Life Hacking Grad School: The Low-Residency MFA

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At the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) MFA in Film, the premiere low-residency program for screenwriters and writer/directors, students work one-on-one with acclaimed faculty, improving their craft without putting their careers on hold.

You’re considering going back to school to get an MFA in Film. You know it’s the right move at this point in your life: you need the teaching credential, the network of contacts and collaborators, or just a structured way to hone your creativity and kick start your motivation after a dry spell. You’ve done your research. The residential film programs you’ve looked at require you to quit your job and move your family across the country for three years. You’ve considered online programs, but you worry that they won’t provide the same networking opportunities and socializing that you would find in a traditional setting. What can be done?

For many people in your situation, low-residency education is the answer. In fact, a low-residency MFA just might be the future of graduate film school. The reasons are compelling.

Whether emerging artists developing their craft or established filmmakers seeking a terminal degree for teaching or making space for their own work, students in a low-residency MFA program don’t have to put their lives on hold for their degree. The majority of work is done from home, allowing students to maintain full-time jobs and remain a part of the supportive local communities that are so vital to successfully juggling work, school, family, and other commitments. This innovative model also helps recruit excellent faculty who are working filmmakers, since they don’t need to uproot their lives and commit to a full-time teaching schedule.

Vermont College of Fine Arts launched the very first low-residency MFA in Film in 2013, expanding on its strong and long-standing reputation for low-residency graduate arts education. For alum Rafael Attias, “The fact that [the faculty at VCFA] were all working professionals made it possible for me to imagine that my own work could reach higher levels of public acceptance, something I was not yet ready or willing to consider.” The faculty at VCFA includes Josephine Decker (MADELINE’S MADELINE), Laura Colella (BREAKFAST WITH CURTIS), Terence Nance (RANDOM ACTS OF FLYNESS), Till Schauder (WHEN GOD SLEEPS), Malik Vitthal (IMPERIAL DREAMS), and others.

Film students at VCFA come to the Montpelier, Vermont, campus for two week-long residencies each year then spend the remaining 50 weeks working independently with the guidance of a faculty advisor via email, phone, or video conference call. Faculty member Marya Cohn’s (THE GIRL IN THE BOOK) recent advisees hailed from around the country: Massachusetts, California, Utah, Illinois, and Puerto Rico. Cohn appreciates the individualized teaching structure:  “It’s really fulfilling to work one on one with studentsto identify which aspects of craft a student needs to develop and find ways to give feedback and recommendations geared to a specific project at a specific stage of development. This experience helps both the filmmaker and his or her body of work evolve.” It’s a tailored, student-led process that would be hard to find in a traditional grad-school setting.

If you’re a filmmaker with a creative vision who doesn’t want a cookie-cutter approach to your education, VCFA’s low-residency model will allow you to focus on your own project rather than jumping through someone else’s hoops. You’ll make close friends and industry connections, receive relevant and actionable feedback, hone your storytelling ability, and come out of the two-year program with a marketable thesis project: a script to pitch or a film to submit to festivals. As Attias adds, “For self-driven individuals, I can’t think of a better model; and at the end, you end up with not only a body of work but also an MFA—a win-win.”

Learn more about VCFA’s MFA in Film program here. With opportunities for frequent interaction and collaboration, VCFA cultivates a real community of film practitioners working in a challenging, intense, and powerful medium.