August 5, 2019 § 8 Comments
By Victoria Buitron
Over the past week, my Twitter feed has been embroiled in yet another “Is an MFA really worth it?” discussion. I’ve read Tweets about how real authors would never get an MFA, posts from graduates upset that they didn’t get the teaching position they wholeheartedly expected, a few lukewarm “NO regrets!” posts, and Kelly Link’s thread detailing the staggering amount of debt people have acquired for an MFA. The figures are shocking and disheartening. But I am one of those individuals who is going into debt for an MFA program with my eyes wide open, and I’d like to share my debt story.
Think of it as a Money Diaries post except it’s only about grad school and it’s not anonymous.
I would have begun an MFA program as soon as I graduated with a BA in 2015, but I didn’t have any savings or the work experience I wanted. That year I landed a position I love as a translator and editor and began saving for grad school. Thanks to social media interest trackers, the Fairfield University MFA website would regularly appear on my browser over the following three years. I googled all the teachers and fell in love with their work. It’s a low-residency program, based in my state, and there was a list of a few graduate assistant positions. Although the opportunity didn’t mean I would get an assistantship, I wanted the option to be available.
It was important for me to know I would have a shot at additional funds. I’m an immigrant who has lived between two countries, the United States and Ecuador, for most of my life and I’ve only put down official roots in the U.S. since 2012. The only way I can save money is by doing gigs on the side: house-sitting, dog-sitting, babysitting, editing, translating, and tutoring in English and Spanish. There have been times I’ve put kids to sleep at 8:00 p.m. and then written until the parents arrived at 1 a.m. I put all those savings away for MFA application day.
I had $3,000 in student loans when I graduated with my Bachelor’s (shout out to Hunter College–CUNY) and I felt I could afford a maximum of $15,000 in student loan debt with accruing interest for an MFA program. Nonetheless, I wanted to do anything legally possible not to take out that amount.
In early 2018, once I chose three low-residency MFA grad programs, with Fairfield University as my #1 choice, before sending out my applications I requested a meeting with my boss. There was nothing in the employee handbook that indicated tuition reimbursement existed, but I had to ask. I’m a confident woman, I know what I’m worth, and if you don’t ask, you’ll never get anything.
My employer informed me they would pay up to 50% of my tuition, with stipulations regarding my grades, the type of degree I would get, and the amount of years I’d work for the company. I accepted. Afterwards, I applied to Fairfield University’s MFA in Writing and was accepted.
In the first year, my employer paid half of my tuition, leaving me with around $10,000 to pay off. I had $5,000 in savings ready to use, leaving the need for $5,000 in student loans. Towards the end of my second semester, I was informed that a new graduate student position became available to serve on the staff of Brevity. I had read the magazine religiously even before I entered my program, was a submissions reader for the magazine during my first two MFA semesters, and had been in a workshop with the founding editor. I applied and got the position, which comes with a 50% stipend for tuition.
For my last year of grad school, I won’t have to pay tuition at all. I will be working my ass off, but I thoroughly enjoy working for Brevity, and I won’t need any additional loans. I haven’t graduated yet, but my writing has already improved, I love my MFA community, and many doors have opened up for me. It’s all been worth it.
I have had many privileges that led me to low student debt. I am an able-bodied Latina who has a secure job, lives in a two-income home, no children, and I have time on my side to save money. It’s important to acknowledge there are structural economic factors that prevent many people from saving through side gigs like I do. People can’t pull themselves up by the bootstraps if they can’t afford boots. In certain cases, saving money is just not feasible and loans are the only option.
Are you considering an MFA but worry about the debt? Here are my tips for tentative grad students:
- Look up grad schools with fully-funded programs, partially-funded programs, and graduate student positions. Unless you can pay for grad school out of pocket, there should be no reason why you’re attending a school that doesn’t provide these sorts of opportunities to their students.
- Plan ahead. Years ahead.
- Figure in the loan principal and interest whether or not you will get that teaching and/or tenure track job.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for money. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you deserve. The worst people can say is no. But always, always ask.
- Apply for grants and scholarships. You’ll have a better shot at local ones than national ones.
- Google the teachers and the directors of the grad programs you’re interested in. They will be your community, and you have to determine whether you’re ready to pay to be in that community. Once you are seriously considering a program, e-mail the director or administrator and ask if you can be in touch with some current students.
- Low-residency or full-residency. Determine the pros and cons and what would be best for you.
- Go to a local library writing workshop or join a writers’ group before shelling out thousands of dollars for an MFA. Maybe you’ll realize that’s all you needed.
- Don’t compare your financial situation with the person next to you in workshop. No one else but you knows what you can afford, save and pay back in loans.
- Please don’t get into $100,000 debt for an MFA. No matter what the name of the school is.
Victoria Buitron is a writer and translator based in Connecticut. She is currently an MFA candidate at Fairfield University’s low-residency program. Find her at atravelingtranslator.com and on Twitter at @kikitraveler30.
June 19, 2019 § 12 Comments
By Amelia Morand
The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien
The night before I move to Montana, an online forum tells me that the trailer I’ve rented will void my car insurance and possibly kill my engine. The next morning, I buy a discount rooftop cargo box and consolidate my life into sixteen cubic feet. I leave behind: the King bed and dining room table I got in the breakup, my Crock-Pot and large and small food processors, half of my shoes, and most of my books. I bring: four pairs of SmartWool socks, three forks, rain boots I will never wear, and two drugged dogs.
The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller
Reading the very first round of submissions, I realize that we were all the star writers in our undergraduate workshops. Our teacher tells us that if we let it, the jealousy will consume us, and we write this down, desperate for his approval. Each week our cramped classroom will hold our egos and impostor complexes, shifting rivalries and alliances, layers of flannel and down, the smell of spoiled milk growing more urgent and distinctive as the weather gets colder.
Just As Long As We’re Together, Judy Blume
Early on, one of my new friends tells her partner, “I’ve found my tribe.” We nickname our program The Bubble, and our old lives feel far away. It’s too hard to explain to everyone back home what we’re doing here. The three of us often end the night holding hands above the console as the engine idles for an hour, gossiping about the cohort, complaining about our students, laughing again and again over the same stupid joke. I always forget to turn off my headlights, and we watch deer making their way across the lawns.
When You are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris
I spend my first term failing to do the following: teach my students how to write a strong thesis statement; understand or even finish Ulysses; talk to a human every day; write a story I’m proud of.
Capital Volume I, Karl Marx
I’m lucky enough to receive a tuition waiver and a stipend, which puts me a little more than six thousand dollars below the poverty line. At first I feel guilty for applying for SNAP, for using my EBT to buy organic chicken, for using it to buy ice cream. I majored in economics as an undergrad, as I make sure to tell everyone, but my Marxism is theoretical, not personal. The choice to study creative writing instead of inequality seems so stupid, so selfish, I feel I don’t deserve any assistance, let alone the public’s. Still, after a few months, I will go just about anywhere if the food is free.
Blue Nights, Joan Didion
I think that the world will probably end soon, and also that I never had any talent to begin with, and I’m not sure which depresses me more, and this ambiguity is another reason I lie awake and anxious from two to five, sleep until nine or ten, spend the day groggy and ashamed. The third time I tell my doctor I want to go back on Wellbutrin she gets it, and while this doesn’t change how I feel about climate or my writing, I now feel able to teach, and read, and walk my dogs. Some days I even write.
Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish
I don’t register the rejections most of the time, though sometimes they’re a little nicer, and I feel optimistic, and sometimes they all come the same week, and I think I’ll quit. The schools all started hiring months ago, and the restaurant in Santa Fe would be glad to have me back. My friend asks if I’ll be home for her wedding in September. “It’s complicated,” I say.
And Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris
The theses were read last weekend, a thousand pictures taken by parents and partners (none mine). I skipped the last two parties and with them several goodbyes, and I’ve spent most of this cold and sunny day staring out the window, slowly revising my final few assignments. In fact, I did not bring this book to Missoula, but when it shows up on a syllabus in my final term, I remember exactly which box it’s in beneath the framing table, wedged between half-empty journals and my high school yearbooks, taking up space, she reminds me, in my mother’s garage.
Originally from Santa Fe, Amelia Morand now lives in Missoula, where she serves as a Fiction editor for CutBank and has just finished her MFA. Her writing is featured or forthcoming with apt, Hobart, Pithead Chapel, and Lunch Ticket.
August 12, 2016 § 10 Comments
Last month we ran Emily Smith’s blog post suggesting that the MFA in creative writing was a calling card of sorts, allowing entry into certain corners of the literary world. The post garnered plenty of commentary, and a number of follow-up blog posts. Here they are, all rounded up into one neat package, for your reading pleasure (or to share with your students contemplating a graduate degree):
The MFA as Calling Card, by Emily Smith
The MFA is Not a Calling Card, by Dinty W. Moore
The MFA is Not A Calling Card: The Low-Residency View, by Kevin Haworth
Why the MFA was the Right Choice for Me, by Jayme Russell
The MFA as Friend, by Kelly Green
The MFA as Rampant Careerism, by Matthew Schmeer
No MFA for Me, by Tim Drugan-Eppich
October 4, 2010 § 3 Comments
That is the question, apparently, for so many young writers right now. Why, we might ask, is there so much blog traffic and essay writing lately about the validity of the writing MFA? Oh right, because it is writers who spend so much time thinking on this question, and after writers are done thinking, they write something.
In any case, Anelise Chen (an NYU MFA candidate) has a series of meditations on the subject over the The Rumpus, concluding with this paragraph, which we rather think gets it exactly right:
… For a person who really wants to become a writer, none of this matters. She will go to school if she feels it will help her become a better writer; she will not go if she feels it will harm her. She will teach in a Program if she needs the money, she will not teach if she is can find another way to make a living. Even if she decides the Program is nonsense, she can go her own way. Publishers for the most part (I still believe, having worked for a publisher) don’t really care if a writer has gotten an MFA. Unlike other fine arts, which perhaps have more stringent MFA policies, writers can still become insanely successful without any institutional hand holding. Writing, thankfully, is still a singles event–we choose our own music and sequined outfits and dance our hearts out, even if nobody is looking. The hope is that eventually, someone will.
Read Chen’s full essay here, along with a useful comment thread discussion.
And a few bonus posts, right here: