If you haven't already checked it out, the new MFA themed issue of Poets and Writers magazine is on the stands, and it includes (along with a list of personal statement dos and don't from moi, sadly not available online) Seth Abramson's 2011 MFA Rankings.
Here's his article about methodology.
Here's the rather scathing critique of said rankings and methodology from the executive director of the AWP. (I have to wonder - why is the AWP so threatened?)
And here are some comments from Seth and others, pulled from the last mailbag (though you can read all these comments, in context, in the mailbag, I thought it might be interesting to use them to start the discussion here):
From commentator Chris N.:
It seems to me that a ranking that only reflects the preferences of the most recent year's applicants is bound to be somewhat unstable over time. Maybe not this year, but eventually. Even if there's a close correlation between last year's list and this year's list right now, it seems that inevitably there could be some problems in the future. Potentially, an individual program could drop or jump as many as 6 or 7 spots in any given year based on the whims of that particular year's applicant pool's preferences and that could be very upsetting and confusing for applicants--both those who have been accepted and those planning to apply.
And part of Seth's response (read the whole thing here and the discussion continues down the page):
With 148 full-res programs nationally, even a 7.4-spot drop or increase for a program is only 5% movement off the previous year, or slightly above the MoE (Margin of Error) for even the best political polling in the world (usually 3% MoE). And thus far most movement is within that 5% on a year-to-year basis--the 2011 rankings are actually the fifth year the rankings have been compiled, and the consistency of program placement over time is remarkable. Yet there's also the possibility for real movement, which isn't the case with the usually static USNWR rankings. With USNWR, if the undergraduate program at UW-Madison drops ten spots from 35 to 45 as it did this year, it feels upsetting, as you say, but then you realize that that's only because the USNWR rankings are not set up to register such dramatic changes. The P&W rankings are.
From commentator Vegascetic:
I think arguments over rankings are based on the perceived importance of the rankings. In my opinion, rankings are something to look at, consider, et cetera, but it's not like I'm gonna base whether I apply to such and such a program based soley on rankings in a magazine. Just not gonna happen. Somewhat insulted that some think that's even a possibility.
From commentator Blob:
I think the rankings matter (or don't matter) depending on what you plan on doing with your mfa/why you're getting an mfa. For those that are using the mfa primarily as a chance to work for 2-3 years on their writing then the only rankings that probably matter are funding ones. But some people want to use the mfa to hopefully get one of those very competitive teaching jobs than ranking does matter. A school with good post-grad placements and a strong reputation will likely give the candidate more of an edge.
There is more or less no prestige to be had in having an MFA, period. Nor does the MFA assist one with job prospects, unless one has a lot of publications to go with it. As to non-teaching employment, the MFA mostly gets ignored except to the extent it suggests you're creative. The most valuable MFA degrees in such contexts--though it's all relative--are degrees from schools with strong reputations generally (Brown University, Cornell University, University of Michigan, University of Notre Dame, Washington University at Saint Louis, and so on). The only minor "prestige" bumps one might get in securing a teaching job would be with an MFA from either an Ivy, the Writers' Workshop, or maybe (at a stretch) Michigan -- and the genre should be whatever you do your strongest work in. Generally, poets don't care where you did your MFA; fiction-writers barely do, and fiction agents somewhat do.
From mystery, tenured professor L.G:
I know that the academic job market has become increasingly competitive--and you're right, it's very hard these days to get a tenure track job without a book--I do think that the prestige of the degree can be a "significant" factor. In addition to being on the market myself, I have also been the Chair of several tenure-track search committees for creative writing positions, and I can tell you from firsthand experience that applicants with degrees from places like Michigan, Iowa, Cornell, and so on, always caught my eye, especially if they also had impressive magazine publications.
And finally, a couple of links that aren't in the last mailbag, but that I'd like draw your attention to:
Stellar agent, talented writer, and former editor Betsy Lerner kicks off an MFA rankings debate here. I recommend that you check out her highly amusing blog on a regular basis, and the revised edition of Betsy's advice book for writers, The Forest for the Trees, should be on every aspiring writer's shelf.
And Mark Doty, poet, memoirist, and Rutgers faculty member, quotes Dean Young on his blog:
The MFA programs may be booming because our business is to boom. OUR BUSINESS IS BLOOMING. If there is a problem, it is in the professionalization of creative writing. J'accuse, AWP!
I'll open up a new thread for general mailbag questions - perhaps we could reserve this post for further comments and expansions on these issues. What do you think about the rankings? And about the AWP's response to them? How do you plan to use them? How important are they to you? And who do you think L.G. might be?