Top 5 things to look for in an MFA program

So you’re a writer, eh?  You took every CRW class listed during undergrad—even won a couple hundred bucks in a University-wide fiction contest once upon a time.  Yet still, unfathomably, Harper’s won’t return your calls and The New Yorker thinks it’s too good to print that magically real story you wrote about your last break up.  Well, you might consider joining the ranks of other aspiring scribblers and spend some time applying to an MFA program.  Here’s what to look for.

1)   Funding.  There’s an old adage that says, “Don’t pay for an MFA.”  You’re going for the least practical degree you can obtain.  Likely, you are making more money waiting tables right now than you will after you graduate and secure a famously underpaid adjunct professor gig.  Don’t make yourself a slave to Fannie Mae.  Don’t saddle yourself with debt for the sake of an education.  You’re a writer.  Save your money for coffee, booze, and books.

2)   Teaching Experience.  Unless you’ve got a book published (and a good one at that), it’s unlikely colleges around the country will be jockeying for your services.  Choosing a program that lets you teach your own classes, gives you a leg up on the fierce competition for post-grad professorial stints.  Be sure to look into what kind of classes, prospective programs allow MFA-ers to teach.  Creative writing classes are a helluva lot more fun to teach, and ultimately more rewarding for writers dead-set on mastering their craft.

3)   Location.  Not to be overlooked when considering your ideal program.  This will be your home for 2-4 years, so you’d better like it…at least a little.  Big city programs rarely offer full-funding, so likely you’ll end up somewhere a bit sleepier.  But that may be for the best.  Think of it like a very long writing retreat.  The lure of cool concerts and art openings and hip bars and parties won’t distract you like they might in NYC or LA or Chicago.  Thank God, right?  Look for a school surrounded by breathtaking nature—the desert, the mountain, the ocean—to offset the loss of urban opportunity.

4)   Faculty.  It’s hard to know if you’ll click with professors before you have taken a class from them.  A masterful writer could be a lackluster instructor.  It’s a crapshoot.  First read faculty writing to see if their aesthetic and literary ideals match your own.  Next, try to contact current MFA candidates to get a sense of teaching styles and support.

5)   Never mind Top MFA Program lists.  While they might be a good place to start, MFA rankings are inherently flawed and subjective.  Once, I waited on Dave Eggers while working at the Fairmont Chicago.  At the time I was in the process of applying to MFA programs and I mentioned this to the author.  He told me not to worry about a school’s reputation.  He told me grad school was a time and a place to write and get paid for it.  Thanks, Dave.

Jason Thayer is the Fiction Editor of Blue Mesa Review 

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