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I have a pretty difficult decision in front of me. I got accepted to a few English MA programs (one of them is a super-ideal program) and one MFA program in creative writing, and I'm not sure about which path to follow. 

I really, really want to attend an MFA. I see creative writing as a life-long pursuit, and I think getting an MFA right now would be a great step in that pursuit.

The "problem" (I realize how lucky I am to have this problem) is that I'm unsure about this particular MFA program. It's only a few years old, not as well known or renowned as other places, and is taught by a few writers who, although have published a lot, I'm not particularly enthusiastic about working with. The kind of writing they do is very different from my own. 

If you're wondering why I applied to this programs, I wanted to widen my net as much as possible and include a variety of higher and lower ranked programs. 

There are things, however, that I like about the MFA program--it's fully funded, will give me teaching experience, and allows its students to work in editing and publishing through a magazine internship, all of which I really value.

The English MA program, on the other hand, is an ideal fit for me. The program is home to a number of faculty members doing work in my area of specialization, they have great PhD placement rates, and they provide twice as much funding with a lower teaching load. 

Dilemma in short--Although I prioritize the MFA over the MA, I've gotten into my least ideal MFA program and most ideal MA program, and I don't know which way to go.  

Other important info...

My vocational goals are to teach literature at the university or community college level, and I plan on applying to PhD programs after completing either my MA or MFA. 

I don't really care about where I live.

Funding is important to me (grad school seems stressful enough without money issues). 

Do you think it's right for me to assume that an MA will give me a better chance to get into prestigious PhD programs than an MFA, especially an MFA that is lower ranked or not as known? 

I understand it's impossible for anyone, especially a stranger, to really know what's best for my future, but any thoughts, opinions, or stories of similar situations and how they worked out for you would be very much appreciated. Let me know if you'd like more context. 

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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in an ideal world, i would say do the English MA. it's clearly the better fit for you by miles, meaning you'll likely produce better work than the fiction you might under people whose work is very different from your own. you can always reapply to MFAs with an english MA in hand. i think you're right to highlight the relative newness of the program, the difference between faculty's interests and your own, and ranking. teaching opportunities and internship opportunities are great obviously, but by no means are they unique to an MFA program; a lot of MA and PhD programs offer these too, often in abundance.

the only caveat is: funding. i'm guessing the MA is not fully funded. is it partially funded? do you have any support available to you (family/savings), or the ability to apply for external funding or teaching there? if not, my advice changes a bit. imo it is never worth going into debt to get a humanities degree, mostly because 1.) there is (unfortunately) no guaranteed paying career path at the end of either an MFA or a terminal MA (or even a PhD for that matter...)  2.) the better fit might be somewhat squandered if you're struggling to produce your best work while incredibly stressed about money throughout.

if the funding situations are wildly disparate, it would probably be easier/wiser to do the fully funded MFA, playing to your strengths (developing teaching skills, etc) and adapting to the program's weaknesses (fit). there were at least 2 recent MFAs in this year's yale english phd admitted cohort (14 ppl i think?) so it definitely wouldn't hurt you. go where you will produce your best work—and the answer to that question is probably 50/50 fit and funding, it sounds like. sorry for the equivocal answer!

Edited by meghan_sparkle
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13 hours ago, Mr. Somebody said:

Do you think it's right for me to assume that an MA will give me a better chance to get into prestigious PhD programs than an MFA, especially an MFA that is lower ranked or not as known? 

I don't think attending this MFA program will impact your PhD chances in any tangible way. IME PhD programs don't really consider the prestige of one's MFA as a factor in making decisions. If you are going for a literature PhD (and not a creative writing PhD), they don't really care that much about any creative publications or your creative writing life in general. They view it as almost a completely different discipline.  

Having said that ...

13 hours ago, Mr. Somebody said:

The "problem" (I realize how lucky I am to have this problem) is that I'm unsure about this particular MFA program. It's only a few years old, not as well known or renowned as other places, and is taught by a few writers who, although have published a lot, I'm not particularly enthusiastic about working with. The kind of writing they do is very different from my own. 

If this is how you feel about this program, I don't think you should go there. And I'm coming from a place of experience here. I did a creative writing degree right out of undergrad, and it was seriously the worst experience of my life. The professors had zero interest in my writing (and I honestly didn't like theirs either), the workshop was a mean, hostile place (probably because I wasn't doing the type of writing everyone else was, but also because there was loads of misogyny* and women in general were looked at as incapable of writing Real LiteratureTM) ... and it just sucked. 

And to be honest, I was so traumatized by my experience that it took me years--I mean, goddamn years--for me to start writing creatively again. Now, I realize my story is an extreme example here, and that you probably won't have the same experience, and YMMV and all that. But I do think that having good writers/mentors to work with is EXTREMELY important when you're doing creative writing. I mean, it's really the whole enterprise in a nutshell. If you can't trust your adviser/mentor with this thing that comes from a very personal part of you, then you really can't get the guidance and support you need. If you don't think you can do that at this MFA program, then you absolutely should not go.

13 hours ago, Mr. Somebody said:

The English MA program, on the other hand, is an ideal fit for me. The program is home to a number of faculty members doing work in my area of specialization, they have great PhD placement rates, and they provide twice as much funding with a lower teaching load. 

Go to this program, for the funding if nothing else. 2x the funding you'd get at the MFA program is nothing to sneeze at, and congratulations. Plus, a lower teaching load is SO important. I can't stress that enough.

More importantly, if you finish the MA and decide that you then want to do an MFA (instead of a PhD), you will still have that option, and you may, by that point, have a portfolio that gets you into a dream MFA program rather than your last choice. Better to hold off and get your MFA from, say, Michigan or UC-Irvine, than from hole-in-the-wall University of Dingdongs with an MFA program that's just a few years old.

 

*This English department (department--not the entire university) recently settled a massive Title IX lawsuit due to its pervasive culture of sexual harassment, and for its willful choice to do jackshit to stop it. It wasn't just me (yay, I guess?).

Edited by Bumblebea
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46 minutes ago, Bumblebea said:

Go to this program, for the funding if nothing else. 2x the funding you'd get at the MFA program is nothing to sneeze at, and congratulations. Plus, a lower teaching load is SO important. I can't stress that enough.

WHOA I totally missed the line about twice the funding – sorry OP, I thought the MFA program was fully funded and the other one was less funding!! Resolving not to post replies just before bed anymore.

Totally agree w @Bumblebea — especially the bit  about the degree to which poor faculty fit can be lowkey traumatizing. ("What's the worst that can happen?" is, it turns out, a lot.)

My professors in undergrad but were avid, curious readers of my writing, but the faculty in my 1 year masters, supposedly more prestigious and bigger names, really did not care about my work or writing or advise me at all. The experience of feeling so out of step with them, burnt out by a program I didn't believe in, constantly feeling uninspired or even unwanted—it honestly wiped out my confidence for a good year or so. I didn't ask anyone that taught me on my masters for a recommendation. Hell I didn't even tell my postgraduate dissertation advisor I was applying for PhD programs. 

Edited by meghan_sparkle
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This is a tough dilemma. Yes, the M.F.A. teaching load is higher, but it isn't unusual for M.F.A. teaching loads to be that high, and getting into a fully funded M.F.A. anywhere is an accomplishment. Yes, this M.F.A. program is newer, but prestige isn't the same thing in M.F.A. programs - what counts are the opportunities you're given (do they set you up with agents or provide networking opportunities?) and the publication history of the faculty and recent grads. Admittedly, Iowa and Michigan will try to set you up with agents right then and there, so it's not like prestige doesn't exist, but it's not always the gamechanger it seems to sometimes play in lit programs. (And name recognition hardly matters! No Ivies have M.F.A.s, after all, and our top program is in Iowa.) On my friends list, there is one person who graduated from Iowa and has struggled mightily for every publication he's gotten... and another person from an only-partially-ranked MFA with sketchy funding who has been in the New Yorker multiple times and just won the O. Henry Award. 

The funding amount is worth considering, though. 

I think you will stand a better chance getting into a prestigious Ph.D in an M.A. program, just by virtue of training to do literary scholarship. I do not feel I was nearly as prepared as an M.A. student. However, if your goal is to balance creative work and criticism, I think you should do an M.F.A. before a Ph.D., one way or another. A Ph.D is a beast, and so is an M.F.A. I can't imagine jumping into a Ph.D, intending to also do creative work, without everything I had to learn about style, plotting a good story, the literary community, maintaining writing discipline, etc. in an M.F.A. 

A few things about M.F.A.s to consider: 

  • Having writers who you admire, and who you think will support your work, is important. However, the writers you think will support you and the writers who actually will are often different. My thesis director was a notorious hardass about "weird" or speculative fiction; his major book - which had just come out, and was a NYT bestseller and all that jazz - was realism. While I'm not scifi/fantasy and technically nothing non-"realistic" actually happens in it, my fiction definitely has a very surreal flavor. I expected him to be my harshest critic just by his books. However, he ended up really believing in it and supporting it from the start. There are a lot of stories like that, at least in my MFA program. What it often seems to boil down to is far more subjective factors like feedback style, personality, openness to stylistic experimentation, etc. 
  • The exception to this I think is that if you are POC or queer since... not having guidance from someone who isn't clueless about your writing material is often, in those cases, extremely helpful. 
  • What Bumblebea said is true across the board, and in particular with fiction: CW is a brutal business. Be prepared for many existential crises. You are not really going to be able to work on your literary scholarship since (if you're like me) CW is hard enough that you'll just be drowning in that. 

But. Given all the factors involved, I'd agree that it makes sense to do the M.F.A. or M.A. both before the Ph.D. Since the M.A. is the better opportunity right now, complete that, and then apply again to M.F.A.s. From there, you can apply to Ph.Ds.

The one thing would be, if you feel like you can't push your creative work forward at this time without the benefits of the M.F.A., maybe take that into account and do it first, and practice the time balance you'll need to do for the rest of your career in the M.A. afterward.

That's a lot of applying, but it seems worth it to you to do both, and IMO doing an M.F.A. somewhere is worth it if you want to straddle both worlds.

Edited by merry night wanderer
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1 hour ago, merry night wanderer said:

This is a tough dilemma. Yes, the M.F.A. teaching load is higher, but it isn't unusual for M.F.A. teaching loads to be that high, and getting into a fully funded M.F.A. anywhere is an accomplishment. Yes, this M.F.A. program is newer, but prestige isn't the same thing in M.F.A. programs - what counts are the opportunities you're given (do they set you up with agents or provide networking opportunities?) and the publication history of the faculty and recent grads. Admittedly, Iowa and Michigan will try to set you up with agents right then and there, so it's not like prestige doesn't exist, but it's not always the gamechanger it seems to sometimes play in lit programs. (And name recognition hardly matters! No Ivies have M.F.A.s, after all, and our top program is in Iowa.) On my friends list, there is one person who graduated from Iowa and has struggled mightily for every publication he's gotten... and another person from an only-partially-ranked MFA with sketchy funding who has been in the New Yorker multiple times and just won the O. Henry Award. 

The funding amount is worth considering, though. 

I think you will stand a better chance getting into a prestigious Ph.D in an M.A. program, just by virtue of training to do literary scholarship. I do not feel I was nearly as prepared as an M.A. student. However, if your goal is to balance creative work and criticism, I think you should do an M.F.A. before a Ph.D., one way or another. A Ph.D is a beast, and so is an M.F.A. I can't imagine jumping into a Ph.D, intending to also do creative work, without everything I had to learn about style, plotting a good story, the literary community, maintaining writing discipline, etc. in an M.F.A. 

A few things about M.F.A.s to consider: 

  • Having writers who you admire, and who you think will support your work, is important. However, the writers you think will support you and the writers who actually will are often different. My thesis director was a notorious hardass about "weird" or speculative fiction; his major book - which had just come out, and was a NYT bestseller and all that jazz - was realism. While I'm not scifi/fantasy and technically nothing non-"realistic" actually happens in it, my fiction definitely has a very surreal flavor. I expected him to be my harshest critic just by his books. However, he ended up really believing in it and supporting it from the start. There are a lot of stories like that, at least in my MFA program. What it often seems to boil down to is far more subjective factors like feedback style, personality, openness to stylistic experimentation, etc. 
  • The exception to this I think is that if you are POC or queer since... not having guidance from someone who isn't clueless about your writing material is often, in those cases, extremely helpful. 
  • What Bumblebea said is true across the board, and in particular with fiction: CW is a brutal business. Be prepared for many existential crises. You are not really going to be able to work on your literary scholarship since (if you're like me) CW is hard enough that you'll just be drowning in that. 

But. Given all the factors involved, I'd agree that it makes sense to do the M.F.A. or M.A. both before the Ph.D. Since the M.A. is the better opportunity right now, complete that, and then apply again to M.F.A.s. From there, you can apply to Ph.Ds.

The one thing would be, if you feel like you can't push your creative work forward at this time without the benefits of the M.F.A., maybe take that into account and do it first, and practice the time balance you'll need to do for the rest of your career in the M.A. afterward.

That's a lot of applying, but it seems worth it to you to do both, and IMO doing an M.F.A. somewhere is worth it if you want to straddle both worlds.

Just wanted to correct one of your claims here -- Brown, Columbia, and Cornell all have MFA programs!

OP, I know people who have done the MFA > PhD route, the MA > MFA > PhD route, as well as the PhD > MFA > PhD route (doing an MFA in the middle of the PhD!), as well as the PhD > MFA route. It really depends on where you and your work are, right now, critically and creatively -- and also, perhaps, taking age into account. I have an MFA and I'm starting a PhD program in the fall, and I'm really glad I did the MFA first. It absolutely strengthened my applicant profile -- I've won a number of creative writing fellowships and prizes, and have a couple of publications in prestigious journals, which I likely wouldn't have had without the MFA. Not so much because the MFA itself made me a better writer, but because it gave me access to the literary world and its opportunities. It also gave me time + funding to mature as a writer. Also, people at the English PhD programs I've been admitted to have been very interested in and impressed by that aspect of my writing life, so I wouldn't discount what you're bringing to the table as a creative writer, or the possible appeal of your degree/background.

I was also very generously funded at my MFA, so your situation, I think, is a bit different. Will you be able to live comfortably on the stipend the MFA program is offering you? One of the absolute best aspects of my MFA was being able to travel and save money, which totally transformed the first part of my twenties. Also, I've seen some MA English programs where a creative thesis is possible -- that might be something to look into! I think the best options here are a) do the well-funded MA, be proactive about seeking out creative writing opportunities, b) take a gap year, reapply to better funded, more established MFA programs.

Congrats on your admittances! You have a wonderful problem on your hands. Getting into fully funded MA and MFA programs is nothing to sneeze at. :)

Edited by tansy, rue, root, & seed
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Apologies, that should have read "Almost no"!

Regardless, it's a different business with prestige - the Columbia program is extremely controversial, for instance, and though Cornell and Brown are great, there's no question that programs like Iowa, Michener, etc are considered the gold standard. But even so prestige just works differently. You go to those schools because of good funding, published writers, and networking, not name recognition, and even big state schools like Ole Miss with iffy funding situations and huge teaching loads are incredibly well-regarded. 

I will also second what was said about the M.F.A. making you more interesting: all the programs that have selected me have mentioned it, a couple have sold me on their excellent M.F.A. programs as a bonus (just having the literary community around), and one or two even mentioned they have good luck with MFA students. And of course, you can take lit seminars if it's not a studio program. I don't think it's exactly a benefit in a hugely tangible way, but can certainly form a compelling part of a larger, strong application. The M.A. is definitely going to teach you to research at a higher level (especially if you're going to a studio program, which might not have you doing lit criticism at all), but an M.F.A is not going to set you back. 

Edited by merry night wanderer
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Just now, merry night wanderer said:

even big state schools like Ole Miss with iffy funding situations and huge teaching loads are incredibly well-regarded. 

 

Just a quick note to point out that both the MFA and MA program at the University of Mississippi don't have a "huge teaching load" - you T.A. year 1 and 3 and teach first-year writing in year 2- and while the stipend is perhaps lower than other programs, it is fully-funded for all grad students.

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Just now, illcounsel said:

Just a quick note to point out that both the MFA and MA program at the University of Mississippi don't have a "huge teaching load" - you T.A. year 1 and 3 and teach first-year writing in year 2- and while the stipend is perhaps lower than other programs, it is fully-funded for all grad students.

When a friend of mine was made an offer a couple years ago, it was 2/2 and the stipend, while fully funded, was barely livable (the situation the OP is in). If they loosened the teaching load that's great news. It's why he didn't go, despite their great reputation. 

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Just now, merry night wanderer said:

When a friend of mine was made an offer a couple years ago, it was 2/2 and the stipend, while fully funded, was barely livable (the situation the OP is in). If they loosened the teaching load that's great news. It's why he didn't go, despite their great reputation. 

Yep, they loosened it to 1-1. I am saddened to hear it was so much more back then especially given the stipend amount as it is even now.

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18 hours ago, meghan_sparkle said:

in an ideal world, i would say do the English MA. it's clearly the better fit for you by miles, meaning you'll likely produce better work than the fiction you might under people whose work is very different from your own. you can always reapply to MFAs with an english MA in hand. i think you're right to highlight the relative newness of the program, the difference between faculty's interests and your own, and ranking. teaching opportunities and internship opportunities are great obviously, but by no means are they unique to an MFA program; a lot of MA and PhD programs offer these too, often in abundance.

the only caveat is: funding. i'm guessing the MA is not fully funded. is it partially funded? do you have any support available to you (family/savings), or the ability to apply for external funding or teaching there? if not, my advice changes a bit. imo it is never worth going into debt to get a humanities degree, mostly because 1.) there is (unfortunately) no guaranteed paying career path at the end of either an MFA or a terminal MA (or even a PhD for that matter...)  2.) the better fit might be somewhat squandered if you're struggling to produce your best work while incredibly stressed about money throughout.

if the funding situations are wildly disparate, it would probably be easier/wiser to do the fully funded MFA, playing to your strengths (developing teaching skills, etc) and adapting to the program's weaknesses (fit). there were at least 2 recent MFAs in this year's yale english phd admitted cohort (14 ppl i think?) so it definitely wouldn't hurt you. go where you will produce your best work—and the answer to that question is probably 50/50 fit and funding, it sounds like. sorry for the equivocal answer!

Thanks so much for the response. It seems like I change my mind every day about which program to attend, and you've highlighted pretty much every reason why that side of me is convinced the MA is the right answer.

Just to be clear on funding (don't worry! I caught your later comment), my tuition is fully covered at both programs, and I'm also receiving a stipend at both programs. While the stipend is about twice as much at the MA than it is at the MFA ($20,000 vs $10,000 annually), housing is much more expensive in the city of the MA. Relatively speaking, the funding at the MA would still take me further. 

P.S. My eyes nearly flung to the screen when I saw your cycle results. Congratulations, what a season!

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10 hours ago, Bumblebea said:

I don't think attending this MFA program will impact your PhD chances in any tangible way. IME PhD programs don't really consider the prestige of one's MFA as a factor in making decisions. If you are going for a literature PhD (and not a creative writing PhD), they don't really care that much about any creative publications or your creative writing life in general. They view it as almost a completely different discipline.  

Having said that ...

If this is how you feel about this program, I don't think you should go there. And I'm coming from a place of experience here. I did a creative writing degree right out of undergrad, and it was seriously the worst experience of my life. The professors had zero interest in my writing (and I honestly didn't like theirs either), the workshop was a mean, hostile place (probably because I wasn't doing the type of writing everyone else was, but also because there was loads of misogyny* and women in general were looked at as incapable of writing Real LiteratureTM) ... and it just sucked. 

And to be honest, I was so traumatized by my experience that it took me years--I mean, goddamn years--for me to start writing creatively again. Now, I realize my story is an extreme example here, and that you probably won't have the same experience, and YMMV and all that. But I do think that having good writers/mentors to work with is EXTREMELY important when you're doing creative writing. I mean, it's really the whole enterprise in a nutshell. If you can't trust your adviser/mentor with this thing that comes from a very personal part of you, then you really can't get the guidance and support you need. If you don't think you can do that at this MFA program, then you absolutely should not go.

Go to this program, for the funding if nothing else. 2x the funding you'd get at the MFA program is nothing to sneeze at, and congratulations. Plus, a lower teaching load is SO important. I can't stress that enough.

More importantly, if you finish the MA and decide that you then want to do an MFA (instead of a PhD), you will still have that option, and you may, by that point, have a portfolio that gets you into a dream MFA program rather than your last choice. Better to hold off and get your MFA from, say, Michigan or UC-Irvine, than from hole-in-the-wall University of Dingdongs with an MFA program that's just a few years old.

 

*This English department (department--not the entire university) recently settled a massive Title IX lawsuit due to its pervasive culture of sexual harassment, and for its willful choice to do jackshit to stop it. It wasn't just me (yay, I guess?).

It's good to know that prestige will have less of an impact when applying to PhD programs. 

I'm so sorry to hear about your experience. As someone with some studio writing experience, I can't imagine how awful a toxic workshop environment must have been. That's definitely not the kind of atmosphere I'd want to be in when sharing my most personal beliefs and cherished characters. I'm glad you were able to bounce back creatively. 

A lot of people seem to be saying similar things regarding the funding... there's just this quiet whisper that's telling me to take the chance on the MFA, to take the "dream." I feel like if I do go for the MA, I will not go back to the MFA, at least not anytime soon. I'm almost 30, spent most of my 20s teaching ESL abroad, and now I'd really like to focus on setting up my career in higher education. I'm okay with doing either an MA or MFA before the PhD, but I don't think I will do both now. 

Thanks for sharing your experiences and suggestions!

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9 hours ago, merry night wanderer said:

Having writers who you admire, and who you think will support your work, is important. However, the writers you think will support you and the writers who actually will are often different. My thesis director was a notorious hardass about "weird" or speculative fiction; his major book - which had just come out, and was a NYT bestseller and all that jazz - was realism. While I'm not scifi/fantasy and technically nothing non-"realistic" actually happens in it, my fiction definitely has a very surreal flavor. I expected him to be my harshest critic just by his books. However, he ended up really believing in it and supporting it from the start. There are a lot of stories like that, at least in my MFA program. What it often seems to boil down to is far more subjective factors like feedback style, personality, openness to stylistic experimentation, etc. 

My friend brought up this exact point.

I tend to write realism and cross-cultural fiction, also with a slight surrealist touch, while the main fiction instructor at this MFA is a mystery/thriller writer--it's a small program, so I assume he would be teaching most, if not all of the fiction workshops. The work he does is so disparately different from what I do, so I was initially concerned about a bunch of things: will he "get" my work? Will he lose interest in my stories? Can he help guide my growth given our differences? Then this friend asked why professor X couldn't be the person who helped bring out my voice, made my characters shine. He brought up David Foster Wallace and everything DFW has said about learning from genres one doesn't write in, including children's literature and genre fiction. 

Should I email this professor about this concern of mine? I learned of the offer through a call from him, and he was really enthusiastic about the idea of my attending the program. I would, of course, be as conciliatory and tact in my wording as possible. Not sure here... 

9 hours ago, merry night wanderer said:

However, if your goal is to balance creative work and criticism, I think you should do an M.F.A. before a Ph.D., one way or another. A Ph.D is a beast, and so is an M.F.A. I can't imagine jumping into a Ph.D, intending to also do creative work, without everything I had to learn about style, plotting a good story, the literary community, maintaining writing discipline, etc. in an M.F.A. 

This is pretty much what I'd like to do ten years from now. Be in a position where I'm teaching literature and writing on the side, over summers, on breaks, or whenever I might be able to squeeze in some time. Difficult, I know, but I'd like to give it a try. 

I keep coming back to this idea that I finally have what I've really wanted since finishing my undergraduate degree: time to focus on my creative writing and see what I can produce in an intensive environment. This idea, despite all the "downsides" of this MFA, is what's preventing from choosing an MA that is a seemingly better fit and program. 

Thanks so much for the response. Really great advice throughout your post. 

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8 hours ago, tansy, rue, root, & seed said:

OP, I know people who have done the MFA > PhD route, the MA > MFA > PhD route, as well as the PhD > MFA > PhD route (doing an MFA in the middle of the PhD!), as well as the PhD > MFA route. It really depends on where you and your work are, right now, critically and creatively -- and also, perhaps, taking age into account. I have an MFA and I'm starting a PhD program in the fall, and I'm really glad I did the MFA first. It absolutely strengthened my applicant profile -- I've won a number of creative writing fellowships and prizes, and have a couple of publications in prestigious journals, which I likely wouldn't have had without the MFA. Not so much because the MFA itself made me a better writer, but because it gave me access to the literary world and its opportunities. It also gave me time + funding to mature as a writer. Also, people at the English PhD programs I've been admitted to have been very interested in and impressed by that aspect of my writing life, so I wouldn't discount what you're bringing to the table as a creative writer, or the possible appeal of your degree/background.

Congrats on your achievements!

Again, good to know that the MFA wasn't a hindrance to your PhD ambitions. 

I agree; I don't think the MFA is necessary to achieve all of those things, but I do value the time and space it can provide me to mature as a writer. I think you're a great example of all the things that can be more readily accomplished with the help of an MFA.

8 hours ago, tansy, rue, root, & seed said:

I was also very generously funded at my MFA, so your situation, I think, is a bit different. Will you be able to live comfortably on the stipend the MFA program is offering you? One of the absolute best aspects of my MFA was being able to travel and save money, which totally transformed the first part of my twenties. Also, I've seen some MA English programs where a creative thesis is possible -- that might be something to look into! I think the best options here are a) do the well-funded MA, be proactive about seeking out creative writing opportunities, b) take a gap year, reapply to better funded, more established MFA programs.

One question I have about MFA culture, for lack of a better term, is: do people look down on less competitive MFA programs? I understand this is probably my ego speaking and that validation should be something that comes from within, but I would be lying if I said that reputation didn't bother me to some extent. I don't want people to get the wrong idea; it's not that I want people to be amazed when I tell them I went to UCI or Iowa or whatever. I just don't want my degree to be automatically written off because it's a newer program. Also, I don't think that all new programs are automatically "bad" or something, but it being a newer program along with my not vibing with the faculty's work is a concern. If, for example, I really respected all the faculty members at this program, I wouldn't care about how new the program was. The combination of 1) being unsure about the faculty and 2) the program still finding its place among the many MFAs is the center of my ambivalence. 

 Is this a thing? Am I out of touch on this? Is my ignorance showing? 

Also, this MFA requires me to take a specialization in Literature, ESL, or pedagogy. If I accept, I will definitely be taking the lit specialization, which will require me to take x amount of classes in literature, and hopefully bolster my chances of producing a solid writing sample that will fit my PhD research interests. 

Edited by Mr. Somebody
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10 hours ago, meghan_sparkle said:

My professors in undergrad but were avid, curious readers of my writing, but the faculty in my 1 year masters, supposedly more prestigious and bigger names, really did not care about my work or writing or advise me at all. The experience of feeling so out of step with them, burnt out by a program I didn't believe in, constantly feeling uninspired or even unwanted—it honestly wiped out my confidence for a good year or so. I didn't ask anyone that taught me on my masters for a recommendation. Hell I didn't even tell my postgraduate dissertation advisor I was applying for PhD programs. 

That sounds like an absolute nightmare for anyone. I think it shows a lot about your character to still apply to PhD programs after such a difficult time, and it's all the more remarkable that you've achieved so much success this app cycle considering how difficult your MA must have been. You should be really proud. 

As both programs are quite small, I'm hoping I don't have any of the same problems. I'm going to get in contact with some current students at both programs and go from there.

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If you don't know if you'll be able to do all three things - the M.A., M.F.A., and Ph.D - and aren't sure you'd go back if you did the M.A., take the M.F.A. You can leap from the M.F.A. to a Ph.D, especially if you're taking the lit specialization, and especially if you're planning on that going in, and can ask lit professors in your area to mentor you. With funding being equal, that's a totally legitimate strategy. You most likely will not get what you need from an M.F.A. in an M.A. program even if you're allowed to do some creative projects.

Regarding your professor - if your writing sample is illustrative of the sort of work you're going to want to do, I'd be very heartened by both your acceptance and that phone call. It sounds like he'd be quite supportive. It wouldn't hurt to talk to him about your concerns more directly. I think the best source of information, though, would be students whose thesis he directed. Ask them how open he is to the kind of work you do, and if workshops tend to skew toward a certain type of fiction over another - they're going to know best of all. 

On 3/9/2020 at 9:33 PM, Mr. Somebody said:

One question I have about MFA culture, for lack of a better term, is: do people look down on less competitive MFA programs? I understand this is probably my ego speaking and that validation should be something that comes from within, but I would be lying if I said that reputation didn't bother me to some extent. I don't want people to get the wrong idea; it's not that I want people to be amazed when I tell them I went to UCI or Iowa or whatever. I just don't want my degree to be automatically written off because it's a newer program. Also, I don't think that all new programs are automatically "bad" or something, but it being a newer program along with my not vibing with the faculty's work is a concern. If, for example, I really respected all the faculty members at this program, I wouldn't care about how new the program was. The combination of 1) being unsure about the faculty and 2) the program still finding its place among the many MFAs is the center of my ambivalence. 

This isn't your ego speaking, it's just pragmatic! But it goes back to the idea that creative writing prestige is more about networking and connections than anything else. There's no question that Iowa (for instance) would open up your chances - you might never even have to run around looking for an agent if you went to Iowa, since they basically do agent speed dating there. But it's no guarantee. The person on my friendslist who went to Iowa is a great writer, but he applied to the program as a realist and ultimately was much more interested in experimental fiction. He honestly hasn't benefited at all from going to such a strong school (and tbh there are other disadvantages to Iowa I won't get into; suffice to say it seems set up like a fellowship more than a studio program). He's said he'd have been a lot better off in a school like Alabama, Brown, NC State, etc - places where the faculty are more open to that kind of thing. Meanwhile there's that other example, who has had success people dream about, who went to a small, scrappy little school and has had a story in the New Yorker twice in the last two years.

How well-published and well-connected are the faculty? What kind of opportunities do they offer you to network? How are the recent alumni doing as far as publishing in strong indie or top-5 presses? These are the things that matter in the CW universe as far as prestige. 

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12 hours ago, Mr. Somebody said:

My friend brought up this exact point.

I tend to write realism and cross-cultural fiction, also with a slight surrealist touch, while the main fiction instructor at this MFA is a mystery/thriller writer--it's a small program, so I assume he would be teaching most, if not all of the fiction workshops. The work he does is so disparately different from what I do, so I was initially concerned about a bunch of things: will he "get" my work? Will he lose interest in my stories? Can he help guide my growth given our differences? Then this friend asked why professor X couldn't be the person who helped bring out my voice, made my characters shine. He brought up David Foster Wallace and everything DFW has said about learning from genres one doesn't write in, including children's literature and genre fiction. 

One tactful way of going about it either by email or (preferably) by phone (I get the fear you might have of coming across like "Will you GET me, will you like me?" and how that might be taken the wrong way) would be to phrase it as an open question, like: "Could you tell me about your style of teaching and mentorship?", or "Do you have a philosophy of teaching?", or "I'm interested in hearing about the department culture and the kinds of range in students' work that's typical throughout the program", or "I would love to hear about the work of some of the students you've supervised recently" ('Supervised' is probably the wrong word for MFA, but the idea would be to get them to talk about people they're currently working with in the program.)

It's a slightly less direct way of going about it, but the answers to these questions will probably be very telling, both in terms of the kind of instructor the person is (if he typically works just with students close to his own area of specialization, vs if he talks about a wide range of writers enthusiastically) and also (when describing his students) seeing how you'd fit with the kind of person that appears to be at home in the program. But that's just one idea--to be honest you'd probably be fine stating your concerns more frankly too, something like "This is where my work is currently going, and I'm wondering how receptive you'd be to developing those areas" blahblahblah

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14 hours ago, merry night wanderer said:

With funding being equal, that's a totally legitimate strategy.

That's one of my concerns. Stipend at MFA is $10,000 annually, and stipend at MA is $20,000. Cost of living in the town of the MFA, a small, southern college town, will be cheaper than the MA, but at the end of the day the money at the MA will take me further--meaning I will not have to work on the side at all in the MA. I currently work as a freelance copywriter, so I might be able to lower my hours and get around $500 a month while doing the MFA, but obviously I'd rather not be working at all.

This is another thing I will ask the current grad students at MFA program, whether or not their stipend is enough, alone, to meet their needs. 

14 hours ago, merry night wanderer said:

Meanwhile there's that other example, who has had success people dream about, who went to a small, scrappy little school and has had a story in the New Yorker twice in the last two years.

Right... or the number of other writers who found "success" without attending an MFA at all. 

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14 hours ago, meghan_sparkle said:

to phrase it as an open question, like: "Could you tell me about your style of teaching and mentorship?", or "Do you have a philosophy of teaching?", or "I'm interested in hearing about the department culture and the kinds of range in students' work that's typical throughout the program", or "I would love to hear about the work of some of the students you've supervised recently" ('Supervised' is probably the wrong word for MFA, but the idea would be to get them to talk about people they're currently working with in the program.)

Great suggestions, thank you. I think the question regarding the department culture and range in students' work, stylistically speaking, would really get to the center of my concerns without my having to state them. 

 

14 hours ago, meghan_sparkle said:

It's a slightly less direct way of going about it, but the answers to these questions will probably be very telling, both in terms of the kind of instructor the person is (if he typically works just with students close to his own area of specialization, vs if he talks about a wide range of writers enthusiastically) and also (when describing his students) seeing how you'd fit with the kind of person that appears to be at home in the program.

This is all very helpful. Thank you. I'll probably send an email this week. 

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