MFA Programs and You

by Helena Bell

Helena BellMFA Programs and the efficacy or use thereof tend to come up in discussion periodically.  For those of you interested, here is a run down of the types of programs and what to expect.  I personally have an MFA in Poetry from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and am currently looking into applying for a second MFA, this time in Fiction.  I might be addicted to school.  Or it might be that MFA programs really are just that awesome.

Types of Programs

There are two types of MFA programs: Full Time and Low Residency.  These are exactly what they sound like: at a full time program you reside near the school and take courses during the fall, spring, and occasionally summer terms.  Conversely, at a low residency program you only attend workshops and lectures 2-3 weeks out of the year.  In the intervening periods you converse with faculty and other students via email while continuing to live your regular life.  While I think this latter type of program can be useful for those who have a full time job or other commitments which prevent them from moving to a new location for a few years, generally I think these programs aren’t worth it for one simple reason: they’re expensive.  If you’re paying for an MFA, you’re probably doing it wrong.  That doesn’t mean that Low Residency programs are bad, or the wrong choice for you, but you have to consider the relative costs and expected benefit.  Unless you’re fabulously wealthy, at a Low Res program, you’re likely to incur significant debt.  At a full time program, you don’t have to.

Many MFA programs, and the vast majority of the top 50 programs as compiled by Poets & Writers, offer full funding to their students.  This funding usually comes in the form of teaching assistantships, foisting the unenviable job of teaching 1 to 2 Freshmen English Composition courses each semester to their fresh crop of graduate students.  The stipends are small (often in the range of $12,000 a year) and the work unglamorous (unless you really like red pencils, listening to student complaints, and deciphering poor grammar) but keep in mind that essentially a school is paying you to write for two to three years.  If that sounds appealing to you, here’s more of what to expect:

Course Requirements:

Among the full time programs you will also find variation in length (2 or 3 years) and focus such as a critical requirement.  At Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, for example, I did not take any literature courses, and if I were allowed a do-over this is the one thing I would change.  As a poet, I was irrationally terrified of the 20 page critical paper and ultimately that’s a silly reason not to take a class.

These were the courses I was required to take:

  • 4 semesters of workshop in a major genre (poetry) + 1 semester of workshop in another genre (fiction, creative nonfiction or playwriting)
  • 1 forms workshop in major genre
  • 2 semesters of thesis hours
  • English 502 (a Rhet Comp course to prepare you for the teaching assistantship)
  • +Electives

I have forgotten the total number of courses required, but I believe it broke down to 2 courses every semester plus one semester of 3 courses.  In addition, our school had a journal, Crab Orchard Review, at which you could intern for either course credit or to get out of teaching one English section for a semester.

As for the thesis, you will be expected to write 40-50 pages of poetry or 200 pages of fiction.  The work should (theoretically) be of publishable quality.

Different programs will obviously have different requirements, but the above is fairly typical.  Most schools will want you to take at least one course outside of your major genre; most schools will have a literary journal; and, perhaps most important to genre writers: many schools will not offer courses on publishing.  Many people criticize programs for taking such a short-sighted view, but I personally think this is silly.  What could a course teach you that you can’t pick up in an afternoon of google searches?  Do you really need a professor to critique your rough drafts of cover letters?

Teaching Requirements:

I’m not going to lie: teaching Freshmen English to students who can’t articulate what a thesis statement is can be difficult.  However, even though SIUC is considered to have a ‘heavy’ teaching load for grad students, I didn’t mind it overall.  I did teach two semesters of Intro to Creative Writing and another year taught two sections of Honors English with students so wonderful I was excited to go to work each morning despite the fact that they were 8 AM sections.

Things the MFA Will Not Do:

1.) Teach you how to write.

You’re supposed to know how to produce quality, or near quality, work before you arrive and the goal of workshop is to make you better, or at least more productive.  Your workshop experience will vary from program to program and semester to semester since as much, if not more, depends on who your classmates are rather than your professors.  My experience was that you learn more from what other people are writing than any comments you receive on your own work.

2.)  Get you a job.

While an MFA is a requirement for most creative writing teaching positions, it is the minimum requirement.  Most places won’t look twice unless you also have a book published or extensive journal credits in well known places.

3.)  Get you published.

There was an article my poetry professor gave our class one day which stated that 90% of MFA graduates will never publish after they leave school.  This, I think, has as much to do with lack of inertia than anything else.  The people I know who are still publishing after they left SIUC stayed in fields strongly related to writing: one already had a teaching position waiting for her when she graduated and another went on to a PhD program.  If you don’t keep writing and submitting after you leave then nothing will happen.  This is basic logic.  The MFA is also not a magical spell which dramatically improves your writing upon conference.  You only have to work as a slush reader and look out for those ‘I have an MFA from…’ cover letters to see the kind of dreck degreed writers can put out.

Things the MFA Will Do:

  1. Give you 2-3 years to write.
  2. Give you 2-3 years to write.
  3. Give you 2-3 years to write.
  4. Make you consider other genres.

Poetry is often denigrated in SF/F circles–perhaps because some genre poetry isn’t very good, and also, sadly, because a lot of SF/F writers don’t read poetry which means they don’t know what good poetry is when they see it.  So being forced to write, read, and critique poetry for a semester is a fate I would wish on just about everyone.

Common Complaints

1.) But they all sneer at genre!

They don’t.  They really don’t.  Or at least no more than genre sneers at them.  The fiction forms class I took at SIUC was specifically focused on genre: horror, apocalyptic, SF, mystery, etc.  Plenty of genre writers also have MFAs which seems to support my theory that people who submit non-realistic pieces aren’t rounded up and slaughtered on sight.  Some examples: Kelly Link (UNC Greensboro), Rachel Swirsky (Iowa), Kevin Brockmeier (Iowa), Alexander Lumans (SIUC).

Does that mean that all programs have professors who will laud your subversive use of selkie tropes?  Probably not.  Most workshops follow the Iowa model which is often loosely interpreted as ‘tear everyone and everything to shreds.’  Some writers and professors simply use ‘I don’t like genre’ as code for ‘I only like one particular style and you don’t write it.‘  Which sucks, but if you’re going to a program so you’ll be patted on the head and given scooby snacks, you’re also probably doing it wrong.

Going back to an earlier point: don’t expect an MFA program to teach you how to write.  Don’t expect the professor to be a fountain of wisdom who will fix all your stories and get you a flying agent of your very own.  That’s not to say that some programs don’t teach you to write, or that your professors won’t be helpful, but only to emphasize that you really don’t know what you’re going to get.  This is also why I say if you’re paying for the program, you’re doing it wrong.  For most people, money is a real concern.  If you’re taking out loans or using savings to pay for a program then your potential benefit will need to be that much higher in order to justify the cost.  Hopefully it will win out: maybe the professors are the best editors you’ve ever met and they introduce you to an agent who manages to sell all your books for million dollar advances.

Or maybe you come out of your first workshop frustrated and in tears because you’ve published more than everyone in the room combined and they STILL think your vampire attorney demon tracker thriller series is unmarketable.

 Naturally you should do extensive research.  Find a program with professors who write the kind of fiction you want to write.  Talk to the other graduate students.  Look for people you can drink with and learn from.  But even if it’s not everything it *could* be, if you choose a program which is virtually free then at the very least you will be given two to three years to do nothing but write, think about writing, talk about writing, and also mock freshmen for their inability to write.

And how could anyone turn that down?*

Notes: Poets & Writers Top 50 MFA Programs:

Rahul Kanakia’s List of Potentially Genre Friendly Programs:

 *Excluding: people with families, people who are full time surgeons, people who don’t get into programs with full funding, people who have an inordinate fear of the word thesis, people who only write 30 sentences a year, people who hate free stuff…


Helena Bell is an occasional poet, writer, and international traveler which means that over half of what she says is completely made up, the other half is probably made up, and the third half is about the condition of the roads. She has a BA, an MFA, a JD, and a Tax LLM which fulfills her life long dream of having more letters follow her name than are actually in it. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld MagazineShimmer Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and Rattle.

9 Responses

  1. Hel

    Note to the above, since I fear it might come up:

    The discrepancy between pages of poetry and pages of fiction in the thesis requirement is due to the fact that poetry is always single spaced, whereas fiction is double spaced.

  2. Debs

    I’m stunned that 90% of graduates don’t publish after completing the course.

    Surely these are people who are highly committed to writing when they start. What’s going on?

  3. Chris

    Some MFA programs are open to genre fiction, but some are not. I have an MFA–I’d rather not say where from–and at my school, genre fiction was looked down upon and forbidden. In the fiction track, we were expected to write “literary” fiction. If you could “use” the conventions of SF/F towards that end, a la Vonnegut or Pynchon or George Saunders, that might be acceptable, but writing something that would really be considered a straight genre story or novel was discouraged, if not outright disallowed. I sort of knew that before I went in; if I could do it over again, I’d either pick a different school, or not go at all.

  4. Hel

    Chris: actually I’d encourage you to name the school (though perhaps not here–Rahul has a list of potentially genre friendly programs and I just think it might be worthwhile to provide a list of ‘known genre unfriendly’ schools as well). I’m obviously on the giant pro-MFA bandwagon but I do realize that not all schools are as tolerant as others. I kindof elided over all that with the ‘do your research’ bit, but research can be difficult with such an unknown variable. There’s also the issue of regime changes. SIUC is much more genre friendly now that Pinckney Benedict is on the faculty but I don’t know how welcoming it was when it was only Magnasun (sp?) and Lordan.

    One tactic that I didn’t mention here since it didn’t really come up until after I’d written the original post/article is to only send the type of work you like write in your writing sample. It sounds a little obvious, but I do know of some people who would send the type of work they think the professors want to see (i.e. a literary story) when really their true passion is vampires or magical realism or hard SF. Send them the type of work you’re going to submit to workshop and hopefully they’ll only accept you if they’re cool with that. This may not always work (particularly if a school does like your style and decides they want to ‘fix’ your choice of subject matter), but it may keep you from getting into a school where you’d find the most prejudiced professors. This is just a theory though–I sent all non-realist works to the few schools I applied to and likely won’t hear back until March.

    Debs: I wish I could remember the title or more of the text of the article. I tried to look it up last night but didn’t get anywhere so thus I’m uncertain if the 90% meant *book* or not publishing at all (it’s also possible the article was focused on Poets and not fiction writers though I would assume comparable stats). My gut feeling is it’s the latter but there may have been an additional variable such as x years after the MFA. Since very few people continue to publish in journals/magazines without getting a collection published, the two are virtually the same. I read the article back in 2006 or 2007 so there’s the additional possibility that the statistic has or will change (if it’s referring to publishing at all) given the rise of online markets. When the cost of submitting is decreased so dramatically, it’s not nearly as difficult to continue to do so.

    I’ll continue to look for it (it’s also possible the author just made it up based on his or her personal perception) and if I find it I’ll post it here. I know it’s not terribly academic of me to refer to an article and a statistic that may or may not be completely accurate, but since my overall point was “Don’t expect the MFA to give you anything except time” I figured I was a little justified. Plus it’s fun to scare people 🙂

    P.S. My apologies for any grammatical or spelling errors in the above… it got way too long for me to want to proofread it a few times so I’m just going to submit and hope for the best.

  5. Mike

    I have been doing some research into this very topic and came across a few completely on-line no-residency MFA programs. The only one that I would enroll in is located at the University of Texsas-El Paso.

  6. Christina

    Speaking on behalf of the low residency programs, though you do have to pay more than you might in a full residency program that offers you stipends, the one on one feedback you receive from your instructors is worth it.

    Instead of spending your time in a workshop that must pay equal attention to everyone’s work, you get highly detailed in-line and overall feedback from well known writers. With my program, that amounted to over 100 pages of prose a semester with both in-line and overall feedback for each page. For me, this was invaluable and helped me refine my writing more than I can express. You were right in saying that an MFA is not there to teach you how to write, but I firmly believe that it should help refine your writing.

    Most low-residency MFA teachers also teach at full time programs. I discussed the benefits of both styles of programs with many of the teachers I worked with, and without fail each teacher told me that the low-residency program provided a better writing experience for the students. They thought that the one on one instruction at a low residency helped the students grow in their writing far more than any workshop could.

    I spent most of my undergraduate in writing workshops. There is much to learn from other people’s triumphs and mistakes, this is true. There is also much to learn about how to provide people with adequate feedback. Low residency MFA’s provide workshops for just these purposes during their 2-6 week residencies. But, this sort of instruction is not as effective as having someone focus on your own writing to tell you where you triumph and where you are making mistakes.

    You’re right when you say low-residency might cost more. Though you didn’t point it out, they also do not give the opportunity to gain teaching experience. They also don’t allow for the same diversity in coursework (ie: electives).

  7. Hel

    Mike: I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more pure online programs in the future, though I would hesitate before signing up for one. One of those things that could work really well, but could also go really badly. Still, a very intriguing possibility for the future.

    Christina: I think it’s fantastic that you had such a wonderful experience, but I don’t fully buy the concept of one-on-one feedback as an exclusive feature of Low Residency programs (as opposed to full-time programs). I received detailed feedback from my poetry professors and had multiple one-on-one meetings with my thesis advisor. I think it’s more accurate to say that programs differ dramatically and if you want a more personalized experience, you need to feel out the professors (Full Time programs may end up hiring bigger names who may or may not want to deal newer writers more than they have to) and pay attention to things like class size.

    I would bet, though I obviously have no way of finding out, that the distinction your professors were referring to was more a question of practice vs. possibility. At a full time program your professors are *there* and they have office hours and you’re perfectly capable of meeting with them one on one. But because you can do it, you sometimes simply don’t. But with Low Residency, the contact you have with professors is so potentially limited that people on both sides (professors and students) are each trying extra hard to make sure it’s worth it.

    But that’s a distinction based on psychology–and there are other ways around it than picking a low res program (such as signing up for an Independent study in addition to your thesis hours).

    As I mentioned in the article, I don’t mean to say that Low Res programs aren’t worth it, but it’s not just ‘paying more’ it’s paying a LOT more. Tuition at Warren Wilson is almost $8,000 PER semester. At four semesters total, that’s a price tag of $32,000.

    As opposed to a Full Time program which is potentially free.

    For some people, that may be an acceptable cost differential (particularly those who have full time jobs and thus can afford it), but it’s a harder pill for genre writers to swallow considering they could pay just $4600 and go to Clarion.

    Then again, Low Res programs may offer significant scholarships and financial aid–I would just hesitate before incurring tens of thousands of dollars in debt simply for more personalized feedback on a story.

    But the article really wasn’t about which programs to attend and why, it was merely to get everyone past the classic MFA argument everyone has in the SF/F community which is: who needs a lousy MFA anyway. I wanted to frame this in as bald terms as I could: even assuming that your program is terrible and you don’t learn anything from your professors and everyone hates your stories… You could still be given 3 years to write without incurring debt. Circumstances have to align of course (you have to get *in* to a program with full funding and pray the city isn’t too expensive) but if they do, why on earth would you turn it down?

  8. Joel Richards

    A note to say that this is an illuminating look at MFA programs–balanced and insightful. Many of us (I, certainly) had a strong bias against them–thinking their main value as being a required entry credential for anyone seeking a permanent academic post.

    I’ve never sought such a post, though I have taught courses in creative writing at the extension programs at San Francisco State and College of Marin. It was my writing creds that got me those positions. I do have an MA (Ohio State) in economics and was a teaching assistant there lo these many, many years ago. I’m afraid, then and until recently, that I regarded the MFA as less rigorous. However, for what it’s worth, I don’t think that an MA in economics is any better than an MFA in getting one a permanent academic post.

    In either field—-you have to =perform=.

    That said, this article has made me a lot less dismissive of MFA programs. Done right I can now better appreciate that they offer value. And I now know more about them.