Posts Tagged ‘Low-Res MFA’

Low-Res or Fully Funded: an MFA Decision

I write a lot about MFA programs because I direct the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at Mississippi University for Women. I mention this to let you know I am biased on this topic, but I’ve been thinking about the advice people often get about applying for MFA’s: don’t unless it’s fully funded.

On the surface, this seems like good advice. No one would advise you to go into a lot of debt for a degree that doesn’t promise a career with great earning potential, and creative writing is one of those fields where only a very few make it really big — the rest of us do okay, but not well enough to take on a ton of debt. So if you can get someone to pay for your education, why not?

That’s what this post is about. I agree with that advice, but I also think there are trade-offs you should consider. It would be great if someone is going to pay you to write and then give you a degree at the end. There are a few programs that can do that, but even most of the fully funded programs don’t hand out ‘free money.’ They do hand out money; it just isn’t exactly free.

Most programs that are fully funded expect their graduate students to work for that stipend. Usually you will be a graduate teaching assistant or research assistant. That’s great, if you’ll be gaining experience in the field you want to work in. (Do you want to teach at the college level? What are your chances of landing an academic job after graduation?) Often you will start teaching composition, sometimes you might have a literature survey (or lead a discussion section), and maybe you’ll get to teach creative writing at some point. Yes, that can all be good experience, but there are other ways to work your way through your degree.

If you consider that fully funded stipend a wage, then you’ll soon find that it’s not a huge salary. Of course, you do usually get a tuition waiver, which adds to the value of your stipend, and sometimes you are eligible for health insurance, which is another huge benefit to teaching. If you’re fresh out of your undergraduate degree and you don’t have a job, then a program that will give you a job that meshes well with your graduate degree and comes with built-in support from your department can be an excellent opportunity.

Low-residency programs, on the other hand, often don’t offer graduate assistantships. Students don’t live on campus, so it is more difficult for them to work at the university. That’s why many low-res programs aren’t fully funded, but that doesn’t mean they’re a bad deal. The low-res model is set up to allow you to work where you are while you are in school. If you already have a job, you can keep it, and odds are that you’ll earn more at a regular job than you would teaching (though a tuition waiver can make a big difference). Low-residency programs allow you stay where you are, so those with family obligations or other reasons why they don’t want to or aren’t able to move for their graduate degree can still get one.

Those who already are mid-career might be giving up a lot in order to take advantage of full funding at a full residency program. When considering offers or considering where to apply, compare the amount of aid and the cost of the degree against a low-res program where you can keep your current job.

What else should you think about when considering fully funded programs?

I would say you need to bear in mind that fully funded MFA programs will receive the most applications. Competition will be stiff, especially for the best scholarships or assistantships. It’s great if you get one, but your chances are slimmer, so it might be a good idea to widen your application pool to include some partially funded programs or programs without much funding if you think you can afford them.

When considering any program, think about the culture and the writers at that school. I wouldn’t say that a fully funded program is always going to be worse, but it might not be your best fit. If you only go to a program because of the money, you might end up unhappy. If you go to a school where you really fit in and a program that genuinely supports the writing you do, you’ll likely be happier. Finances should be a big part of your decision, but they shouldn’t be the only part, in other words.

The goal should be to get a good degree, work with good writers (teachers and other students), and not go into a ton of debt. Full funding is the most obvious way to achieve that, but a low-residency program (or a partially funded resident program) can do just as well. If you realize that for most fully funded programs you will work your way through school, then keeping your job in order to work your way through a low-residency program may seem like a good alternative.

For most fully funded programs, you will have to uproot yourself, move to another city and live there while pursuing your degree. That may be precisely the adventure you want or need to stimulate your writing. Or you may have work or family obligations — parents who need care, or a partner or spouse whose job isn’t portable, children whose school or family life would be uprooted in a move — that would make accepting a fully funded program’s offer difficult. A low-res program allows you to work from where you live and travel to your program’s campus for residency periods now and then.

Low-residency programs also have some advantages. Because you don’t need to move and because you don’t teach, low-residency students can find internships in their local area. They may explore fields like publishing, marketing, literacy programs, or other writing related careers. And they can learn about those careers where they are. Many writers don’t intend to go into academia, so getting experience outside academia during your MFA can be beneficial.

Which kind of program is right for you: low-res or fully funded? There is no one right answer for everyone. For many, the advice to only get an MFA if it is fully funded seems too limiting. Low residency programs allow you to be creative about how you will fund your MFA from where you live, combining work and university or private scholarships to pay the bills.

15 Things to Do Before a Low-Res MFA (plus 5 bonus things)

Here are 15 things you should probably do before applying to a low-residency MFA in Creative Writing like ours:

  • Read at least a dozen different literary magazines (find some at your library or local bookstore)
  • Read multiple issues of at least two literary magazines
  • Submit to your favorite literary magazines multiple times
  • Get rejected by magazines multiple times
  • Maybe even be published once or twice if you’re lucky (not required)
  • Revise your best story, group of poems, essay, or play at least four more times
  • Read annual ‘best of’ anthologies in the genre or genres you want to write
  • Read at least a dozen recent books in the genre you want to write
  • Subscribe to Poets & Writers or Writer’s Digest
  • Take a creative writing class or weekend/summer workshop
  • Find a good, local bookstore and attend several readings
  • Join or form your own writing group
  • Get a job, so you can learn to balance work and writing
  • Consider going into a career that will actually earn you money, then realize that you have to write (don’t give up your career unless you can’t stand it, then find another day job you can stand), so you realize that now is the right time for you to take that next, daring, crazy step.
  • Research at least 20 different writing programs and apply to at least 6

You might not have to do all those things to get to the last step. And once you get there, you should probably consider doing some of the things you skipped, plus these added bonus things:

  • Add up the cost of tuition for 2-4 years of your MFA
  • Add to that the cost of lost income if you don’t keep your job
  • Add to that the cost of interest on student loans if you need them
  • Consider whether this financial investment will still seem worth it even if there are no immediate financial rewards from earning your degree
  • Consider how having a Master’s degree in Creative Writing might affect your career, but don’t assume you will have a high paying job as a college professor

My point is not to frighten you away from pursuing an MFA, but rather to encourage you to take a long, sober look at the financial costs and professional benefits of attaining the degree. Be prepared, both professionally and financially, before you start. An MFA won’t make you a writer — it should make you a better writer.

There are other ways to be a writer, though an MFA program may be your best and quickest route to becoming the writer you want to be. You should go into it with a financial plan to avoid excessive debt, and you should go into it with clear goals for how the degree can improve your professional life as well as your writing life. Then make sure your program will help you attain those goals.

You should also go into an MFA program with a sense of the literary marketplace and the market for the kind of writing you want to do. And you should go into it after exploring that marketplace and determining that an MFA really is the best route for you and  that the programs you’re applying to will take you on that route. Often an MFA is the best choice, but not always, and you will be much happier and more successful if you make an informed decision so you really know what you’re getting into and what you want to get out of your MFA.

If you’re considering a traditional residential MFA program, then you should probably do all of these things, too, except you may not need to already have a day job, and your financial decision might depend on whether you are accepted into a program that fully funds you. Typically you work, teaching undergraduate classes to earn that full funding. You will give up any job you have now, move to the university that houses your program, and become a full-time graduate student/instructor.

Low-residency programs tend to be for students who already have career and/or family and aren’t able to uproot their lives and move to a new city for their program, so they should have a job where they are or have savings or other means to support themselves during their degree. Scholarships may be available (and there are national scholarship programs) but teaching options tend to be more limited because you are not on campus.

See our program’s Guide for Applicants for some advice on funding an MFA and for links to resources.

New Year’s Resolution: Use Pinterest

Last year, I did very well with my new year’s resolution: I resolved to finish a book of poems. I did that and got it published — Barrier Island Suite  is coming out in March from Texas Review Press. This year, my resolutions may be a little more modest, but I also want them to be practical.

For my first resolution, I resolve to make better use of Pinterest.

Now, let me say I have a love/hate relationship with Pinterest. Or I should say, I really don’t like it all that much, but I know I should. Everyone says they love Pinterest, and I’ve never seen much value. I don’t do crafts, and I don’t collect things. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on social media, if I can avoid it. What’s there to love in Pinterest?

But last year, I decided I should make the plunge, so I set up a Pinterest account for the new low-res MFA Program in creative writing that I direct at Mississippi University for Women. I thought it would be a good idea to have a presence on one of the fastest growing social networks. I wanted the account to fit our program, and got a little excited by the idea that Pinterest can be about more than crafts. I set up two boards: one for our program and one with links to writing advice and news. Initially, I pinned a few things, and then it languished.

My initial, brief enthusiasm for Pinterest was based on the realization that I could use it as repository to store links to web sites of interest, but this enthusiasm cooled because I found pinning things counterintuitive and rather clunky. There wasn’t always an image that I wanted to pin on the site I wanted to list, or I simply forgot about Pinterest as my schedule got busy. I didn’t make a point to go look for things to pin, in other words. I did download the button for my web browser, so I could pin things more easily, but I didn’t use it much.

That is my plan to fulfill my New Year’s resolution, though. I’ve realized that I can pin almost any page, and can and should use this more when I’m doing my regular browsing. Often a link on Facebook or Twitter will take me to an interesting article on writing or to a magazine that has a good poem or story. All I need to do is click the Pinterest button, and I can quickly add it to a board. Pinterest will even let me start a new board as I’m adding it, if the content I want to save doesn’t fit my existing categories.

I want to use these boards not only as my personal repository of links, but as a way to share interesting material related to writing with the students and faculty in the program (I have a feed from our Pinterest account in the online student lounge I set up in Canvas). Of course, anyone in Pinterest can follow our boards, so I hope they might be of interest to other writers and therefore to prospective students. In addition to the boards I mentioned above, I’ve started one for literary magazines, and may start one for publishers, contests, workshops, or other writing opportunities.

Follow our program on Pinterest to see how I do with this resolution!

Some answers about transcripts

Occasionally I like to look at my blog’s stats page — okay, I’ll admit it, more than occasionally, and sometimes often or esp. when I should be doing something else important, I look at my stats. I try not to be obsessed, but I like to see what interests people. The stats include search terms people used to access my blog.

Today, I saw an interesting question, and I thought I would answer it. In case you’re still looking to find out “do I need [a] transcript at muw even if I didn’t finish at the school I was at,” the answer is “yes.”

Whether you’re thinking of applying to our low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing (and I assume you are, since you landed here) or whether you’re applying to any other graduate or undergraduate program, The W needs to see every transcript.  We evaluate your entire record, and we need to know that you left your previous schools in good standing.

Generally this isn’t a problem (though I know that ordering transcripts can be an expense and a hassle). I’ve had several students who have had multiple transcripts to submit, and even some who started another program and then decided not to finish. It is good to address that decision in your letter of intent, so I know why you didn’t complete a program. But the fact that your plans changed isn’t necessarily a bad sign. Low grades in a program you quit might be an issue, though if there is a good explanation, it’s something to consider.

We do occasionally find out that a student hasn’t reported a transcript from another school — I’ve had this happen when it’s listed on another transcript (and yes, I do need the original transcript from each school attended — the only exception I’ve encountered was when a single class was taken at another school but credit was granted by the school whose transcript I had under a dual-enrollment or cross-registration agreement). I’ve also seen cases where financial aid turns up evidence of another school. I say all this to reiterate that it is much better to be up front about your academic record than to avoid submitting a partial transcript.

We care about your complete academic record, and I would prefer to know right away if there’s a program you didn’t finish than to find out later. We learn a lot from transcripts, and it is more than just your GPA. We learn about your academic history, the kinds of classes you’ve taken, and your preparation for our program. Even if you were in a completely unrelated program (let’s say you started nursing school and then decided you wanted to be a writer), I still learn about the breadth of your interests by seeing that transcript.

But transcripts aren’t everything. There are certain minimal requirements, such as a 3.0 GPA (but we still can admit conditionally if it’s lower and your writing is good) and some background in writing or literature (even if it wasn’t your major). Letters of recommendation, your writing sample, and your letter of intent each tell another side to your story. If you’re worried about a transcript that either is from an unfinished program or is not as good as you would like it to be, then fill in that story by highlighting your experience since that program. We have highly successful students whose academic record wasn’t stellar, but whose work and writing since they were last in school convinced me that they had potential to do well in our program.

So if you wrote that search term, I hope this post answers your question. And if you weren’t the one to write it, but this post answered some of your questions, then thank the person who did write it and thank WordPress for reporting those search terms in my stats!

How to Afford Your MFA in Creative Writing

Naturally, this topic will have different answers for different people. The best way to afford an MFA degree depends a lot on you, your schedule, and your finances, so the the best answer will be different for everyone. What I want to do in this post is to present a few scenarios that will help students navigate their options and help them decide which option is best. You should also talk with the director and/or your advisor about your best route through the program. You want to design a program of study that is affordable and that also gives you the best educational experience. The information and examples presented are based solely on Mississippi University for Women’s Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing program. Other programs may not allow the same level of flexibility that we offer, since our residency courses are not directly tied to other courses and we are set up to allow part-time students. Some programs want everyone to take courses in the same sequence and do not allow as many options, but you may still want to think about the main questions: should you progress through a program quickly to save on tuition costs or progress more slowly to be able to work your way through and avoid some loans.

How to pay the least amount of tuition

One way to think about affordability is simply in terms of the total dollars spent on the degree. This is the plan you might want to consider if you are funding your whole degree yourself and want to finish in the least time possible. You should plan to devote all of your time and resources to the MFA, if you do this schedule, since you will be taking a heavy course load!

  • Full time
    • Time to degree: 2 Years
    • Hours per semester: 13 for 3 semesters = 39 hours
    • Summer classes: 2 Full Residencies = 4 hours
  • Part-time
    • Hours per semester: 5 hours for one semester (or possibly in summer)

In this schedule, you would take 4 3-hour courses per semester plus a short residency in the fall and another 1-credit-hour course in the spring, which might be another short residency or a 1-hour internship or independent study. In your final semester (or another semester), you would take 5 hours, which would likely be 3 hours of thesis and two hours of internship or independent study. The reason this plan costs less than any other is that at MUW you pay the same tuition for full-time classes from 9-13 hours. So you pay for 9 hours and earn 13 hours of credit.

It might be a little tricky to organize one semester with 13 hours and one with 5, so a slightly more expensive way to do this is to take 13 hours during two semesters and 12 hours during your other full-time semester. Your part-time semester in this scenario would be 6 hours, so you would pay for 1 more credit than you would on the fastest track. But you would still finish in the same amount of time. In this scenario, your final year would likely be your thesis semester.

One advantage to this schedule is that you pay for 36 hours and earn 48 hours of credit, which at current tuition rates would save you $3855. Another advantage to this schedule is that you finish in the least amount of time possible and are able to move on to other things (potentially earning a higher salary). You could practically finish in a year and a half at this pace, if you took summer classes (5 hours) between your first and your second years; though you would still be required to return in the spring of your second year for your final full residency. For scheduling reasons, the full residency classes will only be offered once a year in May or early June.

The disadvantage to this schedule is that you would not have as much time for your writing to develop during your MFA program. Another disadvantage is that you could face burnout. Needless to say, this schedule is only advisable for the student who is incredibly focused, is very far along in her or his writing, and is willing to devote themselves 100% to their MFA studies for two years. In other words, this is a very intense schedule and it may not be the best for everyone. In fact, we expect most students to take 6-10 hours of classes per semester, and some will take fewer than this.

A Slightly More Expensive Full-Time Schedule

As we have seen above, a student can still finish in 2-3 years by going full-time and taking 10-13 hours some semesters and 9 hours during other semesters. You can save a little money anytime you take more than 9 hours, even if you don’t take the maximum number of hours every time. Anyone should consider taking an extra class now and then. If you are full-time and taking 9 hours per semester, adding the short residency hour won’t cost you extra (other than room and board costs). If you find you can take 12 hours one semester, you can save a little money that way as well.

Part-Time Schedules

Since the cost per credit hour of a full-time 9 hour schedule is the same as the cost per credit hour of a part-time schedule, I want to consider part-time next. You can decrease the time to graduation by taking 9 hours per semester, but you won’t save money unless you take at least 10.

The advantages to a part-time schedule are that you can take more time to pay for your education and you have more time for your writing to develop during your MFA program. You won’t feel so rushed, and you are less likely to face burn-out. So for many this is the best option, and it may end up costing less.

What you save in tuition on the full-time schedules, you might end up paying back in interest if you have to take out loans to make ti possible to have such an intense schedule. If, on the other hand, you take fewer classes at a time and avoid some or all debt by working your way through your degree, then you might end up paying less over time, even though you pay more for tuition. So one way to think about what is affordable is to consider how many credits you can take per semester without taking out a loan (or by taking out the smallest loan possible).

As we have seen above, you can finish in 6 years even if you take 3 hours per semester. In order to qualify for federal loans, you need to take at least 6 hours per semester, in which case, you can finish in 3-4 years. How quickly you move through the program may depend on how many classes you can afford each semester or how much time you can devote to your classes in addition to your work schedule.

What Is Affordable Really?

When thinking about affordability, you should consider the total cost of your MFA program, in other words. Don’t only look at tuition, but consider what it will cost to pay off your loan — and if you do have loans, remember that you can reduce the cost of the loan by paying back more than the minimum amount each month: the sooner you pay off some of the principal of a loan, the smaller amount of total interest you will pay over the life of any loan. If you can work your way through your degree, you might decrease the amount of loan you need. If you can finish sooner, you might get a better-paying job sooner and be able to begin paying off your loans sooner. If you have saved up enough money to be able to take 2 years off and complete your degree on the fastest track, then that might be the best option for you. If you want more time and want to keep working while you’re in school, then a part-time track may be the best option. And if you’re somewhere in the middle, you might plan on taking at least 9 hours per semester so you can take advantages of the savings that taking an extra hour or two now and then can bring.