Top 5 Reasons To Be A Full-Time Grad Student

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Almost half of my grad class came in as part-time students. They had good reasons: full-time jobs, families, crippling addictions to online poker… You know, typical adult responsibilities. Me, I’d already quit my job and moved halfway across the dang country to get an MFA, so I decided to go hard and enroll full-time.

Here are the top five advantages to being a full-time grad student:1. It takes less time to get your degree.
It’s simple math. Full-time is three courses a semester, part-time is usually two. Including thesis, full-timers take around three years to get their degree. For part-timers, it’s at least four.

If you’re a grad student, then you’re at least 22, but probably older. And, the older you get, the more likely you are to have acquired more responsibilities. You might already have a career or family in progress. If not, you’re still maturing, and probably looking toward doing those things in the future. The last thing you want is to be in year six of an MFA, telling your significant other/biological clock, “Let me finish my degree first, boo.”

Speaking of age, I’ve noticed that most Fiction Writing MFA-ers are somewhere in their twenties. I came in with a class of ten. We had two folks who were fresh out of undergrad, three people who were thirty-five plus, and the other five of us were in the second half of our twenties. I was glad to have waited a few years after undergrad, because it gave me time to accumulate life experience and perspective to draw from for my writing. Plus, I had a better idea of what I didn’t want to do: I write so I don’t have to proofread makeup catalogs anymore.

2. It really allows you to invest time in your writing.
I see an MFA as a chance to immerse yourself in your craft. I wanted to have a few years where my life was focused on writing, where I could grow as a creative person with minimal distractions. Being a full-time Fiction Writing student is time-consuming: about ten hours a week in class, hours and hours of writing at home, plus the exhaustion that comes from working your brain extra hard instead of watching “CSI.” My first year, I just did my classes and worked three shifts a week at a coffeeshop. That kept me busy, and I feel lucky to have been able to go into debt to do that. If I had a 9-5 job, it would have altered the focus of my life. Writing would have been a line on the side, and I wouldn’t have gotten the same results from my own work.

3. You’ll feel more connected to the campus.
The school can feel small to a grad student, since all of your classes are in one department, and probably even on the same floor of the same building. This may not be a big deal for you, but after slacking big time in undergrad, I came to grad school wanting to DO IT RIGHT. I wanted to be involved on campus, and get as much out of my education (and tuition money) as possible. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t trying to relive my glory days by streaking the quad and hooking up with 18-year-olds. I just wanted to be able to utilize the cultural advantages of being on campus – the speakers, the readings, the free music… Plus, I was around more, met more people, and made more connections in the academic community – a big deal to a guy who wanted to change his career path. And that made it feel like I was having a whole new set of glory days…with my pants on.

4. Most scholarships are for full-time students.
Funding for first-year grad students at Columbia is not too hot. However, there are a lot of scholarship opportunities after you’ve accumulated a year’s worth of credit hours. I managed to get a lot of stuff paid for. The catch is that every scholarship I’ve applied for is limited to full-time grad students. I guess they assume that, if you’re part-time, you’re working enough to pay for school. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but I wasn’t complaining about the diminished competition as I was filling out those applications. Check out Columbia’s scholarship page, and be sure to look at the scholarships open to all grads, as well as the departmental ones.

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5. Dude, the U-Pass.
It’s a small thing that means a lot. The U-Pass is a CTA unlimited ride card for full-time college students. It’s good for the entire semester and it costs barely more than a typical 30-day pass. Having unlimited rides on the train and bus really opens up Chicago, a city where you don’t really need a car, and it eliminates the math of “Will this event be worth paying $2.25 each way, plus maybe $.25 for a bus transfer back from the red line? Maybe I should stay in with a frozen pizza and see if my cat does something funny.”

So, there you have it. Look forward to adult life! Woodshed your writing! Check out some interesting stuff on campus! Stack cheese via “scholarships!” Take the train take the train take the train!

Week Links:
Since a big part of choosing an MFA program is getting a feel for the writing that it produces, I’m sharing a new link to Fiction Writing grad student work every week. Here’s Nicolette Kittinger with “Eleventeen” on The Fiction Circus.