MFA Programs: What are they and how do they work?

Cynthia RosiYou’ve been freelancing for years. Clients love your work. But something about your writing isn’t pleasing you. What do you do next?

Online classes, books on writing, and critique groups might not bring enough skilled analysis to guide you deeper into your craft. That’s when an MFA, two years of intensive study in Creative Non-Fiction or Fiction, can really help.

There are two types of MFA programs: low-residency, and on-campus. I didn’t have the option of moving cities to attend a university with an on-campus program focused on social justice, so a low-residency program was for me.

Low Residency Pros

  • Flexible, with schedules designed for students who work and go to school.
  • Attendance twice a year, for about 10 days each, and work on discussion boards in between.
  • In locations across the United States, and abroad.
  • The MFA terminal degree awarded at the end of the program.
  • A variety of disciplines to choose from, including Creative Non Fiction, screenwriting, Young Adult Fiction, and genre writing.
  • Not as competitive to get into as an on-campus program and, in some cases, fewer entrance requirements.
  • A friendlier workshop atmosphere. Since students meet infrequently, it takes longer to burn out on each other’s work and the workshop process.

Low Residency Cons

  • A high sticker price, financed by you.
  • None-to-little graduate teaching experience.
  • Not as highly regarded in the teaching market as an on-campus MFA program with the exception of top programs.

High Residency Pros

  • Often fully-funded programs with a stipend for graduate teaching work and access to grants.
  • Teaching experience included as part of the program.
  • Best programs are highly regarded and an asset to your resume, whether for pitching a novel or applying for a teaching post.
  • MFA terminal degree awarded at the end of the program.
  • Direct access to the professors during office hours and a strong connection to your campus.

High Residency Cons

  • You might not get into the program in your hometown.
  • Your hometown program might not offer the genre, or the expertise, that you need.
  • Longer classroom hours and more homework mean that freelancing may become difficult.
  • More difficult entrance requirements geared toward students just out of undergraduate programs.

Both types of MFA programs will take you to the next level in your writing work. Professors recommend reading lists tailored to your interests and skill level. Their ability to analyze will help you to understand structure, and help you to take risks. You’ll write for art instead of a paycheck, and discover new working rhythms. You’ll discover how to break into fiction markets, and bring a fresh perspective to your freelancing craft. The terminal degree, if paired with graduate teaching experience, also gives you access to a new job market: teaching at the university, or community college, level.

Resources: In making my decision, I used The Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students, and The Poets & Writers Guide to MFA Programs.