Questions if You’re Considering a Full-Residency MFA
If you've been trying to decide whether you want to apply for full-residency MFA Programs, here are 10 questions that you might ask yourself.
1. Do you have a financially comfortable life right now? If so, would you be willing to give that up for a few years?
Even if you get a fully-funded position, there’s a decent chance you’re making more money right now. MFA stipends have a wide range depending on the program and its location, but let’s assume you’ll get a $18,000 stipend a year, which falls somewhere in the middle of that range. Is that a cost you think you can swing without taking on too much debt?
2. Do you love your current job?
Do you already have your dream job, or something close to it? If so, if you go away for 2-3 years, will you be able to return to a similar job? Or are you in an industry where that might be difficult? If you’re looking to get an MFA solely so you can teach college-level creative writing, know that the MFA is just one part of that long (and increasingly difficult) journey.
3. Do you love where you live?
Would you be able leave where you live now without becoming too depressed? If not, are there programs close to you or in places that are geographically and culturally similar? Or do you live in your one true home, a place you can’t bear to be away from? There are programs all over the country in big cities and small towns, but if you’re going to feel devastatingly homesick or out of place, it might not be great for your health or your writing.
4. Do you like studying literature?
Because you’re here, it’s safe to assume you like writing. But do you like literature classes? MFA programs vary in the amount of traditional literature courses they require, and you’ll have a lot more freedom to choose your classes than you did during undergrad, but most programs will require you to take at least a few traditional literature courses.
Sometimes these courses are cross-listed with other departments like film studies or women's and gender studies. Most programs will require you to meet a few broad course requirements, such as: one class on a period of English literature (Victorian Women in Fiction, Romantic Poetry, Medieval Literature, etc.), and one class outside of British or American literature (African Cinema, Japanese Literature, Jamaican Literature, etc.). If taking traditional lit classes and writing academic papers sounds like absolute hell to you, you might not be happy in an MFA program, or you’ll need to carefully review the course requirements for the programs you apply to.
5. Do you like workshops?
You’re probably going to have to take at least one writing workshop each semester during your coursework. You might have already been in a workshop during undergrad, which in that case, you probably already know the answer to this question. If you haven’t taken a workshop, it might be worth your time to enroll in a local or online workshop. If it turns out you absolutely loathe workshops, enrolling in an MFA program might be setting yourself up for two pretty rough years.
6. Do you write genre fiction?
Unfortunately, many MFA programs aren’t welcoming of sci-fi or fantasy. (That’s a whole other discussion.) This certainly isn’t true of all full-residency MFA programs, but you’ll want to do some research into programs before you apply. Does your work jibe with that of current professors or alums? Can you reach out to current students? Though not fully funded, there are several genre-focused low-res programs and well-regarded summer workshops like the Clarion Workshop that offer scholarships.
7. Do you have a partner who can’t (or won’t) move with you?
I’ve known several folks who moved away from their partners to pursue a degree. Long-distance relationships are hard, and they can be even harder with the pressures of grad school on top. Strong, supportive relationships will survive, but would you be happy without your loved ones near you?
8. Are you a caregiver?
I’ve known a lot of parents of younger children pursuing MFAs. Obviously being a grad student and a parent isn’t easy (and some programs are more supportive than others), but it can be done. Some universities have good resources for student parents. If you’re the caregiver of an adult, moving and finding resources in a whole new place might not be a possibility. If you live near a full-res MFA program or can make a low-res MFA program work financially and travel-wise, those might be options depending on your caregiving responsibilities.
9. Are you still burnt out from undergrad or another degree?
Going to my MFA right after undergrad would have ruined me. I was so tired of the pressure of school, the imposter syndrome, and all the emotions that come with being a young college student. I’m glad I took a few years off after undergrad. While living and working obviously comes with its own pressures, they were different kinds of pressures. Those years were a hustle, but they gave me a new appreciation for school when I went back, and I gained the confidence that, yes, I was valuable outside of school. Being a little older also meant I was able to relate better to other grad students when I went back. For these reasons, I recommend that people consider taking a bit of time off before grad school. If you really want it, you’ll go back.
However, there are extenuating circumstances where going directly to grad school might be your best option. If it’s between being moving back in with an abusive family and going directly to grad school, go to grad school. If it’s between losing your immigration status and going directly to grad school, go to grad school. And so on. If going directly to grad school represents a significant amount of stability for you, then take care of your needs.
If you're still questioning getting an MFA, maybe take a look at:
If you know you want to apply for an MFA and are looking to start: