Should I Get An MFA? : Pros & Cons from Someone Who Did


I recently got a request from a filmmaker for advice on whether or not he should go back to school to get a master's degree. As someone who did get an MFA and has both teaching and non-teaching work experience (that is, life making a living as a full-time maker) under my belt, I  thought I'd reply to the blog-o-sphere for others who are pondering the same decision: I think the first question to ask yourself is this: why do you want a degree? If you just want to learn more about filmmaking or film studies, you could do yourself much better with a library card, a Netflix subscription, some free classes on iTunesU, and slaving away as a PA on a few productions. Better yet, take the amount you'd spend on tuition and spend that time in NYC and LA working--as a PA or in an agency mailroom--cultivating your network…or buy your own DSLR and make mistakes for free in your own proverbial backyard.

To my mind, there are two strong justifications to pursue a higher degree in Film:

1) It's already paid for (i.e. you've gotten a fellowship or assistantship) and you can learn with the wonderful safety net that graduate school provides. (I do *not* recommend anyone go into debt more than the cost of an old, used car--no matter what the reputation of the school--for a film degree.)

2) It allows you to teach, which is a respectable way to support yourself as an artist, especially as someone who wants to make independent films, experimental work, or films with less-than-great commercial prospects.

If it's the latter, then you must also consider that there are beaucoups of people out there who are unemployed holders of MFAs in film. Film teaching jobs are few and far between--just take a look at the listings on the Chronicle of Higher Education or the University Film and Video Association website to get sense of the scarcity. But, if you're willing to live somewhere fairly off the grid (i.e. not in a big or even medium size city, relatively isolated from the industry and other filmmakers), then there are more positions that may have less competition. This can be a workable situation for the self-reliant or DIY type, especially if you make sure to travel several times a year to keep your inspiration levels up and industry ties strong. But, it can also be, well, depressing and frustrating. My requirements are that a job is too far off the grid if there's not a post-production or equipment rental house within a 3-hour radius. For each person, that threshold is different.

More importantly, I think the best teachers are those who also make--people who are really doing it and have a lot to offer their students in terms of work experience, connections to your industry/field, and a real-world perspective. Anything less poses an ethical dilemma for me: if you can't provide the above, why should students pay tuition to learn from you?

Another consideration for any would-be teacher is that teaching is more than a clock-in/clock-out commitment. While teaching, I more often than not put in above and beyond the 40 hours/week in terms of committee meetings, university and community service, advising, endless emails, etc., on top of my course teaching load. It's work that follows you home, unlike, say, a kind of survival job where you can punch your time card. On the other hand, summers are free for making your own work and the flexible schedule is tough to beat!

Teaching at a research-oriented institution is the ideal job, as it carries the smallest teaching load and encourages (expects, actually!) a high degree of research productivity, which for you translates into filmmaking. And some of your best students may actually be people you want to have collaborate with you on your work. These full-time positions, however, are also the rarest and most competitive. It will be expected that you have made one or more films with a certain level of success (e.g. strong festival run, distribution, critical praise, etc.), have a positive reputation in the industry (e.g. demonstrated by awards, grants, professional organizations, or other acknowledgement), and previous teaching experience. Of course, there are all kinds of schools: liberal arts colleges, typically with a strong emphasis on teaching and student relationships; community colleges, who usually emphasis both teaching and community service; for-profit schools and film programs (which I don't have any first-hand experience with); and part-time teaching positions.

Adjuncting is fairly common for new MFAs, but the pay is rarely great and usually does not carry any fringe benefits, such as health care. That said, I know many a freelance film producer and writer/director who use adjunct classes and part-time lecturing as a way to have some sort of stable income while spending the bulk of their time as makers.

It's also worth saying that there are folks who do teach without an MFA. Guest lectureships, artist visits, workshops both at universities and community organizations often pay successful filmmakers to share their knowledge in short or long-term capacities. I've had a few of these gigs and they are usually a lot of fun but were never enough to sustain me in and of themselves. After a certain level of success, though, it's not unheard of for a filmmaker to become a professor without an MFA at all…but we all can imagine those odds.

So, to sum up:

 Why Getting an MFA/Teaching is a Good Idea: 

  • Stable income without selling your soul.

  • Great schedule.

  • Intellectual and creative freedom for the kind of work you make without as much commercial pressure as full-time filmmaking or freelancing.

  • Helping shape the future of the industry.

 Why Getting an MFA/Teaching is a Not-So-Good Idea: 

  • Highly competitive, especially for desirable cities/schools.

  • Lots of responsibilities beyond teaching for full-time positions.

  • You need to be a maker before you become a teacher. And teaching will take time away from making.

If after all this, you want to take the back-to-school plunge, then I recommend you check out these previous posts from the blog. They will give you a good start on the advice we'd give about looking for a film program:

So You Wanna Go to Film School Part I 

So You Wanna Go to Film School Part II

UFVA Panel - "Self-Reliant Filmmaking"

I am in New Orleans at the University Film & Video Association conference. Today I moderated a panel on Self-Reliant Filmmaking. There was a good crowd and, as often happens with these things, the discussion just scraped the tip of the iceberg. The panelists were:

Paul Harrill, Virginia Tech. Moderator. Sasha Waters, University of Iowa. Jennifer Proctor, Grand Valley State University. Bob Hurst, University of Kansas.

As promised, I am posting links to many of the articles and resources discussed by the panelists and myself. If this is your first time visiting Self-Reliant Film, I encourage you to sift through the posts, especially the first post, which lays out some of the points made in my discussion today, and the resources page.

Paul Harrill: Panel Opening Remarks

Yes, The Sky is Really Falling" by Mark Gill Welcome to the New World of Distribution by Peter Broderick

Workbook Project - website led by Lance Weiler that "bridges the gap between tech and entertainment"

CinemaTech - Scott Kirsner's blog about "digital cinema, democratization, and other trends remaking the movies"

Self-Distribution Case Studies: Power to the Pixel conference presentation: Brave New Films Power to the Pixel conference presentation:Four Eyed Monsters

Panelist Sasha Waters:

Be Fake, Remake - group blog featuring work from Sasha Waters' Remake Seminar

Panelist Jennifer Proctor:

Jennifer Proctor: home page (see "Teaching Materials")

Center for Social Media - Best Practices for Fair Use in Online Video

Vimeo -- a video hosting community

Student work shown: Anna Gustafson, “Woman” Evan Rattenbury, “Land O’ Dreams” Josh Carlson, “Donkeys vs. Elephants

This one's for the graduates...

Reader (and former student) Jonathan Poritsky writes in:

I've replied to enough "your-dad-said-you-work-in-film-what-should-i-do-now?" e-mails that I got tired of it and decided to write the response to end all responses. It seemed relevant to SRF, and also in part inspired by what you do on your site. So here's the link, do with it what you will...

I will link to it. Here it is: Starting Out in Film, Now What?

Back to School Textbooks

Whether you're a student gearing up for the start of the semester, or someone who's just looking to develop your talents, a good textbook can come in handy. is running a promotion via their Textbook Store, so I thought I'd link to some of my favorite books. All of the books below are books I've either personally assigned as a textbook in my classes, or a book that I've recommended multiple times.

Please note: I do get a few pennies for the click-through if you end up purchasing something. Amazon links are my way of keeping this site advertising-free. And remember: If you're broke you can always try to find these at your nearest public or university library.

UFVA 2008: Those Who Teach, Make

As you probably guessed, I've taken a little break from SRF. I wish I could say that it was a planned vacation, but a combination of travel, work on my own projects, the beginning of the school year and some crazy good life stuff meant the blogging got pushed aside. One thing I did mean to write about was my experience at the University Film and Video Association Conference in August. For those of you that don't know, UFVA is the professional association for professors of filmmaking, screenwriting, and film studies. This was my first time attending the conference, and it was a lot of fun. I had the chance to meet up with some old film school friends who, like me, are now teachers, and I met lots of new folks who encounter the same sorts of challenges to filmmaking that I do (among them, living in so-called flyover territory).

The conference features a mix of screenings and panels. Among my favorite panel presentations: Jennifer Proctor (Grand Valley State) who talked about teaching creativity; John O'Leary (Villanova), who discussed the practicalities of running a university-supported film lecture series; JJ Murphy, who discussed non-traditional screenwriting approaches (drawing on films like Ronnie Bronstein's Frownland); and Seth Mulliken, who gave an awesome talk on film sound.

Of the screenings, probably my favorite film was Irinia Patkanian's Second Egyptian, a story of two immigrants in New York that has an amazing sense of poetic realism. For my part, I screened Quick Feet, Soft Hands, which was honored with the Jury Prize in Narrative Film. Needless to say, getting this award from my peers was a great honor.

Note: The title to this blog post is cribbed from a Scribe Video Center screening. I'll discuss Scribe in a future post.

Robert Bresson - A Bibliography

Jane Sloan, Shmuel Ben-Gad, and Frank Blaakmeer at Masters of Cinema have compiled what appears to be the most comprehensive (complete?) Robert Bresson bibliography in the world. As someone whose passion for Bresson's work led him to trying to read Notes on Cinematography in the original French back when the English translation was out of print, well, it pleases me deeply to see the hard work that these scholars have produced. Here's a quote from one of the 2000+ sources listed, J. Hoberman's "States of Grace" (Village Voice, September 27, 2005):

Do this job long enough and you learn to accept certain realities. Some people will laugh at Written on the Wind and cry over Sleepless in Seattle --instead of vice versa. There are reviewers who find Godard boring and think Lukas Moodysson is a genius. And although it is tiresome to hear two-buck chuck extolled as Chateau Lafite Rothschild, you realize that hey, this is America -- everyone's got an opinion, and if it weren't for bad taste, many folks would have no taste at all. But I reach the edge of my tolerance in the case of Robert Bresson.

Bluntly put, to not get Bresson is to not get the idea of motion pictures -- it's to have missed that train the Lumiere brothers filmed arriving at Lyon station 110 years ago.

Documentary Film Festival for Students

I usually don't post film festival calls for entries -- there are just far too many of them -- but this is one I couldn't pass up: The Reality Bytes Film Festival is Northern Illinois University's student film documentary film festival. As most of you know, NIU was the site of a mass shooting on their campus a couple of weeks ago. I received a bulk email from their PR director on Sunday. Here it is in full:

First, we want to thank everyone who has called or e-mailed with messages of support over the past few weeks. We are still coming to terms with the tragedy that occured on our campus Thursday, February 14, and it will be a long journey. However, the journey does begin with the first steps and in that spirit, the Reality Bytes Film Festival is still taking place, but with a change in the deadline and screening dates.

With that said, I am writing to you on behalf of Northern Illinois University and the Reality Bytes Student Documentary Film Festival. The festival is currently in its eighth year under the directorship of Dr. Laura Vazquez and is continuing to grow. The event prides itself on being open only to students and being affordable with only a $20 entry fee.

We have already started to receive films from schools all across the country and the outlook for this year's festival is excellent. Our goal each year is to continue to have a venue where students can showcase their amazing documentary filmmaking talents against their peers.

The submission deadline for students is now March 8, 2008 and the documentaries must be under 30 minutes length. Any style or genre of documentary will be accepted. The application form for this year's festival can be viewed and printed as a PDF file by visiting the Reality Bytes website at the following URL:

The screening event will be held on April 4th and 5th and cash prizes will be awarded on April 5th. The best of festival winner will receive $200 and Avid video editing software, second place will receive $150 and third place will receive $100.

Thank you. We are looking forward to seeing all of the great student work coming out of your university.


Kathy Giles Public Relations Director for Reality Bytes Northern Illinois University




If you're a student filmmaker with a documentary, send it on in. It sounds like a neat festival, it's an affordable entry fee and, in some way, however small, by submitting your film you'll be helping the NIU community move forward after a terrible tragedy. I imagine this edition of the festival will be pretty special.

Woo-hoo! Spring Break! Time to... Study?

All filmmakers are, in some way, students of filmmaking (I know I am), but this one's for the REAL (i.e., in-school) student filmmakers out there: Some of us are starting spring break today, while others will be enjoying spring break later this month. Assuming you're not already using this time to make a movie this week, here are some ways to spend your time if you're unable (or uninterested) in traveling to Cancun, Panama City, or wherever it is the kids go these days. No excuses -- any of these suggestions can be done on a budget:

Read your camera's manual! Seriously. I've met a lot of people that have never read their camera's manual. You might be surprised at some of the things it'll do. After you read it....

Take a daytrip for inspiration! Get out of your apartment and explore your area. Take your camera and shoot some location scouting shots. Already got some inspiration?

Work on that script you've been meaning to write! Visit your local library, take your notebook or laptop with you and don't leave until you've written a few pages. And while you're there...

Catch up on film history! Check out (literally) some of the greatest films of all time. Blockbuster probably doesn't have them, but your library might. And get some books while you're at it: Bazin and Sarris are your "beach reading" this week.

And for extra credit:

Teach yourself filmmaking software! There are a ton of ways to do this. Here's just one of many:'s excellent Final Cut Studio tutorials are all available online, and for $25 you have access to every single one of them for an entire month. That's enough time to learn enough about Final Cut, Compressor, Motion, DVD Studio Pro to move you to the head of your class.

The most precious resource for us filmmakers isn't a camera or even money -- it's time. If you're not already making a movie this week, use this week to recharge your batteries. Literally. Then go shoot. If filmmaking isn't just a hobby, it's your compulsion, I can almost guarantee that in ten years you'll look back and consider this time better spent than doing tequila shots in front of MTV's Spring Break camera crews. At the very least, you'll remember more of it.

So you wanna go to film school....Part 2: Film School Applications: Do's and Don'ts

Despite (or because of) the so-called "democratization" of film technology, film programs are doing a booming business. Acceptance rates hover around 10% or less at a lot of the more notable programs in the nation. From my own first-hand experience serving on the grad selection committee (in 2006) at Temple University, I can tell you that we accepted something like 8%. The last time I checked, the best med schools in the country aren't that selective. So how do you make yourself a competitive applicant?

For starters, recognize that most film schools, generally speaking, are looking for interesting people with original ideas more than they're looking for folks that are already great filmmakers. (In fact, it's their job to teach you to be a better filmmaker.) Since they're looking for interesting people, your job as an applicant is to present your unique life experience, creative vision, and professional potential.

As for specifics, what follows are some highly subjective tips and observations from my experiences as reviewer of film school applications, as a writer of student recommendations, and -- not so long ago -- as an applicant.

Rule #1: Follow directions. An incomplete or improperly submitted application will likely result in your application being dismissed. This seems like something so basic that no one could screw it up. Wrong! And since many programs are trying to weed out 90% of applicants, the first folks to get cut are those that didn't cross their t's and dot their i's.

Rule #2: Give yourself time and know your deadlines. Begin assembling your application more than a month in advance, particularly the letters of recommendation. Some schools won't accept a late application -- even if it's only late by a single day. Know your deadlines and work on your application well in advance of those deadlines so that your application can be as strong as possible.

Assuming you can obey Rule #1 and Rule #2, your application is going to get a look.

Most applications require you to submit the following: - Application Form - Undergraduate Transcript - Personal Statement - Creative Sample - Letters of Recommendation

I'm going to focus my attention on the last three because those are the most important elements of most applications.

Personal Statement:

DO write with honesty and accuracy.

DO talk about the types of films you want to make. Be a specific as possible.

DO write about how and why you got into filmmaking, but keep it very brief if it's not terribly unique (e.g., spare us the "When I first saw Jurassic Park..." memories).

DO discuss why you're applying to this specific school. Demonstrate that you've done the research about the programs and why this is a good one for you.

DO talk about how you've grown and changed as a person since you've been making films.

DO mention any visit you made to the school and any conversations or correspondence you've had with specific faculty members or students. Consider: You're trying to stand out from possibly 500 other applicants. They've actually met you. Remind them of that!

DON'T be afraid to be a little critical of the films you've made. Use this as a way to explain why you would benefit from film school. You're applying to film school because you want to be a better filmmaker, after all.

DON'T fret if you've not made many films, or even any at all (as long as your portfolio can contain creative work other than films and videos). If you've never made films but have done other art-making (photography, painting, creative writing) discuss why you're interested in making the transition from one art form to another. Think about it: Who would seem to have more professional potential in film -- an individual with a portfolio of amazing photographs or someone with a few just-okay videos?

DON'T be afraid to share your unconventional, idealistic dreams. ("I ultimately want to start a radical, experimental film co-operative in Idaho.") On the other hand...

DONT make statements that suggest you have absolutely no sense of the reality of the film business. ("I plan to get a three picture deal with Disney after my 3rd year film is screened.")

DON'T be afraid to speak about your accomplishments, but...

DON'T exaggerate or embellish your accomplishments. Besides the fact that dishonesty can come back to haunt you, grad schools are looking for people that haven't done everything. Tell the truth and show some humility.

DON'T spend all of your time talking about your favorite movies. You're applying to film school to make your own movies. Talk about that.

DON'T use a one-size-fits-all approach to your personal statement. Like a cover letter and resume for a job application, your statement should be tailored to each school.

Creative Sample

DO put your best work on the DVD first. With 500 applicants, most schools simply aren't going to watch that 90 minute movie of yours. Sorry. How long do you think these people have? Do the math: 500 applicants x 10 minutes of screening footage = 83+ hours. Get it? Shorter is better, but great and long is better than short and bad.

DO test every single DVD before you send it off. Test it on multiple machines. Send two if it makes you feel better.

DO label your work with your name, email, phone number and some indication that this is part of your portfolio for application in to X program.

DON'T include films or videos that feature derivative genre retreads or sophomoric humor. You're trying to demonstrate that you're mature, unique and original. Even if you aren't.

Letters of Recommendation

DO choose your recommenders carefully. You usually need three. For better or worse, "names" impress, so if you've done an internship for an award-winning filmmaker or studied under someone very well known in academic film circles, a positive recommendation can mean a lot. A glowing letter from an alum of the program can go a long way, too. A lukewarm recommendation, on the other hand, is bad regardless of who wrote it.

DON'T wait until the last minute (or week) to contact your recommenders. Chances are, many of them will have several students wanting recommendations, possibly even to the same schools. Some recommenders won't write in support of more than one student to a school. Others may have certain policies that you need to know up front (e.g., they only write for students that have earned A's), which may determine whether or not they can write for you.

DO volunteer to share a draft of your personal statement and your creative sample with your recommenders. This will help them write their letters. They may even be willing to give you some feedback.

DON'T ask a person to write a letter if s/he has tried to politely decline. All letters should be glowing.

Finally, a word about transcripts....

DON'T assume that your grades matter in the way you think they do. I once heard a professor on a grad selection committee remark, "Now this is my kind of transcript: All A's and F's." He was serious. That student was accepted on the basis of her strong portfolio while others, with lesser portfolios and better grades, were not.

In sum, be honest about who you are, share only the very best of your work, emphasize what is unique about your accomplishments and your goals, and help those writing in support of you to do the same. Then hope for the best.

Good luck!

So you wanna go to film school....Part 1: Searching for a Program

It's that time of year again, when current and former students start asking me about film schools -- where they should apply, if I will write a letter of recommendation, and so on. Whether or not film school is right for an individual is a personal decision and I'm not going to reiterate the pros and cons of film school here. Instead, this two-part post aims to help those who have decided to apply. This post will address some basic tips on looking for a graduate program in film production. The next post will provide some tips on the application process.

**Where should I go to film school? Well, that depends. What kinds of films do you want to make? Do you ultimately hope to work in or outside the industry? Where would you enjoy living? Until you can answer some basic questions about your personal goals, deciding on a film school is next to impossible.

Needless to say, it helps to have some idea about your goals before you apply. After that, begin researching the different programs that exist. The IMDB maintains a pretty good list of film schools. I think it's smart to make your first initial research into film programs no less than six months in advance of applying.

Here are things to consider as you look at programs:

Location. Do you want to pursue your filmmaking in a place where you'll be free of distractions, or do you need the stimulation of a city? Does the town or city have a cultural community that will allow your work to thrive? Will you be placing yourself thousands of miles from the place where you want to film your work? If you ultimately want to work in Hollywood you might want to aim for a California school so you can go ahead and begin building that network. If you want to work "regionally" (code for "outside LA or NY"), you should consider studying close to the place where you want to ultimately live, work, and film. (One important exception: If you want to teach filmmaking, don't go to a school where you might want to ultimately teach. Many schools have explicit policies against hiring "their own" as tenure-track faculty.) One way or another, a school's location is an incredibly important factor to consider.

Reputation of the program. No one is going to finance your next movie simply because you attended some elite film school. There is something to be said for the networking that a school like USC or NYU provides, but there are several worthwhile, lesser-known programs outside of the so-called "Big Five", particularly if you're not interested in a career in Hollywood. Among them (in alpha order): American University, Art Institute of Chicago, Boston University, CalArts, Columbia College, Emerson, Florida State, Iowa, Stanford, Southern Illinois, Texas, and Temple. Some of these cater to experimental work, others to documentary or alternative/independent narrative. Many are good bargains. I'll leave it to you to do the research.

Faculty and students. A lot of prospective applicants put an emphasis on who will be teaching them. Faculty, no doubt, are important: Perhaps less important than their individual accomplishments is their ability and willingness to take the time to mentor their students. Having said this, your fellow students matter even more than faculty. You'll spend far more time with your fellow students, you'll collaborate together, and you'll critique each other's work. If you don't respect them and the work they're trying to do, I expect you will be very, very unhappy.

Course Offerings and Curricula. As you look at the required courses for each program, ask yourself: Do these look like interesting courses? Are these the subjects that I want to learn about? I've known students to transfer or drop out of film programs because they were dissatisfied with having to learn about experimental film, or (at another school) because they weren't learning enough about experimental film. What's mind boggling to me is that this is pretty straightforward stuff. You look at the required classes, and you look at the other courses that are offered from semester to semester. If it looks like a good fit with your interests, you've found a contender. If it's missing courses in areas that are vital to your development, forget it. For the programs in between, contact the faculty and students and ask lots of questions.

Equipment and Facilities. A decade ago, the equipment that a school could offer mattered a lot, but it's not a lot to get worked up about today. After all, you can buy an HVX-200, a laptop and Final Cut Studio for a fraction of a year's tuition at most film schools. You don't want to go someplace that has crummy equipment, nor do you want to attend a school that lacks enough equipment to serve its students. You need good (film and video) cameras, sound equipment, lights, and editing stations. (Maybe not even the editing stations, if you already own one.) Beyond that, don't get worked up about facilities and equipment. If you're simply going to film school to touch the latest equipment, maybe you should go intern at an equipment house instead. Indeed, having access to every single new toy can be a distraction. You need to learn to make do with the basics. At least that's what I think. If you need a huge state-of-the-art soundstage to make your movies, go for it.

Film Funding. Some programs expect students to fund their own work; other programs fund their students' work. Each system has its pros and cons. For instance, with school-funded films who gets to decide which films get funded? Are some films funded and others not? Who retains the copyright on school-funded films? On the other hand, when funding your own work, how will that impact your ability to graduate in a timely fashion?

Length of Program. Most programs are three years; some are two years. There may be a difference between what a school's literature states and the reality though. Ask current students for the skinny on how long it takes for students to typically finish a program. It can be a positive thing, of course, to stay in school as long as you can. After all, student loan payments aren't due until after you're no longer enrolled. The point is, you need to know what kind of time commitment you're making.

Cost. Tuition is one thing to consider; cost of living in the town/city of the school are equally important. Don't let cost enter your first considerations of film programs. After all, you might be offered a fellowship or assistantship if you're accepted. But unless you're independently wealthy you will probably want to keep cost in the back of your mind. I believe you should not go into a lot of debt for film school, or any MFA for that matter. This is an art degree, not a law degree or med school, that we're talking about.

**After you've narrowed down your list to say, 10 or so, get in touch with the schools and try to find out more. Email or phone the various departments and speak with the Department Head or professors. During your conversations with these folks, ask if they can put you in touch with some current students. Also -- this is important -- ask them if there is a way that the program can share with you some recent student work.

From here, visit as many of your final contenders as is possible. Sit in on classes, meet with faculty and students. Screen student work, if you can. Ask lots of questions -- not just about the school, but the larger filmmaking community in the city/town. The positive impression that you make will help you as you apply.

Speaking of applying, my next post will outline some specific things you can do to make your application stronger.