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Choosing Between MFA Creative Writing vs MA Programs vs PhD in Creative Writing

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Hello everyone, this post might be too long. I apologise because this is my first time here, so I'm not even sure if this is the right way to go about this but I have been way over in my head about all this and would like to hear from other people before I make my final decisions. I hope it's okay.

For some background information, I come from a family where I'm the first to have ventured into the Humanities for my education, so I've not been able to find any guidance or support from them. Technically, I'm not really Humanities either since I'm wrapping up my final year of my bachelor's in Economics and Finance, but I will graduate with an English minor, so that should count for something towards my postgraduate interest. Additionally, I live in the East with little knowledge regarding postgraduate programs in the West. I have been talking to a lot of people including professors, and college seniors who applied abroad and got into programs of their choice, but the MFA is a new route altogether and no one seems to be able to give me concrete answers.

I have been writing for most of my life and love writing to the point that I want to make a career out of it. Unwise, I know, but I've come to terms with the lifestyle it will offer. I prioritised an MFA in Creative Writing for my postgraduate because there is a novel I've been desperately working on for the last five years but due to the lack of time and heavy school workload, I have not been able to properly write it. I need the MFA for time, to be surrounded by people who are also writers and also networking. I know there's no guarantee my book will be published etc. But I need to finish writing the book at least. However, I've been told repeatedly that simply having a list of MFA programs is a bad idea since the acceptance rate is incredibly low and I'm unlikely to get in. So I've been asked to apply for back-up options that can act as safety nets.

I understand this reasoning completely, but the problem is that I don't have any specialized interests I want to focus on for my master's specifically. I have considered Comparative Literature since I am extremely interested in the intersections of language, culture and literature. So far I have worked on one paper regarding feminism in contemporary Korean literature which I will be presenting in about a month at a conference and I will be continuing the research with a follow-up paper on feminism in Japanese literature. However, I used English-translated versions to conduct my research and am not proficient in the language. For this reason, I'm worried that I don't have any language specialisations for Comparative Lit since many colleges list languages on their websites as a requirement/eligibility for Master's programs. The ones usually belonging to my country listed on the website are Hindi and Urudu, neither of which I am proficient in since I come from a different part of the country with different regional languages. I haven't considered MA Writing programs since they don't have a creative dissertation and I am not interested in getting a theoretical degree in writing. Also, MA programs are not fully funded or at best offer very little funding. 

As of now, I have around 10-12 MFA programs on my list. All of them are in the USA and are fully funded because I simply do not have the financial means to fund any sort of postgraduate degree outside my country and my parents have also refused to pay for English-related postgraduate programs within the country. It is also not viable for me to take a gap year or stay at home. I really want to write and I absolutely am not able to let go of the idea/dream, it's haunting me. One of my professors suggested applying to PhD writing programs since some of them do have creative dissertations as opposed to a more academic dissertation. But the reason I'm drawn towards an MFA is that it's a 2 or 3-year terminal degree with more freedom than a PhD which is a 4 to 6-year time commitment. I simply do not think I have the bandwidth to jump into a direct PhD integrated type program directly from my undergraduate. I do think I'm more academically inclined to explore something like cultural studies or comparative literature as an MA or PhD program rather than creative writing. But I think I'd only be able to pursue that after I finish the MFA first.

Ultimately I've boxed myself into the MFA and if I get into none of them, I have to go to a corporate job that is finance-oriented since that's what I got my bachelor's in, but I absolutely hate my degree and I am not qualified enough compared to my classmates since I spent all my time working on writing and English related things, so my resume for a finance job is also super weak and I'm really at a dead end here. I don't think I have the energy to wait another year and reapply next cycle either, so I'm terrified. 

For some more clarity, I will be applying this year for the 2024 intake and even though I haven't narrowed down my schools completely, these are the ones I have on my list so far: Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Brown, Northwestern, University of Iowa, University of Arizona, University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, NYU, Vanderbilt, University of Houston, University of Texas in Austin, Syracuse and Rutgers.

Having said all of this, what advice would you offer? Are there better alternatives to an MFA for creative writing? Are there some other universities I should consider for the MFA? How do I sort through all of this?

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  • 3 months later...

So I saw that you posted this in August and the application cycle is almost over, but I thought I would reply in case you or anyone else might find insight into this topic useful. 

I am also an international student, but from a Western country, so while there are significant overlaps they are not fully comparable to your situation. This is my subjective opinion as someone who attended a fully funded MFA program and is now starting a creative writing PhD, both in the USA. 

I will be honest and say the schools you are applying to are incredibly competitive, and you are at a distinct disadvantage as an international student due to funding restrictions and internal politics. However, I hope you still apply to all of them, because you never know if your work will resonate with a committee. I would suggest adding a few more, less well-known schools to your list. Most of the schools you list have 500-1000 applications per year for 10-25 slots. NYU accepts almost 50 and only funds about 5. And as someone who has been in the system, well-known does not always equal the best education, good mentorship, or supportive community. You can message me if you want some specific recommendations based on your interests, as there are still some deadlines open. Generally speaking, go for more schools that aren't on everybody's list. Some people who get into 'top' programs are still rejected by lesser-known schools, and some incredibly talented writers only get one acceptance. Almost every fully funded school will still have an acceptance rate of below 5%, but your overall chances will be much higher if you cast a wider net. All you need is one yes. 

Unfortunately, there are not really alternatives to the MFA system for those of us outside of the United States who write in English. Even if you integrate yourself into a local writing community, the experience is not comparable. Not inferior, just very different. 

I think you should apply and also be prepared to apply multiple times. I also think there is a lot of benefit to waiting, should you not get in this cycle. I know it feels like all or nothing, but you have your entire life to be a writer, and you will absolutely be a much better writer one, two, three years from now, even if you are not in a program. It is important to pursue your dreams from a place of certainty that this is your calling, that you have something you need to say, and not fear of the alternatives. Further schooling is not a safety net, it's often a security blanket. There is nothing wrong with taking a job, even if it's not an amazing job, and working for a few years, as long as you're able to support yourself and have a good QoL. Enjoy not being a student for the first time, grow as a person, and continue writing, because once you start an MFA, especially as an international, there is no easy way to pivot off of this track without starting over. You might even regret going straight into an MFA, as I've heard many people say, because you'll be under a lot of pressure to 'make it' and uncertainty about what exactly you want from your life/career. That, and you will likely experience a lot of personal and financial difficulties that are simply out of your control once you begin, and these growing pains are harder to weather without life experience. 

You will make it, I promise. It really is up to you to decide when and under what conditions, even if it doesn't feel like it. 

And this is for future reference and for others who are curious. I would advise against applying for a creative writing PhD or a hybrid English PhD without an MFA. Honestly, I would say to not even bother applying for a pure critical English or CompLit degree if what you want to do is write creatively because you will either not be accepted (they aren't usually supportive of writers in these programs), or it will actually hurt your development as an artist due to the academic workload (there are some exceptions, but they require insider connections that you currently do not have). It is standard to already have an MFA for a CW PhD program, and generally, only working artists and other exceptional talents circumvent this unwritten convention. Even if you get in, you are right, you do not want to be locked into one institution for 5-7 years when you do not even know yet what kind of writer you are. PhD programs are much less guided than MFA programs because they expect you to already know what you are doing when you get there. If you get an American MFA before your PhD, you will be better equipped to navigate the American PhD system and make use of a doctoral education and the unparalleled security it offers, and you will have additional privileges since you already possess the CW field's terminal degree. 

Best of luck. 

Edited by winq
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