Monday, January 16, 2006

Introduction to the Program Profiles

Below is my introduction to the program profiles chapter for the Creative Writing MFA Handbook, along with three more profles for Columbia, Indiana, and UC-Davis. I hope this will offer some insight into my profile criteria and my general advice for prospective students.


In 1997, U.S. News and World Reports set out to rank the top Creative Writing Programs. They distributed a questionnaire to four members of each creative writing university – including deans, program directors, and professors – asking them to grade, on a scale of 5 (highest) to 1 (lowest), the other programs in the nation. Responders were asked not to grade programs that they had little knowledge of. The outcome, published in 1998, (and republished in 2002, but the same) was a listing of almost 100 programs, each ranging in grade from 4.5 to around 2.0. In many ways, this survey and its results have been a touchstone for prospective graduate students since that time.

And of course, it’s become a subject of great and often heated debate within the writing community. My opinion is that the rankings are relatively fair and accurate. They judge the reputation of the programs based on the strength of the faculty and the publishing and professional success of its students and former students. That said, the rankings are many years old now, and they do not at all reflect the top two criteria of this handbook: location and funding.

I can’t much comment on location. You know what you need as far as where you’d like to live and work. In my comments below about the programs I may include a sentence or two about the particular community where a program resides. Any lack of a comment should indicate my lack of knowledge, rather than any judgment on my part.

Funding however, I’ll comment upon. As you’ve read before, I think it’s very important for programs to fund their students, or, at the very least, for programs to make their tuition affordable. To my mind, the best programs fund all of their students and fund them all equally. Rank funding in your own criteria, and judge it accordingly.

Check it out: I’m not going to “rank” the programs in the traditional sense. Instead, I’m going to take fifty of the most recognized masters programs – new and old – and divide them into geographic areas of the United States. I’ll note top five, ten, or twenty when a program is particularly distinguished. I’m not as familiar with Low-Residency and Ph.D. programs as I am with resident masters programs, so I’ll simply point out the most recognized programs in these two areas.

I want you to think about these comments as a starting point, not an ending point. Look out, here comes the bus driver metaphor again: You’ve just arrived in a city. The city of graduate writing programs, and I’m the bus driver, giving you a brief tour. Just because I pass a street without comment doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time to explore it. That may end up being the best street for you. I’m giving you an overview. I encourage and expect you to branch out from here, using the profiles at the back of the book for your door-by-door experience. If you stick to these fifty listings, then you may have an outstanding graduate experience. If not, then I’d not be surprised, and don’t go blaming the bus driver. Do explore programs that I have not profiled in this chapter. ** I’ve listed them all in Appendix D.

This chapter is going to make me very unpopular in the writing community. Writers have very strong feelings about their programs. However, that’s my problem, not yours. My intention is to be accurate and fair, but not diplomatic. This guide is a friend of the prospective student, not of the individual programs. Basically, what I say in the profiles is what I say to my students who are interested in particular programs. I’m basing my judgments on the same criteria we spoke about in chapter 2A, with the exception of location. Of course I’ll definitely indicate the three universities that I attended during undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate education.


Columbia University – A two to three year MFA program in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction in New York City… The CU website is extremely confusing about class requirements. My best guess: 16 classes, with four workshops and the remaining literature classes, writing seminars, and electives… Many recent graduates of the program have published books and secured positions at universities and publishing houses… Columbia is expensive. And the financial aid isn’t very impressive. Any time students are referred to the Office of Student Affairs, you know you’re not going to get much financial support from the program. A small number of teaching assistantships are available in the second year to qualified applicants… There seems to be a very interesting affiliation with local public schools to bring writers and artists in to the classroom… A highly-regarded faculty… They accept a very large number of students. Around 70 a year… If you can afford it, go for it. If not, there are equally good programs out there for much less money.

Indiana University – A three year MFA program in fiction and poetry in Bloomington, Indiana. IU also offers a two year M.A. program…. Six MFA fiction students admitted each year, and six in poetry… The MFA is a 60 hour degree, with four workshops, five or more literature classes, and some flexibility in taking courses outside the department… The M.A. degree is 30 hours, with two workshops, five literature courses, and flexibility with one course… All students receive funding in the form of teaching assistantships and/or supplemental fellowships… This program pays close attention to diversity resources and has specific funding for minority students… The Indiana Review is run by graduate students… Former students have a good track record in publishing and teaching… In general, there is excellent support and interest from the program in its students… Also offers class credit for work in playwriting, screen writing, and translation… Bloomington is a great college town… Eleven faculty members. That’s a lot, and that’s good… This program was already highly-regarded. That said, it’s my opinion that it’s not regarded enough. From a prospective student’s point of view, or anyone’s point of view for that matter, this is one of the top programs in the country. Easily in the top five.

University of California Davis – A two-year M.A. program in fiction, non-fiction, or poetry… A 36 degree hour program, with four workshops, four literature courses, plus thesis hours… There is very good funding here, and a wide variety of choices for teaching assistance or on-campus work… Davis is a beautiful campus, and if you’re looking for outdoor activities, this is a good place… A good faculty-to-student ratio… Students have good choices as far as out-of-department electives… This is a program that has flown under the radar up till now, but I expect that to change.


marissa. said...

Hi Tom,
I'm considering UC Davis for the MA in Fiction for next fall. I'm hesitant because it's an MA vs. an MFA. Do you have any advice/thoughts on that? My ultimate goal is to write and have the back-up of teaching at the university level.

(I have a few MFA choices, but I really like the faculty at Davis.)

I appreciate your insight.

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