2016, Archives, February 2016, The MFA Years

What Now? A Prospective Student Guide

As applicants receive long-awaited decisions from schools, some may suddenly find themselves in the enviable yet excruciating position of having to decide between two or more programs. I remember the days of making pro/con lists, justifications to best friends, logical deductions that flew out the window once another factor (money, location, teaching load) added itself to the mix. In 2013, I didn’t have that luxury; I had only been admitted to one graduate program in another discipline and been waitlisted at three MFA programs. I waited out those waitlists as long as I could, even visiting my current program because I was next in line. Although I was upset at the time that I didn’t get off any lists, the final decision was made for me if I wanted to go to graduate school that year.

2015 was a different story. I applied to only two of my favorite programs and subsequently forgot about them a bit (probably a coping mechanism from my first go-round), focusing hardcore on getting a job. When I got the news that I was admitted to not one but both programs, I found myself torn. One had a much better location, was closer to friends and family, and the city itself boasted (on paper, at least) a better standard of living. Both programs were funded, but one had a significantly more comfortable financial package with a lighter teaching load. But that heavier load had an advantage: more teaching experience. Gah! To boot, in either program, I would be a “guinea pig,” either because the program itself was new or the genre track was new.

Really, visiting made my decision much easier. Though I couldn’t make the set visit dates at either school, I went on my own anyway. Why? Because deciding on a graduate program works both ways, just like a job interview. Usually, you aren’t trying to get accepted at an institution because you know for sure you’ll go there; you’re trying to get accepted so that you have the option. The following are some general tips for deciding between programs, followed by some categories of questions to consider posing.

General Prospective Tips:

  • If you think you can’t make an “official” visit week (many schools have these for students they accept on the first round), ask if you can visit at another time. If money is an issue, ask if they can provide reimbursement for your trip. Both of my prospective schools gave me a stipend for my visits.
  • If you absolutely cannot visit, talk to as many people (faculty, current students, former students) as you can on the phone or Skype. In my experience, email exchanges can be stilted, while synchronous conversations make it easier to get all your questions answered quickly, efficiently, and fully.
  • Research the location, but don’t freak out about what you’ve “heard” about certain cities. Make sure you get living information straight from the source: talk to people who live there. Case in point: St. Louis has gotten a pretty bad rap lately in the national media. Yes, St. Louis has problems (systemic racism, crime, etc.), but c’mon, can we really pretend that St. Louis isn’t a microcosm of a national issue? As in any city, you learn which neighborhoods are safe, which neighborhoods have a high rate of robbery/burglary, which neighborhoods are too uncomfortably gentrified, and so on.
  • Make a list of questions/concerns. It’s okay to be That Person. You are That Person.

Okay, these are the general suggestions. But what about specific questions? Here are several that might help you out, but don’t limit yourself. Ask, ask, ask. I’ve met with prospective students before (at my last institution), meeting them for lunch, having them shadow my classes, and so on. Here is a list of the types of questions I’ve asked myself and that have been asked of me.

Specific Prospective Questions

  1. How’s the funding situation?
    • Is everyone fully funded? If not, how easy is it to get (and KEEP) funding?
    • Is the stipend livable (rent, utilities, transport, groceries)?
    • Health insurance—do you get it for free, or do you have to pay for it?
      1. Can you add a spouse/partner/children?
      2. Is coverage decent?
      3. What about dental/vision?
    • How do students get paid (lump sum or monthly)?
    • Is the stipend pre-tax or post-tax?
    • Do you get funding for attending conferences and/or writing retreats?
  2. What’s coursework like?
    • Is cross-genre experimentation encouraged?
    • Can you take workshop and/or classes in genres other than your own?
    • Can you take courses in different departments?
  3. What about thesis work?
    • What are the thesis requirements?
    • Are there thesis credit hours (hours dedicated exclusively to your thesis project)?
    • How much faculty oversight/support do you get?
  4. What is the workshop environment like?
    • Can you submit parts of long works-in-progress, or are you limited to submitting short, full-length pieces?
    • How many times do you get workshopped per semester?
    • What kind of feedback do you tend to receive? (Letters, oral only, etc.)
  5. How (does) the department prepare students for the job market?
    • Are there other opportunities for professionalization? (TA-ships, RA-ships, internships, literary magazines, conference support)
    • Does the department host outside scholars/visiting writers to work with students? Who have they brought in the past/expect to bring?
    • Do students have a dedicated career advisor?
  6. What if I’m supposed to teach?
    • What are you expected to teach? (Composition, creative writing, TA for a lecture)
    • How many sections? How many students in each section?
    • What sort of teacher training do you receive?
  7. How diverse is the student body/faculty?
    • People of color (POC)?
    • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, + (LGBTQ+)
    • Age range? Are most students fresh out of undergrad, in their 30s, a mix?
    • Are there concentrated efforts being made to diversify the department/university as a whole?
  8. So, what about housing?
    • Is it affordable to live in a safe neighborhood?
    • Where do most students live (or are they all spread out)?
    • How about utilities/parking/public transport options?
  9. What’s the faculty support like?
    • Are any faculty members going on sabbatical or retiring within the next couple of years?
    • How accessible are the faculty generally? Specific faculty members?
    • How much personal attention do students receive?
  10. And finally, a few Really Important General Life Questions:
    • What’s the atmosphere like (cutthroat, supportive, apocalyptic)? How does the cohort get along?
    • What are the schools like for my children?
    • What’s the weather like?
    • What is the employment situation like for my spouse/partner?
    • What’s it like studying/teaching at an urban/suburban/rural campus environment?
    • Where’s the closest airport?

How about you? What questions that you have asked or that have been asked of you have proved useful in this process?

(Image source: kaetidh)

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