Sep 20, 2007, 9:56 AM
Post #182 of 454
My advice is simply this: Choose your program very, very carefully. Every MFA program operates with its own sets of rules and many have various strengths and weaknesses, so definitely use a checks and balances system.
Re: [mrshankly] Choosing an MFA Program (2008)
[In reply to]
More importantly than anything else, make sure you get in touch with current students at the program and ask them about their experiences and what to expect. Many programs post contact info for current students on their web sites so you can ask without going through the program's administrators.
I can give you a few things to ask about so that you can perhaps avoid some of the frustrations I've experienced:
- Ask about the sense of community among writers in the program. This will probably be a lot more important than you expect by your second semester. Some programs are competitive, some encourage students to feed off of one another. One or the other situation may suit you better, based upon your personality.
- Don't assume that your favorite writer will also be your favorite instructor. Ask specifically about the teaching styles and efficacy of the professors you expect to work with. To be blunt, some of the most accomplished writers are given golden seats within their programs inn order to attract students. Some of these writers show little interest in teaching and come off as self-appointed gurus who espouse wisdom but don't actually invest in their students.
- Consider whether the name stature of the school is the most important thing for you. It may be, and that's all right as long as you accept what comes along with that. If you go to Iowa, UVA, etc., for example, you will inevitably get more attention from agents, publishers, lit mags, etc. A smaller program might be better if you'd like more nurturing and less competition, though. Just think about it.
- If part of your interest in an MFA is gaining teaching experience and the programs you apply to don't offer this opportunity to all students, find out BEFORE you accept admission not only how many teaching assistantships are provided by your school, but how TAs are chosen. If you can't get a direct answer, this could be a warning sign of an inept/uninterested program administration, which could lead to many further frustrations with the program as you study.
- Also make sure to ask current students in the program about the faculty's treatment of students. If the instructors are aloof or undepdendable, or if they seem impartial to students' work, this very likely indicates a problem with the program. The problem could be that inferior students are chosen for the program and therefore don't engage the instructors' attention, or it could be that the faculty have their heads in the clouds and have prioritized their writing, their personal lives, or something else over their students' needs. (While on campus and in office hours, you should be your professor's priorities. That's their job, and most MFA faculty are paid well to do their jobs.)
As a specific example of possible frustrations to look out for, here's my recent experience: I just began consulting on my thesis with my thesis director. The first week, the instructor was 40 minutes late to our meeting and spent five minutes with me to take my work. Because the professor was late, they cut our meeting short to five minutes in order to meet with another student for a half hour. The second week, the professor was 50 minutes late and gave encouraging words, but did not have the manuscript with them and, while everything was encouraging, no specific advice was given, leaving me to wonder whether the professor had even read my work. The professor told me that no specific feedback will be given at all this semester, other than telling me if I begin to take the plot in the wrong direction. This is not the one-on-one mentorship I was hoping for when working on a thesis novel, on which I had hoped to receive enough guidance to get the work in good enough shape to shop around within a year of graduation.
It is possible that this treatment is specific to me, however, so if you are concerned about making the most of your MFA studies, make sure you ask several students from every program to which you plan to apply so you can get a balanced perspective.
The bottom line: Realize before you jump into this major 2-3 year lifestyle change that this should be an investment and a commitment to your work, and that getting into any reputable program may not meet your specific needs or desires. If you are doing it for the degree, then that's fine, but if you are doing it to grow and mature as an author do not compromise. You will regret it.