Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How to find an MFA program

A big part of deciding whether or not to attend an MFA program (both traditional or low-residency) is figuring out where you would want to get the MFA. MFA programs are not like law schools -- graduating from Harvard Law might "guarantee" you a job, but there's absolutely no equivalent when talking about creative writing programs.*  Therefore the most important  consideration in choosing a creative writing program is will it work for you?

Of course, you have to find the darn things before you can determine if they have what you're looking for.

You can read the Poets & Writers fall issue on MFA programs, you can dally around the MFAblog -- but do both with caution. A lot of the "information" given out in both of those sources are opinions and generalizations. (Poets & Writers admits that many of their MFA articles are editorials rather than reporting, but it's easy to get swept away and forget that.) An MFA is a masters of fine arts; it is, by definition, a creative pursuit, and therefore what works for other people might not work for you.

All this is to say that you're really best off if you research programs individually and judge them by how the program's merits line up with your own desires and priorities.

There is a free database to help you out.  The AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) has an official guide to writing programs where you can enter your search criteria and see the names of accredited programs worldwide.  Can't leave the state? You can search by that. Looking for a program that does genre fic? Or Screenwriting? Or children's lit? You can search for that. Looking for a BA or BFA program instead of a grad program? They list those too.

Once you've done a search, the AWP guide will show you the page they have with the program's info. Take this page as a preliminary, not the cold hard facts. These pages are slow to change -- for example, if a faculty member has left/arrived in the past couple of years, it probably won't be reflected in the AWP guide.** BUT these pages provide the web address for the school along with basic information -- and most importantly, they provide you with knowledge that such an MFA or MA program exists.

Another good way to get some info about programs, and to do so in person, is to attend the AWP Conference. In 2012, it'll be held in Chicago (February). Many schools will have table at the bookfair and you can go up to the table and ask faculty and current students questions (depending on who's sitting at the table at the time), and usually pick up materials and application tips. If a school's been cutting costs, they might not have a table just for them but they may have a table that's under the name of their affiliated literary magazine. If the school has a magazine associated with it, it's likely that at least some of the people running it are current graduate students at that program -- and they're most likely to be the ones sitting at the table! Go ahead and ask if they're grad students and if they wouldn't mind answering some questions about the program.

*(Caveat: getting an MFA from Iowa will definitely help you get a teaching job -- or at least an interview for a teaching job -- but you'll still have to work your butt off to publish and do all the other stuff. More on that tomorrow.)

**Note: Always use the school's website for application materials, deadlines, and direct contact info. Any source other than the school itself may be wrong and you won't be able to verify their info unless you go to the school's website anyway.

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