Should I Get an MFA in Creative Writing?
Deciding to get an MFA can be a daunting thing to consider, and an internet full of (overly-pat) think pieces doesn’t make it any easier. There are dozens of articles out there about whether MFAs are “bad” or “good,” but there are fewer online resources that actually help people decide whether it’s the right choice for them.
Maybe you don’t know whether an MFA is the right choice for you. Maybe you don’t know where to start with the application process. This guide aims to work as a starting point for folks considering an MFA, and how to go about applying for programs if you ultimately decide to do so.
Before we get started, here are some terms you’ll encounter in this whole MFA discussion.
Fully-funded: When people say “fully-funded MFA program” they mean a program that waives your tuition and gives you a small stipend, usually in exchange for some kind of work, such as teaching freshman composition (most commonly) or intro to creative writing, being a research assistant, a writing tutor, or editing a university publication. If an MFA is truly fully-funded, this means everyone accepted gets a tuition waiver and a stipend. Some folks may get an extra scholarship or fellowship package, but everyone has at least a base salary.
Partially-funded: When an MFA is listed as having “partial funding” this can mean a few different things.
Maybe only some students get full funding with a tuition waiver and a stipend. Maybe students are expected to pay tuition, but there are various scholarships available. The funding structure for students in partially-funded programs varies by institution, so you’ll need to look at the school’s website to determine how their funding works. There are some really great programs partially-funded programs, so don’t knock them off your list summarily. Simply put, though, a partially-funded MFA means that at least some students are paying tuition, and there’s no guarantee when you apply whether you’ll receive funding or not.
Full-residency: The “traditional” graduate school experience. You live in the area and attend weekly workshops and courses on campus. Programs typically last 2 to 3 years.
Low-residency: You don’t need to live near the school. Most of the year, you will work remotely with advisors and other students on personal writing and reading goals. Once to three times a year, you will travel to the “residency” part of the low-res program for a period of intensive workshops, seminars, and meetings. Programs also typically last 2 to 3 years. There are no fully-funded low-res programs (that I have been able to find) but a few do have select fellowships that cover all tuition costs, and most programs have scholarships available.
Considering I'm the one giving this advice, I feel like it's pertinent for me to share how I made my choice.
For me, deciding to get an MFA was easy. I had wanted to do it since my undergrad years. I was working multiple jobs without benefits to make ends meet in an increasingly gentrifying Seattle, so getting into a fully-funded, full-residency MFA program actually represented economic security at the time (even despite the small TA stipends). My student loans payments were onerous, but they were all federal loans, and all but one were subsidized. This meant I could defer my loan payments while getting my MFA, and that most of them would not accrue interest while I was in school. While I knew I wouldn’t make a bunch of money getting an MFA, I also knew it wouldn’t be a bad choice financially. This made my choice to apply to MFA programs easier. Not everyone is so lucky (or unlucky, depending) for the choice to be that easy.
Had I had the money to attend a graduate program in publishing (none of which are fully funded) or a full-time unpaid internship at one of the big NY publishing houses (how???), I might well have done those things instead of getting an MFA. Had I had the right connections to get a better-paying job, I might have chosen to do that. Had I had the time, schedule, and connections to find a way to become more involved in the literary community in Seattle, I might have chosen to do that while working. I just knew I wanted to be involved in the literary community somewhere, and the MFA was a way I could do that more affordably.
I also was not a caretaker and I had a partner who supported me applying to MFA programs. I’d been a creative writing major in undergrad, so I knew I didn’t hate workshops or literature classes. This meant I didn’t have to ask some of the big questions below other folks might have to ask.
The Decision: To MFA or not to MFA
If you don't know if an MFA is right for you, you'll first have to decide if you’re more interested in a full-residency MFA or a low-residency MFA, as they’re both different beasts in terms of how you're going to live your life outside of your writing and coursework. Though folks might stand on their hills and have some strong opinions about which is “better” overall, know this: neither is better or worse in terms of writers studying their craft, getting feedback, and writing great work. But one of them might be better for you, depending on your preferences, responsibilities, and finances.
I’ve broken down this section into two parts: Questions for those considering a full-residency MFA, and reasons you might want to pursue a low-residency MFA. Read whichever one you're most interested in, or both if you’re undecided.