2017, Archives, November 2017, The MFA Years

Being in a Fully Funded MFA Is Not the Same as Earning a Living Wage

I’m planning to write a reflective post at the end of this semester on what it’s been like to be a third-year MFA student. (Busy! More details to come!) In the meantime, I wanted to address something that’s been on my mind.

To be clear, I don’t know of any fully-funded MFA’s that include an explicit statement on their website that you can also live on said funding. But, I will say that when applying to MFA programs, I suppose there was a naïve assumption on my part that I would be able to more or less live on my stipend, especially if I wasn’t going to a program in a large, expensive city like New York or Boston.

Even in the very highest tier of funded programs, graduate students are usually making just over $20,000 a year before taxes (some programs in this tier of funding include Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan, the Michener Center, Vanderbilt, University of Virginia, and Washington University in St. Louis). More commonly, fully funded programs offer something around $15,000/year in exchange for teaching one or two classes a semester.

I’ll admit, as someone from Los Angeles who was moving to Alabama, I did imagine that maybe the cost of living would be quite low in comparison. It is, in certain ways. Rent is cheaper, but not as cheap as I had imagined. Gas is definitely cheaper. But groceries aren’t. Going out for food or drinks isn’t. And unexpected costs pop up frequently (this semester, somebody hit my car, and it’s unlikely I’ll be able to recover the cost of my insurance deductible even though I wasn’t considered at fault; during the spring of my second year, my laptop died and I had to purchase a new one).

Last year, a survey conducted by the English Graduate Organization at the University of Alabama found that almost nobody in our program is able to live on his/her/their stipend alone. Other funding came from the following sources: working during the semester and/or during summer; using one’s savings; receiving money from parents or other family members; the income of one’s partner or spouse; receiving loans; going into credit card debt. I fall into the first two of those categories. During winter and summer breaks, I return to Los Angeles and work for a relatively well-paying creative writing nonprofit (a job I had before coming to Alabama). In addition, I taught high school in Los Angeles for three years between college and the MFA program. I lived with my dad during this time and saved quite a bit of money, though those savings have been dwindling steadily over the course of my time as a graduate student.

I have no regrets about deciding to do an MFA or about attending the University of Alabama (though if I’d gotten off that waitlist for WashU…Alabama is a great fit for me, but that money is enticing). Having an MFA in Creative Writing (and the teaching experience and volunteer experience and the publications I’ve accumulated while here in Tuscaloosa) will ultimately enable me to take advantage of potential career opportunities that I never would have had otherwise. I feel that I’ve grown as a writer and I’m grateful for the intellect and generosity of the many friends I’ve made here, friends I hope to keep for many years to come. That having been said, I’m really glad that I was able to work and save up money after college before attending an MFA, and that I have a consistent job during breaks that gives me a bit of extra wiggle room financially.

Apply to MFA programs! Attend them! But know that for most programs in most places, the stipend is not enough to live on by itself, and you should consider how you’ll be able (and/or willing) to supplement that stipend.

Currently Cooking: Homemade chicken ramen

Currently Watching: Stranger Things (no spoilers!)

Currently Listening: Dave Brubeck (my love for good jazz will never cease)

Currently Reading: How to Build a Time Machine: The Real Science of Time Travel by Brian Clegg (Research for my second novel! Anyone want to chat about quantum entanglement?)