to do some teaching to pay the bills, and the sooner you start racking up experience in front of a classroom, the better.

Maruchan Ramen, Creamy Chicken, 3-Ounce Packages (Pack of 24)
What you will be able to buy
with your stipend.
The irony is that it's usually the more expensive schools that offer options other than loans. Cheaper schools don’t often have the resources to provide their grad students with assistantships, so you’re forced to take out loans to go to a school you see as “cheaper,” when you could have gotten a better deal from a more expensive school. Assistantships usually come with tuition remission and a stipend, so not only are you getting teaching experience, but you’re going to school for free and making a small profit. Of course the first thing on your mind is being able to afford your education, but informing yourself on different options can make a huge difference in your possibilities even if cost is your first priority.

2.     Lots of people begin their search by looking at rankings, such as the Poets& Writers yearly list. True, there is a benefit to going to a prestigious school. People will be impressed, people who might have a role in publishing you and/or employing you. However, at the end of the day, it’s your writing that will make the impression, not where you graduated from, and, if you and that top school aren’t a good fit, all that prestige (and the big bucks that usually go with it) will go to waste. I’m not saying to ignore the issue of reputation; what I’m saying is, not to let it cloud your judgment to such a degree that you pass over a less prestigious school where you might have learned more. Schools have philosophies, and environments, faculty, all sorts of things that influence your success. I discuss what these are in greater detail below, but at this moment my point is this: choose the program that fits your needs first, whether or not it’s “top-ranked.”

3.     One of the first of these other-than-prestige factors you should consider is the program’s dominant genre. Most MFA programs offer classes in the three major genres: fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Though they will claim that each has the same weight, it’s kind of clear that there’s usually one genre that becomes centric, if only for a couple of years. It gets the most students, the best faculty, the “buzz.” Nothing sucks more than being stuck in a program where there’s a poetry reading every week packed to the proverbial rafters with groupies, while you and “the other fiction students” huddle in the back trying to see if anyone would be interested in starting a protest. Get a feel for what the predominant genre might be by looking at the faculty and their publications, and at the classes offered. Which classes usually fill up fastest?

4.     Speaking of faculty. It’s incredible how often people overlook taking the faculty under consideration in their choice. Faculty is everything. If your only experience of being a student is a large, impersonal undergraduate course, you have no idea how crucial your relationship to the faculty will be in an MFA program. These people will become your gurus, your Yodas. Failure to “click” with the faculty will kill your MFA experience.
Lucas Film Cl0Ne Wars Jedi Yoda Pillow Buddy
Your thesis advisor, I
will be.

First, look for faculty whose writing you want to mimic. I know, I know, you want to be original and all that. Fine. But you are going to school to learn how the faculty writes. What they value, their process, their experience is the sole object of study. No, they probably won’t teach any of their own books. But what they will see in other’s writing, in your writing, is what they see in their own. Pr. A. is famous for her snappy dialogue, for example. In her workshop, you can bet that’s going to take center stage. Sure, you will discuss other elements of writing, like setting and characterization, but you will learn most about snappy dialogue. If you think snappy dialogue is the hallmark of the hack and you would rather die than be known for your snappy dialogue, this relationship is not going to work.

There are genres within genres. If the fiction faculty is dominated by realists and your dream is to write some post-postmodern novel with pages inserted backwards and a chapter in pictograms, you should go to a school where most of the fiction faculty agrees. If you are a lyric poet, don’t go to a school where all the poets are Language poets.

If possible, sit in on a class or at least try to meet the profs to get a feel for their personalities. A professor might be a great writer, but, if meeting him sends shivers down your spinethe wrong kind of shiversyou don’t want to work with him on your thesis, do you? Writing workshops are every much tiny cults of personality. Even when a professor does his best to decenter authority, it just can’t be helped. You should like the professor’s writing, and the professor’s persona. Often, these two are so intimately linked that, if you can’t do a campus visit, you can substitute reading the faculty’s work. Don’t like it? For all that is holy, do not go to that school. Conversely, if there is an author whose work you particularly admire, consider picking the program based on where she teaches. The AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs allows you to search for a program by faculty name.

5.     Which brings me to my next point: consider faculty size. The smaller the faculty, the more classes you will have to take with the same professor, and the more claustrophobic the relationship will be. This can be good if you get a great matcha true mentorship situation. But a small faculty has its drawbacks. No range, for one thing. Even if you pick one or two professors as your mentors, you really want to get a couple more perspectives. If you are considering a small school, do ask if they regularly have visiting professors. Visiting professors may not stay long enough to become mentors, but at least you’ll get a new voice in the choir.

6.     Also look at the literature and theory faculty. Lots of people overlook this point, but it’s actually quite important. Most MFA programssome more than othersrequire you to take courses outside creative writing in literature, theory, and another language. You are, after all, getting a graduate degree. If the non-creative writing faculty is a real dud, they can quickly make your MFA experience truly miserable. Too often, I hear creative writing students complain about required courses. This seems pretty immature and narcissistic to mewriters should love reading and studying the work of others. Your literature and theory courses should not be some kind of chore you have to put up with to get your MFA. They should be an opportunity to enrich your experience as a reader. Look for a charismatic lit and theory faculty that offers courses you might be interested in taking just as much as your workshops.

7.     Also look for quality in the students. One of the advantages of going to a prestigious program is that they are harder to get into, so your chances of being surrounded by other good writers are better. However, it’s no guarantee, and unfortunately it’s difficult to gauge the quality of students without a campus visit in which you can sit in on some classes. Ask about recent grads, and, if possible, read some of their work.

A good workshop experience is not solely based on the quality of the students’ writing, however, but on their enthusiasm and critical expertise. The best workshop leader in the world can’t salvage a workshop if the other members are duds. Perhaps the students are self-centered, and shut down when others’ work is being discussed. Perhaps they are such bad writers that they have nothing to contribute as critics.

Look for a lively, active student body. Are there frequent campus readings? What’s the graduation ratio? Is there . . . a “vibe”?

8.     Speaking of vibesdo look for diversity, especially if you are a woman or a minority. Unfortunately, discrimination exists, and nothing will kill your writing spirit more than having to deal with it. Both the faculty and the students in the program should reflect the diversity level you are comfortable with. Even if there is no blatant prejudice à la V.S. Naipaul, do you really want to be the only woman, the only Latina, or the only anything in the program? You might think it’ll be good preparation for the post-graduation “real world,” but a program in which you are surrounded by diversity can help you to grow as yourself, and not just as some kind of exception to an unstated norm. Fight discrimination laterfirst, learn to write.

9.     A program that has a journal attached can be of invaluable experience to those who wish to go into publishing as well as writing later. If you think you might want to do that, look for a program that offers its grad students opportunities to work on their journal.

10.  Finally, consider nontraditional MFA options, like low-residency programs and doctoral programs. The low-residency option is ideal for people who are tied up elsewhere. I don’t think that’s a good idea if you can help it, however. It’s hard for me to believe you can get the same experience long-distance. Part of the joy of grad school is how it isolates you and allows you to hyperfocus on your work while being surrounded by others just as obsessed with this one thing as you are. But it might be better to do a low-residency MFA with a great program somewhere you can’t get to than to settle for a so-so program where you are.

The PhD option is really catching fire. More and more programs now offer it. If you’re torn between two loverswriting and academiait’s perfect. Many programs are also now offering a generalized writing MA without the strict purpose of creative writing. If your other lover is journalism, advertising, or some other related field, these might be an interesting compromise.

The ultimate trick, of course, is taking your time. Begin your selection process at least a year before you plan on going, ideally two or even three. As with any degree, you’re not just choosing one programyou should have plenty of backup selections, so you can further select, from among those that actually accept you, the program that offers you the best deal not only in funding, but also in those other things you should consider, like housing and your own personal albatrosses such as family and hatred of snow. And, of course, remember that no decision is ever final. So you messed up. You hate everyone in your program, and they hate you back. Just transfer, baby. It’s an MFA, not a prison sentence!

5 comments:

  1. Good tips, Celia. I will take a small issue with your comments on low-res programs; maybe mine was the exception, but my low-res MFA program was much more cuddly and high-touch with the faculty than my traditional in-residency MA program where the faculty didn't really spend that much time with our individual work. Remember in low-res, you get a lot of one-on-one coaching; in traditional programs, you're lucky to get ten minutes of discussion in a workshop a week.

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  2. That does sound like an interesting perk, Jeannine. You do get that one-on-one in a traditional program, but only from some professors, or in the final stages. A truly good program will keep workshops small, however, so you get more than those ten minutes. Plus I think I would greatly miss discussing the work of others--I think I learned just as much from other people's work being discussed as from my own, especially when it came to preparing me to teach, to have to respond to a wide array of issues.

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  3. But you do get that at the residencies - and I have to say I've also stayed closer to my friends from the low-res program - those two intense 10-day sessions really do create closeness, and we get to know each other's work in the workshops there, at readings, etc.
    As far as teaching, I agree that is a real downside of a low-res program - there's little opportunity to TA, etc. (Actually, Pacific does offer that, but only, obviously, is that useful to folks who are local.)

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  4. Here is a link to Poets & Writers top low-res MFA programs for 2011: http://www.pw.org/content/2011_mfa_rankings_the_top_ten_lowresidency_programs. Note that you can also use the AWP Guide to search for low-res programs.

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  5. The Poets & Writers guide to choosing an MFA program has just come out, and you can download it for just $4.99 here: http://www.pw.org/content/poets_writers_guide_mfa_programs

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