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brownjournal

Choosing between MFA and PhD--help!

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I’m thinking of accepting UW-Madison’s offer (MFA) and asking UC Santa Barbara (PhD) if I can defer enrollment for two years.

Here’s my rationale:

  1. UW-Madison’s offer is too incredible to pass up. This program is *exactly* the way I want to spend the next two years of my life. Amazing faculty, full tuition remission, exceedingly generous fellowship, health insurance, etc. A real dream come true.
  2. UCSB’s Literature and Mind program is one of the best in the country and aligns pretty perfectly with the research I want to do. If I defer enrollment, I wouldn’t lose my spot and wouldn’t need to worry about re-applying to PhD programs.

BUT I have two concerns:

  1. Based on conversations with people who live in Santa Barbara, the $22,000/year stipend will hardly be enough for rent alone, and given UCR’s response to similar concerns raised by students, I’m worried about financial insecurity during the program.
  2. I’m wary of having the next eight years of my life planned out. I’m currently still an undergrad. What if, after completing my MFA, I realize I definitely do not want a PhD? Or what if I want to apply to creative writing fellowships?

So, basically my options at this point are to either accept UW-Madison and decline UCSB, or to accept UW-Madison and defer UCSB.

Any advice?

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I don't know you, I don't know your story, yadda yadda, but if it were me:

I would take UW Madison's MFA offer and turn down the PhDs without asking for deferrals. I would bet that if I had a second crack at PhD applications after an MFA, I'd have a much better shot at Chicago or Brown or Duke Lit or Harvard. UW Madison is one of the great MFA programs in this country, and without any real evidence to back this up, I would think that a UW MFA would make my application look better to a committee, even before the improvements to my application that I'd be able to make with two additional years in a writing program. 

And hell, maybe in two years I would see instead an opening to teach creative writing or work a cool day job while I query a novel, rather than apply to PhDs again right away. The world is wide open. I'm with you on the wariness about planning out your life until you're 30 when you're 22 (with apologies and adjustments if you're an older or younger college senior!). 

Helpful context: As you'll see in my signature, I didn't apply to any UCs. I made that determination before looking at faculty or programs or anything based on the funding situation in the UC system--low pay, high cost-of-living (especially rent), and frankly, I couldn't be 100% sure that a UC would keep their promises on full funding. 

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Posted (edited)

First of all, congrats on Madison. That is a legendarily competitive program in a legendarily competitive field. Major, major congrats!!

Because I applied to UCSB, I totally understand what you're saying - they're doing things that no one else in the entire country does, and in an entirely different way. And if you are interested in Lit and the Mind, they are second to none. But there's the whole uncertainty about the UC System, etc. It's why I am most likely going to decline them, though believe me, this one hurts; my writing sample extensively quotes Julie Carlson and I admire their faculty tremendously. 

I think the whole UC situation may be clearer in two years, though. And if Lit and the Mind is really what you want to do, you aren't (to my knowledge) going to do better. I would see if you can defer and check where things stand as far as the whole UC COLA mess in a couple of years. Hopefully, there will be more clarity at that point as to whether UCSB is doable for you. And if by next year you decide you want to apply to fellowships or what have you, you can just decline at that point. 

(Also, you may already know this, but the on-campus housing seems like by far the best deal in Santa Barbara at $700-800/mo, and you're guaranteed it at least the first two years. I don't think I'd consider going at all unless that was available. I was able to budget out something reasonable with those prices and with the assumption I'd be on my own during the summers, but YMMV... and after all, I am still probably going to decline.)

Edited by merry night wanderer

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@caffeinated applicant @merry night wanderer Thank you so much for your responses. You’ve both given me a lot to think about and more factors to consider. As of right now, I’m still not sure what I’m going to do because this:

 

2 hours ago, caffeinated applicant said:

The world is wide open.

 

and this:

 

1 hour ago, merry night wanderer said:

And if you are interested in Lit and the Mind, they are second to none.

 

feel equally compelling to me, but I have to remind myself I still have over a month to decide. Thank you both for weighing in!

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On 3/9/2020 at 8:49 PM, brownjournal said:

I’m wary of having the next eight years of my life planned out. I’m currently still an undergrad. What if, after completing my MFA, I realize I definitely do not want a PhD? Or what if I want to apply to creative writing fellowships?

I think this is a good reason to take the MFA... a 2-3 year program will be less commitment than a PhD, and taking some literature courses at the graduate level outside of your workshops, if UW-Madison allows for that, will give you a taste of what graduate research looks like, allowing you to make a more informed decision on whether or not a 5-8 year commitment is what you really want to do. Also, if you do want to go back for the PhD later down the line, having an MFA from a top program certainly wouldn't hurt your application chances. 

Congrats on your acceptances; they're both great programs.  

 

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