I’ve been consulting with one of my clients creatively now for more than two years. Although there have been times when she’s casually dropped the mention of attending an MFA program into a conversation, she’d never actually gone beyond that.
Until last fall.
You never know when the MFA bug will bite a creative writer, but it’s pretty exciting when it does. It’s also somewhat terrifying because it signifies that you may actually be serious about pursuing that thing your friends and family have assured you is completely impractical, especially since you will still have to find a way to earn a paycheck in the “real world” — which, in case you didn’t know, won’t care at all about your artsy-fartsy degree. Hence one reason why so many MFA grads do their best to stay in academia.
Still, it was important for me, as an advisor and mentor, to ask my client why — why did she want to attend an MFA program? She doesn’t come from the traditional creative writer’s background (by which I mean the creative writing undergrad degree), and, having attended only a few workshops before, might not have a strong sense of what the experience would really be like.
I was glad to hear her answer because it was multifaceted and thoroughly thought through. She expressed a yearning for a peer network. She expressed a desire for mentorship from well-established writing faculty. She expressed an interest in teaching the subject someday. She expressed a longing to learn more. And, of course, she expressed a need for time to dedicate strictly to her writing. All of these are excellent reasons for wanting to attend an MFA program.
However, as I pointed out to her, only one of them truly necessitates the pursuit of an MFA degree, and that is the teaching-at-a-college-level thing.
I didn’t say this to discourage her — far from it, in fact, as I think the sample she shared with me was phenomenal. But the truth is that all those other things can be had outside an MFA program, and sadly, just being in an MFA program doesn’t guarantee you those other things … or, more accurately, those other things as you’d hoped or imagined they would be.
Peers may not remain peers once you graduate. Heck, they might not really be peers while in the program.
Faculty members could be fantastic writers … but may not be great teachers. There are professors out there who simply don’t care about students’ work and never will. This runs across the board; it’s not just specific to creative writing, but it is a reality every student would do well to accept.
So more than just thinking or hoping that your MFA experience will turn out as you wish, it is absolutely crucial that you figure out what’s important to you before you even think about filling out an application form. This is the only way you’ll have even a remote chance of your MFA experience living up to your expectations.
I finally decided to go through with pursuing my MFA the second time I applied to programs. This wasn’t because I didn’t get into any of the programs I applied to the first time around; I did, in fact, but ended up declining because I realized I hadn’t given enough thought to what would be essential to me in a program. I figured this out after applying, of course, when one particular acceptance letter came through, and I wasn’t even excited.
I decided to wait another few years before applying again. In those years, I continued to work on my writing and reassessed what I truly wanted out of a program. Here’s what I came up with:
1. I wanted to work with at least one female faculty member — as in, the MFA program I attended had to have at least one female poet on faculty at all times — or it was off my list.
2. The program had to fund its students. I wouldn’t apply to programs that didn’t believe in their students’ potential enough to invest in them on a variety of levels, including financially.
3. The program had to offer opportunities to teach since it’s not just the MFA degree you need to teach creative writing, but teaching experience as well. (This was when I still planned on teaching full-time after graduating, which I changed my mind about during grad school.)
When I selected programs based on these criteria, the results of my efforts were far more satisfying. I had a wonderful experience — better than I could’ve ever imagined, actually. (And any poet who’s gone to BGSU in the past decade-ish had the opportunity to work with Larissa Szporluk and knows she’s reason enough all on her own to go there.)
Everyone’s needs are different, of course, but if you do decide you want to pursue an MFA degree, here are some questions to consider to help you figure out which programs would be the best fit for you:
1. Do the writers I’d be working with appeal to me? Do I appreciate their aesthetic, and do I believe they will value mine?
2. What’s the funding situation like? Is money a concern for me?
3. Do I plan to teach after getting this MFA? If so, will this program give me opportunities to teach so I can build my resume? If not, do I want to skip over teaching entirely and look for a program that doesn’t offer or require it?
4. Do I care about being in a physical classroom for a workshop, or do I need to stay where I am and potentially work while pursuing this degree? Would a residency program be a good fit for me? Does it matter where I am nationwide/worldwide, or can I be flexible about this?
5. Would I like some flexibility with respect to studying multiple genres (fiction, poetry, nonfiction, screenwriting, etc.) or even changing my emphasis mid-degree?
6. What are the international opportunities like? Do I want the option of traveling abroad as part of the curriculum, or do I want to be abroad for the whole program?
7. Literary magazines — do the schools I’m interested in have them? If so, how involved can I get in producing them if this interests me?
8. Will any of these schools help with job placement after graduation?
9. How many people will be in my graduating class with me? Do I want to work in a larger group or a smaller one?
10. What’s the campus culture like? Is it conservative or liberal? A large population or a small one? Does it matter to me?
This list is by no means comprehensive, so feel free to add any questions that would matter to you or helped you narrow down your search in the comments section below.