What's the deal with getting a creative writing MFA from an American school, as a Canadian?
July 23, 2008 2:08 AM   Subscribe

What's the deal with getting a creative writing MFA from an American school, as a Canadian?


money - am I eligible for funding (grants and/or loans) from American schools? Will the Canadian government lend me money (OSAP? (I'm in Ontario)) to study in the US? Can I do both?

visas - hard to get? Expensive? Long waits?

working - can I work while I'm there on a student visa?

living expenses - I want to go to Brooklyn College, but I'll probably also apply to all the other NYC MFA programs (NYU, New School, Columbia, am I missing any?), and schools in Irvine CA, Iowa, and maybe Austin. Would it be a realistic thing to support myself with whatever kind of low-skill job I might be able to find (in Brooklyn or elsewhere), and still have time to do school/write?

staying/moving to the US when I'm done - is this a hard thing to do?

Any answers are welcome and appreciated, but it would be great to hear from Canadians who have done or are doing this.

BONUS QUESTION: With respect to trying to get a teaching job in Canada afterwards, I've heard someone say Canadian schools don't care about a degree from an American school so much because they don't know which ones are prestigious, with the possible exception of Iowa. Whereas getting a creative writing MA from UofT, or the MFA from Concordia (for example), even though they might have less impressive faculty by international standards, will be more helpful in getting a Canadian teaching job afterwards. Anyone know about this? (Aside, I guess, from the obviously-better Canadian networking opportunities)

posted by skwt to Education (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
i don't know anything about canadian financing, but i will tell you that the financial aid at columbia is negligible, so you will want to focus on loans. also, although it is one of the more prestigious mfa programs in the country, it's also incredibly expensive. worth it, perhaps, but you won't be paying it off anytime soon. (i have an mfa from columbia)

nyu is also pretty expensive, but less so. new school and brooklyn are more affordable, with equally good faculty. city college actually has a decent program. sarah lawrence has a terrific program, but it is outside the city a bit, in bronxville. you could live in the city and commute, or live locally and just commute down to the city for nightlife. i think that's the more affordable option.

in terms of teaching, i would say that columbia would probably open some doors, even in canada--it's one of the ivy league schools, along with harvard, yale, etc. nyu also will probably have good name recognition as a school with a strong arts program. if you are dealing with a knowledgable department, new school, brooklyn, and sarah lawrence will all be known to them.

one thing about columbia is that you can teach writing programs at the bank street school and get experience that way.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:40 AM on July 23, 2008

Definitely have a look through The MFA Blog, which has been through several admissions cycles at this point. I'm not sure how much coverage international student issues get, but NYC area writing programs, making ends meet and postdegree opportunities are all discussed at various times.
posted by gnomeloaf at 7:14 AM on July 23, 2008

It sounds like you are at least considering schools outside New York, so why not Johns Hopkins? Probably the second-most famous fiction program in the US (less well-known, I think, in poetry, though it's 15 years since I was there) and, importantly for you, they're very well-funded, supporting a lot of their students with TAships.

The point of an MFA is that you're being given time to write. If you're going to school and working 30 hours a week to make ends meet, you might be missing the point.
posted by escabeche at 7:43 AM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hi, skwt. I'm also a Canadian in Toronto and I went to Brooklyn College for an MFA program (not writing). If you are admitted to an American school, you get a student visa pretty much automatically (assuming there's nothing that would bar you from entering the country altogether). A student visa does not allow you to work off-campus and you have to show that you have financial resources to last for the school year. There are different types of student visa, which I don't know much about (I had the advantage of being married to a citizen) so perhaps there's some option I don't know about that will work for you. You should talk to the school(s) foreign students office for details.

When I went (in 95), I could apply via OSAP for Canada Student Loans, but study outside Canada did not qualify for Ontario Student Loans. At the time (I don't know if this is still the case) if you got over a certain amount in OSL, the amount over that threshold was forgiven -- but the number that was measured against the threshold was your average annual OSL over all the years you received OSAP. So the amount I owed on my Ontario Student Loan increased as a result of going to grad school, even though I didn't receive any additional OSL loan.

Let me know (here or mefi-mail) if you have more specific questions.
posted by winston at 8:04 AM on July 23, 2008

The point of an MFA is that you're being given time to write. If you're going to school and working 30 hours a week to make ends meet, you might be missing the point.

My thoughts exactly. I turned down Columbia and NYU (both of which offered me half-tuition and no living expenses) for a program that gave me full tuition + stipend (Michigan), and I am SO glad I did. In fact, while there I met a guy who'd dropped out of the Columbia program because he was working 40 hours a week, had no time or energy to write, and was sinking into debt because of the NYC cost of living. If you're serious about Being a Writer, you'll want as much time as you can get to write, read, attend readings, and just hang out with the other writers. You know yourself best, of course--but keep stipends and so on in mind. There are tons of excellent programs out there that offer full funding. You don't mention if you're a poet or a prose writer, but don't get too hung up on name brands (i.e., Iowa, Columbia, and yeah, even Michigan)--go wherever you think you'll learn the most and get the most writing done.

If you're interested in teaching, look for a program that gives you some practice. Mine required us to teach in the second year, and everyone I knew found it useful--either because they got experience and went on to teach, or because they learned they hated it and found another job after grad school. FWIW, it usually works like this in the US: almost all MFA programs will qualify you to teach English composition; with an MFA, you may also be able to teach creative writing at community colleges or smaller institutions; to get adjunct work at universities, you usually need an MFA and a book out; to get tenure-track work, all of the above plus a hefty stroke of luck.

Good luck!
posted by Ms. Informed at 10:06 AM on July 23, 2008

Response by poster: Hi guys, thanks very much.

Btw, I'm fiction, not poetry.

thinkingwoman -- I've heard "the financial aid at columbia is negligible" at Columbia, but maybe you can clarify: does this mean that, say, 50% of students get 5% of their $70 000 or whatever it is paid, or is it more like 5% of students get 50% paid?

gnomeloaf -- I've seen that blog, but I haven't done a systematic search for this Canadian question in particular -- thanks for the reminder.

escabeche -- fair nuff.

winston -- oh awesome! I would love to hear about your BC experiences, even though I guess a lot has probably changed in 13 years in both Brooklyn and BC. That's very helpful re OSAP, I'll check it out.

Ms. Informed -- yeah that is wise words. According to http://sethabramson.blogspot.com/2006/12/2006-creative-writing-mfa-rankings.html, Brooklyn seems like a good way to beat the brand-name competition numbers of the Manhattan schools while also having an awesome location and "Funding: Average," but yeah, I'll probably also apply to a few schools that have better funding opportunities than locations. Any recommendations? What's Ann Arbor like to live in?
posted by skwt at 12:01 PM on July 23, 2008


I was skeptical of Ann Arbor (I'd spent the past 6+ years in Boston) and it felt very, very small-town when I first got there. But it turned out to be an fantastic place to go to school (both for me and Mr. Informed, who got his JD there--yay, coordinating grad school locations). Enough going on so that I wasn't bored, but not so much that I neglected my work, ha. Don't get me wrong--it's not NYC, and it is definitely a college town, not a city. Now, though, I can't imagine having gone to school in in New York, or even in any other metropolitan area. And I actually miss it.

Also, N.B., I had an amazing experience at Michigan, but I had an amazing cohort, as they call it there. YMMV. The same holds true for anywhere, so the quality of your classmates is definitely something to consider as well. Odds of your finding someone you like are probably better at, say, Columbia or Iowa (40-odd in your class) vs., say, Notre Dame (4ish in your class). But then, the smaller programs are often more intimate and cohesive...

This is getting away from your original post, so I'll stop there. But I write fiction also, and am a relatively recent MFA, so MeFi-mail me if you have more questions on Michigan or prose programs in general, and I'll do my best to answer. Sounds like you have a good read on the situation already.

P.S. I'm happy to see how high Michigan is in the link you posted; overall that list jibes well with what I hear about other programs from friends, too.
posted by Ms. Informed at 1:27 PM on July 23, 2008

Response by poster: (Am I allowed to keep talking? Will I get busted for chatfiltering?)

Ms. Informed,

Thanks again. Can I ask how big the Michigan cohort is? That is totally a concern, I would really prefer big cohort/better odds. I've been in nightmare small undergrad writing classes where the odds worked against me.

And yeah, I meant to say re your and yeah, even Michigan comment: check out that #3 listing.
posted by skwt at 2:21 PM on July 23, 2008

Michigan's cohort is usually 12 poets and 12 fiction writers each year. So at any given time, there are 48 students in the program total, and usually there are a number of recent grads that stick around to teach or on fellowships. It was the ideal size for me--just big enough to find lots of people I liked, but not so big that you were lost in a crowd. While I was there, there was a good amount of intermingling between poets and fiction writers.

Workshops are usually about 12 people. Usually, in the first semester's workshops, the classes are mixed--i.e., each workshop has some people from each class. Then in your second semester, you workshop with your own class. It was a good sytem; you did get to know your own class well, but you weren't stuck in workshop with them all the time.

Michigan's star was definitely on the rise when I was there; recently they got a lot of funding and now have some hefty post-MFA fellowships (sadly, they started with the year after my class). When I applied, the only ranking I had was the ridiculous 1997 US News one--which I used mostly as a list of what MFA programs were out there. Yeah, I was uninformed. Speaking unobjectively, it *is* a great program and has been developing even more over the past few years, so I'm happy to see that get recognized. I expect the same is true of a lot of the other programs out there, too. It's hard to keep up.

Oh, and re: chatfiltering, maybe this info will be useful to others considering MFAs. You never know.
posted by Ms. Informed at 10:19 AM on July 24, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks again guys. I may be sending some MefiMail around application time, winston and Ms. Informed.
posted by skwt at 7:12 PM on July 27, 2008

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