Help Desk

Help Desk: MFA vs. Residency

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is co-sponsored by

Help Desk Leader

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.

Pat O'Neill. Horizontal Boundaries, 2008; still from color film, sound, 23 mins.

Pat O’Neill. Horizontal Boundaries, 2008; still from color film, sound;
23 mins.

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 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. The first is easy if you’re at a series of residency programs, so let’s put this one aside.

The second component, coursework and research, is also not too difficult. Try to obtain the syllabi for the seminars you might take at an MFA program (many professors put their syllabi online), and follow along. Alternatively, you might look for online or distance-learning courses. If you opt to be on your own, you’re still going to have to spend some money on books and journals, and be aware that you won’t be replicating the actual experience of lectures and discussions unless you can make some kind of serious Žižek book club. If you’re diligent and have access to materials, you can educate yourself, but the downside of not being in an actual classroom is that you’re going to mispronounce the names of all the theorists.

Pat O'Neill. Foregrounds, 1979. Still from film, 16mm transferred to video, 13 mins.

Pat O’Neill. Foregrounds, 1979; still from film; 16mm transferred to video; 13 mins.

The last part, the ongoing deep discussion that graduate school provides, is incredibly hard to replicate. Your peers at a residency program might be well educated and down to discuss theory and practice—or they might be using their residency time to take a vacation or get laid. You’ll have to find other ways to stimulate your intellect and get feedback on your work, and here’s where we circle around to diligence and motivation again. Will you have the confidence and drive to contact artists, writers, critics, and curators in your area to do studio visits? Do you have the administrative skills to contact these folks in advance if you are traveling to different residencies? Do you take rejection well?

If it’s intensity you want, then well-chosen residency programs can provide it. If you want an education, you can get most of the way there on your own by being disciplined and passionate. If you want to focus on discussion and critique, then you might consider another option, like a low-residency MFA or a self-created artists’ critique/study group. In the end, only you can answer the questions about value and cost because there are too many variables (we haven’t even discussed access to facilities, or making contacts, or having serious emotional sustenance for your work), but I support your desire for an independent education that doesn’t put you in a financial abyss. Check out some related questions that I’ve answered for Help Desk here and here. Good luck!