The Choice: Deciding on a Low Residency MFA in Writing Program

First of all, my apologies for the tardiness of this post, which was promised weeks ago. Choosing which low residency MFA in Writing program to attend has been an arduous and brain-freezing task–a decision that lately rivaled the one to have children. But, it’s been made (can you hear the cheering and yahooing in the distance? That’s the sound of my husband and friends, celebrating the end of the madness).

I will be attending Vermont College of Fine Arts. My first residency is this coming winter.

If you’re reading this post, chances are you’re a family member or friend of mine, or–and here’s what I’m hoping–you are, like I was, attempting to choose a low residency MFA in Writing program.

There’s quite a bit of information out there in the universe–some useful, some not–about how to go about this process. In this post I’ll describe my process, in hopes that it may aid others. I’ll address elements of the decision that I did not see covered in the many books, articles, and blogs already published on the subject, I’ll share my research materials, and I’ll talk about my interactions with each program.

Please note that deciding on a graduate program is an intensely personal process: when it comes down to it, and the research has been exhausted, you just have to “go with your gut.” Annoying as hell to hear, right? But it’s true.

Off we go:

* For a bit of background information about my thoughts on the decision to return to graduate school, see “Once More Into the Breach,” posted on April 4, 2011.

First, I decided on low residency programs, instead of traditional. This was easy: I’ve a husband, daughter, dog, and mortgage, among other things, that keep me rooted. Second, I chose seven programs to which I’d apply: (these are in no particular order)

1. Pacific University
2. University of New Orleans
3. Lesley University
4. Goddard College
5. Queens University of Charlotte
6. Vermont College of Fine Arts
7. Spalding University

The reasoning behind this initial culling (there are over 100 low residency programs in the U.S. at this time) was simple:

1. Pacific: I’d always wanted to spend time in the Pacific Northwest, I think they have the most aesthetically pleasing website and program information, and Pam Houston–a long-time favorite of mine–teaches there.

2. University of New Orleans: The study abroad aspects of the program (you must spend a month abroad each summer to complete the low residency degree) were enticing.

3. Lesley University: Reputation was a big factor; also, the idea of being in such a literary epicenter like Cambridge was appealing.

4. Goddard College: Reputation, certainly. A chance to be in Vermont.

5. Queens University: Living in N.C., I’d recently become familiar with this newer program, which had been gaining favor and hiring some authors I admire, like Elizabeth Strout.

6. Vermont College of Fine Arts: First and foremost: reputation. And, the chance to study either in Vermont (a state I’d fallen in love with during a writer’s residency a few years ago) or abroad, with top faculty and writers… many who’d earned their MFAs from Iowa. Also: alumni publishing success.

7. Spalding University: Only 6 hours from where I live, with an innovative “flexible scheduling” that allowed for mixing 6-month and 9-month long semsters, study abroad options, a chance to study cross-genre (my areas of interest: fiction and creative nonfiction). Also liked the fact that the program director, Sena Jeter Naslund, published successful historical fiction–my own genre.

**Though I know one has to take ranking with a “grain of salt,” six of the seven programs were included in Atlantic Monthly‘s “Best of the Best” and in Poet’s and Writers “Top Ten Low Residency Programs.” Most had been in the top ten in any sort of rankings taken over the past ten years, especially Vermont College (#1 or tied for first each year).

So, in the Fall of 2010 I worked on my writing samples, garnered my recommendations, ordered transcripts, and applied. By March 2011, I’d heard from most schools. I was rejected by Queens and Lesley, and accepted by Pacific, Vermont College (VCFA), Goddard, UNO (University of New Orleans), and Spalding.

I heard from UNO and Spalding first, then Pacific, VCFA, and Goddard. Queens and Lesley came in so much later than the others–I’d had to contact both to check in–that by that point I’d already culled the group, in my mind at least, to Pacific, VCFA, and Spalding. (Note: Goddard did come back onto my radar after a great conversation with the interim program director, Elena Georgiou, who took special note of my love of writing historical fiction, and steered me to the writings of a similar faculty member.)

When I’d initially started thinking about heading back to graduate school, it was the summer of 2008. Though my application process was cut short by the unexpected news that I was pregnant, I had already done quite a bit of thinking about where I’d like to go. For some reason–mainly the idea of traveling to the Pacific Northwest and studying with Pam Houston, Pacific became my #1. When, last year, I started and completed the application process, I still felt the same way.

After being accepted to programs, I did everything possible in order to narrow down my choices: talked to faculty, alumni, current students, administrators; looked at rankings and placement; studied each school’s literature (especially faculty bios and mentoring philosophies); considered all costs, including possible scholarship and assistantship options; hounded my friends and family (some of whom are professors); spent late nights with my husband just hashing it all out (“it’s your choice,” was his oft-repeated reply); looked at study abroad options and whether it’d actually be feasible for me to factor this in (what with the daughter, husband, and dog); and researched websites, blogs, and books about the MFA in Writing.

In the end, I even resorted to coin tossing.

The resources I consulted:

Publications
The Low-Residency MFA Handbook by Lori A. May
The Creative Writing MFA Handbook by Tom Kealey
Poets & Writers magazine (in addition to perusing years of articles on the MFA in Writing, I spent quite a bit of time at the Speakeasy, their forum)
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs
The Writer’s Chronicle magazine (from the AWP)
The Atlantic Monthly magazine
Assorted essays by Linda Formichelli, Erika Dreifus, Seth Abramson, etc.
Blogs
www.sethabramson.blogspot.com “Seth Abramson”
www.bestdamncreativewritingblog.com “The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog”
www.creative-writing-mfa-handbook.blogspot.com “The Creative Writing MFA Blog”
www.erikadreifus.com/blogs/practicing-writing/ “Practicing Writing”
Any blog by any graduate of the programs I was considering.

One thing that made my decision different: I am already an adjunct instructor of English at 4-year and community colleges. A specific reason for me to earn a terminal degree in writing is to have the necessary degree to be competitive for a full-time, tenure track position at a college or university. (I know that a MFA is not a job quarantee, but the sad fact is that if you haven’t published a book or books yet, and you want a full-time position in higher ed teaching writing, this degree is necessary.)

So, my search changed. I began to consider: which programs graduated alumni who garnered full-time teaching jobs? Which program would make me the most competitive in the higher ed workforce?

What I learned, from conversations with several folks in higher ed (including, but not limited to, graduate school MA in English professors, undergraduate writing professors, administrators, and my current boss, who is head of the humanities division at a small, liberal arts college) is that “pedigree” matters. The reputation of the school from which you will have earned your MFA degree matters… a lot. After publications, of course.

While many of these people did profess that rankings are a crap-shoot, and that I should go where my “gut” tells me, several did admit that when it comes to larger state universities (the sort of places I’d like to work), English departments aren’t as hip to writing programs–so, they look at the more (dare I say) superficial qualities of a candidate, like where the degree was earned.

I had to take into consideration the fact that when I do complete my MFA in Writing and am searching for a full-time position, I will be competing (in an already saturated market) with other candidates who’ve earned their MFAs from traditional, residential programs. And though low residency programs are gaining ground and beginning to be respected by hiring committees, there are still many programs that refuse to give them as much credit as the traditional degree. (Consider the faculty member at the University of Georgia, who revealed in an email that going for a low residency MFA “just wasn’t worth it.” Ouch.)

The main bit of advice from each higher ed type: It’s your publications that get you the job. Then, your credentials. One former professor of mine said, “When it comes to getting a job teaching writing, it’s all about your publications and who you know.”

But not a single publication I’d consulted weighed, in any manner, which low residency program would most aid a writer-teacher in finding a job. Here, I was on my own. And though it’s easy to argue with rankings, the fact that VCFA had been #1 in placement for the past several years means something to me. This is not the case for everyone, of course: many, if not most, people considering or currently working towards their low residency degree in writing already have full-time jobs and don’t plan on quitting them. Most simply want to develop their craft, to become better writers.

Becoming a better writer is, of course, the ultimate goal of a MFA in Writing. It’s imperative that a potential MFA student look into which programs provide the best teacher-writers–those writers commited to his or her students’ work and progress. Like the “which program will help me get a job” category, this one, too, is mostly unquantifiable. What’s left to us here are teaching philosophies and faculty bios. Those can and should be studied as closely as possible. I searched each faculty member of the programs I was considering, researched their websites and publications, looked into the English departments at the schools where they teach, and at where they earned their own writing degrees. But again, it’s a crap-shoot.

* In addition, I looked at the faculty of several small-to-large universities in my area, in order to discover where they had earned their terminal degrees. I considered faculty at places like Clemson University, the University of South Carolina, the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Western Carolina Univeristy, the University of North Carolina (at Chapel Hill, Asheville, Wilmington), N.C. State, the College of Charleston, Winthrop University, Converse College, Presbyterian College, Charleston Southern, Coastal Carolina University, etc. Most had earned their degrees from traditional MFA in Writing programs, or earned PhDs in English.

When my husband and I began talking finances, I was forced to give up on my initial dream of attending Pacific. The cost here, mainly for travel (I live on the East Coast), would be too high. There aren’t as many options for cross-genre study there, something in which I’m interested. I’d been accepted only in Fiction (as choosing one genre is the only option) at Pacific, while at Spalding and VCFA I’d been accepted in both Fiction and Creative Nonfiction.

Now it was down to two: Spalding and VCFA.

Spalding has so many things going for it: a study abroad option, cross-genre study, flexible scheduling, very, very happy and satisfied alumni, and a great spokeperson in Associate Program Director Kathleen Driskell. Kathleen was (and is) knowledgeable, genuinely friendly, easy to talk with, and willing to go out of her way to answer questions and to try to get the potential student the help she needs. Another item in the Spalding “yes” column: a small merit scholarship, and an assistantship working as a student editor and reader for The Louisville Review for as many semesters as I’d like. (Spalding is the rare low residency program that offers financial assistance.) In addition, Kathleen made it clear that Spalding really wanted me to come there–that they were excited and happy about me being part of their program. (This enthusiasm was the exception to the rule with other programs.) Spalding was rapidly becoming a program I’d have a hard time turning down.

VCFA also has a great spokesperson in Louise Crowley, who answered all my questions, spoke honestly and often with me about the rigors of the program and the small possibilities for financial assistance (outside of student loans, of course). The program at VCFA is long and lauded, and Louise is experienced and friendly. She immediately sent me a packet of information that included a sample residency schedule and course offerings, which were varied and exciting. The study abroad option at VFCA is unique in that it is ten days, and takes place in lieu of (and at the same time as) the Vermont residency, so a student can choose which to attend. This was quite appealing to me, as I’m a travel junkie with a family–the least disruptive the travel is to my family calendar, the better. And though the Vermont website does not supply nearly the amount of information the Spalding site does, it does provide faculty teaching philosophies, and these I found enlightening and helpful.

Both programs–Spalding’s and VCFA’s–provided information on alumni successes (i.e. books published). Both are impressive, but VCFA, being around for longer, seemed to have a great number of alumni publishing books.


I tortured myself (and my husband) with the decision. In an unethical move I’m not proud of, I resorted to telling both schools “yes” so I’d have longer to make my decision… a decision I quite literally could not make. One week, I’d be sure of one school, and the next I’d change my mind to the other. I went on long hikes with my dog, prayed about it, meditated about it, and drove my friends and family crazy asking the same questions over and over again.

I’d applied to the two schools for different reasons: Spalding, because it was new and innovative and I’d heard good things, and VCFA, because I knew its stellar reputation and was sure I wouldn’t have a chance of getting in. When Spalding rose to the top for a variety of reasons, and I was actually accepted to VCFA, I was stumped. Hornswoggled. Flummoxed, discombobulated and foxed.

In the end, I just couldn’t let the idea of VCFA go. I tried, but I couldn’t. And I was utterly exhausted by the process. It doesn’t hurt to add that my husband really wanted me to go to VCFA. And so the choice was made.


I’m thrilled about the decision, anxious about the affects on my family, but excited to begin. I’m ready to move ahead with my craft and my career.

Note: This is just my process, and everyone does it differently. If you are considering a MFA in Writing, or are trying to decide between programs, I wish you the best of luck. Because I’ve been in the trenches, so to speak, I’m more than happy to answer any questions.

This entry was posted in graduate school, low residency MFA in Writing programs, MFA in Writing, Spalding, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The Choice: Deciding on a Low Residency MFA in Writing Program

  1. Wow! Thank you. This is so helpful! I’ve applied to many of the ones you did and just received my first acceptance to VCFA. I’m going to wait to see where else I get in (I applied to Pacific and I live in OR), but I’m excited to have the option to go to VCFA. Did you like the program?

    • scout2011 says:

      I’m so glad the post helped, Melissa! And congrats on being accepted to VCFA! It really is a great program; the stellar faculty, especially, make it so. I’m just beginning my third semester, which is the “critical” semester (where you produce a critical thesis in addition to creative work). I’ll have one more semester after this. Feel free to shoot me an email (my address is provided in the “Contact Katherine” section) with any specific questions you might have, and I’ll be happy to answer them. I talked to several graduates of low residency programs, including VCFA’s, when I was trying to make my decision, but I think it would’ve been helpful to speak with students still in the program, too.

  2. Penne says:

    Katherine, this is an extremely late reply, but I came across just today. Thank you for your post. I found it extremenly helpful and insightful. I am in the early stages of researching low res programs and feel completely exhausted with the process. I am currently creating a short list to work from, but even that process has been taxing. I am in awe of your information. You brought up questions I didn’t realize needs to be considered. Spalding has made it on the short list, mainly, I have become aquainted with three alumni. I respect their writing and input…So my journey continues as I carve down my options. Again, thank you for posting your journey.

    • scout2011 says:

      @ Penne:

      So glad I could help! It’s such an exhausting process, I know. But you’ll get through it and find a great program for you. One of the best things I learned is that you really can’t go wrong with any of these top tier programs. And how helpful that you’ve gotten to know some alumni, too. I think that says a lot. Good luck with your search, and let me know if I can be of any more help.

  3. Rose says:

    Katherine, thank you for sharing your decision process in such detail. I know you posted a while ago, but I’ve applied to many of the same programs and just got accepted to VCFA. I’ll wait to see what the rest of my schools say, but I anticipate a grueling decision. I am interested in teaching, however, and found that section of your post particularly helpful.

    • scout2011 says:

      Rose, glad to be of help in any way. Congratulations for being accepted to VCFA! I’m a fan, obviously, so if you have any more questions or do decided to go there, please seek me out. I only have my own experiences to go on, but I’m more than willing to share. Glad, too, that you found the “teaching section” of the post helpful. It was one of those undefinable qualities of a low-res program that I definitely needed met. We’ll see what really happens when I finally graduate (I have one semester left) and begin looking for full-time teaching jobs in higher ed, but I feel good about the reputation of VCFA’s program in the academic community. Did you just see the Poets & Writers Mag results for ratings for the top low-res schools? VCFA is at #2 behind Warren Wilson, but we’re #1 in job placement and plenty of other categories….

  4. Ok, Katherine, here is the ONE thing I’d like to know. HOW MUCH feedback did you get on your specific writing packets? Track changes with commentary and line by line edits?One page commentary? A back and forth written or verbal “conversation about re-writes? I am looking at Pacific, Vermont, Spaulding, Queens, Fairfield( maybe Bennington, altho I heard its tough on CNF, better with fiction and poetry; and Lesley for the teaching component). any help would be huge. Most likely will not get into Vermont, but hey, you never know! Thanks-and thanks, too for that great post.

    • scout2011 says:

      Ryder,

      It really depends on the advisor. I’ve had 3 so far, and will have my final advisor (and semester) coming up … and I’ll probably request an awesome advisor I’ve already had, if that tells you anything. Each advisor has been different. Two of them made more line notes and notes within the text of my manuscripts than the other, but the advisor who didn’t concentrate as much on line notes wrote me a several page letter with each packet, focusing more on major issues within the chapter (I’m working on a novel) itself, concentrating on details pertinent to the time period I was writing in, offering suggestions for language, etc. Each advisor wrote long letters when they returned each packet, but his were very long. Subsequently, he was an advisor who used snail mail instead of email submissions, and so didn’t do “track changes.” One other advisor also used snail mail, and she would send a long letter plus comments within the text of my manuscript, and also send me little tidbits of articles from newspapers and magazines, etc, that she thought pertained to my story.

      I’ve had one advisor so far use email submissions, and instead of using “track changes” she used different font colors and bold, comments and suggestions in parenthesis, etc within the text of my manuscript. I found that a lot more helpful than “track changes,” but that’s just me.

      So, when I’d send my manuscript each month I’d also include a cover letter, and in it I’d address any critical work I’d also submitted, what I was reading and researching, and talk about the creative submission, any questions or concerns, where I’d like to see it go, if I had anything specific I knew I wanted help with, etc. All my advisors always addressed each of these issues posed in my letter in their return letter, which was great. And every advisor told me I was more than welcome to email them during the semester, too, if I had any questions or concerns. I usually emailed them a few times over the course of the semester, but didn’t inundate them with questions because I really didn’t have too many after they’d return my packets. One advisor told me I was welcome to call him whenever, and I took him up on it once.

      Usually they offer a mid-semester phone call (you get to meet up with them at residency, so you’ll have a sort of post-semester meeting if you want), which I always took them up on (it’s usually optional). Those were always wonderful, and with each advisor we usually ended up talking for well over an hour, even though it was supposed to be only 30 minutes or so. One thing I learned quickly at VCFA is how accessible and welcoming the advisors I’ve chosen have been–they want to hear from you, and to help you. I think that’s priceless.

      Again, these are experiences with my specific advisors … things may be different with others. I know there’s one faculty who sends recordings of him talking about a student’s submission, and I know there are plenty of students who email pretty frequently with their advisors. I just didn’t feel the need to–though I imagine that will change coming up in my final semester!

      Really hope this helps! All the best to you, and if you choose VCFA I hope you’ll find me to say “hi.”

  5. Was accepted this afternoon. Thrilled. Thank you for the helpful notes, even more pertinent today!

    • scout2011 says:

      Woohoo! Congrats, Ryder! A great day. I hope you celebrate. And if you’re at the summer residency, I hope you’ll track me down and say “hi.” All the best to you!

  6. Rachel Walker says:

    Greetings,
    I’m curious why you didn’t apply to Bennington? I’m interested inboth Bennington and VCFA for creative nonfiction. Would love your insight!

    • scout2011 says:

      Hi, Rachel,

      To be honest, it’s been a while. Bennington just hadn’t been on my radar, I guess. I’d heard a little bit about it from writers I’d met at residencies (if you email me at thewritingscott at gmail dot com I’m happy to talk about it). I think that swayed me more than anything else, though having been in a program for a while now, I can definitely see how subjective those opinions can be. There are writers who have wonderful experiences at each program–I just happen to really love the one where I landed (VCFA)!

      Thanks for writing–hope I can help out a little more over email.

      Katherine