Twelve Questions You Should Ask Before You Enroll in an MFA Program
Pam Houston | September 2014
1. Do the professors who teach in this program actually know how to write?
I know, it sounds crazy, but very few first-year grad students have actually read the work of the faculty they are about to study with for the next two-to-three years. Just because somebody got a teaching job at an institute of higher learning does not mean they can write well and, perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t mean they write in a way that is going to make you trust and respect them to evaluate your work, or in a way that is going to inspire you to do your best writing while you are in their company.
2. Are the graduates of the program publishing, and if so, how diverse are their books?
Ideally, a program that has been around for several years will have a pretty good track record of turning out writers who wind up turning out books that people actually want to read. But it is also important that those books are not all the same, stamped out of cardboard by some overbearing teacher who only praises a style that resembles his/her own.
3. Does the major writer(s) listed on the masthead actually ever teach there, and how often, and what?
While it is true that only in rare cases will the writer who drew your interest to a program wind up being your primary mentor—this happens for any number of reasons, most often because you will change your mind—it is still good to know the names of the folks who will actually be teaching the classes. This is one advantage low-residency programs can have over full-residency programs—writers who are well-known enough to have massive demands on their time can usually carve out ten days a semester to be there.
4. How likely is it that I will get my first choice of professor as director of my thesis?
As I mentioned above, you don’t have to know who your dream thesis advisor is when you enroll, and I would encourage you to be open to changing your mind once you’ve gotten to work with the available faculty. But a good thing to ask the current graduate students is whether or not they got their first choice of thesis advisor once they decided (usually at the end of the first year) who they wanted it to be. If most of them did, it is an indicator that you are enrolling in a program that is putting the needs of their students first.
5. Can I be productive in this geographic location?
Some people can be productive anywhere—which, as a person who is profoundly emotionally affected by the landscape in which I find myself, is a trait I admire. What about you? Do you hate the cold? Do you start to twitch if you aren’t walking distance from a coffee roaster? Are you a vegan? Do you get depressed if you can’t get yourself to the wilderness with some regularity? Do you require an art house movie theater? Do you need the weather to be shitty to actually get your writing done? Will you write more if you are happy, lonely, isolated, across the country from your parents, in a foreign country, car-less, able to make ends meet, or abjectly poor? (I have actually done some of my best writing when I was broke and lonely.) Only a certain kind of person (me) would choose where to go to graduate school with landscape as their #1 consideration, but it is worth trying to set yourself up to succeed, whatever that means to you.
6. How careerist is the atmosphere in this program?
Some programs go to great lengths to encourage competition among their writers. Often these same programs offer meetings with editors and agents, encourage internships at publishing houses—in other words, they bring the professional aspect of being a writer into the MFA mix. Other programs actively discourage competition between the students, treating the two-to-three years in the program as a kind of safe zone for writers to learn and grow to their fullest potential without risking the demoralizing effect interactions with the publishing industry can bring. There are of course many programs that fall in between those two extremes. Only you know which of these programs you will be most likely to thrive in, but it’s good to know where yours falls on that continuum before you make your choice.
7. Do the current graduate students like each other?
Who cares, you might say, about liking—I want to learn how to write. But if the students in a program treat each other with disdain and disrespect, chances are they are taking their cues from the way the professors treat one another, the way the department treats the program, the way the administration treats the department. If the answer is “no,” some follow-up questions might be “why?” and “in what ways?” Also, English departments are ever-changing petri dishes of personality and ego. One or two retirements/replacements can change the whole tenor of the place, for better or for worse. Be sure to get current information.
8. How many workshops/seminars are offered in my chosen genre each year?
This one is pretty straightforward. Ideally, the graduate program you choose will not only offer a workshop in your genre every semester, it will also offer literature seminars in contemporary lit or any other area you are particularly interested in. Also, ideally, it will offer a class in poetics and/or the theory of fiction at least once a year.
9. It says here I have a Teaching Assistantship. What exactly does that entail?
Here are some good practical questions to ask about your funding offer: Does it include a tuition waiver? If so, does it cover out-of-state tuition? Does it cover fees? Is this offer for the first year only? How do the funding options differ in subsequent years? How many hours a week am I expected to work on grading, meeting students, and other TA-related activities? Will I be teaching a section of my own?
10. Do the literature professors at this university actually teach—or even like—literature?
So far in my teaching career, I have worked at two institutions at which it is possible to get a PhD in Literature without ever cracking a book of literature. I like theory as much as the next person, and I am the first to admit that reading the eighty books of theory on the list for my PhD qualifying exams made me a better writer. (I will admit to preferring the theory that was in vogue back in my day a little better than the current fashion. Deconstruction was, for all its insistence that the author was dead, at least about the actual text, even as it was taking that text apart.) All that said, literature professors who hate literature (and there are more out there than you could begin to imagine) generally don’t treat creative writing students in their classes very well, and depending on your funding, you might wind up as one of their TA’s.
11. Are the MFA students in the department treated like second-class citizens?
By the PhD students? By the faculty? By the administration? How does funding work? Is it a trickle-down system with the MFA students at the bottom of the food chain after the seven- and eight-year PhD students are all squared away? Is the writing program supported by the powers that be? Is there a reading series? Is there a magazine? Is there a writer’s conference attached to the program? Or is it hanging on for dear life, constantly asked to convince everyone from the literature faculty to the university president that it deserves the tiny percentage of the English department resources that get allocated in its direction? Or is this a CW program where the students are not funded? Is it a cash cow that is feeding everyone else in the food chain, and getting no respect on those grounds? It is good, I am told, for writers to suffer, but sometimes maybe not quite that much.
12. What if I don’t get the joke?
On my first day in graduate school, I was told by my professor: “No mountains, no trees, no skiing, no snow, no eyes, and no female bodily excretions.” (This was the day I began writing my thesis, Cowboys Are My Weakness, which was, more or less, an aria to all of the above.) It is my enduring belief that graduate school is and should be as much about the advice you learn not to listen to, as the advice you do, and still, and still… there is what I would call a plague of hollow chucklers populating a lot of graduate program these days. You know the type, where every thing out of their mouths is an irony that refers to some greater irony buried deep within the first irony so that to respond in any way… to laugh, or worse, to be moved at all reveals you as a total rube fresh off the turnip truck? If you are a hollow chuckler yourself, you are in business (I notice HC’s like to travel in packs) but if irony is not, or not always, your default stance, you might want to find out if it is the program’s. If you are afraid to say, “Hey, is irony the default stance in your program?” you can always ask the grad students to describe their theses, you can always ask the professors who they love to read.
(If they say they don’t read, refer to #10 above.)
Pam Houston is the author of five books including Cowboys Are My Weakness and Contents May Have Shifted. She was Director of Creative Writing at the University of California, Davis for twelve years, and still teaches in that program as well as in the Pacific University Low-Residency MFA program. She also directs the literary nonprofit, Writing By Writers, offering classes for those who prefer non-university-based writing instruction.