Posts Tagged ‘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.

More Thoughts on MFA Applications

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a series of posts about MFA applications, beginning with “What to Say in your Statement of Purpose.” At the time, The W was just launching its low-residency MFA in Creative Writing, and I wanted to be transparent about the application process by telling prospective students what I would be looking for. Now that we’re starting our second year of the program, and I’ve been through 3 application cycles (we have considered a few applicants for the spring semester), it seemed like a good time to revisit those posts, which still get quite a few hits, and to add some thoughts based on recent experience.

Looking back over what I said about the writing sample and letter of intent, everything still seems pretty true: I’m looking for your best work that is publishable and looks like it will fit in with our program. In your letter, I still want to know about who you are (as a writer), where you’ve been, and where you’re headed (what your goals are for your writing). So if I were to add anything, it would be that the letter and the writing sample really do go together.

Our successful applicants, the ones who have been admitted into the program, have had clear goals and a history that shows they have a good chance of achieving those goals. Their writing sample is a good fit for the goals they have in mind. Even if it’s not a direct fit, if their past writing and their future goals don’t line up exactly, the letter of intent explains how their past has led them to these new goals. It draws the connection between the writing sample and the MFA program experience they want.

Their goals are not just “to be a published writer,” which pretty much goes without saying for anyone applying to an MFA program, but instead are more specific: what kind of writer, what kind of publishing, what do they want to do to earn a living while working to become a published writer, and how will an MFA program help them along this path.

Most of the writers we’ve turned down haven’t convinced me that their writing and/or their understanding of the career of a writer is fully developed yet. When I turn people down, it isn’t because they’re bad writers, in other words. It is because I feel they aren’t ready to make the investment in an MFA, which will cost a fair amount in terms of time and money, so I try to offer advice on how to develop as a writer before applying to programs again.

As I look to the future, I think my responses to applicants may change, though. So far, the number of qualified applicants has pretty much kept pace with our goals for the program and exceeded our expectations, but not by so much that we had to turn people away. That may change. As more people learn about our program, we are more likely to consider ‘fit’ an important criterion. There will come a time, I have little doubt, when we have to tell qualified writers that we believe our program is not the best fit for them. As the competition grows, quality will by necessity no longer be the only deciding factor. When looking at several dozen qualified applicants and deciding whom and how many we can support, the needs of the program will be more and more important.

In other words, giving a clear sense of the genres you want to work in will be helpful (though I can’t predict which genres will be overrepresented in the future). Giving us a sense of the kind of writing you want to do within those genres will also be imperative. Not knowing the answers to these questions might rule someone out, even if the writing sample seems competent enough. Still, I don’t know that we will always choose the ‘top’ writers from the applicant pool. We will begin to look at other intangibles, such as background, style, and personality, to find a mix that will make a positive experience for all of our students. A good writer who has a clear sense of where she’s going and who adds diversity (of style, of background, of age, etc.) may be chosen over a writer with a slightly better writing sample who doesn’t surprise or add much to our program. Someone who is brilliant but too different from what we are set up to handle might also be turned away because we don’t feel we can support him or her.

So when you’re working on your writing sample and letter of intent, what can you do? Turn in your best work, and be as specific and as thoughtful about your writing and your goals as you can. Be honest, be yourself, and know that if our program turns you down this time, you will find the right place for you another time — and it may even be our program when you are ready for us or we are ready for you.

 

New Graduate Program Proposal: Nuts and Bolts

I’ve been writing the past few days about our new MFA proposal for a Low-Residency program in creative writing. You might think that sounds nice, and it is exciting to consider and put together a brand new academic program from the ground up. You get to rethink how you want to structure a program, what your goals might be, what the practical realities of implementing it might be. That’s been the fun work of the past several years — daydreaming or planning the program, depending on how close to reality you are. Even writing the initial Proposal to Plan was a lot of fun and fairly easy, since it was the big picture.

But now, even though the big picture is still on my mind, it’s a lot more work to get down to the details. I’ve been working on writing new course proposals: there will be almost 30 initially, including Special Topics, Internship, and the Thesis. It’s a wide variety, and I wouldn’t have to propose them all at once (and we likely will add some more later), but I want to show the range of courses we plan to offer, and I want to include a few ‘hooks’ to other programs. For instance, MUW has a new MA in Women’s Leadership, so I have included some courses already that focus on women writers. I’d like there to be a small concentration for the Women’s Leadership students who want to take literature as part of their degree. Our Education Masters programs may also be served by some of our literature classes. The writing classes will likely be reserved for our MFA students, but I wanted to make them open to other students who have the qualifications, so the prerequisite was permission of the director.

Each course proposal needs a rudimentary course outline and course objectives. I’m not being incredibly detailed in these (and was told this would be okay — I hope they remember that!) because I’m writing so many and I won’t teach all of these classes, but still it is both fun and very demanding to think about what could be taught in each of the areas I’m proposing.

Of course, all of this would be easier if I were proposing an MFA program where there was an existing MA in literature. But we don’t have that here, and we aren’t likely to get it unless we were to propose a Comparative Literature degree (I don’t believe there is one of those in the state, and we still have to worry about duplication of programs). Many of my course proposals include an international focus, both with that in mind and because I want our program to have a global vision both because I want our program to stand out, and I think American writers need to be less provincial.

I like thinking about the types of courses we could teach (workshops, residencies, and forms and literature classes) and the choices students might make. I like thinking about the writers who think they want to teach and the writers who want to enter the publishing business and what their needs are. And I like thinking about what I want to communicate to prospective students about our program by putting the program in place. But it does mean writing pages and pages of proposal documents and researching some of the classes I probably will never teach. Heck, I’ve had to look up some names of authors I might want to use in the classes I will teach. After writing this many course proposals, I feel lucky I can remember my own name some of the time!

I’m reminded of the wealth of great literature that’s out there, and it’s exciting to steer a course for a new program to study the things I would want to have in a program if I were a grad student today. Of course, the program will grow and change as we hire new faculty, and especially as we start teaching students and begin to assess their needs and expectations. For now, I’m suspended somewhere between the idea stages that I lived with for so long (our initial proposal didn’t get off the ground before the economy crashed in 2008, so I’ve been waiting until the time was right to try again) and the even trickier nuts and bolts that I’ll start dealing with when the proposal becomes a reality.