MFA acceptance help
March 14, 2017 3:19 PM   Subscribe

I just got accepted to Columbia's Nonfiction MFA program. What now?

I'm looking for any current info on the Columbia Nonfiction MFA program. All information on the web seems to be a few years old.

The funding situation is up in the air, but it's definitely not fully funded w/stipend. I've heard that nonfunded (or partially funded) nonprofessional grad schools are a scam, but I've also heard that the Columbia MFA is essentially a literary kingmaker.

The head of the program called me today and said some very complimentary things about my writing and how he looked forward to working with me.

I am a susceptible bumpkin from the deep south and this is my first grad school go-around, so I am ecstatic. However the 60k per year price tag is off-putting. I have no debt and a couple of rich relatives that I could beg for money, but not to the tune of 120K.

I don't know what to think, I'm excited but nervous. I can provide more snowflakes if necessary, but I wanted to get some recent info from anyone who knows anything.
posted by R.F.Simpson to Media & Arts (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've also heard that the Columbia MFA is essentially a literary kingmaker.

How much can this carry over to the nonfiction program? That's what you want to know. It's not a kingmaker for you if the reason the MFA is good is because the fiction faculty are very well-networked with people who publish novels (for example).

I'm always suspicious of these kinds of offshoots of successful programs. They trade on reputation. But exactly what weight that reputation carries, and why, is something that is very difficult for people who are new to a given field to assess.

I would ask for contact information for recent grads of the program. Then I would ask those people to introduce you to other people, people who the admissions office hasn't directly pointed you to. Then I'd drop by for a visit, sit in on a class or workshop, and then talk informally with the people in the program about their job/publication prospects.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 3:45 PM on March 14 [3 favorites]

Also, congrats---this is great and nothing to be sneezed at, and is a good sign for your career. Remember that the skill that they've identified is still there, whether or not you attend.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 3:46 PM on March 14 [5 favorites]

Their nonfiction reputation seems to be even better than the fiction. The faculty is pretty much the best around, Lopate, Leslie Jamison, Margo Jefferson etc.
posted by R.F.Simpson at 3:56 PM on March 14 [2 favorites]

I think grad school is a scam unless you know exactly what you want from it. What specifically are you getting from this degree? A skill set? Connections? Will employers view this super positively? A promotion?

I'm assuming you're working full time now. If you go to grad school, you'll be working less and paying them tuition. That's a huge double negative to take on, so be sure of why you'd be doing it. Rock em's suggestions are great.
posted by Kalmya at 4:07 PM on March 14

Allegedly, what I'm getting is a pathway into either being a paid nonfiction writer or a job in the publishing industry. Also I'm not working at a permanent full-time job, I'm in transition after going back to school to get a B. A.
posted by R.F.Simpson at 4:23 PM on March 14

I know somebody who is currently in this program. I think you are right to hesitate. You should think long and hard about attending any MFA program (some argue that living in NYC is more useful than attending a MFA program), and especially long and hard for one that isn't fully funded, and one that will require you to live in NYC with its high cost of living. Columbia MFA seems to coast on its location and prestige of the institution overall (as opposed to the specific program); this is the case for many of its other masters programs as well.

The other thing to consider is that the Columbia MFA student body in particular has many students from extremely wealthy backgrounds/parents who can support them in this endeavor. It will color the kind of interactions you have and it will also affect certain aspects of the writing you'll workshopping. Not saying it's a good or bad thing, but just something else to consider, since you added a bit about your own background in the original question.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 4:39 PM on March 14 [14 favorites]

Wait to see what they offer you and push hard for more money. I've heard it can work and you have zilch to lose.

If the degree is still an godly sum of $ (and it probably will be), Hunter's nonfiction MFA is dirt cheap, has a strong reputation, and has great faculty. I know that doesn't help you at this moment but I would SERIOUSLY hesitate to cough up six figure MBA money for an MFA. What Rockem Sockem
said is true: you've got Official evidence of some talent; congrats! (For real.) If you want to be in New York, you can make it happen right now. Take Sackett Street or 92nd Street Y classes with successful nonfiction authors, get on the reading circle, and just fucking do it. There's lots of creative ways to get your work out there and to meet mentors. I'm taking a $7,600 Columbia tv writing course for $900 is the professor's living room. Come hustle. :)

If you're still undecided, ask the program head what they have to say in response to Meghan Daum''s famous essay. You've probably already read it. My Mispent Youth
posted by jessca84 at 5:03 PM on March 14 [5 favorites]

(banged this out on my phone--apologies for the typos)
posted by jessca84 at 5:12 PM on March 14

Assuming that the MFA is a kingmaker, consider the industry you are getting into. I am totally biased, having left media, but publishing is an industry that is imploding economically. I think there are really amazing possibilities for nonfiction in the world! But making money at it is hard for both companies and individuals. With this kind of debt load, that is going to be really important to know, not just long-term but upon graduation -- you will be competing for jobs with fellow graduates whose families probably have the money to fund not just school, but unpaid internships and two-year writing periods. As a consequence you may end up taking jobs that funnel you into salaries that make those payments hard, or not having time to write.* And then it won't matter how good you are.

* yes many writers write at night and on weekends but.

I would proceed with a lot of caution. Having said that, I had a good career in editing but have not yet done my writing per se, so I can only advise you from that side.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:22 PM on March 14 [4 favorites]

I have strong opinions about this but not much time to type them out right now, so I'll just say--unless you have a solid body of shorter pieces already and/or a high-quality draft of a nonfiction manuscript and you just need connections to facilitate finding an agent and refining/selling your manuscript while you move into a new, equally ambitious project that you'll benefit from having professional mentorship on.. Unless these things are more or less the case, I'd seriously hesitate. Even if they are the case, I'd seriously hesitate. There are many other solid nonfiction programs that, even totally unfunded, would leave you with far less debt than this partially-funded one will. (As a poet who graduated from a fully funded MFA program of similar repute about a decade ago, I knew going in that I couldn't incur debt for a degree in poetry, of all things--and it's so, so true. You cannot imagine what a difference full funding, including a reasonable living stipend, for all students makes in terms of easing the atmosphere of camaraderie and productive experimentation MFA programs should--key word--foster.)
posted by tapir-whorf at 6:44 PM on March 14

I am finishing up in a fully funded MFA program. When I applied, the two programs I got into were the one I'm currently at, and Columbia, unfunded. I get how hard it is to say no to, and how seductive it sounds, especially if it's your only offer, but trust me: if you are good enough to get in to Columbia, you are good enough to get into a funded program next year. Take a breath, polish your materials, and respectfully decline.

One thing I did not realize about Columbia when I first got in was that they do offer full funding to a select handful of their students, creating an inner circle of an MFA within the MFA. I've never talked to anyone in the program directly, but this seems grotesque, to me - some aspiring students subsidizing others through their massive student debt. How could this possibly lead to a healthy workshop environment? And how many of the "kings" they crowned were the chosen few, and how many were the ones who'd paid to be there? As far as I'm concerned, they're running two separate programs, and it's predatory. You need support in an MFA. You need community. I simply don't see how a program set up like this can claim to provide that.

Again: if you're good enough to get into Columbia, you're good enough to get in elsewhere, and to have a top-notch writing career. You are going to succeed at this, with patient and grit. Use those qualities to make the right decision. Decline.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:26 PM on March 14 [17 favorites]

I didn't do an MFA but I got a law degree from Columbia. My debt coming out of law school was over $200,000, which appears to be what yours will be at least. And I graduated before 2008 and I got a six-figure lawyer job, and it was still incredibly difficult to pay off. Please think long and hard about the reality of having that much NON-dischargeable debt at around 6% annual interest, and how that's going to impact your future.
Think of this as a financial investment, not just a dream come true. What are your chances of making enough money after this program to fund a $1,000+/month loan payment every single month for the next 20 years, while (probably) living in one of the most expensive cities in the world?
As suggested above, talk to some grads. Ask hard questions to the department about career opportunities after graduation, and ask for numbers. This is like buying a house, only you have no tangible asset and you can't walk away (bankruptcy doesn't work with student loans). Go into this with your eyes open, it's one of the biggest decisions of your life.
posted by banishedimmortal at 7:46 PM on March 14 [4 favorites]

ugh, why won't mefi just engage in some routine confirmation bias?

Seriously though, you guys are right. I guess I just need to be prepared for when the actual funding decisions come out. From what I understand, the "mfa with an mfa" actually gets decided after the first year. So, your fully funded for the 2nd year and they reimburse you for the first year which really gives lie to the "competitive" nature of the program.

Honestly part of the attraction is the name recognition and the faculty. I'm a 30 year old imminent B.A. recipient and a fucked up background, so maybe I'm perfectly engineered for their con.

ugh this sucks
posted by R.F.Simpson at 7:52 PM on March 14 [2 favorites]

I have a poetry MFA and went on to publish fiction with a big 5 publisher. In some ways, Columbia is outside the typical MFA experience--they really are uniquely well-connected to NYC publishing. However, NYC publishing in general and Columbia specifically is a world where a lot of parental support is common. If you can really afford to go there and pay for rent in NYC and not bury yourself in debt it can be a wonderful experience. That doesn't sound like it's the case.

Did you apply to other programs? Have you gotten in anywhere else? I agree that if you've gotten into Columbia you can get in elsewhere, and regardless, you can work on polishing and publishing essays for publication right now which is what you should do regardless of what happens with your academic future.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:15 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]

I applied to 4 other top tier programs with no other acceptances and one that hasn't come in yet. I've been submitting work to various lit mags for the past two years with no such luck.
posted by R.F.Simpson at 8:21 PM on March 14

I don't think it's exactly a con. I think it's something that makes sense for people who have lots of money. To the extent they're a "kingmaker," what that means is that at least one path to getting published by commercial houses only makes sense for people with a lot of money. Which is not fair. But there it is.

For what it's worth, though, I've been consistently publishing and getting paid for nonfiction for years, and it's because I did a (funded) Ph.D. in another area, so I can cover that topic with expertise and credentials. I think knowing how to write and building a specific expertise not everybody has is a better career move than knowing how to write and having New York connections.
posted by escabeche at 8:28 PM on March 14 [5 favorites]

I'm a humanities prof, though not in writing. I advise grad students on this sort of thing all the time. There really is no kingmaker in the humanities. This is true whether one is going into academia or writing. To the extent this was ever true anywhere, it might have been true with a certain few law schools and/or MBAs a while back. But the probability of your making enough money consistently to be able to pay back a Columbia MFA is low, and this is true regardless of your talent. You're likely relegating yourself to 15 years of privation because of your massive debt load. Now, it's not impossible you write the next DFW collection of essays or whatever. It could happen. But it's very unlikely. Far more likely is that you're stuck unable to live a decent life because writing pays as writing normally does, and you're swamped in debt.

I'd not start a MFA program unless it were funded. Or I were rich.

Hang in there. Clearly you've talent. Wait for your pitch. Be prudent. You'll look back in 15 years and be glad you did.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:49 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]

Honestly part of the attraction is the name recognition and the faculty.

In re this: I have a close friend who went to Columbia for an MFA (not in nonfiction writing, but in film) for the exact same reason. He got his degree well over 20 years ago, never made a living in his field, and is still paying off his student debt to this day; with the interest constantly accruing, he may literally never pay it off. Just another data point.
posted by holborne at 10:22 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]

Hi, my name is The corpse in the library and I have an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia. I was there many years ago and don't have current dirt, but if you have specific questions feel free to MeMail me and I'll answer them the best I can.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:04 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]

Novelist and syndicated columnist Meghan Daum has said that the best thing she got out of the Columbia creative nonfiction MFA program was meeting someone through whom she found out about a rent-controlled apartment. That said, Daum's Columbia MFA experience, like the corpse in the library's, is not current (I think Daum earned her master's in the 1990s or early 2000s).

However, the essay linked above ("My Misspent Youth") is a damn good read, regardless.
posted by virago at 8:14 PM on March 15

Right: and Daum, despite being a really excellent writer, had her book of essays published by an independent publisher, presumably made no money, moved to Lincoln, NE and then to LA, and only in the last, I dunno, 5-10 years has become a well-known writer who makes money, and I don't think that's because of her MFA connections.
posted by escabeche at 3:28 PM on March 17

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