Starting an MFA program is a big step, and it can be a scary one, too. There’s a lot of information and experience to figure out all at once—the learning curve can baffle even the best students. Which leads me to admit that there are a lot of things I wish someone had told me before I started my MFA program. Here are five of them, plus some advice from someone who’s been there, done that.
1. You’re going to feel behind at first.
Depending on how your program is structured, it’s possible you’ll find yourself in classes with grad students who are a year or two ahead of you in their studies. There’s nothing more discouraging than feeling proud and confident because you got into grad school only to find yourself totally lost as your senior classmates leap onto a fast-moving tangent about some theorist you’ve never heard of but everyone else seems to know.
That was pretty much my entire first semester of grad school. I felt like I’d been thrown in the deep end, despite always having been a great student. All of a sudden, I felt like I was the dumbest person in the room. Worse, I felt like I couldn’t even learn because everyone was moving so fast that I could barely keep up.
A few weeks in, though, one of the second-year students took me to lunch after a particularly trying class. This colleague told me the advice that I want to pass along to you now. Grad school is for learning, not for knowing everything. Go in with your eyes open and an attitude of learning, be prepared to do some heavy-duty reading at the beginning, and you won’t be caught off-guard.
2. It’s OK to find a niche that’s not like everyone else’s.
This is one of those things I knew before I started grad school, but I wish I’d believed more. My specialty is musical theater; my department’s was not. And for a time, I felt terrible about it. It seemed like everyone around me was doing experimental, socially-oriented work and my work felt lesser-than because it wasn’t edgy or boundary-pushing. Add to that the fact that I was the only person in my department even attempting my kind of work, and I found myself questioning choices and trying to make myself fit into a different mold.
While an MFA program is a fantastic place to try new things and experiment, finding your voice is ultimately the goal—not the experimenting itself. If you find yourself surrounded by people whose artistic styles are very different from yours, it’s easy to feel like you’re doing something wrong or feel pressure to mold your work to the dominant niche. But I promise you don’t have to. Seek out people who share your interests and go from there.
3. Professors are neither gods nor demons: they’re humans and colleagues.
One of the weirdest adjustments from undergrad to grad school is the relationship between students and professors. In general, you should know that the relationship is both more specific and less formal, so adjust your expectations accordingly.
While you’re in grad school, it can feel like the professors supervising you are the arbiters of your whole career, but that’s not true. Grad school will remind you that professors are humans, just like you. Some are amazing and will become the mentors who teach you exactly what you need and stand in your corner as you push forward; I was lucky enough to have a handful of these and they taught me so much. Some professors won’t be amazing: they’ll either not understand what you’re trying to do, try to push their theories on your work, or act like they don’t care. We all encounter these, so remind yourself they’re just people, not gods, and focus your energies on the mentorships that are mutually beneficial.
4. A thick skin is important; common sense, even more so.
Some grad-school clichés are absolutely true, especially the ones about the kinds of people you might come across. For every wonderful, supportive, collaborative colleague you find, you’ll also probably run across someone who’s toxic. But in MFA programs, collaboration and peer feedback is a critical component of your training. So how do you learn to separate the useful feedback from the unhelpful?
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I wish I had truly understood how important it was to have a thick skin and confidence in my own voice. There’s a fine line between refusing to hear feedback and allowing ignorant or toxic feedback to affect your work, and the key to making that distinction truly is your own common sense. Trust yourself! It’s not easy to do, especially when you’re there to learn and improve and make yourself open to improvement, but that’s where common sense comes in. If you have friends in the department or your professional circles, see if they can give you a fresh opinion! Just remember not to take the pretentious rantings of the resident “wannabe woke dude” or negativity monster personally, and to do a reality check from time to time.
5. Your work is what matters most.
With all the pressures of research and theory and professors and productions, it’s easy to lose sight of why you decided to get an MFA in the first place. Presumably, it’s to hone your skills in your own craft. When there’s drama in the department—and there will be—or too many projects weighing you down, don’t let your own work fall by the wayside.
I wish I’d been better prepared for this onslaught and hadn’t let the chaos of the first year get to me. It’s not selfish to prioritize your work, it’s what you came to do! Never forget to take care of yourself, both as a person and as an artist, and you’ll already be ahead of the game.
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