Choosing a graduate program

Rather than tackle the MA/MFA/PhD question, I am going to skip right to choosing any graduate program. I’ll deal with the other another time.

When you’re looking into creative writing graduate programs, you have to keep a number of things in mind. When you first start looking, there is the tendency to treat it like your original college search way back in high school. Of course back then, you are more concerned with how many bars are within walking distance and their national rating for campus food. Grad school is a little different. The first difference is how you go about finding programs. I suggest checking out AWP’s guide to writing programs.

5 Things to Consider:

1. What is the program’s focus?

Just like when you’re looking for an agent or querying magazines, you have to make sure your writing fits with the writing being taught. Each school employs writers who fit within genres and categories and you want to choose the school that will cater most to your writing needs. It doesn’t make any sense for a literary writer to apply to a graduate program where most of the professors teach writing for children.

2. Who is on staff?

This ties in with my first point. You want to make sure you are looking at programs that staff professors who write what you want to write. It won’t do you any good if you are learning from a professor whose main focuses are non-fiction or screen writing when you’re only interested in fiction. But also don’t pick a school just because your favorite author teaches there. If that’s the only reason you pick a program, then you are discounting some other very important factors to consider. Plus, you can’t be sure they will be teaching the classes you have to/want to take, or if they will be teaching at all.

3. Who does readings?

A critical part of any writing program is what published writers the program brings to campus. Most schools will put up a list online of everyone they’ve had visit. This tells you a couple things. First, what kind of writers are you being exposed to? Just like the professors on staff, it’s important that the visiting authors appeal to you in some way—even if only to give you insight into a particular avenue of publishing. The second thing to look for is the quality of the visiting writers. If the school only brings in writers who say, have been published by the school’s press, there might not be either the funding or the prestige to get other writers.

After the jump: Funding, Literary Magazines, and Other Considerations

4. Funding

You’ve probably heard that it is foolish to pay for grad school and I completely agree. Many programs will offer funding, essentially paying you to study there. Now unless it’s a no-strings grant, you will be required to do things for the department such as teach a few 100-level English courses or be an office worker. Teaching is a good option if you plan on continuing to an MFA or PhD (both considered terminal degrees meaning you don’t have to do any more schooling once you have one), and if you want to teach higher education while writing as many authors do.

I personally do not teach because I was awarded a grant for my program, which pays 90% of my tuition and fees (but with a few extra scholarships from undergrad, I pay more for rent in a month than I do for tuition for a semester.) My roommate, on the other hand, teaches and for that they are paying her entire tuition and fees, and also giving her a stipend (basically a paycheck). Another friend of mine doesn’t teach, but instead works in the office and has all the same “extra” duties such as judging the school’s novella contest.

Thus, when looking for a program, look for available funding. Some schools are more competitive for assistantships than others. My school almost guarantees some sort of funding because they keep their numbers low. Larger programs usually can’t make the same promises.

5. The Literary Magazine

Almost all programs have some sort of publication. Some are more well known than others (such as the Kenyon Review) while others not so much. Take the time to look at the magazine. Check out who has been published. Any big name authors? Would you want to work on this magazine? (I suggest you do.) Will I be able to work on the magazine? Now this question definitely depends on the program. At my school, pretty much anyone can work on the magazine because it is small and online. Don’t count it out though, we’ve published some pretty good writers, but we also get the chance to talk to and interview a lot of people. This to me, is better than say, The Kenyon Review where everyone fights for coveted internships with the magazine since it is so prestigious. Of course, if you can work for them—you’re set. If not, it’s just something to salivate over.

Other Things to Consider

Like any college campus, it’s important to consider non-program related aspects such as location, size, available housing, and library resources. These can all be evaluated during a visit. I strongly urge you to meet current students and faculty, and to sit in on a few classes. Curriculums don’t vary as much as you’d think (workshops, literature courses, and a few peripheral courses, possibly a language requirement), but conduct in a classroom will speak volumes. Then again, don’t judge the whole program based on only one class. The students will be honest about what to expect so their insight is invaluable.

I admit, I didn’t have any choice in which creative writing MA program I applied to because I was presented with a unique opportunity to combine my undergrad and grad work. For the sake of time and cost, it was my best option, despite the program’s focus. I don’t know if this was the best fit for me, but it made the most sense and given the choice, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Does your undergraduate school have a similar BA/MA program? If so, do it. Just make sure you get all the facts and details so you don’t get sprung with “you’re not graduating till next year” right after you bought you cap and gown.

Interested in my program? Check out Miami University’s Creative Writing Graduate Programs directed by Eric Goodman.

And check out OxMag, our literary magazine.

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