Katy Rank Lev is a third-year graduate student in the University of Pittsburgh’s creative non-fiction track. In general, I have found non-fiction students to be the most enterprising and “together” of MFA students in terms of making the program work for them, and Katy may be the ultimate example. (She even has her own website.) An experienced writer, editor, tutor, and teacher (not to mention a rugby player) even before she arrived at Pitt, she seemed to know more about the program’s workings than many of the second- and third-years I met when I got here; her knowledge included that most confusing, occasionally frustrating of topics: funding. Katy was good enough to sit down in Hot Metal Bridge headquarters to answer a few questions on the topic.
Hot Metal Bridge: Can you describe what you did to get funding at Pitt once you learned you’d been admitted but without a teaching assistantship?
Katy Rank Lev: Once I was admitted sans funding, I panicked. I had enough undergraduate loans for one lifetime. I decided I was not going to pay for graduate school. I gave myself one semester to work it out, or I was going to advance my career some other way. I was given the names of three current students to call for advice, so that’s what I did. I was super fortunate to find a student in the same position as me. She was filled with advice for applicable part-time jobs on campus, key decision makers to familiarize myself with, everything.
My first step was to get myself on the graduate student e-mail list. My contact told me last-minute opportunities crop up in late summer, so I made sure I checked my e-mail twice a day. Sure enough, while I was camping in the middle of Montana with scarce internet access and no cell phone service, a partly funded position editing a gerontology journal appeared. I rounded up quarters, found myself a pay phone and secured an interview. I had to piece my resume together from the comfort of an internet kiosk.
I had done similar work as an undergrad, which was helpful. I worked ten hours per week and got half my tuition paid for and a small stipend. I took on another part-time job to make more money to buy food and this small triumph fueled my fire to find full funding. I knew it was out there! I kept making appointments during office hours, trying to nail down the procedures for applications, and find more hidden funding. I called every department and introduced myself to everyone. I tried to make sure everyone in my department knew my name, my interests, and at least something about my background. I usually said, “Hi! I’m Katy and I’m a nonfiction MFA student. Before I came here I worked in publishing and I love sports writing. If you hear of any job openings around campus or any teaching opportunities, I would love if you’d shoot me an e-mail.”
HMB: What funding did you get, and what do you have now?
KRL: My first year, I just had that partial funding. It paid for 6 credits and gave me about $600 a month. The bummer about that was that it was year-round. That meant I had to be in there working over Christmas, spring break, and all summer long. It meant not being able to work full-time that summer and earn money. Which was OK, because I would never have earned enough to pay that chunk of tuition.
By spring break of my first year, I realized that I loved my part-time tutoring job way more than my clerical position. My boss noticed my enthusiasm and told me there was a fully funded position the following year. I leapt at that opportunity! I now have full funding, health insurance, and a full stipend, which almost buys meat most weeks. I tutor student athletes in writing and composition twenty hours per week in exchange. The position was renewable for my final two years of school.
HMB: Has the experience been more useful, in terms of your degree and future career, than teaching? Or would you rather have just had an assistantship and taught comp?
KRL: I personally believe tutoring is more difficult than and just as valuable as teaching. Would a university hiring committee agree? Probably not. My goal upon graduation is to be a freelance writer. I want to write for magazines. However, I plan to return to teaching at the university level someday. I have always loved teaching. I tutored for 6 years before coming to graduate school and taught all sorts of different workshops and small group courses. I was so sad not to get to continue teaching at Pitt! I feel very thankful that my assistantship now involves teaching and still working with students. My work reminds me how valuable writing centers can be, particularly for student athletes who miss so much in class time. I really get to reinforce the teaching they receive in the classroom! My position has expanded my career goals to perhaps include writing center management.
But, I also have really crappy hours that are set each week. I work on Sundays and until 9 p.m. most nights. I can’t go out to dinner ever with anyone and I often miss speakers and reading series. I don’t have a teaching portfolio and no standard evaluations to draw from. Bottom line, I would rather have had a teaching assistantship.
HMB: Do you feel like your attitude determined how successful you were in hunting down funding? Did it prove any kind of deterrent, either to the search or to going through the program?
KRL: Attitude was everything! I went into each meeting determined to leave with something. If not a funding opportunity, I wanted concrete answers and proactive suggestions. I know that I would still be unfunded if I hadn’t viewed each interaction as an opportunity. I just wouldn’t take no for an answer from anyone. I could tell that discussing money made people uncomfortable, that they didn’t like being reminded that we unfunded ones were out there. To heck with discomfort! If a department was full, I wanted to know how to get on the waiting list. If there was no waiting list, I wanted to know who to double check with a month later.
My attitude definitely paid off, because right after I signed my contract for the tutoring gig, I got a few other offers for things from people who remembered my name and knew I was trying to make the most of my degree. Sitting around moping and full of despair gets you nowhere! Keep your sleeves rolled up and whittle away at the university until you find something.
HMB: What advice would you give a new MFA student who is coming in without funding (at Pitt or anywhere)?
KRL: My best advice is to be go forward and be persistent. We all would rather be teaching. We need to get over our disappointment and keep trying. Seek teaching experience elsewhere once you have secured partial funding or a part-time job. I found a few gigs teaching high school students and middle school students and even a community class here or there. Take care of your rent, and even if you are miserably alphabetizing files all day you can find an outlet teaching resume writing or whatever somewhere.
For example, I am not teaching for Pitt, but my school offers a certificate in teaching. I spoke to the director of it and he was so supportive of me still being allowed to get it. He even helped me brainstorm chances to do other sorts of teaching. It would be easy to sit at home and mope about a lost opportunity, but I made it work for me. If you want something, find a way to make it happen. You’ll find helpers along the way.
This is kind of related, but many people who aren’t funded are devastated by being denied in-state tuition. I would say not to give up on this, either. Even if you get shot down your first year, try again after you have lived in-state for a calendar year. Once you have a lease and an in-state driver’s license, you will probably get it for the second year.
This is also kind of related, but everyone should try to write for their school’s alumni publications. These are usually glossy, professional magazines that pay GOOD money for articles. We are all writers! Write an e-mail to the editor-in-chief introducing yourself as a writer and say you’d love to freelance for them. In my experience, they are happy to try out new voices and will assign you cool stories. If you aren’t leaving school with teaching experience, by golly you should have some professional clips! Even small private schools have at least an alumni newsletter.