Through random surfing this weekend, I stumbled into a whole blog community related to MFA programs: blogs about getting in, blogs about programs, blogs about the idea of the MFA.  Perhaps the most interesting was Seth Abramson’s blog, which is mostly links to music videos, but he has some fabulous analysis and data on MFA programs that he uses to compile an annual MFA program rankings for Poets & Writers.  Abramson also has some great advise for writers considering MFAs.  I admire him for emphasizing the absolute importance of funding in MFA programs.  The best tip I ever received when I began to apply for schools was from a professor who told me that I should not pay for my MFA–my MFA program should pay me.

Now that I’m a few years out of my MFA program, I thought it might be nice to pass along that favor and some other thoughts I have about MFAs to other aspiring writers.  It should be noted, I am not in academia and have no desire to return.  My profession is currently more along the lines of PR.  That being said, I am very grateful for my MFA and I do think it has helped me in my professional life.  My MFA was funded and I also received a stipend for both years of my program (it was more than enough to live on).

Anyway, here are some tips for those interested:

1.  Do not pay for your MFA

An MFA is not a professional degree and as Seth Abramson and countless other people (including myself) will point out to you, an MFA is unlikely to advance you towards any career.  Leaving an MFA program with any sort of debt will put you in a bad spot financially and will limit your choices of what you can do after you graduate.  If you have a funded MFA, you will have less debt and will, therefore, be able to live on less income.  This can free you up to spend a few years working part-time and writing, or to go back to school for a professional degree, or to travel for a while, or to take a low-paying internship, or to be unemployed while you look for something.  Academic teaching jobs and writing fellowships are extremely competitive and difficult to get and you should not assume that you will have one lined up after you graduate.  You likely won’t.  There are many programs that fund MFAs candidates and you should not support programs that do not support you.

2. Have Goals

There are many different types of MFA programs. Although all MFA programs exist to support your writing, they are each different.  Having a sense of what you want out of the MFA will help ensure that it’s a meaningful experience. For instance, it would be a smart idea to consider programs that help you develop professional skills that might lead to a job you won’t hate.  Although many programs will help you learn to teach, you might also find programs that provide opportunities to edit journals and literary magazines, or feed into literary studies.  Are you interested in book making or print making? Would you like to take some journalism classes?  See if you can find an MFA that might open up doors to actual wage-earning opportunities.  This is a very mercenary way to look at it–but frankly, I’m glad I did, because I can afford to feed myself.  I like that.

3. Like the Atmosphere

If you have a chance, visit some of the campuses you’re considering applying to.  This is especially important if you haven’t had much experience in workshops.  See if you like the way the school approaches writing and if you just like the atmosphere.  I imagine that pretensions probably abound in all MFA programs, but see if the students in the program mesh with you.  Is there a nice variety of students and writing–or is everyone essentially working on writing the same poem the professor wrote ten years ago?  Is there a sense of collegiality between students and faculty?

Beyond the school–do you like the city?  Is the cost of living reasonable for your budget? Does it have enough of the right components to make you happy?

4. Look for Teaching Faculty

Although it can be swell to spend two years worshiping at the altar of your favorite living poet–if that poet can’t teach, you may not learn all that much.  Some teaching techniques just don’t work.  Some MFA professors clearly resent their students or have virtually no commitment to the teaching process.  I had a professor who, it was obvious, generally just glanced over the poems before workshop.  She rarely had notes on the poem before class, but would add them during discussion.  Much of the discussion was wasted on her trying to figure out what a poem was about.  Eventually she would have some reading of the poem and would start talking about technique.  This was often helpful, but would then be rushed because we had to move on to other people.  My other professor was better at discussing techniques, but he’s the one that told us to get off our meds because our writing sucked.  Also he hated when I wrote anything that seemed like it was staged in Wisconsin.  Although I had a very tenuous relationship with my professors–it wasn’t anything compared to what I had heard about on some other campuses…Drunk writers=drama city.

I can go on and on, but the main thing that’s important with MFAs is to make sure you get what you want out of the experience.  An MFA is a great opportunity, but it’s important to be honest about its limitations.  Yes it can help you claw your way up the ladder to teaching jobs (but be sure you actually want to teach if this is a goal you have–I hated teaching). MFAs from good schools can impress certain employers by suggesting you have academic skills and creativity.  You can also use an MFA to build towards a literary PhD or a PhD in creative writing–if you really like academia.  Also, if you’re really lucky, like I was, you’ll meet some great people.  Just go into it with eyes open.