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2013 MFA Index: Further Reading

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September/October 2012

Online Only, posted 8.17.12

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Student-Faculty Ratio

Using data on individual programs’ total student-body sizes, along with recitations of full-time core faculty in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from program websites and the Poets & Writers Magazine online MFA database, student-faculty ratios were calculated for the 122 full-residency MFA programs (75 percent of all such programs) with both sets of data available. Tiebreakers in student-faculty ratio were awarded (where necessary and where possible) to the program with the higher number of total core faculty members. Note that this listing takes into account any and all fiction, poetry, and nonfiction faculty and students at individual programs, not merely faculty and students in the former two genres.

Just as a large percentage of applicants report that they prefer, all things being equal, a more selective program, or a better-funded program, or a program that performs better at placing its graduates in fellowships and full-time jobs post-graduation, generally speaking creative writing graduate students prefer a lower student-faculty ratio to a higher one—the better to have immediate and meaningful access to those charged with instructing, mentoring, and advising them.

Fellowship Placement

Programs' postgraduate fellowship placement records were assessed by determining how many individual "placement events" a given program's current students or (much more commonly) graduates achieved during the past decade (2002 to 2012). Only a limited number of fellowships and residencies are available to MFA graduates while in-program or immediately postgraduation, and fewer still are specifically targeted at current MFA students and/or recent MFA graduates. Most of these make publicly available the names and biographical data of their fellows and residents. The focus for this year's fellowship placement listing was on forty-two of the fellowships and residencies in this group—generally speaking, the nation's most prestigious post-MFA fellowships and residencies.

The fellowships and residencies surveyed for this measure were the following: The Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany; the Amy Clampitt Residency Award at the Amp Clampitt House in Lenox, Massachusetts; the Axton Fellowship at University of Louisville in Kentucky; the Bard Fiction Prize and Residency at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York; the Bennett Fellowship/Writer-in-Residence at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire; Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowships at Middlebury College in Vermont; the Charles Pick Fellowships at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, United Kingdom; the Daehler Fellowship/Writer-in-Residence at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado; the David T.K. Wong Fiction Fellowships at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, United Kingdom; the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Program at the University of Texas in Austin; the Elma Stuckey Liberal Arts and Sciences Emerging Poet-in-Residence Program; the Emory Creative Writing Fellowship in Atlanta, Georgia; the Eva Jane Romaine Coombe Writer-in-Residence Program at Seven Hills School in Cincinnati, Ohio; the Fine Arts Work Center Fellowships in Provincetown, Massachusetts; the Gaius Charles Bolin Fellowship in English at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts; the Gettysburg Emerging Writer Lectureship; the Herbert Martin Fellowship in Creative Writing and Diversity at Dayton University in Ohio; the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University in New Jersey; the HUB-BUB Artist-in-Residence Program in Spartanburg, South Carolina; the Hugo House Writer-in-Residence at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle, Washington; the James Merrill Writer-in-Residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington, Connecticut; the Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Residence at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.; the Kelly Writers House ArtsEdge Residency at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; the Kenan Visiting Writer Lectureship at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the Kenyon Review Fellowships at Kenyon College, Kenyon, Ohio; the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center Writer-in-Residence Fellowships in Nebraska City, Nebraska *; the Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency Prize at Lake Forest College in Illinois; McKnight Artist Fellowships at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota; the Milton Center Image Fellowships at Seattle Pacific University in Washington; the Moseley Fellowship in Creative Writing at Pomona College in Pomona, California; New York Foundation for the Arts Artist Fellowships; the Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York; the Philip Roth Residency at Bucknell University; Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships from the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, Illinois; the Writer-in-Residence Residency at the Saint Albans School in Washington, D.C.; the Southern Review Resident Scholar Program at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge; the Stadler Fellowship at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; the Steinbeck Fellowship at the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University in California; the Stegner Fellowships at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California; the Tickner Fellowship at The Gilman School in Baltimore, Maryland; Studio Center Fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson *; and the Wisconsin Creative Writing Institute Fellowships at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

* = Due to their brief duration and implicit emphasis on poets and writers already working full-time outside of the academy, these placements were assessed as to low-residency program graduates only.

These forty-two fellowships and residencies played host to 900 placement events between 2002 and 2012. As the fellowship placement listing acknowledges placement “events” rather than placed fellows or residents, it is possible for a single fellow or resident to be the subject of more than one placement event.

As simply ordering programs by the number of their students or graduates subject to placement events between 2002 and 2012 would unfairly favor larger programs (which naturally have more graduates on the fellowship market annually), programs have instead been ordered on the basis of a placement score, calculated as follows: A program's total number of placement events between 2002 and 2012 was divided by the size of the program's annual incoming cohort. The resulting scores ranged from 4.40 to 0.03. In several instances, programs identical both in size and in their number of placement events received identical placement scores; where possible, these ties were broken by privileging the program with the higher number of total placement events. Programs founded during the assessment period had their scores pro-rated on the basis of how many years (out of the last ten) they had had a full class of graduated students on the postgraduate fellowship market.

Because fellowships and residencies draw no distinction between full- and low-residency programs, this is the only measure in which full- and low-residency programs were combined in a single measure. This said, low-residency programs were subsequently granted their own numeric ordering, in recognition of the fact that these programs are hampered by the decreased likelihood that their graduates will seek fellowships or residencies in the first instance (as by definition low-residency students already have full- or part-time employment).

This fellowship placement listing should be used with caution. As selection for a fellowship or residency is often the result of one or more individuals being the "consensus pick(s)" of a panel of judges—and as consensus in art has not always, historically, favored innovation—it is possible for selected fellows and residents to in some instances be amongst the most talented, but not necessarily the most innovative, of their graduating year's national cohort. This is by no means to impugn, or remark upon, the writing of any particular fellow or resident, or on the selections of any particular fellowship or residency. Instead, the emphasis in this caveat is on causation: Applicants should not presume either that a program with a high standing in the placement category can ensure them a fellowship or residency, nor that a program with such a standing necessarily hosts the strongest student cohort if innovation, rather than technical mastery, is the particular interest of the applicant.

Job Placement

Between 2008 and 2012, the most popular online discussion board for creative writing job-seekers pursuing full-time employment at the university level, The Academic Jobs Wiki, listed 353 full-time positions available for poets and fiction writers. Data on the individuals ultimately hired for these openings was available for 220 of these 353 listings (62 percent). Based on research into the educational credentials of the individuals ultimately hired for these positions, an ordered listing was created to indicate which graduate creative writing programs’ alumni enjoyed the most success on the academic job market over these four hiring cycles. The following figures may be of academic interest to those tracking employment opportunities for creative writers in higher education:

2008–2009 Hiring Season: Sixty-eight positions available (hire information available for 62 percent); male/female split for those positions with available data for final fires was 57 percent female, 43 percent male.

2009–2010 Hiring Season: Eighty-four positions available, ten of which were holdovers from the previous year (i.e., cancelled or frozen searches from the previous year); hire information available for 52 percent; male/female split for those positions with available data for final hires was 57 percent female, 43 percent male.

2010–2011 Hiring Season: Seventy-five positions available, eight of which were holdovers from the previous year (i.e., cancelled or frozen searches from the previous year); hire information available for 79 percent; male/female split for those positions with available data for final hires was 51 percent male, 49 percent female.

2011–2012 Hiring Season: One hundred forty-six positions available, one of which was a holdover from the previous year (i.e., a cancelled or frozen search from the previous year); hire information available for 36 percent; male/female split for those positions with available data for final hires was 51 percent male, 49 percent female.

While the number of available creative writing positions in higher education appears to be increasing, given that the world’s 224 full- and low-residency MFA programs, and 33 doctoral programs in creative writing, graduate more than 2,000 poets and 2,000 fiction-writers every year, along with between 500 and 1,000 nonfiction writers (some of whom have qualifications and prior publications in fiction and/or poetry), the data above suggests that each year full-time teaching positions at the university level are available for, on average, well less than 1 percent of graduate creative writing program alumni. Even if graduates were only required to compete for employment against those in their own annual cohort, and even assuming only between 10 and 20 percent of nonfiction program graduates can or do compete for positions advertised for poetry and/or fiction, this figure would be less than 4 percent. Realistically, however, each year’s graduate creative writing program alumni are competing against an ever-increasing stock of unemployed, underemployed, and employed-but-still-job-hunting alumni from previous years.

While surveys of MFA applicants suggest that only about half of the nation’s creative writing program graduates wish to teach, even this statistic—if it is used to amend the figures provided above—cannot bring an individual degree-holding poet or writer’s employment chances (all things being equal) higher than, at best, 8 percent. Consequently, those graduate creative writing programs with the best track records in terms of job placement—the ten highest-placing programs in this measure achieved full-time job-placement rates, during the period assessed, of between 10 and 25 percent—are offering to students significant value-added as they pursue postgraduate employment. Whether higher job placement rates at certain schools are due to stronger alumni networks, better career placement services, better teaching, or simply more talented and/or better-published graduates is unclear, though there appears to be a high correlation between a program’s standing in this measure and its standing in other cohort-assessment indicia.

Program Duration

A program's duration is measured by the average length of its curriculum in years. Some programs allow students to petition to extend their stay; because such petitions are granted on a case-by-case basis, and because the granting of such petitions often results in only an additional unfunded, non-tuition-remitted year of study, individual programs' program-extension policies have not been considered in calculating program duration. Nationally, only one full-residency MFA program is known to be one year in duration, and only two programs are four years in duration. The remaining 164 full-residency programs are either two or three years in duration, with a notable trend being the increasing popularity of three-year programs among applicants.

Generally speaking, few programs that fund less than 33 percent of their incoming students are more than two years in duration. In contrast, fully funded programs are slightly more likely to be three years in duration as opposed to two. Low-residency programs are much more commonly two years in duration rather than three, and yet these programs cannot be measured by their duration because, unlike full-residency programs, they are generally highly flexible with respect to the duration of their students' courses of study.

Assessments of program duration do not consider the availability of postgraduate fellowships, or automatic postgraduate placements, unless these opportunities are guaranteed to all rising third-years in good standing in the program. As applicable, nonguaranteed postgraduate funding opportunities are formally acknowledged in program funding provided the average number of opportunities available each year is known. This said, at least two programs, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, so consistently offer a postgraduate lectureship to all or nearly all of their graduating students that they may nominally be considered (in the case of Cornell University) a three-year program (though some students receive a fourth-year lectureship as well) or, in the case of the three-year program at University of Michigan, a four-year program. Another program, the University of Iowa in Iowa City, is known to offer postgraduate fellowships or lectureships to as many as 33 percent of its graduates. In the index, these three programs have had a “+” appended to their program duration to indicate the frequent availability of program-sponsored postgraduate fellowship and employment opportunities.

Program Size

In the MFA Index, the size of a program's annual incoming cohort is expressed using the usual acronyms for magnitude: XS (Extra-Small, an average total of two to nine students, per matriculating class, across all genres combined); S (Small, ten to nineteen students); M (Medium, twenty to thirty students); L (Large, thirty-one to forty-nine students); and XL (Extra-Large, fifty or more students per year). Because many programs do not include their matriculating class size on their websites, in some instances this data has been extrapolated from other available information. One program, the University of Wisconsin in Madison, was by necessity granted a special dispensation in several categories, as it is the only MFA program in the United States or abroad to admit fiction and poetry students in alternating years. This required two methodological accommodations: (1) using statistical extrapolation for the one-year and four-year applicant surveys (the program’s previous-year percentage of survey responses in the “off-year” genre—that is, the percentage of all poetry-applicant responses compiled for the 2010–2011 application cycle that the University of Wisconsin’s poetry program received—is multiplied by the number of respondents in that genre in the current year; this is then added to the actual number of applicant responses attributable to the program in the “on-year” genre); and (2) averaging the class-size figures for the program. Because the program accepts six poets and six fiction writers every two years, the program is treated as having an average annual matriculating class size of six.

Students Fully Funded

Full funding is defined as the equivalent of a full tuition waiver and a minimum $8,000/academic year stipend. Where the tuition waiver offered is less than 100 percent, the program's stipend value is reduced by the amount an admitted student is asked to pay in tuition annually. All stipend values are adjusted for cost of living. Cost of living assessments were made using the website Sperling's Best Places (www.bestplaces.net/COL/default.aspx). Healthcare costs, administrative fees, and student relocation costs were not estimated or considered, nor was the cost of tuition—as students receiving full funding do not pay tuition.

In setting the stipend value for full funding at a cost-of-living-adjusted $8,000/academic year, the funding listing makes no assertion as to whether this should be considered a living wage. A single individual earning this amount per annum is eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit when filing federal taxes; however, because the "$8,000/academic year" standard translates to $8,000/nine months, this rate of income accrual in fact extrapolates to an annual income of $10,667. This is still below $13,440—the amount, in 2009 dollars, at which a single individual is phased out completely from the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The MFA Index acknowledges that MFA students receiving the minimum full-funding stipend may still find themselves borrowing a de minimis amount (defined as less than $3,000/academic year) to help defray the costs of program attendance. For the purposes of this article, the de minimis borrowing level has been set at that rate of borrowing that both puts an applicant out of range of pro-rated EITC coverage and yet results in less than $10,000 in total federal debt during a three-year MFA program. Of the nation's 41 fully funded full-residency programs, only two are known to offer cost-of-living-adjusted stipends of less than $10,000/academic year.

Reader Comments

  • Caterina says...

    On the positive side: The application numbers are being called “popularity,” as they should be.

    On the less positive side: It appears the Seth has still failed to distinguish “selectivity” from “acceptance rate.” As a Yale University administrator, whom I quoted last year, pointed out, the quality of the applicant pool makes a huge difference. In other words, a program that has a 25 percent acceptance rate might be more selective that some schools with, say, 10 percent acceptance rates. (And I have no bone to pick here: According to Mr. Seth’s own measures, the program I finished has a 4-5% acceptance rate.)

     I’m of course, in the above references, talking about Columbia (and some of the other NYC schools). For whatever reasons, Columbia’s MFA program has been associated with an exceptionally large number of fine writers. Tom Keeley, and Seth Abramson, were correct in alerting MFA applicants to the reality that funding is more available at some schools than at others, and that some of those latter schools are incredibly expensive if you don’t get funding. But it seems that Mr. Seth categorizes such schools as moral transgressions, even though some students get funding from them. (And anyway, if you’re living in NYC and you’ve got the money...)

     I also wrote earlier about Seth’s distinction between “studio” and “academic” MFA programs in creative writing, a distinction that caught my attention because I’d never it anywhere when I applied to programs in the ‘90s—which is why I came to call such terms “Sethisms.”

     Again: I have a friend who, during his MFA program at Iowa, took a seminar under James Alan McPherson--who also has a Harvard Law degree--on early classical Western thought. How is that not “academic”?? And why should we conclude that artistry and intellect are mutually exclusive? Since when? The idea that they're deeply different is a fairly recent distinction in the West.

     And one more time: In my own four-year program, we didn’t study Derrida or Foucault, etc., etc... So is that "academic" or not?

    Oh, and I’ll add for good measure: I think Jorie Graham is, at least in her later work, a fantastically bad poet. Iowa (IWW) is lucky to be rid of her. And if we’re talkin’ intellectual stuff: Graham’s stupidly irrelevant references to obscure Latin botanical terms and to quantum theory say one thing she seems to want others to believe about her above all other possibilities: “I’m really really really really smarter than you!!

    (And I'll later post a small bit about Columbia.)


  • Caterina says...

    Forgot the end-parentheses in the second sentence above ("Sethisms").

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