2017, Archives, February 2017, The MFA Years

How to make your MFA decision

Image: Vimal Kumar

Maybe you’re still waiting to hear back from MFA programs or you already know you’ve been accepted to one or more. Either way, come April, if you are in the lucky position of being able to choose where you attend graduate school next fall, here are suggestions from some of our first year contributors on how to choose the program that is right for you.

Contributors: Molly Montgomery, Craig Knox, Devin Koch, Jess Silfa, and Carlos Chism

What is the most important factor to consider when making the decision?

Molly Montgomery: I think the biggest factor when you’re making your decision is your personal goals. Of the programs you were accepted to you, which do you think will help you reach your goals as a writer? And if you have other aspirations, such as a desire to improve your teaching skills or to gain professional or editorial experience, will the program also help you achieve those goals? When you are comparing offers, it’s easy to only look at the funding, but you also want to consider if the program is a both a supportive environment and a place where people will draw you out of your comfort zone to take risks with your writing. If you have a chance to visit the program, definitely do so because you will get a sense of the program’s “vibe” and by talking to current and former students, you will be able to tell if the program is right for you.

Craig Knox: Do you see your life fitting into this program? To be blunt, you won’t grow as a writer if it doesn’t.

I have already seen how easy it is to lose writing poems in the demands of non-writing homework, teaching, social life and personal life. If you attend a program where you have to teach a 2/1 or 2/2 load and attend classes full-time, how much time is really left over for writing beyond your workshop or craft classes? How about if your program only offers partial funding and you have to work 30-40 hours a week just to afford a tiny apartment and tuition? Maybe money is not your primary object of concern; maybe it’s maintaining a long-distance relationship or juggling work schedules with your spouse so someone is always taking care of your child.

Rutgers Camden fit me because they allow part-time students. Not all programs do. This element creates a diverse group of students in the program. I needed that diversity of age and culture and background. Camden funds all of its students. I couldn’t afford to pay for my MFA degree and I’m already in a ton of debt. I needed the funding. But most of all, there were professors at Camden who I was really eager to work with. That’s an interesting element because someone may be a great poet or novelist but a mediocre teacher, and professors change schools all the time. It wasn’t my main factor, but it was a solid tiebreaker.

Whatever your concerns are, make sure your MFA program fits you.

Devin KochUpon receiving acceptances and even some waitlists you are faced with the decision of, “Should I reapply next year and try again for the schools that I got waitlisted on or should I accept a program that I’ve been accepted to?” I pondered over this long and hard. I also wrote in different genres and even questioned myself at times if I applied in the genre that bests suits me. That added another dimension of my internal struggle on whether I should accept an offer to a program or not.

Ultimately, the main thing you need to ask yourself is how will the program benefit you as a writer. That’s basically why we apply to programs. To improve our writing and to write a bombass poetry collection, novel, or a book of short stories. In what ways do you want your workshop to be like? Do you thrive in a larger or smaller class size setting? Look at how many people are in a cohort at a program. Are the prospective students at the program and professors seem like they will genuinely push you and excite you to write more? Look at the town itself and ask whether you can see yourself being happy. Your writing is going to thrive or possibly crumble because of it. I ended up choosing Virginia Tech for the fact that they support/encourage cross-genre work. Playwriting, new media writing, etc. I chose the program because I could see myself striving to be better and write new things outside my comfort zone. This help alleviate my general concerns if I chose the “right” genre.

Jess SilfaIt’s a very personal decision and everyone has factors to consider. When I was applying, I always heard that funding was king. “Go where the money is,” and all that. That seemed unrealistic to me from the beginning of my application process. As a black, (gender)queer, disabled person I needed my program to be accessible and to be safe. To put it bluntly, all the money in the world doesn’t mean shit if I can’t physically get to class. My disabled writers out there know what’s up. The same goes for my fellow POC; are you going to be comfortable as the only black person in your program? Is the town the school is in safe? Are the surrounding towns? Is there a problematic faculty member who uses the N-word? This seriously came up during my search last year. Just saying. If you’re a parent, is the school supportive? Are there childcare options on campus?

When I chose Brooklyn it was partly because it was in my hometown, in an area full of Caribbean immigrants (aye!), and because every building on campus is accessible. What sealed the deal was actually meeting faculty and talking to members of my potential cohort. The people at Brooklyn sold me on how wonderful it was.

Carlos Chism: Like everyone has either explicitly said or touched on already, accepting an MFA offer is an extremely personal decision, and which factors carry more or less weight depends on your situation. Maybe there’s a program that’s great academically, but it’s located in a big city, and you know from experience that city living dampens your day-to-day quality of life? Maybe a program is great, but based on your finances, the funding package simply doesn’t cut it? Or as Jess points out above, maybe a program is great, but programs in certain locations and with certain makeup can be hostile to POC, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and people with disabilities. These factors may not be important for a straight white cis man, but they can be life or death for people from marginalized groups.

Last year I was trying to determine what factors were most important to me while figuring things out between three funding offers from Maryland, Arkansas, and Temple. I knew that each program offered something the others couldn’t: Temple was close to home, and I could adjunct a class or two at places I’d taught before while teaching for Temple. One of my favorite professors from Penn State was at Arkansas, and the program there seemed to have a really tight-knit cohort, similar to my positive experience at Penn State. Maryland’s program was right outside a big east coast city, had options for completion in two or three years, offered me the most funding, and had a strong rhetoric and composition program as well, in case I wanted to prepare for future PhD applications in that field. I had to determine which of these benefits were most important to me, and how to prioritize them. I finally decided that, since I was pretty confident I wanted to apply to rhet/comp PhD programs after my MFA, Maryland was the best fit. But that value judgement was specific to me, and was one I made after determining that I should keep an eye to the future while making the decision.

How do I compare stipend/fellowship offers?

Molly Montgomery: I didn’t actually have a chance to do this since I was accepted at only one Creative Writing program. However, I do have some important advice about funding. I didn’t know whether I was going to be fully-funded for my MA until I saw the program on Visiting Day. The program I am in is technically only “partially-funded,” but by talking with current students I found out that people were able to obtain full funding easily once they were students at the university. Talk to current and former students to make sure you know exactly how the funding works. You may get a pleasant surprise like I did, or you may find out that the fellowship you were offered comes with stipulations you might not like.

Craig Knox: Let me add to Molly’s response some of the questions that I asked before entering my program or that I have asked in my first MFA year.

  1. What kinds of fees am I required to pay in the first semester?
  2. Is my funding guaranteed beyond the first year?
  3. What additional opportunities for funding become available once I’m in the program?
  4. What’s the health insurance plan like?
  5. What perks will I receive as a TA / GA / PTL beyond the tuition remission and/or paycheck? (parking pass / weekly faculty lunch / gym membership / better health insurance / etc.)

Devin Koch: When you are debating between schools and schools of different states, look at whether the actual towns or states have any extra policies. For example, Virginia has a policies where your car must be inspected if you register your car in the state. The non-academic student fees can be expensive. You’ll then have to debate if you still want to become a state resident or not to pay less student fees, but sometimes you’ll then have to pay fees on your car with the state if you do become a resident. As you can see, this can become confusing and there are pros and cons for residency. Make a chart of these small things, because they do add up. Ask yourself, does the funding still support you in the city that you’ll be living in? Do you still have to take out loans to live off of despite being “fully funded”?

Jess Silfa:I sat down with a trusted friend and went over every bit of money I could potentially bring in at each school. I looked up fees, transportation costs, moving costs, housing costs, etc. Everything went into a spreadsheet and seeing it all laid out made everything a lot easier to take in. And yes, ask current students questions! Discussing money can be iffy — some folks consider it taboo. Try to find someone who is willing to give you details such as when the money actually hits your account, how much the average rent is, if you need a car, and so on. It’ll save you a lot of surprises in the future.

What I will say, especially for my diverse folks, is always ask if there’s extra money hidden away somewhere. Some schools have grants for underrepresented students while some have other perks that can save you money. Don’t be afraid to ask if there’s any way to increase your financial aid.

Carlos Chism: Definitely check for hidden fees. These are usually imposed by the university, and not the department, but they may change the financial landscape when comparing funding packages from multiple programs. Maryland has these fees, and while they haven’t drastically altered what I was expecting financially, they are a bigger pain in the ass than I was initially expecting.

Also consider cost-of-living discrepancies and tax stuff. I had to go online and do a bit of sleuthing to compare my funding packages from Arkansas and Maryland, since the massive difference in basic cost-of-living between Fayetteville and DC distorted a direct comparison. Conduct thorough craigslist searches in all the towns you’d possibly be living in. Obviously, ask current students how living on the stipend is like. Along with that, remember that the vast majority of fellowships are taxed quarterly, meaning you have to report that income yourself, and simply adding up stipend + fellowship numbers won’t tell the whole story.

Teaching loads are also important, especially if you haven’t taught before. But even if you have, because too much teaching can take away from writing time and energy, while just the right teaching load can really complement a writing life. At Maryland, for example, it’s a 1/2 load, with no teaching duties in the first semester.

Finally, health insurance: this can be an under-considered factor in the decision-making process, especially for those of us who are relatively healthy, but if something happens in the middle of your time at a program and your insurance doesn’t cover your medical needs, what then? I know a big positive for Maryland was the fact that graduate students get access to the full-time employee health benefit programs. It’s definitely a comfort to know that when the law forces me off my mom’s fantastic health care package at the end of this year, I can jump onto a similarly-priced and featured package through UMD.

What are some of the under-discussed factors that merit more attention than they are usually given?

Molly Montgomery: I would ask current and former students what daily life is like in the particular town or city you will be living. You may discover that if you are a city-person, rural or suburban living is not as boring as you thought. Or you may find out that while the program is good, the location of the university does not meet your expectations in one way or another, whether you are looking for a certain amount of racial diversity or for access to public transportation.

Ask whether students in the program live near campus or whether they commute in from other places. Depending on what your goals are for the program, knowing that the school is a commuter campus or not could be important.

Age is another factor that’s not often discussed. You can get a good sense of what the typical age range of students in the program is from talking with current and former students and by meeting the other accepted students at a visiting day event. The age range of a particular program tends to vary every year, but some programs always skew young and some are comprised of people returning to school later on in their career. While I wouldn’t let being outside of a program’s typical age range discourage you, you probably want to be aware of it so you know how you would fit in socially with the program.

Craig Knox: How much do the professors really care about the program? If all the activities are initiated by students or if it’s tough to get information about what the program is like before you give your acceptance, how much better do you think it’s going to get once you’re actually in the program?

What’s the day to day in the program? Do people hang around the campus or do they come in for classes and then scurry back home as fast as they can? Do published writers come to campus or near campus and read from their work? Do students read from their work? How often are readings? How is the campus integrated with the local community? You can (and should) be the change you want from your program, but you’re going to have to work from within whatever system is already in place at your school.

On a related note, who will be your main contact for information once you’re in the program? Maybe it’s the MFA program director or program coordinator. Or maybe it’s someone within the English department, which is especially likely if you’re teaching or TA’ing composition classes. You’ll want to get to know this person as soon as possible. If they can’t give you accurate (or any) information in a timely manner, you’re going to be in for a long few years.

Devin Koch: Craig’s comment about caring is a great point! Look at the student’s themselves. Talk to them. Are they genuinely excited about the program? Do they care about what they are doing? Are they passionate? If you grab a sense they are hesitant or they are so so about everything, then that indicates the program is failing in someway shape or form.

What are some opportunities/classes does the program offer that would excite you? Can you take classes outside of the department? Are their minors/certificates you can receive outside of the standard MFA degree?

If teaching, find out how the program assists you with it. Do they offer a pedagogy course to help train you? Are they throwing you into the sharks and hoping you don’t get eaten or drown? What are the undergraduates like? Being stressed about teaching while writing isn’t going to help you in your writing process, so get a good sense of what you will be getting into.

Jess Silfa: I don’t know how much discussion needs to be had, per se, but please make sure you square away your healthcare. This is especially important if you are chronically ill, disabled, or medically transitioning. I had a friend who moved across the country to start a program a few years ago; his new school insurance originally refused to cover his  specific HIV medications. It all worked out, thankfully, but it was stressful in the meantime. If you know the MFA will mean you need to change your healthcare, make sure you research what you’re entitled to and how your treatment plan might change.

The fact is that grad school is hard. Full stop. You don’t want to scramble to find a doctor during your second semester while you’ve got workshop and a 2/2 teaching load on your plate. Figure out what your health care in each program would look like and once you make a decision, find a primary care physician in your new town that you like. Familiarize yourself with the counseling center and other wellness resources your school offers. You might never need to use them, but it doesn’t hurt to know.

Carlos Chism: Definitely, once again, health insurance. But we’ve covered that in detail already. Just please seriously give it a good look and ask questions if you need to.

Some other things most people don’t consider are the wider departmental sense of community and communication, and the day-to-day feel of life in a specific place or town. While College Park isn’t exactly the most exciting place, it’s right in the middle of the DC-Maryland-Virginia area, which is a vibrant, multicultural, and generally diverse place (even if we’ve got a few new nasty neighbors in that big white house). I live one town over, right on the edge of DC, and one thing that has made life here so wonderful is that there is a large latinx community. I pass a couple panaderias on my drive to campus each day, there’s a great taco place in Columbia Heights, and I hear various dialects of Spanish almost as soon as a I walk out of my house. Having these small heartwarming details scattered through each day really make life outside workshop and writing great.

People will talk a lot about the sense of community within a cohort or a creative writing program, but especially at large state universities with a sizeable English department, the sense of community within a department as a whole can also be important. Here at Maryland, for example, we’ve got the English MA students, the literature PhDs, and the rhet/comp PhDs. There was a similar setup during my MA program at Penn State, but there were serious social distances between the creative writing MA students and everyone else. At Maryland, this hasn’t been the case, and everyone from different programs within the department are friendly. Lots of Phd and MA students come to the MFA student reading series, for example, and I’ve been out for drinks with literature students as well as people from my cohort. While this isn’t a must, it may be a distinguishing factor, especially if you’re comparing two state schools that have large and intellectually diverse programs within their English departments.  

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