Sunday, February 17, 2008

Two Years vs. Three Years

Samara asks:
Does anyone here, especially grads or current MFA students, have any thoughts on two year versus three year programs? In three year programs, is the third year usually spent more independently, finishing up the thesis? Is this something people ever do on their own, from different locations? Some people have told me they feel two years isn't enough time, but I'm nervous about committing to the longer stretch of time.

29 comments:

Bolivia Red said...

The major benefit of the third year is this: it gives you time to write without having to take classes on top of writing and teaching. Many programs, whether two or three years, give TAships for funding, and many require two years' worth of lit courses on top of workshops. I definitely needed that third year. It has been such a blessing not to have to take courses or workshop.

Here at least, you work only with your thesis director during the third year—no workshops or classes (though you do have to teach). Everyone does it differently, but usually you meet with your director every 2-3 weeks (speaking for fictioneers—the poets might be a little different in terms of meeting times). This program doesn't encourage doing the thesis in absentia, though we happen to have one woman doing so this year. She and her director have been working via email and phone calls, but she will come back to do her thesis reading in March.

I think the usefulness of a third year depends a lot on your experience with writing and your preparedness coming in, as well as your desire for more time to write. It also depends on what you expect coming out of the program. I talked to a faculty member who said that with two year programs, it's hard to come out with a whole book, so you may need to spend another year or two after the MFA finishing the book and rewriting to make it marketable.

If you have a solid plan for your thesis project going in (or you're able to develop it your first year), and you are disciplined at writing and balancing your other coursework and teaching duties, then two years is probably fine.

If you're going into the MFA still developing your craft --finding your voice, as it were--and don't really have a solid idea of a larger project, the third year is a great benefit. It took me the whole first year to muck around and get my feet under me and the second to focus in on what kind of project I wanted to work on. I also had never taught before, so that was a big learning curve as well.

Besides time to write, I think what the extra year here has given me is the time to absorb all of the workshop, craft, and lit courses and let them gel a bit before writing the thesis.

Keep in mind these are the opinions of a late bloomer. I'm no longer a spring chicken, so I work a little slower and more methodically than my younger years.

Samara said...

Your paragraph about still finding my voice and not having a clear thesis idea is totally me. I don't do well when I try to force my writing. Also the no spring chicken thing--which is why I was leaning toward two year programs--I'm 30 and want to start a family sooner rather than later, but feel I have to get this done first. At the same time, after reading your response to my question, I'm wondering if 3 years is better after all. My sister is getting her MFA in the visual arts and she says the first year is pretty much spent just adjusting and getting crappy work out of your system, which is why she recommends 3 years as well.

mummy licker said...

I know for me, that the idea of having 3 funded years to work on my writing, as opposed to 2, is very appealing. But then again, I guess it depends on the particular schools as well. It's a tough one.

I have an unrelated question. I'm one of the young marrieds who is going for my mfa. I've been accepted to a school and am planning to visit. Obviously, my husband wants to come too, since he will be living in the town also. Is that weird? Should I just have him go explore around while I talk with the students and faculty?

Samara said...

Mummy Licker--
I don't think that's weird. It makes perfect sense--he's going to be living there, too, right? I'm in the same situation. I've been accepted to two schools so far and my husband is going to try to accompany me on both visits. I mean, if you're going to an open house, he might feel weird being there, but on the other hand, it might be helpful to get someone else's impressions of the program and other admitted students.

Anna said...

I'm really interested in the discussion of 2 vs 3 year programs. I'd love to know the impressions of someone in their first or second year of a 2-year program as well (or maybe they're all too busy to read the blog!).

I'm still pretty young (24) but I also feel a bit of a rush to figure out my career situation and get my family started. Maybe a 3-year program would help to put my priorities in perspective and force me to realize how important it is that I really focus on my writing. After all, isn't the point of the MFA to give yourself time off from the "real world" so that you can focus on your writing?

I've only heard from one school so far (acceptance to a 3-year program, no funding info yet). Any 2-year students out there with opinions? Or 3-year students with differing thoughts?

Thanks for this very helpful discussion!

realitywrites said...

bolivia red,
which program are you talking about when you say "here" or "we"?
(sorry, I tried checking backlog entries and comments by you but I couldn't find it.)

Bolivia Red said...

reality--I'm at Purdue.

About taking along a spouse on visits: I'm not married, but we do have married/coupled people here. I do remember them talking about going on campus visits together and saying that it was very telling about a program as to how the spouse was treated. Two of the couples happened to be accepted to the same two schools, and said that when the went to visit School X, the director totally blew off the spouses and they didn't get a good vibe from the program overall. Needless to say, they both came to Purdue and found the experience quite the opposite.

Just as an observation, we have five people who came with a spouse or significantly significant other, plus two people in the program who came as a couple (out of 24 total students).

Bolivia Red said...

3 years really isn't 3 full calendar years. You'll get to town about the 1st of August in your first year, and could be leaving as soon as about mid-May of your third year.

Samara--your sister is so right about that first year. Especially if you're teaching and making a big move to a new place.

I would also like to hear from some 2-year folks since I have only my own experience to speak from.

mummy licker said...

Thanks everyone! Not just for the help with this particular question, but for being a great support during this whole process.

Sarah Perrault said...

Although I had workshops all three years -- mine was very much a studio program -- that third year was absolutely essential for me. At the middle of my second year, I felt I was just hitting my stride.

Like others here, though, I started the MFA in my 30s, with a BA in social science and little prior creative writing experience, and having already had a ten year career in another field. I needed time simply to adjust, something that may not be an issue for someone coming out of a BA or MA in creative writing.

Scout said...

The MFA is all about buying yourself (or, if you're lucky, having someone else buy for you) time to write. I have to pay tuition, but I still want all the time I can get to write. If you can get a third year funded, I don't think you have a dilemma on your hands.

Amy said...

I finished a 4 year MFA (Arkansas) four years ago, and while I understand some people are in a rush (and I understand some people would rather have a "PhD" if they work that long) -- I really don't see the point, if you are *a writer* in being in such a hurry. The longer you're in your MFA program, the longer you have to try to publish well and establish a reputation for yourself. And the longer you have to do that while in the relatively supportive environment of a CW program.

I would suggest to anyone who feels like they want to get the MFA "over with" -- ask yourself, what are you in such a rush to get to? Unless you've got a good answer for that, take your time and enjoy your MFA years. Get as much out of them (polish! publish!) as possible. Do 3 years. Do 4. Then do some fellowships or do a PhD. You're a writer! It's not like you're going to get a job or something! ;-) (I have a job.)

Luke said...

To go along with the post above. I'm in the first of a two year program (Hollins University; poetry). I applied to schools straight out of undergrad, and at the time the two year degree seemed incredibly appealing to me. Right now though, more than a quarter of the way through my MFA, I'm starting to feel a little bit of the pinch. I hear the same sentiments echoed by the second-years I talk to. On some level I feel as though I'm just beginning to get into the rhythm of the place. And I'm fairly confident that I may have a thesis sized volume of work after two years. My main concern is that not all of these poems fit within the same collection (which is the idea of the thesis, right?). No matter how concentrated I am on my project, every once and awhile it's inevitable that there's going to be a poem borne out of something completely random, or a random assignment from a professor (this week, a dramatic monologue in blank verse) touching on themes heretofore ignored. Like has been said before, the third or fourth year is simply another year to focus exclusively on the work. While I'm thrilled to be where I am, I think that an extra year or two would certainly result in a much more complete final product. But who knows, there's also something to be said for a looming deadline as a motivator.

Sarah Perrault said...

I think of the three-year MFA as being like a three-day weekend.

In a two-day weekend, on Saturday I'm getting into the groove of the weekend, but then on Sunday it's the end of the weekend already and oh, man, I still need to do the laundry.

On a three-day weekend, I get an extra sense of ease: a day to settle in, a day to play hard, and another day for the finishing touches.

Laundry, for example. Or polishing and sending out manuscripts, which can be more like doing laundry than I could have imagined pre-MFA.

Samara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
traffic jam said...

i agree about 3 years; these programs appeal to me. i'd love having the extra time.

on that note, does BU's program freak anyone else out? one year seems like an awful crunch. that completely turns me off.

Vince said...

TK offers some insights on the value of a third year in the handbook. I read that the third year can be beneficial because the two year programs might have you out the door right when your just finding your stride--think premature birth for some.

RVCBard said...

These responses have been very insightful. I applied to a 3-year program, and I was a bit concerned that taking 3 years to do what many do in 2 was too much expense for not enough pay-off. However, these posts have put those concerns to rest.

Considering that I applied to a playwriting program, I think having more time is crucial for my predicament due to the collaborative nature of theater. It's not enough for me to be familiar with only a producer or artistic director. I need to have working relationships with actors, directors, designers, technicians, producers, critics, other playwrights, and so forth. When I think about it, 2 years isn't much time to build a solid professional relationship like that.

So, thanks for straightening me out.

blarring said...

I agree with rvcbard. For me, the only differences between a two-year and three-year program were an extra year of student loans and another birthday coming and going without a career underway. But these posts have been very insightful.

Mare said...

When I was trying to choose between a 2 year program and a 3 year program, a professor from the 2 year program said, basically, that a 3 year program causes a young writer to rely too much and too long on the workshop.

This is the main point, I've gathered, of opponents of the 3 year program-- for the rest of your writing life, you're not going to have the MFA community to be the catalyst, the encouragement for your writing. So, as soon as possible, you should get out into on your own and start trying to acquire the independence and self-discipline it takes to write.

I ended up choosing the 2 year program ( U of Florida--and not specifically because it was a 2 year program), and I still haven't decided which side of this I'm on. I think I would benefit from an extra year, surely, but I'm not kicking myself for not taking the opportunity to have one.

It's worth noting that a couple of poets I know here, who have been writing for the past year or so based on specific assignments in workshop, now find it hard to write anything unless they have an assignment.

Pensive495 said...

So...I got in at Pittsburgh with no funding. It's a three year program. What's the point of a three year program that doesn't fund you?

Samara said...

Pensive--how do you feel about the program apart from the funding? The thing is, I would be scared to go to any program without funding because unless you have a backup career or are independently wealthy, there is just so little chance the MFA will pay off in any significant monetary way--I would hate to go into much debt over it. Honestly, financial concerns are the main reason I asked about two years vs. three years in the first place--even with funding it will be a strain, because t.a. income can't even touch a regular full-time job. Sorry to be a downer--that was just my thought process. Of course, your situation could be different, and if you really love the program, maybe it's worth it.

Pensive495 said...

I love the program because... it's the one that accepted me? Wrong answer I know, but it's the truth. Of course I want an MFA...and of course I should just apply again if I don't get funded anywhere. But I just can't reconcile spending another year making piles at a job I hate, in a city I don't like. Umphh. Seven schools to wait on, and then...debt? Maybe.

Samara said...

Hmm...Is there any chance of funding the second or third years? Maybe the situation's not as grim as it seems...Also, I suppose, if you don't have to teach you might have time for a part-time job.

Whatever you decide, I hope it works out for the best for you!

Kevin said...

I haven't read all these responses, but I'll toss in my two cents. I'm in my first year of a two-year program, and seeing the end on the horizon does make me wish I had a third funded year to work on my thesis. But I have no desire to spend that third year in more workshops. You just get workshopped out, you know? But from what I understand most three-year programs don't make you take workshops your third year, so there you go.

Colleen said...

At Spalding, you can choose to do extra semesters either concentrating on a full manuscript or a teaching practicum semester to help make you more employable. I've been considering the teaching semester...

DSJ said...

First off, I'm new to the whole blog thing. Until about a year ago, I didn't even know what a blog was. No, I'm not collecting on my pension, I'm just kind of slow.

I can see that there are a lot of blog addicts out there, and this one is the most relevant to me at this time in my life, so it's the only one I really read with any interest. After all, what the hell do I care what a bunch of nobodies like me think about anything? Well, let me tell you what I think about that.... [ahem]
...But seriously, I recently was accepted to UNC Wilmington--yes, I realize it's not Iowa, Columbia, or Irvine, but it's an MFA program, so lay off. They accepted me with funding, which I quite honestly thought was a joke the first time I heard it. After three years of rejection from MFA programs, I was beginning to think I should just go ahead, have that second child, and settle in for the couch-ride. The acceptance and the TAship couldn't have come at a more crucial moment in my life. Oh lord, I'm such a narcissist.

Anyhoo, UNCW is a three-year program. They give you the third year to work only on your thesis with no classes. However, you do have to teach that third year. Since I'm a mom of a young child who will still be young in two years, I view that third year as the light at the end of the tunnel. It means that after all the time I'll spend in the first two years just trying to juggle three classes a week (commuting two hours each way to attend them) and doing my TAship twenty hours a week, all the while scrambling to get as many freelance editing jobs as possible to pay for day care and a new mortgage, that third year will be a godsend. So obviously, in the end, two-year versus three-year? Depends on your situation...

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