With Fall right around this corner, this Summer Session we’re taking some time to think about what it means to go Back to School, whether that has to do with self-directed learning, formal education, or pedagogical strategies. In that vein, today we bring you an article from our arts-advice column Help Desk addressing the differences between an MFA and a residency, and how that comparison reveals different sets of priorities and demands for one’s practice. This article was originally published November 25, 2013.
How valuable is an MFA these days and is it really worth the cost? I’ve spent the last two months researching schools and preparing applications for MFA programs in several different countries. (My partner’s job might require me to study abroad.) I would like the degree not because I am interested in teaching, but because I am interested in the intensity of a two-year program to cultivate solid research and focus on work amidst peers and access to faculty input. In some cases, however, the cost for international students is very high. I just took part in an artist residency that left me wondering: If I’m not that interested in teaching, is it really necessary to have the MFA, or could I have comparable experience with multiple residencies and save the money?
The answer to this question depends a lot on what kind of person you are. Do you like deadlines? Are you disciplined and self-motivated? If aliens were invading Earth in a month, would you voluntarily do hundreds of push-ups a day and build a tank out of junkyard cars in order to defeat them? Or are you like me, who would eat all the cookies I could put my hands on and then find a hole in which to quietly die? If your answer is the former, then perhaps you have the drive to create and execute an intense plan for self-education.
Here’s what the MFA is: two years of studio time interrupted by seminars, readings, papers, presentations, and bitch sessions with classmates over cheap drinks. It’s an artificial structure designed to cram as much as possible into your head in a very short time. Every day is intense, and even though it is (usually) a scaffolded ordeal, it is still much more self-directed than the typical undergraduate experience. In an MFA program, you have to create and think very deeply about creating at the same time, and this (plus all the hangovers you’ll suffer) is what makes it completely exhausting.
If you set out on your own, there are three main components to an MFA program that you’re going to have to try to replicate: studio time, coursework, and conversation.