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5 Things Screenwriters Need to Know About MFA Programs

By June 22, 2021No Comments

The question of an MFA’s value is an increasingly relevant one for prospective students and graduates alike. MFA enrollments have been dropping since 2016, perhaps because devoting thousands of dollars to a postgraduate degree is no small choice. Millennials, in particular, are perceiving capstones like homeownership and mid-60s retirement as near impossibilities, even as those same capstones have traditionally been linked to higher education as a logical conclusion:

“… going from 15 percent of Americans going to college to 30 percent of Americans going to college was good. Therefore, kicking that number up even higher to 50 percent or 70 percent must be even better. And at a certain point, you hit diminishing returns. And that’s bad for the economy. That’s bad for the people who start college and then don’t finish…” (Helen Andrews – Did the Boomers Ruin America? A Debate. The Ezra Klein Show). 

For Gen Z, the cost of education is double what was paid two generations prior, and predicted to rise. Yet, members of Gen Z are predicted to be more entrepreneurial in their endeavors — with more resources for learning at their digital native fingertips. With economic, technological, and personal considerations (as well as a changing professional landscape due to cascading upheavals surrounding a global pandemic) the utility of the traditional MFA is a serious question for anyone deciding on the next steps to move their screenwriting career forward. Before you pack the car and go off to get that degree, here are five things you need to know about MFA programs.

They Work Best with a Network

A postgraduate degree’s cache has often been touted as a benefit working in concert with the actual education it portends, and sharing an alma mater is a fantastic networking ice breaker. While alumni connections are great for introductions, lasting networks are built and maintained through rapport and reciprocity, meaning the relational dynamic of professional connections will always transcend a shared pedigree. 

For a working writer, especially early in their career, splitting focus between maintaining current relationships and sprouting new ones can be daunting, doubly so when, in addition to maintaining those connections, the pressures of classwork and adjusting to a new curriculum become priorities. 

Networking is the “job” part of an artist’s career, and while an MFA program can build new avenues for those connections (as well as opportunities to refine the cocktail party pitch, and other of the many techniques that evince stylistic schmoozing), it also tends to absorb time outside of those specific networks — meaning the target audience for intentional connection often niches down to peers within one’s program.

College Students

Whether pursuing an MFA or not, the path towards enrollment is an excellent time to audit your networking strategy. It’s important to track whether your professional relationships are well-tended and fruitful, and understand whether you’re doing enough to foster environments where you can showcase and offer what networking guru Keith Ferrazzi calls “your currency.” An audit can even help you determine if your current network is compatible with your goals, your style of working, and the trajectory you foresee for your career. Which brings us to…

They Should Match Your Workflow…

If a network is a tangible means of evaluating your need for the structured development of an MFA, then your “workflow” is the most ephemeral. Still, as any good restaurateur can tell you about intangibles like “atmosphere” — many small concrete decisions add up to the gestalt of abstraction, meaning intangibles are no less potent than hard data. Most MFAs occupy the same schedule as a full-time job, with a specific “workflow” — that odd amalgam of learning style, introversion or extroversion, favorite chair, and pacing (among other things) which facilitates your best work. 

Knowing how you work best — environmentally, interpersonally, and structurally — will help you develop a rubric for evaluating prospective institutions and their offerings. Additionally, reaching out to admission counselors, alumni, and current students can help you form a picture of your future education. Understanding how your workflow, and most importantly within that workflow, time management, will fit within your daily program of assignments and classes is essential.

…and Your Cash Flow

“I do believe one should never pay for graduate school but that a graduate education is awesome. There are worse things someone could spend their money on, like drugs, though for some, that might be something better to spend their money on. I don’t judge.” – Roxanne Gay

While it’s no secret that pursuing a master’s degree is an endeavor of some expense, many institutions have taken bold steps in securing funding in the forms of grants, financial aid, and work-study assignments to fill gaps and help ends meet when it comes to tuition. Still, for any creative — which is, to say, budding freelance artist — fiscal sensibility with fruitful and fallow seasons on the horizon means finding a sustainable quality of life within an often unsteady industry marketplace. Within an MFA atmosphere, that means supporting a lifestyle that allows you to take your education seriously while allowing you the life-affirming outings and experiences that inspire creativity. 

That might also include balancing extracurricular outside work which supports investment in your self-care, creative equipment, or lifestyle. Creating a budget before having to factor in tuition will help you predict your future needs by what you’ve spent, and tools such as Mint or YNAB are easy solutions. You’ll also need to factor in large deviations in cost of living: studying in New York City means a cost of living forty percent higher than the national average; in Kansas City, twelve percent lower. And with wages stagnant, a focus on maintaining health and well-being while devoting a large portion of time to school work leaves little room for error. Creative flourishing is best served by a financially solvent scenario — and a survival mindset could easily be a distraction that hinders your growth as you embark on your MFA path. 

An MFA Is for Life

While the cost/benefit outcomes of successfully completing your post-graduate work will vary, two factors remain constant: time and pedigree. Most MFAs take two to three years to complete — a considerable commitment of time — but beyond those three years, your institution will be linked to your career for its duration. That means that your alma mater’s public foibles and problematic news stories will be, for better or worse, at least cursorily connected to you for the foreseeable future. It also means that your successes will become a selling point for future applicants.

Like any good network, that reciprocity is a good thing, as long as you and your place of study have a shared set of values. Be sure to do a deep dive into an institution’s legacy and initiatives for inclusivity, diversity, equity, and social justice. What is the institution’s outlook for the creative world? Does its admissions board prize the perspectives of POC and queer-identifying individuals? Does it stand for Trans Rights and Black Lives? Is it willing to acquiesce to the demand by a small group to ban or hinder ideas like Critical Race Theory? Does it take allegations of inappropriate behavior seriously? A demand for transparency in an increasingly connected age means that any prospective graduate student has ample resources to investigate the place to which they may devote their time, talent, and thousands of dollars in tuition. 

It’s Not a Magic Ticket

The question of getting an MFA or not may never be a cut-and-dried one, but constant debate aside, success in the industry is neither precluded nor guaranteed by a degree. Success stories of writers signing with representation and getting staffed come in all forms, but taking into account industry trends and your portfolio of work is important. More essentially though, be sure that your prospective MFA program is taking those connections to the broader industry into account in their curriculum. Universities and colleges offering mentorship and professional pipelines and ongoing guidance will help put the skills learned in the MFA setting to use in the real world.  

Streetwise and Booksmart

No academy is a mecca, and no MFA program gospel — so diversifying and continuing your education as a screenwriter and creator should be a priority before and after graduation. Online tools and resources like No Film SchoolCoverfly, and the script coverage offered by WeScreenplay — as well as local classes and screenwriting books — can develop one’s craft, especially for the autodidactic. For those seeking out the structure of the academy, research fully funded programs, No Film School’s Film School Checklist, and the best colleges for screenwriters. Have a hot take on the value of an MFA? Connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to share your experience! 

Ready to take the next step in their screenwriting career? Enter the WeScreenplay College Screenwriting Competition! FINAL DEADLINE: JULY 15TH

Joshua Noble is a Puerto Rican writer, actor, and producer based in Los Angeles, California. In addition to his career in TV and film, he is a founding producer of The American Playbook, a series of conversations and new works highlighting historically underrepresented voices, and currently serves as Director of the National Actors’ Retreat. Joshua received his MFA from the Yale School of Drama.

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