Grad School as a Forum for Experimentation

1. What is one sentence you would use to describe who you are and what you do?

I am a writer (poetry, essay, and text-based visual mediums) and educator.

2. Did you take the GRE? If so, what was your experience studying for the GRE like?

I did take the GRE, two long and aimless years after finishing my undergraduate program at the University of Arizona. I knew I would need it to apply to an MFA program in Creative Writing, so I started studying for the test on my own. I felt fairly confident about the verbal and writing sections, but I knew the quantitative portion was going to be a challenge. I basically tried to teach myself math from a pre-algebra level using online resources, YouTube videos, etc. It was really difficult. In hindsight, I would not do it this way again since it was inefficient and very difficult to stay motivated.

3. Why did you decide to go to grad school? What program did you attend? How did you choose your specific program?

Grad school seemed like the right move after I spent a couple years working in the service industry, joining an Americorps trail crew in Colorado, and generally wandering around without a clear direction about how to put my bachelor’s degree to work. I love the humanities and I’d do it all over again the same way, but it’s also true that a degree in creative writing doesn’t translate into an obvious, straightforward career path. I decided that grad school was the best way to commit to the skills I’d developed so far, and that maybe it would also help me understand how to materialize a job. I chose my program largely because of geography, funding, and positive stuff I read online (in hindsight, also not the best way to go about making that decision—wish I had consulted more with my professors/mentors). I applied to only one school in a crazy gambit where I decided that my future would be decided by destiny, and I lucked out, spending two very formative years at the MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Washington.

4. How do you feel your graduate degree has impacted your career?

I know now that people arrive at grad school in all different stages and with many different goals. For me, I was very much in a developmental stage, looking for guidance, mentorship, community, and some time to articulate/discover my aesthetic preferences and values. Surprisingly though, one of the most positive outcomes of grad school was my experience teaching as a Predoctoral Instructor (UW’s term for a TA that teaches their own class), which helped me build a foundation in pedagogy, create a teaching philosophy, and gain practical experience in a classroom. A lot of grad students complain about teaching duties, but these have been some of the most transferable skills I’ve ever had, helping me secure a staff position in student services at the University of Arizona.

I think my grad program helped me with my career in writing, teaching me to be a better reader and giving me time to experiment. But it also created a lot of doubt, discomfort, and resentment. One of my classmates dropped out, and others have quit writing entirely. I think the whole experience can be super de-motivating, and it takes a lot of resilience, support, and resolve to get through such a hierarchical environment without feeling kind of worthless at the end. Still, I have to acknowledge that the skills and the degree have opened up opportunities to me that simply wouldn’t have been available otherwise.

5. Do you have any advice for someone interested in pursuing an MFA in Poetry?

Yes! So much advice, all of which will give you an awkward glimpse into my personal regrets. First, I wish I had spent more time at the beginning asking myself what I wanted out of the experience, and what position I would be in afterwards. Did I just want to be a better writer? Was I looking for a job? I think if I had thought about this more, I would have been able to prepare myself better for what happened at the end: I graduated into a job market where there were very few opportunities and thousands of desperate people with the exact same qualifications (or better) than me. I’m cool with this now, but at the time, it came with a lot of jealousy and confusion. Why were some of the people I knew getting jobs, residencies, fancy opportunities? Had they just hustled harder? I’m not the first to point out that being a successful artist is really, really hard if you don’t have a cushion, some external financial support. Yes it’s possible to work a 9-5 and thrive as an artist, but it also kind of sucks.

On a completely different note, I would also say that keeping the relationships with peers and faculty copacetic is important—they will be your professional network afterwards—but grad school is also a crazy stressful time. You may not have a lot of money, you may be living somewhere new, you may be meeting a lot of new people, you may be experiencing an unprecedented level of cognitive strain; try to forgive yourself if you’re not always at your best or if you experience some interpersonal strife.

If you’re interested in hearing more from Cameron, check out his website.

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