Every summer hundreds of newly accepted MFA students box up their books, gas up their cars, and make the trek to programs across the country. It’s a sort of crisscross dance with writers zipping off to places they’ve never been before, or, have only briefly visited. More often than not, things work out—we endure the foreign weather and different accents; the local charm either grows on us or becomes grist for mill. But sometimes, for any number of reasons, things don’t go as planned and a change is in order.
In my case, I had received tuition remission, but no stipend. I was working full-time for minimum wage in an expensive city, which in many ways defeated the whole purpose: more time to hone my craft and build a community. That fall, I applied to another round of schools and received an acceptance phone call outside the door to that week’s fiction workshop. No one else knew, but that didn’t stop me from feeling incredibly awkward.
But transferring shouldn’t be the faux pas some make it out to be—accepting an MFA program’s offer is not like getting married, and even if it was, your fidelity should be to your own well-being and work as an artist. I didn’t tell anyone at my former school I was thinking about transferring because I’d decided I would stick it out if I didn’t get accepted. While I wasn’t thrilled with the situation, I still thought it was better than no MFA program. The few interactions I had had with faculty and cohort were good but I was still surprised people were understanding when I told them I was leaving.
Here’s the thing: if people get mad at you for leaving, they’re doing it out of some sense of selfishness or ownership over you or your work, which should tip you off even more so that maybe it’s not a great, or healthy, environment to study and write. When I let my instructors know I’d be transferring, they were supportive and I’ve stayed in touch with them as well. The people you should worry about are the ones on the admissions committees for the places you’re hoping to transfer to. It does happen that sometimes students are looking to transfer and the problem isn’t with the school they are hoping to leave, rather, it’s that they’re unprepared—academically or emotionally—for the types of stress inherent to rigorous MFA programs. In addition, some programs have a policy of not accepting transfer students; make sure you do your homework and learn where they stand before shelling out for app fees and sweating over your SOP again.
You will want to mention your reason(s) for leaving in your statement of purpose and be honest. It might be that you see your potential new school offering something important that the current one doesn’t. Your work here is twice as tricky: to reassure the committee you won’t cause stress by vanishing halfway through the school year, and that you’ll be a good fit with your cohort and the faculty. There’s no one right way to do this, but there are myriad ways to flub it. Unless for some reason it’s absolutely necessary, don’t disparage anyone at your current program. There’s no reason to lie here, but there’s also no real reason to say “so and so is a jerk” unless you want to run the risk of adcoms responding in the way parents do when they say something along the lines of, “I don’t care who started it.” If it is necessary, you might consider addressing a program’s shortcomings in more general terms. In any case, you’ll want the focus of your statement to be on what you’ll bring to them, and how you’ll take advantage of the resources they’d be providing you.
Whatever your reason for transferring, even if ultimately it’s simply a question of money, or comfort, or teaching versus not teaching, you shouldn’t feel guilty, or assume the people at your current school will disavow you. From talking to others who transferred, or gave it serious consideration, it’s a fairly common feeling. For all the critiques of MFA programs churning out a similar style of writing, there’s an incredibly wide range of experiences—whether it’s close-knit or hands-off, steeped in academia or studio classes, or more expensive than it appeared at first, it’s hard to know what your MFA experience will actually be like. You might get a sense by talking to current and former students, or from a short visit after receiving your acceptance, but none of that can really prepare you.
In the end it’ll be up to you decide whether you stay, transfer, or write in some other setting. Any of these could be the right choice, given the circumstances. Just know that while transferring might be uncommon, and in some cases a long shot, it could be what’s best for you and your work—and an MFA that doesn’t value those considerations isn’t worth much at all.
Dylan Brown’s work has appeared in Brevity, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Barrelhouse, and The Collagist. Dylan is a graduate of the MFA program at Oregon State University and currently live in Los Angeles.
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