Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Alumni to judge?

Should MFA applicants consider the publishing track record of each program's alumni when deciding on where to go? TK repeatedly says in his handbook, "former students have had good publishing success..." I've also checked different programs' websites. What each program reports varies from one program to the next. What's your take?


terry said...

I think the publishing success of recent graduates is definitely one of the most important factors applicants should consider. Although the program itself obviously can't take full credit for the success of its graduates, I think that it certainly says something about a program when its graduates seem to be consistently publishing books, winning awards, and so on. First of all, I think it says (at least to me) that the faculty members selecting incoming students have a good eye for talent and potential. Secondly, I think it also says that the faculty members are doing a good job of preparing their students for a career in writing. In other words, the students are probably leaving the program with better work than what they came in with.

Although it’s hard to quantify success, I think that most people are aware of the programs that seem to be producing and/or attracting successful and talented writers. You just need to look in the contributor’s notes of literary magazines or anthologies or the bios on the backs of dust jackets. Obviously, Iowa has had, and continues to have, the best track record by far in this regard, but there are also other programs that seem to have sustained a pretty steady and impressive rate of graduate publication. The fiction writers coming out of UC Irvine, for example, have done very well in recent years. The same is true of Michigan, UVA, NYU, and even the much-criticized Columbia program. What gets tricky is defining the phrase “recent graduates.” If I were to advise prospective graduate students, I guess I’d say that they should look at the students who have graduated from the program in the past 5-10 years. If someone who graduated twenty years ago suddenly writes a prize-winning book, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. But if a good percentage of the students who have graduated from the program in the past 5-10 years have had success, or are at least publishing in good literary magazines and winning awards, then I think that does mean something.

Finally, a word of caution about program websites: Like any form of advertisement, the information and statistics on these sites are often misleading. For example, some programs will claim that recent graduates have published in x, y and z journals or won x, y and z awards, and yet, in some cases, all of these publications and awards have been amassed by only a small handful of recent graduates, or in some cases, simply by one graduate in particular. In other words, every program produces a superstar from time to time, and some of these programs use the success of that one superstar to make it seem as if all the graduates from their program are having this type of success. A better strategy is to pay attention to the bios in literary journals, anthologies and books. After a while, you’ll begin to get a sense of which programs seem to be consistently producing successful graduates.

Vince said...

i posed this question because i think it's an important aspect of MFA programs that doesn't get enough research time from would be MFAers. The alumni track record--after all--is at the "tail end" of everything in regards to the MFA experience. I've spent so much time reviewing admissions statistics and guidelines. What does each program need for me to do? Looking at what program graduates have been able to accomplish adds another dimension for me. What will a certain program HELP me to achieve in the long term? In the very's just something to think about...and I do thank you terry.

Lincoln said...

I can only second most of what terry said.

Alumni success is very important but very hard to judge.

Important because it is a good indicator of the quality of a program's student body, which I think might very well be THE most important factor in your MFA experience. Unless your program is filled with strong writers, you won't be getting what you need from an MFA program.

And also like terry said it may indicate how well programs prepare people for life after the MFA.

At the same time, how do you measure it? I saw one attempt by someone counting awards won, but those results were heavily skewed towards some programs that had put out one superstar who just won everything it seemed.

However, if you read literary journals and follow the literary scene there are a couple programs that seem to come up again and again. Tom Kealey has said on here that Iowa, Columbia and UCI have reputations amongst publishers as producing strong alumni.

The Atlantic listed these 5 as having lots of alumni success:

Boston University
University of California at Irvine
Columbia University
University of Iowa
University of Virginia

ali said...

I wanted to throw a specific program into the mix: judging from Ohio State's alumni page, graduates of the OSU MFA program seem to do pretty well (both recent grads and non-recent). Anyone have any thoughts on their program? There hasn't been as much specific discussion on this site about this program, and I'm curious to hear what people think (either those in the program, graduated from the program, or just those with reliable knowledge). Many of their graduates seem to have good teaching jobs.

Samara said...

Ali--are you thinking of going to Ohio State? I ask because I'm leaning toward their program at this point and I agree, it doesn't seem to get as much discussion as some. I'm curious why it was left out of Tom's book. Maybe it's only very recently become a program people think about? Anyway, I was just emailing with an alum and she said she felt the other students were strong writers and have had a lot of success after the program. She only had good things to say about the whole experience. In fact, I have never heard a single negative thing about them.

ali said...

Samara: Yes, I am thinking of going! [I apologize if I'm derailing this thread =0)] I got in for fiction, but I also received an offer from another program. I haven't heard back from all of the schools I've applied to yet, but I'm thinking it's most likely going to come down to a choice between OSU and this other school. Both schools have comparably good reputations, and I've talked to current students and recent grads from both. Trying to decide. Yourself?

Samara said...

Ali--Yup, same situation for me. I have two schools left to hear from, was accepted at one other, and wait listed at two others. I was really excited by the Ohio State course catalog that they sent with the information packet, and at this point it seems like it would be hard to go wrong by going there. At the same time I want to know all my options before I make a final decision. I'm also in fiction, by the way.

Sarah Perrault said...

Chris Coake, a 2004 fiction grad from the OSU MFA grad, says he's more than happy to talk with anyone admitted to and considering the program. I can vouch for Chris's honesty and forthrightness, and he speaks very highly of the program.

As for his success, Chris won the 2006 PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship for Writers for his collection We're in Trouble, the French translation has earned kudos in France, and he was on GRANTA's 2007 list of "Best Young American Novelists."

You can contact Chris via his blog,, or at cjcoake at unr dot edu.

bb said...

Ali and Samara:

I'm in the same position with regards to OSU. What other schools are you deciding between? The more I learn about OSU the better it sounds, and they've been very supportive thus far. If you want to email, I'm

bb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ali said...

I actually did talk to Chris Coake; he was very helpful and personable. He's teaching, and has obviously had great publishing success. Many of the OSU grads seem to have had a good mix of publishing and post-mfa job success.

Samara said...

Ali--I corresponded with another alum, and she corroborated that--the writing/professional success after the MFA. She also spoke highly of the quality of the writing while she was at the program.

Lyz said...

What about for low-res programs? Does anyone have knowledge about what the success of alumni is for those. I know I can look at individual schools alumni pages, but some of those are not complete and warren wilson provides nothing.


Murphy said...


For info on WW's alumni, you can check out the alumni section on the school's website. From there you can click on their alumni newsletters. Reading through them can give you a sense of how the school's alums are doing when it comes to publishing and winning awards.

Hope that helps.

climacus said...

FYI: Lee Abbot and Erin McGraw are GREAT teachers. Rebecca Barry came out of the OSU program and has a book out, though she also had a head start on the process.

Annie Madison said...

I think you should look not only at how many are published, but where--both students and faculty. Are they publishing in small lit mags that may be "prestigious" but earn the writer very little? By university presses, read by few outside academia?

I'm in a program whose faculty and grads have major commercial success, published by mainstream publishers such as Berkeley/Jove, HarperCollins, etc. (Want more info? Post a request.)

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