2016, Archives, March 2016, The MFA Years

So What Should I Do Over Summer?

With notes about final projects, workshop deadlines, and annotated bibliographies scattered across the month of April on my Google Calendar, the end of the first year of my MFA program at Alabama is well within sight. Many of you reading this may also be consumed with making a decision on an MFA program by the April 15 deadline or the prospect of applying for MFA programs against next year.


The vast majority of MFA programs are at least 2 to 3 years long, however, and with summer breaks often lasting for several months, the decision of what to do with that time can be almost as significant and rewarding as the MFA itself (both financially and creatively).


One of the first big questions to ask yourself when thinking about summer plans is about location. Where do you want to be over summer? Do you plan to stick around wherever your MFA program is located or to go elsewhere? What financial opportunities are available if you plan to stick around? What creative opportunities are available? At the University of Alabama’s program, it seems that on average, about a third of students stay in Tuscaloosa for the summer. While a few programs offer students funding over summers (the University of Wyoming, for example, gives students $2,000 between their first and second years), most do not, including Alabama, and so many students need to find a way to supplement their stipend.


For those who stick around Tuscaloosa (and I think that this can generalize to most MFA programs), there tend to be three different categories of jobs available to folks:



  • University Jobs: Depending on where you are, you may have opportunities to teach, work in the writing center, tutor, or hold an administrative position through the university. These sorts of jobs can look good on a resume and are a way to continue to be involved with the campus community, but they can also be pretty competitive to get and may not pay much above the minimum wage.
  • Local Jobs: These types of jobs are going to vary widely, with cosmopolitan cities likely offering more possibilities than more isolated and rural locations. In Tuscaloosa, I know folks who have worked for landscaping businesses, as receptionists at waxing centers, as servers in cafes, etc.
  • Online Jobs: Another possibility is to find work online, which can offer more variety, flexible hours, and potentially better compensation. Though I’m not going to stay in Tuscaloosa for the summer, I am planning to work part-time for an online company called Magoosh as a Remote Test Prep Expert, meaning that I’ll answer student questions about the GRE, SAT, and ACT via e-mail. Beyond tutoring and test prep, other MFA students often find online jobs writing freelance articles, translating, editing, and consulting.



Okay, so what if you want to get out of town for summer, either to go back home (wherever you were living before you came to the MFA program) or to travel elsewhere? Here are some other possibilities to consider!



  • Returning to a Previous Job: Maybe there’s a summer job you’ve worked before that would still be available to you back where you used to live. For instance, over the past few summers, I’ve worked for a non-profit organization in Los Angeles called Writopia through which I teach creative writing workshops to kids and teens, and I plan to do that again this summer since a) the compensation is really good, b) I want to be back in Los Angeles, and c) I enjoy the job. Some people come to the MFA from other industries like the tech sector or public health NGO’s and return to work in those often more lucrative fields during the summer. 
  • Summer Writing Workshops and Conferences: This can be a great opportunity to hone your skills, network with people outside of your program, and add to your resume. Plus, many of these writing workshops and conferences offer scholarships and/or you may be able to get funding through your MFA program and/or you may be able to get funding through AWP. Here are some options to consider, and I’m sure there are many more.


-The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop

-Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop

-Antioch Writers’ Workshop

-Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference

-Squaw Valley Writer’s Conference

-Sewanee Writers’ Conference

-Tent: Creative Writing Residency

-Juniper Writing Institute

-YIVO Institute for Jewish Research at Bard

-Atlantic Center for the Arts

-Cave Canem (specifically for poetry and POC)

-VONA (specifically for POC)


  • Writing Residencies: Creative writing residencies can provide unadulterated time to write and revise (a precious gift considering the many demands and obligations one has to meet during the semester). These residencies can range from one week to several months and often offer free or heavily subsidized room and board (though usually you have to pay for your own transportation to and from the residency). I highly recommend The Write Life’s article on writing residencies as a resource (http://thewritelife.com/writing-residencies/) and I’ve also listed some residencies below. Note that these residencies having differing levels of competitiveness, with more well-known places like MacDowell and Yaddo being the most selective.


-Wildacres Retreat (I’m doing this one in May!)




-Hedgebrook (specifically for folks who identify as female)

-Millay (they offer a virtual residency, good for parents!)

-Brush Creek Arts Center

-Sundress Academy for the Arts

-Virginia Center for the Creative Arts

-Vermont Studio Center

-The Edward F. Albee Foundation


  • The National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Programs for School and College Educators: I heard about this opportunity when I used to teach high school in Los Angeles. If you’re interested in learning about a specific area of history, literature, etc. during the summer and getting a pretty generous fellowship to do so, I would check this out. As the website notes, “…each year, NEH offers tuition-free opportunities for school, college, and university educators to study a variety of humanities topics. Stipends of $1,200-$3,900 help cover expenses for these one- to five-week programs.” As a graduate student, you can apply for any of the seminars and institutes, whether they are for high school or college educators. This year, I applied for a five-week seminar in Atlanta through Emory University called “Communism and American Life” and for a two-week seminar in Asheville through Winthrop University called “Take Note and Remember: The Commonplace Book and Its American Descendants.” I previously did a seminar through San Jose State University entitled “The Immigrant Experience in California through Literature and Theatre.” Not only is this an opportunity for potential research (for instance, the novel I want to write as my thesis is related to the history of communism and the Manhattan Project in the United States), but it’s also a great way to meet other interesting, like-minded individuals.
  • Summer Programs for Talented Youth: This is another way to teach, receive free room and board, and usually make a fairly substantial amount of money. A few options include Explo at Yale University and the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins.
  • Travel: Finally, summer can be a great time to travel, either for research or for fun. Many MFA programs will offer travel funding to do research for your thesis (for example, I received $600 from the University of Alabama this spring to do research in Los Angeles for a collection of short stories). If you’re interested in traveling for fun, some inexpensive options can include WWOOF-ing, which gives people free room and board at organic farms around the world in exchange for a few hours of work each day (http://www.wwoof.net/), and CouchSurfing, which provides a platform for members to “surf” on couches by staying as a guest at a host’s home for free (www.couchsurfing.net).

I know that as long as this list is, it’s certainly not exhaustive, so feel free to comment with other ideas and suggestions!

Currently Eating: All the tacos and Japanese food in Los Angeles 

Currently Watching: Van Nuys Blvd. (one of my new favorite “so bad it’s good” movies)

Currently Listening: Deerhunter (they’re playing Birmingham next week!)

Currently Reading: Father and Son by Larry Brown (for my Southern Lit class)

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