Picking the Right MFA Program
Joshua Weiner | June 2012
This is what I tell everyone who asks: it’s all about the faculty.
There’s money to consider—tuition (in-state and out of); fellowships and TAships; opportunities to work as a graduate assistant, or in other capacities on campus; cost of living; geography. But the single most important factor is whether or not the respective programs under consideration have writers on staff whose work you admire, and with whom you think, based on their work, you would like to study. That’s really the whole deal. And you want to pick a program that has more than one such writer on the faculty—you’ll only be there for a year or two, or maybe three at most; faculty go on leave every now and then, and sometimes unpredictably (when they score time unexpectedly through fellowships, awards, and other such opportunities).
The other important thing to consider is the relationship between the program and the English department (if it’s the program’s immediate institutional home). You should want to attend a good writing program that is also connected to a good English department, in which you can continue to study literature, and, better yet, is a place where you can continue to study disciplines alongside the literary. It’s good to party with painters, actors, musicians, anthropologists, philosophers, and historians, or take up a new foreign language.
“Are you experienced?” A lot of applicants are concerned about teaching loads. The truth is that, if you want to make a living teaching (which the degree certifies you to do, although the market is incredibly competitive and book publication is also necessary), then you need to have experience teaching. And many programs are designed to give you this experience. How much is too much? If you wish to, you can find yourself teaching more than one course per semester, but if a program expects you to teach more than one course per semester, that’s too much. You shouldn’t be expected to teach right away. You can anticipate teaching some combination of workshop and composition courses, and this combination should serve you well in your job search (even better if you can add a literature course to your teaching repertoire).
A large program with limited funding sounds like a bad combination. But good programs at large state schools (I teach at one) often have plenty of opportunities, once you’re there, to secure graduate assistantships and other kinds of readily available work inside the university. If you’re interested in the program at such a school, ask the program coordinator about these kinds of opportunities. Chances are, you’ll be surprised.
If possible, visit the program and talk to the students. They are candid and honest about their experiences, and it’s impossible to put together an accurate set of impressions and data points without gleaning the information, disinformation, insights, and gossip that the students will provide. Is there a journal edited by students associated with the program? Do the students organize their own reading series to share their work? Do faculty make themselves available outside of class? How involved are they in mentoring students? Do other writers visit the program?
A good program has a vibrant reading series that showcases young as well as more established writers, and that provides a chance for students to meet and talk with such writers in more and less formal settings (including alumni who have begun to make their mark through publication).
Of course students learn from each other, outside of workshop as well as within it. And the students you will learn from the most are those who, like you, have chosen the program with the best teachers for them. You can’t always make this match before applying and getting yourself there. But your chances improve the more you can link your decision to the writers teaching in the programs of your choosing. And that requires reading, and exercising the kind of critical, artistic, and ethical judgment that you’ll further develop at whatever program you attend.
Joshua Weiner is the editor of At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn, and the author of two books of poems, The World's Room and From the Book of Giants. He is the recent recipient of the Rome Prize in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and a Whiting Writers' Award. Weiner teaches writing and literature at the University of Maryland.