Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Do You Need a Consulting Firm for Your MFA or PHD Application?

Well, do ya?

I spent most of yesterday, while doing the several things there are to do in a day when one has children, thinking about the back and forth about the new consulting firm that’s been created to assist people in applying to graduate programs in creative writing (I’m not posting any links because links seemed to be flying all over the place yesterday. Best just to say, if you don’t know about them, it’s just as well.). I don’t teach in an MFA or PhD program. I did go through an MFA program and a PHD program, however. While there, I didn’t think about graduate program rankings and all that. I was pretty clueless about, what one might call “The Big Picture,” or what others might call “The Scene.” In many respects I still am. I have this kind-of “just work on the art and forget about everything else because wondering or worrying about everything else will lead you down a cynical path that will come back to damage your art” notion that has kept me, by and large, from most all the opportunities out there. Needless to say, this is not my best topic.

But now that I teach undergraduates, I have to make it my topic. Mostly I think I give them the advice that I imagine we all give: look for the program that might be best for you (which for different people means different things: do you want to work on a literary magazine? Do you want to work with a poet somewhat like yourself? Is location really that important to you?), which might not be the program that other people rank as “the best,” in general (My version of “the best” in anything has never been what others consider the best. I imagine that’s the same for everyone?) Apply to as many programs as you can afford to apply to. Work on your writing sample (but please don’t do it cynically [this really makes me cringe, the pressure people feel to do something that they think will be impressive, and how damaging that might be to their art, even taking into consideration that “experimenting” and “modeling” are important ways to find out things…]). Don’t sound crazy in your Statement of Purpose.

I think what depressed me yesterday was the fact that a consulting firm seems to be necessary for what one really should be able to do for oneself, especially if one comes from a place where one has taken creative writing classes already (so one has—hopefully—modeled the behavior or both portfolio and SOP). I doubt a consulting firm will do anyone any real harm, though. At least no more harm than talking with anyone about one’s work (which, of course, could potentially do one a lot of harm). And if one has some money to spend (I think the amount mentioned is $250 or so?), then that’s their business. This consulting firm is doing what creative writing teachers do already for their students. It’s odd, though, to see a price tag on something I do as part of my job. It makes me feel underpaid.

I can envision that there are good candidates for a consulting firm for MFA or PHD admission out there. If a student has a difficult relationship with the person or people that student would have to work with at their school to put an application together, for instance—or if a prospective graduate student has been out of school for a time, and doesn’t feel comfortable going back to talk to people there (or if they've all retired or are in Europe or crazy or _______), perhaps these prospective graduate students would be more comfortable paying strangers for guidance.

Hmm, which gets me thinking. I’ll tell you what. For $20 I’ll tell you if a consulting firm is right for you.


At 8/05/2009 7:20 AM, Blogger Justin Evans said...


I said about the same thing: who cares?

My biggest concern is that nothing prepares a teacher as well as teaching, and that's the only time you find out whether it's for you.

But by that time, a lot of the kids out there have spent their trust funds or put themselves so far in debt getting that MFA, they feel guilty about not using it, they plod along teaching rather than facing up to the fact they hate teaching.

You probably run into it quite a bit, and I know I have had my moments, but I can't understand how people can work for years in a profession they have no love for. But there they are, year after year, killing freshmen, 25 at a pop, by delivering the most uninspired versions of themselves to their ENG 101 classes.

At 8/05/2009 7:28 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


You write: a lot of the kids out there have spent their trust funds or put themselves so far in debt getting that MFA

I've always thought the MFA and PHD degrees were basically free. At least it was for me. I had a small student loan bill from my undergraduate degree (in Journalism), but after that, I had fellowships.

Don't most people get MFAs while on teaching fellowships, which take care of tuition and give the fellow a small (just a bit too small usually - I worked delivering papers at night) monthly check?

At 8/05/2009 7:45 AM, Blogger Leslie said...

A lot of MFA programs have partial funding and a few have none. I think Columbia and Sarah Lawrence offer virtually no financial aid. Also lo-res places can't really offer teaching, so they have little to offer beyond student loans and some very modest grants to a select few. Even the much ballyhooed Iowa does not, I believe, fully fund all its students.

So yes, some people go into debt. Even with programs that offer a stipend and all costs, the stipend, especially for a PhD program, is often insufficient to live on. Irvine, for example, where I got my MFA, is in one of the most expensive housing markets on earth, and the stipend doesn't really reflect that. So we were "fully funded" but only if living in a hovel in Chino and commuting 4 hours a day was fine with us.


For 10 bucks I'll refer anyone to you for your opinion.

pps: I'd been out of school for a really long time when I decided to go back for creative writing. All of my writing teachers from undergrad had moved on from the school. I knew nobody in the biz. And guess what? I applied, sans consultants of any sort, and got into the (at the time) number two program in the nation.

The thing the whole consultant enterprise fails to take into account seems to be this: I have never encountered an admissions group whose first criterion was anything other than talent. And as you know from being a teacher and editor, talent cannot be consulted into an application. But talent can be muted, suppressed, or even deleted by a "consultant."

At 8/05/2009 7:46 AM, Blogger Justin Evans said...


I see very few programs where a full tuition waiver and stipend is offered to every student. Most writing assistantships I see are limited to a few students and are very competative. The stipend given is approximately 10-12K/ year or so. But with a program that admits, say 15 students each year and only 5 assistantships, there are 10 students whose help is limited to tution waivers, leaving living expenses up to the individual. I have read a lot about students who take out a lot of student loans and live off credit cards.

My education was free. The Army made that trade with me. We lived dirt poor, but I think that your and my experiences are in the minority.

I think you are correct that if one is going to get an MFA, they should be good enough to get an assistantship and get it for free, or close to free as possible. But I also believe that anyone who wants to get an an MFA should spend at least one year outside of academia before applying to said program. I think it would go a long way to getting MFA students on track.

I taught ENG 110 with just my Bachelor's, and it was even in History. I know my experience was a good thing, and I think it would serve prospective grad students to teach for a year BEFORE they entered into a program.

At 8/05/2009 9:02 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well, that shows you how much I know about the current money side of MFA programs. Or even, really, the way it was for me, as I did supplement my MFA fellowship by delivering papers (as I mentioned, but didn't stress like I should have - and that was in a place {central Texas] where the rent wasn't all that bad]). It was difficult.

Getting an MFA without a teaching fellowhsip or assistantship seems a big compromise, as one's experience teaching is an experience that comes in handy.

Yeah. It's the portfolio first. That's what I've always thought. I still do.

Ten bucks, huh? I'll take it.

At 8/05/2009 12:54 PM, Blogger Matthew Thorburn said...

I'm with you, John. I don't see any harm in this, but I don't see why many MFA applicants would really need it, either. Seems sort of like these consultants in NYC who you can pay big bucks to help you organize your closets -- can't you just clean your own room and save $250?

At 8/05/2009 1:20 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I can imagine someone coming out with a kit. Or at least a manual, with samples and prompt questions. I bet it would sell.

At 8/05/2009 1:51 PM, Blogger Matthew Thorburn said...

Haha, yes -- I've seen a "Poetry for Dummies" book in the stores...

At 8/05/2009 1:54 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Is that a real book? I thought it was a joke. It's a REAL book?

Oh my.

At 8/06/2009 7:15 AM, Blogger Matthew Thorburn said...

Seriously, yes -- part of that "...for Dummies" series with the black and yellow covers. I happened to see it on the shelf in an art (!) supplies store.

At 8/06/2009 7:19 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Certainly something all artists need.

I've never looked inside one of those "for dummies" books. I'll have to go look. Maybe they're helpful . . . though I'm not filled with hope.

At 8/06/2009 8:05 AM, Blogger Kells said...

"Don't sound crazy in your statement of purpose" is the best advice for applying writers that I've ever heard. ;-)

At 8/06/2009 8:24 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Yes, but something a lot of academics would have a difficult time helping one with . . .


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