This Summer Session we’re going Back to School, and today we bring you a question from our arts-advice column Help Desk about how to get the most out of an MFA program. Group crits can be the most nerve-wracking and rewarding aspects of an MFA, and here Bean Gilsdorf, Whitney Lynn, and Rhonda Holberton weigh in on the best ways to make sure yours are both challenging and enriching. This article was originally published on July 21, 2014.
I’ve been accepted to an MFA program that begins this September. As the month approaches, I find myself getting increasingly nervous and anxious (as I always do on the first day of school). It’s been a few years since I’ve participated in group critiques, and while I’m excited about this program, I also feel very vulnerable right now. Can you offer any advice to new MFA students? I wonder what former students “wish they’d known” before going into a program.
There are so many things I wish I’d known before I started my graduate program that I could answer your question with a book. Work hard, show up for everything, and say thank you are timeless tips, of course, but you’re looking for other suggestions calibrated to the specifics of the MFA. First, make friends with the Graduate Program Manager (or whatever they call the initial line of defense in your grad office). This individual will be your conduit to advisor selection, the assignment of teaching assistantships, and much more; woe betide the student who cops an attitude and treats the manager rudely. Second (and this is related to the above), the most bureaucratic rules only apply to students who don’t apply themselves. I’m not suggesting that you engage in risky behavior, but all fences have gates. If you are kind and polite and work diligently, someone may show you where they are. Also, if you are moving to attend school, consider staying in that city for a few years after graduation. You will make a lot of friends and contacts in two years, but if you move away immediately, you will lose them. (This last piece of advice was given to me by a colleague who still regrets that he moved away a week after receiving his degree.) Finally, stay away from drama queens, bastards, and bullies, even the ones who are powerful and who seem to hold the potential for your future professional advancement. If I were dying right now and had to give counsel with my last breath, it would be this: Assholes only ever help themselves.