To MFA or not to MFA?

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by Chris Stewart

There must be something in the air: this past spring and fall I mentored five of my writing workshop students through their MFA applications. So if one of your New Year’s resolutions is to find and apply for the right program for you, here are some things to think about:

MONEY: The first and most important consideration. Can you afford to quit your job, move to the city/state where the graduate program you want to join is located, and either work part time or not at all? Or, if you stay local, can you quit your job or work part time? Or can you keep your day job and ask your boss if you can leave early for an afternoon class, or just take them in the evenings?

If your portfolio is good enough, a school will pay part, or all, of your tuition either for one or both years (one year means you received a scholarship, which comes through nomination by a member of the faculty at the institution, or is decided by those faculty who choose the incoming class of graduate students. Both years means you are given an award where you are a teaching assistant the second year. And that means teaching freshman composition, my friends, after a torturous summer of training, in addition to taking your own classes and working on your thesis).

Only a handful of people receive either or both of these, so definitely apply, but plan as if you're paying yourself. That means start looking into student loans!

What I did: I was lucky enough to have my tuition at Hollins University paid for by the University (but I still borrowed money to live on as the course load was too much for me to work at the same time; it was a one year MA program), and received a scholarship and a teaching assistant award at the University of Maryland. I dropped the TA award as I couldn’t deal with the workload and keep my current day job (I went to grad school late in life, in my thirties, and had grown up bills to pay). This was all about 10 years ago, however, and programs and their funding options change all the time—Hollins has since morphed into a two-year MFA with the teaching assistance award.

THE PROGRAM: This can be as easy or as complicated as you make it. What do you want to write? Fiction? Poetry? Non-Fiction? What are your goals? Do you want a MA (Master of Arts) or a MFA (Master of Fine Arts)? The latter is considered a ‘terminal degree,’ the highest degree one needs to work (i.e. teach) in the field of creative writing at a college or university, so if you plan to teach someday, keep this in mind. (To be an English professor one would need to continue on to a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy). There are Ph.D. programs in creative writing, but a MFA is as far as you need to go to get a job. I personally don't think they are of value; I see them as an extension of the MFA for those who need more time and mentoring.)

Other questions to ask: Who are your favorite writers? Do they teach anywhere? If so, where? This would be an opportunity to work with them. Again, can you relocate? If not, look at your local programs and pick the one with writers/poets who you think will inspire and challenge you. Being challenged is important.

YOUR THESIS: Have this in mind before you apply and have already made substantial progress on this project (meaning at least 50-75 pages of prose or 20 poems). You’ll be including this as your writing sample (or at least most of your writing sample), and the selection committee will be looking for your discussion of this project in the personal statement portion of your application. Do you want to write a collection of short stories? A novel? A memoir? A book of poetry? What’s the theme? The plot? Who are the characters? Why this particular project? How will you grow as a writer through writing it? What do you want to learn? What do you need to learn? Think of your strengths and weaknesses. How will joining the graduate program at the school(s) you’ve chosen make that possible? Why are you a good match for them as well?

Schools are looking at you long term. Are you good enough to make a name for yourself and engender them some recognition as a success story for their program? Will you become someone they can name on their website and in their brochures to encourage future generations of writers/poets to apply? What’s your record so far? If you have not published anything in any literary magazines, or have published only in local ones, and are not considered a wunderkind by your peers or undergraduate professors, your best bet is to apply to MA or MFA programs in your area. Having good publications, or having won a decent or well known prize, or having an amazing talent for writing, makes a big difference in your application and, therefore, the schools to which you can apply.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t shoot for the stars and send your application to one or two of your dream schools, though. You never know who is or isn’t applying that year. Maybe all the wunderkinds are already in programs or working to save money this year.

Most of us are, unfortunately, not geniuses. We are either good writers or have the potential to be, so if you are thinking of getting a master’s degree in the next few years, prepare yourself NOW. Start working on the project you believe will be your thesis. Submit your work for publication and prizes. (Poets & Writers is an excellent resource.) You might also take a writing workshop offered by a reputable continuing ed/extension program, or perhaps find a mentor in your area to work with privately. Don’t assume that your critique group, however wonderful they are, will give you enough, or the proper, preparation.

BEYOND THE DEGREE: Once accepted to a program, I encourage those I mentor to take classes beyond their form and discipline. For example: a film class for the visual storytelling and symbolism. And a music class. Listening to music creates an emotional response in you, which can prompt ideas or memories associated with that feeling or the music, which can in turn prompt a piece of writing. And developing a soundtrack for that novel you’re working on helps you create the emotional tenor of the scene as well as the characters in the scene. A music class will expose you to music, people, and historical information you would not normally be exposed to.

And whether you are proficient in any of these forms, definitely take one or all of the following: a poetry workshop, a playwriting workshop, a screenwriting workshop, or at least classes where important works (classic or contemporary) are studied. You do not need to be a skilled poet or playwright to reap the benefits of working in these forms. Your prose will be all the better for the practice in imagery or dialogue. If there’s room, take a science class, as well as a class focusing on religion. All of these will stretch and inspire you with their own structure, language, and grand (and timeless) ideas. These will, in turn, feed into your work, lending it greater resonance and depth.

A TERRIFIC RESOURCE: Amy Holman’s “An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs: Choosing the Right MA or MFA Program, Colony, Residency, Grant, or Fellowship.”

I’m proud to say that all those I mentored were accepted into the program of their choice. Perhaps this time next year you’ll be celebrating as well?

Chris Stewart is a mentor and creative writing teacher in Baltimore, Maryland. Her website is

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1 comment:

  1. Great advice. I'm still contemplating the MFA, all I need is to add an additional 10 hours to my day.

    I'll find a way. In the meantime, I'll keep waking up at 4 am to write and get my novel finished.

    My Writing Life