Thursday, February 11, 2010

Decision Time: Discussion Question No. 1

Good morning all. Welcome to the realm of the hypothetical. This is the first of what will most likely be a series of discussion questions concerning the decision-making process.

This first question is an old one, and I know it has been covered ad nauseam in various media by Tom Kealey, Seth Abramson, and others, but I would very much like to get all of your opinions on it:

Let's say that one is accepted to multiple programs, each of which offers a funding package that is roughly comparable to the others and, therefore, the funding question becomes moot. That being so, what factor or factors would you then prioritize in making the decision? Faculty, location, reputation (or "prestige"), success of alumni, teaching load, editorial opportunities, etc.? Something else entirely?

I look forward to getting your perspectives on this. What better group could I possibly ask?


  1. Nick -

    From elsewhere on the intarwebz, I remember one of your potential options is Northern Michigan. In which case, I'd implore you to weigh the weather equally with faculty, reputation, alumni, etc. I'm in Southwest Michigan, so believe me when I say it gets cold. Real cold. We get a ton of snow off the Great Lakes, which could make it difficult to travel home around the holidays, if you're so inclined, unless you possess a powerful 4-wheel drive vehicle. You may or may not be used to that kind of winter, but I do think it should be a consideration. I say that knowing nothing about what you're looking for - maybe a dose of unbridled nature and isolation is exactly what you're looking for in a writing program, for inspiration and solitude.

    Have you talked to any students currently enrolled in the programs you're considering to get the inside information?

  2. Location, location, location. Which relates, of course, to Yellow Lux's comment.

  3. Location! Of course, when I applied to MFAs, I only applied to schools in the South, because I'd been living in the West for a few years and wanted to be back "home". But "home" is something to consider. You'll be living in this place for 2-3 years, depending on the length of the program. You don't want to live in a place that will EAT YOUR SOUL...or rather, more seriously, be unconducive to you being able to write. I get TONS of inspiration from the beautiful yard/greenery right outside my "writing" window here in Milledgeville, and that really does make all the difference.

    Faculty: I've heard never to make decisions according to faculty--You never know if their behavior/teaching philosophy will match up to their writing. That being said, I did check out the books of Martin Lammon and Alice Friman before attending here, to see if I could see any of myself in their writing. Did we mesh? Did I admire them? Yes.

    Prestige: This is one that I'm sort of on the fence about myself as well. I realize that Georgia College is not the most prestigious university, BUT it IS a small public liberal arts university, and I'd like to eventually end up teaching at a small public liberal arts university. So it makes sense in terms of my future goals.

    Teaching Load: You don't want to be so swamped with teaching that you are unable to do what you came to the program to do--to write! I'd never suggest taking on more than a 1 course teaching load your first semester, or 2 when you're more "experienced".

  4. 1. Teaching load & class load
    2. Location
    3. Faculty
    4. Prestige

  5. I have to say that I think what's important is how much they are going to improve your writing, so faculty as well as how well they prepare you for the real world.
    My program, though not funded, offers a practicum where we get to meet with publishing professionals and learn about the industry and not just writing.

    I think location is only important if that matters to you and prestige is all hype. Go whereever you feel comfortable. Sit in on a class maybe?


  6. For me it was a combo of funding and location: I wanted to be somewhere cool, not too humid, and affordable with the grad monies I'd be getting. Community, as it turned out, also was important to me. They way a school tries to recruit you (or doesn't) says a lot about the program's temperament. I wanted to be wanted :-D

  7. Haha, wow, I thought I would be the only person saying this, but I think I'm becoming part of the Greek chorus. LOCATION! Grad school is challenging, exciting, and stressful enough without being so out of your element that you can't get comfortable.

    Prestige... eh. Faculty is more important than that, but to be fair, I'm at SIUC-- I thought my writing style would line up more with Beth Lordan (who is a wonderful writer and teacher), but it winds up, I'm getting just as much (if not more) from a class with Pinckney Benedict this semester-- so you never know who you're going to learn from.

  8. Well, let me think. Considering that all but one of the schools on my list would require relocating not just myself, but my wife, our two year old son, his grandmother, two elderly dogs, two elderly housecats, one semi-feral kitten, and a house that's crazy full of junk (and I do mean crazy full, our basement looks like a paranoid schizophrenic's conspiracy evidence bunker)... and considering that UNC Greensboro's campus is only 3 minutes away from my office here in sunny downtown Greensboro, NC... I guess I'm gonna have to go with Prestige. Ha.

  9. Ultimately I went low-res but recently when I toyed with the idea of a PhD program funding was top and you already have that out of the way. Next was definitely a toss up between location and teaching load. Tied for me! The rest, eh, maybe Faculty

  10. Teaching load, location and health insurance would be pretty important to me. But, in the end, I think we all have a gut instinct about things. That trumps all. May your choices continue to multiply!

  11. I've been thinking about it a lot lately, which I think will probably jinx any chance I had of getting into a second school and therefore all my thinking will have been pointless.

    For me, it comes down to this: location, faculty, and then, should I have the opportunity to talk to any of them, the sense I get from the current students on whether or not I'd fit into the community.

    If you don't mind sharing, Nick (though I totally understand if you'd rather not), where have you been accepted so far?

  12. Lindsay, sure, I don't mind sharing. I've already posted them in various places anyway.

    I had one acceptance deferred from last year, McNeese State. I recently sent them word that I would not be accepting their offer this year, though. I also got into Alabama-Birmingham's MA program, but I declined the offer of admission there was well after getting other acceptances.

    So as of right now, my active offers are from the MFA programs at Ohio State and Northern Michigan, and the PhD program at North Texas. Waiting on responses from five others.

    That said, I would still prefer to avoid getting too specific with details of the offers, etc., and to reside mostly in hypotheticals here in the public space. If anyone wants to discuss specifics over e-mail for whatever reason, I'd be happy to do that.

    So it looks like, funding being more or less equal, that location trumps all else for most of you. I can definitely see why. I've been considering the location question for a while, and it is a difficult question. Honestly, the only places I couldn't see myself living would be NYC and other massive cities, expensive coastal CA areas, and Miami, and I therefore did not apply to programs in any of these places. I'm pretty open otherwise. I tend to adjust fairly easily to new living conditions (thank you, post-socialist former Czechoslovakia!), so the question of location becomes a nuanced one. Still highly relevant, but nuanced. The peace and comfort of a small town versus the more vibrant social and cultural scene of more urban areas. The blistering winter cold of the far North versus the flesh-melting summer heat of the South. And so on. Ups and downs wherever you look.

    Wow, writing this I realize each of these factors (faculty, teaching/course load, etc.) could be whole discussions of their own, so I won't go into them right now, but I really appreciate the feedback.

    Anyone else want to chime in?

    (Oh, and thanks, Yellow Lux, for reminding me to contact students. I already have spoken with people from two of the programs but I for some reason had not though of doing that with the other one yet, and now I will. Cheers!)

  13. OSU! Yes! They are my one acceptance (CNF, though, not poetry). Still waiting from University of Minnesota and Minnesota State - Mankato.

    I, like you, couldn't see myself in a massive city, but I also don't want to be in another small town -- I've never lived someplace with a population of more than 10,000. I also love the peace and comfort of small towns, and I'll probably end up in one again eventually, but right now I want something different.

  14. Hi guys,

    Kerry brought up an interesting point: health insurance. I've been accepted to a program with a stipend, teaching assistance, and a student health insurance program. I've been so happy to get in to one of my favorite programs that I hadn't focused on the health insurance side of things much, but now the reality of quitting my job (and losing my insurance) is setting in.

    For those of you on university plans, are you happy with your coverage?

  15. I love my student health insurance. I use it at the student health center and haven't paid a dime yet for anything.

  16. Nick--

    I think you should also consider how the students interact with each other. If you can afford a visit, you should check out the programs you're really interested in. I went to two schools and had very different experiences. At one, I was embraced and taken to various activities (not to mention, treated to several beers), and at the other, I sat in on a workshop and then was promptly abandonded after the class ended. Find out how the students and faculty interact. Are there parties? What kind of support is found in and out of the classroom? Are the students competitive (in a way that's detrimental, not nurturing)? Maybe these questions don't matter as much as location and funding, but the way students interacted was very important in my search.


    After a year without health insurance, I have to say I am quite pleased by what UNCG offered me. I've had some major things to deal with (resulting in an MRI), and they have been great to work with. Health insurance was a perk I never considered, so if that's in your mix, definitely give it some weight!


    Congrats on UNCG! If you have any questions, feel free to holler, though I have the feeling that you've probably got everything covered.

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  18. A couple of you have suggested visiting. This is of course a wonderful idea for those people who are able. I myself am unfortunately not one of those since I live in Slovakia. Alas!

  19. I just wrote out the longest response ever, and it disappeared. Damn. Ok.

    In short:

    1. Prestige/alumni success: I only applied to schools with some kind of prestige. Looking back on it, I think that was kind of dumb--but I do think self-identity is important, and a school that sets high expectations for itself helps necessitate high expectations for their students (if you're a similarly inclined student). I also think it speaks less to having time to write, and more to having time to improve the writing.

    Aside from gossip, I think the best (but not the only) example of a successful program is fellowship placement, because I think that's the clearest indicator of whether the students coming to the program are obviously and immediately benefitting from their time in the program itself, when being compared to their peers.

    I don't think prestige should make much of any difference when choosing between schools you've already applied to, though. Mostly because I think the rankings are pretty silly on that small a scale.

    2. Location: Only in terms of warm/cold and liberal/conservative. Frankly, I think most places will surprise you, if you're amenable to trying them out, and will have a wealth of interesting things/places to live to recommend them (for instance, I grew up near terrible, terrible College Park. It's terrible. But I've heard that most people in that program--U-MD--live in DC or Takoma Park, wonderful neighborhoods).

    3. Community: I wanted a large community. Lots of different writing being done, different opinions about how to write, lots of readings, lots of editorial opportunities, lots of people so at least a few to get along with), lots of people who know about cool opportunities or writers that you should read.

    Honestly, going to see a lot of readings and being able to go to museums, galleries and art talks (it's always so refreshing to just get to appreciate art and not have to comment on it) has been super important to my work, and figuring out what my artistic goals are.

    I also include faculty in terms of community: are they involved, are they aesthetic tyrants, does the program reflect that, or are the students spunky and confident enough to find their own voices?

    4. Program structure: Do you want mostly studio? Do you want a heavy emphasis on literature? Not just what you've been told the MFA is "for," but what do you think will best help you as a writer and/or scholar (especially if you want to know more or less about your traditions.)

    That's mostly it for me, although I don't think the order is super important--it's more important to have a good balance, or one that really makes the others worthwhile.

    One useful activity is taking your two most opposite programs and comparing them, line item by line item, to try to figure out where you would go if you are accepted to both of them. I had to make that decision, and it was illuminating to figure out what I really wanted.

    Three side notes: First, I don't think funding needs to be super equal--just so long as there's enough to live on, and so long as there's health care.

    Second, teaching load takes a lot of heat, but I'm not sure why. (I'm going to elaborate on this more in another blog post). If you're prioritizing, efficient and effective (which really isn't that hard to be), a two-class teaching load is only 3-5 hours more work per week (that's most weeks. One or two might be more). I really don't think that extra 3-5 hours is really biting into my writing time, especially since most of it is teaching, which is a pretty rejuvenating experience.

    Third: Visiting could be good, but a bad/good experience doesn't mean you'll have a bad/good experience at the school. It might be indicative, or it might just mean they've got an especially chipper squad to lure you in to your doom!

    So Nick, did we miss any reasons to choose between schools?

  20. I want to second the health insurance. Between allergy tests, CAT scans, prescriptions et al. I am grateful to have only paid a tiny amount of money for the vast array of coverage I am receiving.

    Prestige is one of those things that is hard to quantify beyond Ivies and Iowa, but it was important to me because I like being part of a noted history/legacy. It's just one of those things you either care about, or you don't. Generally a school's overall prestige (amongst undergrads or business/professional schools) means you might have access to additional funding and resources that would not exist at a small or lesser known school.

    I agree, too, that professors are part of the community and a visit, while microcosmic, might be helpful when assessing how involved profs are in the day to day goings on of the students as well as in terms of how they teach and their aesthetics and workshop style.

  21. Location - weather can be a big part of the "experience" of being in a place, as can whether you're in a city or small town. If those things play a big role in your life, make them a factor in your decision.

    Beyond that, I'd just say the overall vibe you're getting from people at the schools. I'm guessing you've communicated with the directors of the programs at this point. Have you have any contact with students, other faculty, etc? In lieu of visiting (which I know is not possible for you, but which I would recommend to anyone else reading who has that option), I think communicating with people is important. Whatever you can do to get an idea of the attitudes of your future peers and professors will be helpful.

    Also look at program structure (i.e. studio vs lit classes, teaching, editorial opportunities, etc). We all want something slightly different, so try to figure out what program is the best fit.

    Ultimately though - go with your gut and trust your instinct! Good luck!

  22. And I second what Tory said: "The way a school tries to recruit you (or doesn't) says a lot about the program's temperament. I wanted to be wanted"

    This ended up being a big factor me as well!

  23. Good point about the being wanted, Emily and Tory. I overheard how aggressively a school I got into was pursuing someone else and I couldn't get it out of my head that they weren't pursuing me that way.

  24. You people rock. New discussion question coming soon, I think.

  25. Whitney-

    Thanks for the Congrats, but I'm not in yet (DON'T JINX ME!!!). Got my undergrad at UNCG, though, so I'm looking forward to hopefully getting reacquainted with campus life. I may take you up on that holler though- my BA was in religious studies not English, so I might have a question or two (or three or four) about the department/program.

  26. Tory,

    I like your description of prestige.

    Prestige is a tricky beast, having so many aspects. There is your (the applicant's) perception of their prestige, potential employers perception, the perception of other potential applicants who happen to share your aesthetic, or are especially hard-working writers, and then there's the feeling of prestige and expectations that the program itself has.

    I think noted history/legacy, as you put it, is probably the best way to capture all of those aspects (I would even say that Iowa or the Ivies have nothing more than history/legacy on steroids, impressive as steroids are).

    And I agree with everyone about the wanting to be wanted--although I wonder the best way for a school to demonstrate that they want you (money? calls? being especially available for you to call them?). I think ultimately the vibe you get from the people you contact in the program (students most especially) is a little more telling about what you're in for.


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