Getting a MFA: Yay or Nay, Pro Vs. Con, Yes or No

Lately I get a lot of Google search hits to this post about getting their master’s in film: “Should I get a MFA in film” or “graduate film school yes or no” or whatever. That post reckons more with being post-MFA, so I decided to be useful for once and write this instead. If you have arrived here looking for a perspective on this question, well, this post is for you. And those who aren’t ever going to get an MFA in filmmaking, I hope you enjoy this little window into a rollicking, rambunctious, rock ‘n roll time of my life.

This won’t be organized or highly structured, unlike your typical classical narrative film. My memories and experience of film school were like a blaze of light across the sky — it went so fast that individual pieces blur together. As a result, sometimes my feelings about it blur as well. But somewhere in this ramble, I hope you find pieces of the answer you’re looking for — and at the end, I’ll share with you the question I asked myself that made up my own mind. I think it’s a solid compass for anyone who wants to embark on any life-changing, savings-sapping adventure, so even if you’re not contemplating film school, maybe it will help you as well. Let’s start with the scary stuff first, the reasons that you don’t want to go to film school:

Why You Shouldn’t Get a MFA in Film

You Want to Be Rich and Famous

Let’s put it bluntly: the days of taking your thesis short to Sundance and landing a major motion picture deal are over. The film industry is in trouble. No one really knows what is going on in terms of where moviegoing and moviemaking will be in the next 10-20 years. Your film will more likely be streamed on the web somewhere, maybe downloaded off Amazon or iTunes, than projected at a movie theater. If you think film school is a short cut to fame and fortune, you’re wrong. You’re better off making a name for yourself and spending tuition money on a great film based on a superior script.

To be slightly more nuanced about it: you can build a viable, sustainable career in the film industry for yourself via film school. You’ll meet a lot of people and if you do good work, you can carve out a niche for yourself and build your resume. You’re building your list of contacts, and that’s something — actually, in an industry that relies a lot on who you know, it is more than something. But don’t kid yourself that you’ll easily become a mover and shaker from film school. You will make “connections” and meet people, but they’ll most likely be your peers, not your magic-makers.

You Worry About Your Financial Future

You might be lucky and land a big fellowship, or some grants and scholarships. You might be lucky enough to be born rich. Or you might be only applying to schools that can fully fund you if you’re accepted. But chances are you’re probably looking also at the big film schools, like USC, NYU, Columbia or the like. The truth is that these schools are often incredibly expensive. Tuition and fees are expensive, living expenses can rack up, and you will likely have to fund your projects to some or all degree. And making films can be incredibly expensive, especially if you want to compete at certain levels.

This is my personal perception and experience: my school often gave lip service to the fact that thesis films don’t have to be expensive, and yes, digital technology can lower the costs considerably. But honestly the most rewarded, successful short films in my program at Columbia — the ones that garner prizes and get launched into the more prestigious film festivals — were not the scrappy films that cost a few thousand to make. The prize winning films that garnered the most support from the program and faculty often cost tens (and some cost hundreds) of thousands of dollars in production, post-production, film festival, marketing and other auxiliary costs.

This is not to say that they weren’t well-made — the money was used incredibly well and resulted in gorgeous cinematography, stunning locations and real, professional caliber production in general. But that’s what you’re up against at prestigious film schools, and it costs money. If this worries you but you still want to go to a film school, pick a program that provides ample production support and post-production support.

But beyond costs, the financial truth of getting a MFA is: you’re likely going to reduce your earnings potential as an adult by a few years, contribute a lot less to your retirement accounts and sap your savings, if you have any. Those things can have long-term effects on your future. And if you go to a prestigious school, you’re going to take out a lot of student debt, and this isn’t something to take lightly. Before I decided to attend my program, I had to ask myself whether or not I’d be okay delaying buying a house by about ten years of my life — because the cost of my MFA was about the cost of buying a home in many places. I was, but that was something I had to work through, and it’s something you should look at as well. If traditional paths to financial security are important to you — if you are the type that wants to buy your first house by 30 and retire by 65 with a nice tidy nest egg, or you have a kind of “investment” mentality in which you want a direct result from something you put your money in — then think really, really hard if this is the path for you. Because it’s probably not.

The Flip Side: Why You Should Get a MFA in Film

Okay, have I scared you yet? Are you still game for the reasons to say yes? Because many of them are compelling, especially if you are truly an artist at heart.

If You Pick the Right School, You Will Grow Immensely as an Artist

First of all, if you have any reaction of hipster scoff or insecurity at the idea of being an “artist,” being called an artist or being surrounded by them, you should not even be applying to any advanced arts-making program. MFA programs, no matter what the discipline, are serious, earnest affairs that demand a lot of sincere endeavor and, I daresay, personal courage. A quality program takes its instruction very seriously, and it attracts students who take their work seriously. If you are too cool for school, then don’t go back to school.

That said, if you have fully embraced the part of your soul that will not rest until you have mastered your craft, written a great novel, made a beautiful feature film — and you know yourself if this is a genuine drive or not within you — then you might consider getting an MFA. A lot of people will argue — and argue persuasively — that it’s not worth getting into debt to work at your craft, that you don’t have to improve your craft by going to school, that you can get better simply by doing it when you can. Many, many, many great artists have never gotten their MFA.

However, an MFA program does offer a lot of things that the go-it-alone route doesn’t often: unfettered time, for instance, to focus JUST on writing, filmmaking, artmaking, whatever. Time not eaten up by full-time jobs, time to dedicate, dig in, focus, live and breathe fine art. You can’t really underestimate what a gift time is in the development of art and craft. Being done with my MFA program (and working full-time now), there is simply no comparison to the growth I experienced during my grad school years and the growth I have to eke out slowly now, cramming my writing in between job stuff, life stuff and other obligations. I feel more confident of my voice now, and able to guide myself — but I just don’t have the beautifully open time and ability to focus that I did before. I’m still growing, but it’s a harder fraught process, and I look longingly on my MFA years as a beautiful oasis of expanse in which I could focus on my work without distraction.

The Importance of Community and Structure

It is an isolating life, sometimes, being a writer or filmmaker or other kind of artist. One thing I truly appreciated was about my MFA program was the community that arose within it. “Community” is one of those warm-and-fuzzy words that programs like to throw around, but I’m always a little wary of “communities” — sometimes I think it’s really in code word for in-fighting, politics and other energy-wasting activities. But in my case, community in my MFA program was an invaluable thing. On one level, filmmaking of a certain type especially is a very community-based activity — and you need to know a lot of people to do it.

But even if you’re in an art form where you don’t need a lot of people to do it, being part of a true community can also be invaluable. Before I entered my MFA program, I was very productive on my own in terms of screenwriting, making little films, taking classes at various organizations. I wrote tons on my own. (It also helped that I was self-employed at the time and tremendously lucky — I could work part-time and still command a livable full-time income.) But I’d ask someone to read my work or look at it, and the feedback I’d usually get would be vague or contradictory or general. I was working and making a lot, but I was hitting a wall in terms of growth and improvement — mostly because I felt I was working in a vacuum and needed laser-sharp critique.

But in my MFA program, what I got was a powerful community of peers in the same position I was, learning the same things I was learning, using the same vocabulary — basically, on the same page, wanting to improve in very specific ways, wanting to achieve similar creative and professional goals. Feedback from both students and faculty was specific, targeted, often spot-on, and my work and craft grew quickly because of it. The program I was in created a common language and set of values — it was a language that made sense and felt useful to me (focusing on storytelling as a dramatist’s art.) And it made sense and felt useful to almost 70 other people. Tens of people learning together, growing together as a collective is a powerful situation, and if you pick the right program — one whose values and goals align with yours — community is a powerful engine of growth and improvement in a compressed period of time.

Of course, if you have oceans of time and loads of similarly aligned communities to draw upon, I would say — forget getting your MFA. But if you feel like focus, community and steady, quality feedback are missing from your journey as an artist so far, an MFA is something to consider. But those come from picking a program that is aligned with you.

If You’ve Gotten This Far

Chances are, reading all of this won’t really sway you one way or the other. I really believe deep down, dear friend, you already know your answer to this question. If you close your eyes, take a deep breath, and come to the end of your inhale, there is an answer already made waiting for you there — you’re likely just mustering up the courage to make it, looking for evidence to throw behind it or at it.

But say you’re not, and you’re truly confused. So I’ll just share a bit more of my personal experience because it can be a big decision, a big life change to contemplate — and sometimes, it’s nice to hear from others who have been there and had time to contemplate its place in a life. For me, the question I ended up asking myself — and made all the difference — was, “If I got in and I didn’t go…would I regret it in five years?” Despite all the factors against going, the benefits of going it alone? And the answer was yes, I would. I would regret turning down this opportunity to grow. And I don’t regret my MFA at all, still. (I do regret some decisions I made while I was in it, but maybe I’ll delve into that later.)

In a way, deciding to get an MFA is a big declaration of your life and your values: Yes, I believe enough in myself as a writer, an artist, a storyteller — I believe that my art and craft are worth investing in to the sacrifice of other priorities — I believe that making art makes me whole-hearted and strong in soul — I believe, I believe, I believe. There are other ways to believe in yourself — cheaper ways, more prudent ways, less risky ones. But for me, at that time in my life, it was the best way, and I profited from it. I met some amazing friends that have since thrown some work my way, grew immensely as a writer, I have people whose opinions and feedback I completely trust and whose artistic values I know back and forth. I had immense time to grow, to experiment, to explore, to make mistakes and grow from them. I am a better writer and dramatist because of my MFA, and obtaining some kind of mastery in storytelling is inherent enough of a mission in my life that it was worth investing time, money and energy in. There are a million paths to mastery, and this is just one. And, I must mention, it’s a short one in the larger scheme of things — because the ultimate path to art and mastery is a long one, filled with its own dramas, setbacks, failures and triumphs, no matter where you are on it.

(Me in film school, directing one of my shorts.)

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