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chaparralcountry

applying to MFA programs with a background in ecology?

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the title sounds nuts, i know. i was pretty set on environmental science until my last year of college when i had finished all my graduation requirements and essentially took electives for two semesters. i attended undergrad at an institution with a well-regarded MFA program (brown, cornell, michigan, uva, vanderbilt etc.) so i took advantage of this and primarily took creative writing/poetry classes my senior year. i loved it. my original plan was to pursue a MPA which would've made the most sense career-wise considering what i've been doing most of college, but if you were to ask me what i really wanted to do, it'd have been to write (secretly always has been - i went to a stuyvesant-esque high school where everyone went into STEM and never even considered the possibility of focusing in the humanities as an 18 yo). but here i am. 

has anyone been in this position before? how did you develop your body of work? did you try submitting to any college-based periodicals or publishing houses? how did the application process go? did you take a couple of years off? how about jobs in the interim??? aaaah. i have a couple things i've written for classes that i'm pretty proud of but i know the competition's steep and am wondering if i should give this dream thing a shot. 

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Doesn't sound nuts at all to me. Writers come from a multitude of backgrounds, and I think those backgrounds influence our writing in interesting ways whether we're conscious of it or not. 

I'll say that--from what I can remember--the MFA programs I applied to didn't care one whit whether I'd already been published or not. They wanted to know my educational background, they wanted to see a portfolio and they wanted to know a little bit about why I was applying. My applications were rushed because I'd actually planned on applying to a PhD program in religion that applications season. Much like you, my heart said, "That isn't where you're meant to be," so I did a 180. I'd already missed the deadline for several MFA programs I was so late in the game. Here in late September I think you should be fine. 

That said, things to consider. You might want to try having a piece in your portfolio that reflects your ecology background. My background was religion, so I made sure at least one of my pieces spoke to this. If you have the time, write something new if you need to. Make sure you've edited and revised whatever prior work you're going to submit in your portfolio, but don't overedit so that it loses its heart. 

Make sure your statement of purpose distinguishes you from the rest. Your background already does a bit, so make sure that comes across in your statement. 

Don't go to an MFA if you think the job market will get much better for you. Do consider programs that will let you teach, possibly in exchange for tuition, as this experience will be an asset once you do hit the job market, often more so than the degree. Don't go to an MFA thinking it's your only way to get published. Lots of writers have been successful without going anywhere near an MFA. Also, real talk: it often gets hard to separate the bad advice from the good, your work will get heavily criticized and possibly even torn apart, and a lot of writers come out of MFA programs feeling creatively and emotionally exhausted, so make sure you're prepared for the ups and downs. A lot of us take a bit of a writing break after graduation because of this. It's helpful knowing it's not you, though, and that a lot of people feel that way. Your MFA can be a helpful place to make connections but it's not guaranteed, so make the most of events like the AWP conference and local readings. 

Anyway, all this to say, don't talk yourself out of it! The quality of your work and what unique insights you bring are the most important things they're going to be looking for. :)

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thank you so much. 

i’d be focusing my applications on fully-funded programs to be financially pragmatic although i realize that means looking at places with 1-2% acceptance rates (if even that!) the publishing part is comforting because i definitely don’t have that, alas i don’t even have enough for a portfolio. i’m looking at some graduate mfa faqs and “30 to 40 pages double spaced” is so much more than anything i’ve ever submitted, so i’ll have to start from scratch or at least heavily expand what i do have. 

i recently discovered the option of doing a certificate in creative writing through a local university’s extension program - is this something you’d recommend looking into for the sake of reference letters/receiving faculty critique? or would writing for the heck of it in my spare time (still doing something environmental for now) and getting it proofread by friends and possibly one MFA pal be enough? 

i think i’d be applying the following cycle, if not the one after that, since unfortunately i don't have much to show for this currently. do relevant jobs or internships matter? not that i can land one at some literary magazine with mostly field biology experience, but i’m wondering if i should express my interest in writing in more ways than just sending in an application and staying where i’m at professionally. 

i feel like i have more questions but don’t know what to ask! i also seriously appreciate you taking the time to respond, i felt better from reading the first sentence :)  

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I hope you don't mind my bullet-pointing because it helps me organize my thoughts a bit better. :)

  • Make sure you're researching the fully-funded programs as deeply as you can. A lot of the info that comes up first in Google searches is old. There are some up-and-coming programs that have either recently become fully-funded or are in the works to (although if they're not fully-funded yet, they won't be for your incoming year, so might be best to look elsewhere or hold off). There are also ways to get funded through something other than an acceptance. In my case, the program to which I was accepted granted teaching assistantships the first year which covered tuition and gave a nice stipend that was livable. Going into my second year, I got really lucky. I applied for a graduate assistantship at another office on campus which granted the same benefits and luckily got the job. It just happened to be right up my alley. However, I was on a small campus and I don't think there were a great deal of these opportunities, so I might be in the minority. Larger universities with larger programs, though, will have more of these (likely).
  • To be honest, I'm not sure how important your letters of recommendation are. None of my previous professors had major connections with any of the universities to which I was applying, so I don't think my acceptances and rejections hinged on that. I think I remember reading once that someone who was accepted to the Writers' Workshop (Iowa) got a letter of recommendation from a co-worker at a factory. I think it goes back to that "this person is unique and we can see how their life experience shapes their vision for their work" thing. I'd say don't spend more money on a certificate and just throw your efforts into finding people you already know who can attest well to your talents and achievements but I also don't know much about certificates in the subject in general. And yes, definitely let others give you feedback, but make sure they're trustworthy and they understand you and what you want of your work.
  • I don't think editing/publishing work or working at a literary magazine would necessarily make your application stronger. Most programs only have a course or two offered on the subject, and I think a lot of students get by without ever taking one on it. The job you're in now might do better to distinguish you from other candidates. But also, I don't think I was asked for a resume or CV by any of the programs to which I applied (it's been a while) so I don't know that any jobs came up outside of what I chose to include in my statement of purpose. 

Do you mind if I ask what genre(s) you prefer when it comes to your own writing? I don't know if that'll change much but you never know. 

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