Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Traditional MFA Vs. Low-Residency. What’s the Diff?

Today’s post comes from our Monthly Muser, Heather Riccio.

If earning an MFA is something you’ve considered in the past, but don’t want to have the rigorous structure of a traditional MFA program, perhaps you should consider a low-residency program.

Ask yourself several questions:

1) How do you think that degree might help you as a writer, or even as a person?

2) Do you feel stuck in a dead end job, and want to officially take your writing to the next level?

3) Will the interaction with students and faculty give you the kick in the pants you need to sit down and do the work?

4) Will you learn something you haven’t been able to discover with real-world experience?

5) Will an MFA help you get published or make you more employable?


I personally went back for my MFA because I wanted to take my writing to the next level, but I also needed interaction with faculty who had been in my shoes once before and with other students who were in the same boat. I also knew that with an MFA it would increase my chances of getting published, and if not, it would help me find a job teaching writing. Several of the other students who were in the MFA program with me are professors at community colleges, with hopes of becoming a professor at a four-year college eventually.

When it comes to an MFA program, it really is all about the writing and about improving our writing. The degree will not lead you to instant success, but it will improve your chances greatly. How you may ask? You’re around professors who were once in your shoes and now successfully write and teach themselves. They are proof that it can be done.

The absolute best MFA programs don’t focus just on your own writing, but also on reading and the critical analysis of other writers’ work.

If you commit to a full-time traditional program, chances are you have to relocate to that location for at least two years, unless you’re lucky enough to live close-by to one of the programs. If you have kids, a job or are married, you’ll also have to figure out how to juggle everything in those two years. With a low-residency program its run a bit different. The writer is typically paired with one main professor who corresponds with them via e-mail and then meets with them twice a year. The problem with a low-residency program is you aren’t given the teaching experience as in a traditional program. That is something definitely to think about. There are no teaching assistantships in a low-residency program that you’d find in a traditional MFA program.

Low-residency programs require the student to attend two 10-day intense workshops per year. They’re often offered in areas like Palm Springs, CA and Vermont where the UC Riverside, Palm Desert and Bennington low-residency programs are held respectively. Make sure to look at the professors, who are in the programs. Chances are if you like the professors and their writing, you’ll have a better MFA experience.

Most programs have Web sites, which makes initial inquiries easy. Application requirements may include recommendations from undergraduate professors and current G.R.E. scores. That can be daunting if you’re 20 years out of college with no idea where your old professors are, and you haven’t taken a standardized test since you sat for the S.A. Recommendations don’t necessarily have to come from professors, they can also come from an editor who has accepted and published your work in the past.

You also gain a sense of comradery among other writers in both traditional and low-residency writing programs. Chances are you’ll meet people who are honest and will be your critique buddies for life. And as writers, that is something you can’t put a price on.

For more of her musings, visit Heather here.

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