2016, Archives, March 2016, The MFA Years

What Should I Look for in an MFA?


I’ve spent two months posting about literary magazine submissions here and here, and now it’s time to get back to the mission of this website. Now it’s time to discuss the MFA. Some of you will be figuring out which offers to take in the next month or so, and some of you are just beginning to research the whole process for applications this fall. (And if you’re researching right now, I’d suggest hitting up MFA Draft for some answers.)

Money First off, you probably want money. Fortunately, this website has a list of fully funded MFAs and lists the stipends available at each. Check the list out, then check out the school website or email an administrator to make sure the numbers are still accurate, then ask yourself how much money you want. “Fully funded” at some programs has in the past meant that MFAs get a zero dollar stipend but have their tuitions waved. Ask yourself if such an arrangement is really useful to you.

Many people look at this question and decide the only thing they want is money, enough that they don’t have to take out loans, and they’ll move wherever they have to to get the most money. This is a valid and sensible choice. But is there a school for which you would accept something close to ten thousand a year, or even less? Why is that? Would you pay tuition at certain programs that aren’t funded at all but have great reputations? This sort of thing can also be a valid choice: you might need to live near family, or especially admire a given school’s track record, or be desperate to spend time in New York City, or maybe you’re just independently wealthy, in which case kudos.

I wouldn’t, under any circumstances, say yes to a school with high price tag and poor funding. It’s one thing to pay the relatively small tuition at Brooklyn College because you already live or plan to live in New York, another thing entirely to throw yourself into lifelong debt for a couple years at The New School. Likewise, I wouldn’t say yes to a poorly funded program simply because I couldn’t land better funding elsewhere, in the same way I wouldn’t say yes to a low-res program just because I couldn’t get into a full-res one. These places, the low-res and the cheap local, are best suited to those whose life plans preclude living elsewhere, not those who would rather be earning a stipend at a full-res.

Just try again in a year. Life is long; it’s better to wait for a good deal than commit to a school that isn’t right.

Another note about money: Unequal funding leads to terrible infighting at some programs. People will notice you are on fellowship if you never show up in their TA training. They will notice you’re making more cash if you can afford to eat out more often. These things have a way of coming out. There can be intense jealousy and that jealousy can lead to toxic workshop environments. I’m not saying this happens at all programs with unequal funding, although I have heard some horror stories, but that there are some programs where unequal funding and inept admins create a perfect storm of resentment. Such admins might, for example, repeatedly remind everybody exactly how much you’re making for X amount of work, without even realizing they’re fostering ill feeling. Keep an eye out.

Work Speaking of work, how much are you expected to do? What is the teaching load for a TAship or the workload for some other form of assistantship? Can anybody guesstimate the hours of labor per week for you? This is a huge deal. You’re in the MFA to write, but there are MFAs out there that make it challenging to come up with writing time.

I can’t speak too well to other types of assistantships, but I can tell you what those weird numbers mean when people talk about TAships. Do you ever spot a 1/1 or 1/2 or a 2/2 or a 1/1/1? These are ways of talking about how many classes you teach per semester. A 2/1 load is two fall courses and one in spring. A 1/1/1 load means you teach a course each semester, including summer. Most folks strive for a 1/1, 1/1/1, or 1/2 situation, but there are plenty of people happily working 2/2 teaching loads at places like Alabama. Then there are places like Michener, where you don’t teach at all.

The amount of work that is too much work depends heavily on whether you have other obligations. A kid or partner or pet? Those all take up time. Maybe you have a disability or maybe you happen to write really slow, in which case you might need more unstructured time than other people outside of class and teaching. Or maybe you just really love to sleep—I’m not here to judge.

Course load also has a huge impact on how well you handle your assistantship. How many credit hours do you need per semester? This usually varies between six and twelve, although places that require twelve credits often count workshop as six credits, not three. And this is all aside from the fact that some programs require summer courses. You might find a 2/2 teaching load at a program that requires only six credits in fall and spring is preferable to, for example, a 1/1 teaching load at a program that requires twelve credits a semester in addition to summer study.

International students, did that paragraph make no sense to you? All you really need to know is that “credit hours” is a way of measuring how many courses you take. Most courses are three credits, so six credits a semester would be two classes—although at the undergrad level you might find intensive language/science/math courses that are four.

Publishing Do people who go to this program publish? Do people who currently attend this program publish? Do editors and agents visit campus? Does the program have a decent reputation with publishers? These are all things you should ask current students and professors. The answers should/could be very revealing.

What you want to get an idea of here whether the average student is publishing in mid- or high-tier journals, preferably during the MFA. You do not want to hear about whether people get into litmags or get their novels out there after leaving the MFA, because for all you know that’s due not to the program but to a mentor or workshop or PhD that came after. You do not want to hear about whether one or two superstar students or that one famous alum have done great work. You don’t want to know if people have published in less prestigious venues.

I had an illuminating conversation along these lines with two different schools when I applied. At the first school, the student I was speaking to said she’d never submitted a story in her life and did not know whether her classmates had either. At the second school, a faculty member gave me a vague answer about how he didn’t totally keep track after people graduated, but he was pretty sure one or two former students had eventually published a book. These are red flags.

On the other hand, when I called a student at a third school, she was in the car, on her way to a meeting with her agent.

Workshops You should visit a workshop if at all possible. This isn’t, at least not for me, about figuring out if people are nice or cutting, although I know some folks are extremely interested in the social stuff. For my own part, I care about whether the professor and students involved are making intelligible statements about craft elements in a story. You want people to be talking craft at a level that is far more complex, far more useful, than what you were used to in undergrad or community or MA workshops.

And if you can swing it, try to get a bead on the stories being discussed, because that tells you what people in the program are writing. Is the work any good or nah? If not, does it demonstrate thought and potential? Is it something you think might become a great piece?

Professors It matters less than you’d think who the professors are. It matters enormously whether there are enough experienced, tenure-track professors present to run a program. A higher than average ratio of students to instructors can be a red flag, as can a higher than average ratio of visitings to tenure-track professors. Try to compare these numbers across the various institutions that offer you admission. And has there been a lot of faculty turnover lately? Are the people who made this program’s reputation no longer there? Are the people currently teaching relatively inexperienced or early in their careers?

You might also hear rumors about a given professor being a huge bigot, or someone who thrives on drama, or a regular old asshole. It happens, and it’s much more relevant to your life and career than whether or not this person is open to your cyborg-heavy retelling of Rapunzel.

Secret Misery and Scandals It’s nothing for a program to put on its best face. It’s nothing to be wooed by a program director or other faculty adept at handing out warm fuzzies. Whether or not people are chill in March can mean little in terms of how you’ll be treated in October. Try not to let the heady feeling of being pursued sway you, and don’t go anywhere just because you had a fun visit.

Instead, politely ask current students what the downsides are to their MFA experiences. Do this alone or online so people can feel safer giving you the sort of honest opinion that might land them in trouble with other students or professors or admin. What you’re looking for is any indication that the program, the department, or certain faculty are toxic. You want to know if there’s been misbehavior on the part of current students or instructors that went unpunished due to dysfunction at the administrative level.

You also want to do some digging into possible scandals at a given program. For example, this happened at UMass Amherst—and worse, students who complained online about the entire situation were threatened with disciplinary action. Maybe things are better there now, and maybe they aren’t. But you should at least know if there have been any wild accusations flying around.

Available Courses Many MFAs are simple studio programs, offering only craft courses and workshops, or mostly craft courses and workshops. Other MFAs are incredibly flexible, allowing you to take any course in the school on a whim, and some of these MFAs are offered at excellent schools. Now would be a good time to check and see if a given program gives you enough free credits to get a quality education in a secondary, non-writing interest. Then rifle through the school’s course catalogue and see if anything catches your eye.

Diversity What does the program look like? What is the race/gender/age makeup? There might be something fishy at a program with zero or few non-white people, or few women, etc. Again, you’d be surprised how easy it is to figure out what’s what by asking a couple judicious questions in a private space.

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