Today contributors Ignacio Peña, Lauren Sharkey and Cady Vishniac are answering two questions from a potential MFA applicant. If you have questions about the application process or the MFA/MA in general, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to answer them! Let us know if you’d like your question(s) published on the blog.
First, thanks so much for putting this site together! I love the different perspectives each blogger has on their MFA program and their writing life. I’m considering applying for an MFA in a year or two, and this blog has been so informative. I have a couple question for the bloggers:
Many MFA applicants cite “time to write” as one of the main reasons they want to get an MFA. I can definitely relate to that; it’s HARD to be creative while working 60 hrs a week! But after reading the posts here about teaching and working on literary magazines, I’m thinking, “Where’s the writing time?” How much time do MFA students actually get to write? I would love to see a breakdown of how much time is spent writing, teaching, in class, etc.
I would also love to hear about the nitty gritty of finances during the MFA. Are the stipends enough to live on? In MFA programs with full funding, do students still have to take on debt to cover their living expenses? I’m still frantically trying to pay off my student loans and pretty wary of any additional debt.
First year contributor, Ignacio Peña:
I can’t speak on the funding question myself, but as for the amount of time spent on writing, I know my program that I am attending is structured a bit differently from the other MFA programs highlighted on this site, and it allows for a large amount of writing.
The MSc program in Edinburgh doesn’t ask its Masters students to teach, so there is no writing time lost to that. It is one solid year dedicated to writing. Every week during term time, there are six hours where I’m in class: 2 hours in workshop, 2 hours in literature class, 2 hours in seminar. Every week I read a novel for my literature class, so there is various time spent reading that needs to be factored in. Depending on the seminar, the prep-time for each session varies; sometimes it’s half an hour, sometimes it’s 3 to five hours of prep. For each week, I end up spending about four to five hours or so reading each submitted piece and writing detailed feedback for all of them. There is no literary mag at my uni, but each year a few students from the cohort put together a printed anthology of the current year’s writers. I spent A LOT of time typesetting that myself, but that isn’t necessarily the case for every student. I have a part time job to pay for groceries that takes up about 10-15 hours a week (I saved a lot of money before this year so that I wouldn’t have to worry about working full-time for rent money during my studies). I’m not seeing anyone so there isn’t relationship-time that eats away from my writing time. All of this is not counting extra-curricular workshops I’d participate in or societies and the like, which some weeks can quickly add up.
In short, during regular term time I was usually looking at comfortably having at least two hours dedicated to some form of writing on days where I had a lot going on, and four to six hours on days where things were pretty quiet. There was always at least a day or two every week where I’d realistically maybe have only 1 hour or so I could call “writing time”, but I don’t feel that having only an hour to write at a time is all that helpful, so on those days I simply don’t write or revise anything.
It can be easy to fill your time with things that aren’t writing, and doing a masters presents more opportunities to continue such a trend if you’re not careful. It’s easy to quickly take on a lot of other responsibilities in the community where you are studying in, and it’s up to you to recognize how much time you decide to dedicate to putting words to paper and how much the rest of that time is spent for everything else. Now that I’m three months away from the end of my program, I’ll have to go back to work. The time I’ve spent in my program balancing writing and real life is one of the most valuable things that I’m taking away as I look to my future as a writer in the world outside of the writing bubble my program has offered me.
First year contributor, Lauren Sharkey:
Time to write
While I know “finding time to write” is a huge factor in why people decide to pursue an MFA, my feeling is that if you don’t already make writing a priority in your everyday life, being in an MFA program may not change that. Lack of time shouldn’t be your only reason for going—wanting to improve your craft is why you should be going.
As an unfunded student, and attending a school that was a considerable commute (about an hour and a half) from where I lived (at the time I applied), I immediately began researching housing options and employment opportunities. I was fortunate to find employment on campus as a Residence Hall Director in the residence halls. I worked 40+ hours a week, was on a duty rotation that required me to be on call to respond to emergencies five days a week, and was taking a full course load.
Prior to accepting Stony Brook Southampton’s offer, I lived at home with my parents. Since it was never quiet in my house, I used to drive to an empty parking lot at 4am and write there until about 6am. Some days I’d stay later, other days my pen was dry and I left early. When I began attending Stony Brook Southampton, I maintained the 4am-6am writing schedule I’d always had, I was just in my own apartment instead of a parking lot. However, as I got further in the program, I found myself using that time more effectively, and being able to focus on various parts of storytelling to make my work stronger.
The fact of the matter is that if you don’t make time, no one is going to make you do it. Professors and classmates don’t care if you don’t do the work because it only affects you. An MFA won’t magically give you time to write—that’s something you need to do on your own.
As stated previously, I had a rigorous full-time job during my first year. The average amount of hours I worked per week was close to 60, but I only got paid for 35. Since I was an unfunded student, I wasn’t required to teach, assist with the literary magazine, etc.
During my second semester, I did work for the literary magazine. In the beginning, it did suck up a ton of my time—reading submissions, helping with social media, etc. I turned in a piece half-assed for class one week, and felt like shit when it got owned in workshop. That’s when I realized I didn’t come here to work on a lit mag. Is it a valuable experience? Yes. Is it something great you can put on your resume? Yes. Is it the reason I’m here—absolutely not. So, I let shit slide. I didn’t read as many submissions, pulled back on social media help, and put everything I had into the memoir class that later provided me with an amazing thesis adviser. While being part of a literary magazine and teaching may be required of you wherever you go, you have to remember why you are here. I’m not saying to totally blow off the responsibilities that have been assigned to you, I’m just telling you that you have to fight for yourself and your work.
Also, if teaching is a career goal of yours, obviously give that as much as you can. Just make sure you’re also making time for your work.
I’m from a middle class family. My parents didn’t help me with my undergraduate education, and they certainly weren’t helping me with grad school. I knew being in an MFA program was the right choice for me as a writer, so I took out loans.
Adding onto my existing student loan debt was a tough decision. I’m going to be 30 this year. My boyfriend and I were planning on getting engaged, putting a downpayment on a house, and were going to start trying for a baby in a year or two. Going to grad school would not only delay all those things, but would have a great effect on our financial ability to do those things. But I knew this was something I had to do.
I’ve been working since I was 14. I left my job as a Residence Hall Director and now work as a social media coordinator for another company. I moved back home, and now have to commute to class. Working a full-time job allows me to pay bills, chip away at loan debt, and save. But it comes at a cost. Am I tired? Literally, all the time. Do I see family, friends, and my boyfriend as much as I’d like to? No. Am I making it work? I think so.
My thesis adviser is an amazing woman. She gets me, understands the story I have to tell, and has pushed me incredibly hard in directions I didn’t see myself going in. She’s made me a better writer and I’m excited to work with her. More than that, I’m grateful. Grateful that she gives me constructive, insightful, and useful feedback that I don’t know I’d get anywhere else.
The major reason I decided to go to an MFA program was because I was alone. I had no friends who were writers—no one to tell me that scenes weren’t working, that an action seemed out of character—that a sentence had gone on too long. I went because I needed a community. I needed to be with my own kind. And what I’ve been able to find at Southampton is a bunch of people who I’ll be friends with long after graduation day, who will let me send them work and give feedback. So, for me, the extra debt is worth it.
I really hope this helps you, and please reach out if I can help anymore!
First year contributor, Cady Vishniac:
I cannot tell you whether or not it is possible for you personally to get by on a grad student stipend. I can say that my stipend at Ohio State is a little over $20k per year. Between the subsidized housing, the subsidized childcare, the cheap Midwestern groceries, and my total lack of a social life, I manage. If I did not have a child I’d be in even better shape. If I cared about going out for drinks? I’d be broke. If I had a car I would, similarly, have no money left to eat with. But I don’t especially need a car. Columbus has decent public transportation, and I live very near to both my classes and my daughter’s daycare. It helps that I’ve got Medicaid, but even if I didn’t, the school would cover most of my health insurance costs.
So my stipend at my program is livable for me. The stipends of other students at my program, most of whom make $15k per year but don’t have kids, are livable for them. The stipends at some programs—Michener, Michigan, Vanderbilt, Hopkins, Cornell, and now Rutgers-Newark—are downright cushy for all accepted students, often closer to $30k per year. The stipends at other programs are not livable for anybody, or at the very least need to be supplemented with a summer job.
If you’re used to making quite a bit more, I imagine the adjustment could be difficult. But yes, lots of people live on this kind of money all the time, all over America. I have lived on significantly less in a much more expensive city (Boston), and while I wouldn’t recommend being that broke, it didn’t quite kill me.
As for the time issue, let me be blunt: Most of the funded MFAs out there are actually kind of exploitive, which is not to say the faculty are bad people or the students who go there will never ever succeed. But! At the late capitalist university, the demands on a typical grad student’s time are myriad and ridiculous and designed by administrators who don’t care about you, people whose sole purpose is extracting as much labor as possible in exchange for the degree. You and your classmates and your professors and your departmental secretary and the undergrad who answers the phones and the guy who fixes the lock on your office door are all going to be cranky and overworked on a regular basis. C’est la vie.
Given these realities, your goal is to seek out the best possible funding package for the smallest amount of labor, a place that pays you enough to live on, makes you do the least stuff as a condition of the money, and doesn’t swamp you with a ridiculous course load requirement. Probably, because three years is more time than two, you’ll want to check out mostly three- and even four-year programs.
Note that there are opportunities available at most schools you wouldn’t know about from the websites or publicity materials. I’m currently on Ohio State’s Distinguished University Fellowship, a non-teaching award that wasn’t mentioned in any of my program’s publicity materials because nobody in the MFA had received it, until I did. This fellowship, which is a big part of why I chose Ohio, means that I spend two years of my degree getting paid to show up, with teaching making zero demands on my time. A friend of mine has a similar situation at Wisconsin, where she was awarded a diversity fellowship she’d never heard of until suddenly it was hers. Now she too has a year of service-free funding. When it comes to time management, these sorts of awards help a lot.
Next step: Go to this website’s list of fully funded programs and open up the homepage for each. Eliminate the ones with stipends that won’t work for you. Then eliminate the ones with course loads that won’t work for you. Then eliminate the ones with teaching loads that won’t work for you. Then eliminate the ones in places you hate.
Probably just apply to whatever’s left at that point.