2012 MFA Rankings: The Methodology

Seth Abramson
From the September/October 2011 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

GRE Required
This category indicates whether or not a program requires applicants to submit Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test scores as part of their applications. Generally, programs that offer a substantial portion of incoming students some form of financial aid require these scores, and so applicants are advised to take this test prior to applying in order to avoid artificially limiting their application options. In most instances, student scores are only lightly scrutinized (or simply ignored altogether) by the programs themselves, and instead reviewed—where they are reviewed—by individual universities’ Graduate Colleges, which often have minimum GRE-score requirements (typically very generous ones). Creative writing MFA applicants should not avoid the GRE General Test for fear of the Mathematics portion of the exam; even those programs that do give minor weight to standardized test scores in their admissions processes generally look only at applicants’ Verbal and Analytical Writing scores. At present no programs require the GRE Subject Test in English Literature, though two programs (Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Boston University in Massachusetts) strongly suggest that applicants sit for and submit their scores from this exam. Applicants should also be aware that certain university-wide fellowships and grants require the submission of GRE scores. Applicants who do not submit such scores with their applications cannot be considered for these forms of financial aid.

Language Required
This category indicates whether or not a program requires applicants to exhibit proficiency in a foreign language prior to graduation. Some programs with a foreign-language requirement allow applicants to place out of this requirement through the submission and application of prior foreign-language course credits at the college level; other programs require that applicants take an exam (often a reading-knowledge-only translation exam) to show proficiency, regardless of their prior foreign-language experience. At present only a small minority of programs—six of the seventy-five listed in the print edition of the rankings, or 8 percent—have a foreign-language requirement as part of their curriculum. However, the category is presented here due to applicants’ great interest in, and sometimes anxiety about, such prerequisites for graduation.

Cross-genre Study
Certain MFA programs require that individuals who apply and are admitted in a particular genre take only workshops in this “declared” genre while in-program. Other programs permit, or even require, matriculated students to take out-of-genre workshops—and among this group are two further subcategories of programs, those that permit students to take as many out-of-genre workshops as they wish, and those that permit or require only a limited number of out-of-genre workshops.

The past five years of online, public discussions between and amongst MFA applicants suggest that the availability of cross-genre study has become one of the top three concerns for applicants seeking additional curricular information about the programs to which they wish to apply. Many applicants already write in more than one genre, and wish to have their multifaceted talents as literary artists shepherded, rather than impeded, by the programs on their chosen application list; other students are merely curious about genres other than their own, and view their in-program time as a rare opportunity to experiment with modes of literary art other than those with which they are already conversant. A smaller—but growing—subset of the applicant pool is comprised of self-styled “literary artists” rather than simply “poets” or “writers,” and these individuals already incorporate so many different aesthetic traditions into their work that to be limited to either “poetry workshops” or “prose workshops” would (in their view) be a betrayal of their artistic vision. Because the availability of cross-genre study is such a prominent concern amongst the applicant class, it is listed as a separate category here. All data for this category were taken directly from program websites; any program that permits or requires applicants to take out-of-genre workshops, in whatever number, has been listed in this column as a YES. Programs that explicitly prohibit such study are indicated with a NO. Because the tradition, among MFA programs, has been to disallow cross-genre study, programs whose Web sites were silent on the question of such study were also treated as, and are listed in the rankings as, a NO for this measure.

Application Fee
The application fee column lists each program’s application fee for the most recent application cycle. These data are taken from program websites.

The relevance of these data has increased in recent years, as three distinct but related phenomena have been observed in the MFA admissions system over the past five admissions cycles: acceptance rates at the nation’s top programs are steadily declining; applicants are responding to this trend by applying to a larger and larger number of programs each year (the conventional wisdom in 2005 was that the average applicant should apply to eight to ten programs; now, applicants are regularly advised to apply to between twelve and fifteen programs, and more if financially feasible; see “Full-Residency Rankings: Polling Cohort Demographics” section for more information on contemporary applicants’ application-list mores); and the amount of money the average applicant has available to pay application fees has either remained steady or declined, with the vast majority of applicants reporting that they have less than $1,000 available for all MFA-application-related costs.

Given the cost of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test ($160), the cost per GRE “score report” to be sent to individual programs ($23), and the cost per transcript ordered from an alma mater (costs as high as $50 per transcript at some institutions, and rarely if ever less than $5 per transcript; some applicants, particularly nontraditional and international applicants, must order transcripts from multiple alma maters), applicants are increasingly unable to afford to apply to programs with high application fees. And because of the importance of applicant polling to the current national assessment scheme, programs with higher application fees are likely to receive fewer applications per annum and thus rank lower in the overall rankings relative to their peers. The rankings’ recitation of application fees for the top 50 and Honorable Mention programs in the full-residency rankings is consequently intended to benefit programs as much as applicants; most programs constantly revisit their administrative fee schedules, and in doing so the following data may be of assistance: 

Application Fees by Total Cost, with Breakdown of Number of Top Fifty and Honorable Mention Programs

$0: 2
$5: 0
$10: 0
$15: 0
$20: 0
$25: 0
$30: 3
$35: 3
$40: 6
$45: 1
$50: 16
$55: 8
$60: 8
$65: 9
$70: 5
$75: 7
$80: 2
$85: 1
$90: 1
$95: 1
$100: 0
$105: 0
$110: 0
$115: 0
$120: 0
$125: 2
$130: 0
$135: 0
$140: 0
$145: 0
$150: 1

De minimis fee distinctions—$1 or less—are ignored for the purposes of the above listing. As noted in the print edition of the rankings, certain programs (nine of the seventy-five that appear in the print listings, or 12 percent) offer reduced rates for early, online-applying, or online-paying applicants. Two programs assess no application fee unless and until an applicant is admitted.

Genre Availability

Genre Availability measures the number of genres in which a given low-residency program offers either a formal track or an informal concentration or focus. As many programs occasionally offer courses in genres for which they do not offer a track or concentration, it can be difficult to assess which genres are sufficiently supported at a given program that the program is likely to receive creative portfolios in that genre. The aim of the Genre Availability category is to include only those genres in which a program is likely to attract an appreciable number of applicants—as opposed to a genre offered only as an occasional brief-residency course lacking substantial nonresidency, academic-year faculty support.

Residency measures the number of days per year a low-residency student in the program is required to be on campus. While at present there is no conventional wisdom as to the value of a long residency versus a shorter one, low-residency programs' residencies are typically the only opportunity for students to interact in person with their professors and to meet their classmates; consequently, many applicants to low-residency programs may prefer longer residencies.


The 2012 Poets & Writers Magazine creative writing doctoral rankings rank, in six measures, all thirty-two creative writing doctoral programs in the United States. Two additional columns are included as well, indicating each program’s CGSR compliance status (see “The Full-Residency Rankings Chart: Additional Program Measures: CGSR Compliance”) and whether or not the program in question also offers a terminal degree in creative writing at the Master’s level (an MFA or an MPW). This latter category is discussed in more detail below.

All of the six ordered rankings in the creative writing doctoral rankings are, as is the case with the ordered rankings in the full-residency MFA chart, unscientific, though all are predicated upon sufficient hard data to be substantially probative. Three of the six unscientific rankings are poll-based: Votes, Funding, and Selectivity. The methodologies for these rankings are consistent in all respects with their MFA-ranking counterparts (see “Full-Residency Rankings: Introduction,” “The Full-Residency Rankings Chart: Additional Program Measures: Funding,” and “The Full-Residency Rankings Chart: Additional Program Measures: Selectivity,” respectively), with the following exceptions: (1) Votes for the doctoral rankings were tabulated in a manner and at a polling locus consistent with the low-residency MFA rankings (see “Low-Residency Rankings: Cohort”) between April 16, 2007, and April 15, 2010; and (2) Polling for the doctoral rankings used a Google-sponsored polling application, on a sub-site of The Creative Writing MFA Blog (a site linked to only from that blog) called The Creative Writing PhD Blog, for the 2010–2011 admissions cycle. The 2010–2011 results were then cross-checked against informal polling occurring concurrently on the discussion board of The Creative Writing MFA Blog and at the Poets & Writers Speakeasy.

A different polling methodology was used for the doctoral rankings than for the full- and low-residency MFA rankings in 2010–2011 because the annual national applicant pool for creative writing doctoral programs is both miniscule and decentralized. Aggregating sufficient polling responses for a reliable tabulation has been the work of several years, and the “N” for these rankings remains slightly lower, relative to a the annual national cohort of applicants for this type of degree program, than for either of the other two rankings discussed in this methodology article (see “National Doctoral Applicant Pool Size”).

As indicated in the Introduction to this article, an across-the-board scientific ranking of doctoral creative writing programs is not presently possible, as more than half of the nation's eligible graduate creative writing programs have thus far declined to make public the necessary data (see “Full-Residency Rankings: Ranking Questionnaires and Program Response Rates”).

Over the last two years, the domestic and international listing of creative writing doctoral programs located in the right-hand sidebar of The Suburban Ecstasies—the largest such listing available—has been, according to a Google-sponsored internal stat-counting application, the third-most-visited page on the website. This emphasizes both the growing popularity of doctoral creative writing programs (prompted, most likely, by the growing number of full-residency MFA graduates seeking further creative writing study) and the fact that the vast majority of such programs are not in the United States, and thus are more difficult for American applicants to discover or investigate. According to The Suburban Ecstasies, there are currently ninety-six doctoral creative writing programs in the world, only a third of which (32) are in the United States. Nevertheless, four years of applicant polling on U.S.-based websites suggests that American applicants are highly unlikely to apply to overseas creative writing doctoral programs, with the most frequently cited reason being the cost of these programs. Substantial financial aid to overseas doctoral applicants is rarely available at creative writing doctoral programs in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Australia, or the Philippines. Because no non-U.S. creative writing doctoral program received more than one vote from applicants in the polling conducted for the Poets & Writers Magazine doctoral rankings between 2007 and 2010, poll respondents for the 2010–2011 admissions cycle were not explicitly provided a listing of overseas creative writing doctoral programs with which to indicate they had submitted applications. Instead, an Other” category was provided, along with a full listing of U.S. creative writing doctoral programs. According to the polling, only 6 of 467 doctoral applications (1.3 percent) were submitted to an unlisted program, not all of which were necessarily overseas creative writing doctoral programs. (Worth noting from this data, too, is that the average creative writing doctoral applicant applied to just under five programs, a substantially smaller figure than for full-residency MFA applicants; see “Full-Residency Rankings: Polling Cohort Demographics.") Nevertheless, for the 2011–2012 doctoral-applicant polling, an Other (UK) option will be provided, along with an Other (US) option, as more than 70 percent of non-U.S. creative writing doctoral programs are in the United Kingdom.

Throughout the creative writing doctoral program rankings chart, all special notations used—for instance, to denote Honorable Mention and unranked programs—are identical in appearance and purpose as for the full- and low-residency MFA rankings (see, generally, “Full-Residency Rankings” and “Low-Residency Rankings").

National Doctoral Applicant Pool Size
The frequency with which each doctoral program appeared on polled fiction and poetry doctoral applicants' application lists may be determined by dividing the number of votes for a particular program in both fiction and poetry by the total number of applicants in these two genres polled during the past four admissions cycles (145). Because recent applicant-pool hard data is available for five creative writing doctoral programs (five other data-sets are available, but these combine master’s and doctoral applications and so cannot readily be used for this purpose), it is possible to use a function of these two data-points to estimate the size of the national creative writing doctoral pool in fiction and poetry for the 2010-2011 admission cycle. While such an extrapolation presumes that the users of The Creative Writing MFA Blog and The Creative Writing PhD Blog were and are demographically similar to those individuals who did not use these websites to research programs during the polling period (and that those who cast votes on these websites were demographically similar to those who were patrons but did not), such unscientific sampling is necessary because (1) demographic data for all creative writing doctoral applicants is not known or knowable, and (2) there is no particular reason to suspect dramatic demographic differences between the various sub-groups cited above, as The Creative Writing MFA Blog and The Creative Writing PhD Blog are public websites easily accessible by networked computer. Likewise, because user accounts allow website patrons to manage the amount of personal information they release to the public, there is no particular reason for any subset of applicants to feel chilled from casting a vote for whichever programs they favored.

While the general tenor of discourse on The Creative Writing MFA Blog and The Creative Writing PhD Blog is consistent with the polling described above (see “Full-Residency Rankings: Polling Cohort Demographics”)—for instance, these are communities that generally favor more selective over less selective programs, higher-ranked programs over lower-ranked ones, programs with better student-to-faculty ratios over those with worse, programs in cities and towns popular among younger Americans versus those in less talked-about locales, funded over unfunded programs, programs with a longer duration over those with a shorter one—these attitudes are consistent with that present conventional wisdom expounded upon at length in most recent media accounts of graduate creative writing programs, as well as the sort of advice about important program features that college and graduate creative writing professors give to their students every day. There appears to be nothing remarkable about the demographics of those who patronize free, public, lightly-moderated websites like The Creative Writing MFA Blog and The Creative Writing PhD Blog.

To arrive at national applicant-pool estimates the following equation was used (for more detail on this equation, see “Full-Residency Rankings: National Full-Residency Applicant Pool Size”):

(145 divided by the number of fiction and poetry votes received by a program in 2006–2011 applicant polling) multiplied by (the number of fiction and poetry applicants reported by that program during the 2010–2011 admissions cycle)

Using the equation above, the following national doctoral-applicant pool size extrapolations were made:

University of Cincinnati in Ohio (149)
Texas Tech University in Lubbock (250)
University of Nebraska in Lincoln (307)
University of Denver in Colorado (453)
University of Southern California in Los Angeles (659)

The most substantial outlier here, that extrapolation attributed to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, may be partly explained by the presence of MPW applicants as well as doctoral applicants in the admissions hard-data used for the extrapolation. None of the other four programs offer a terminal master’s degree in creative writing.

While the data above is too sparse to permit speculation, with any degree of precision, regarding the annual national applicant pool for creative writing doctoral programs, it does suggest that the total figure is likely well under one thousand, meaning that the 2012 Poets & Writers Magazine creative writing doctoral program rankings have surveyed, for their overall popularity measure, more than 15 percent of an annual cohort of such applicants. This compares favorably to similar percentages for full- and low-residency programs (see “Full-Residency Rankings: Introduction” and “Low-Residency Rankings,” above).

Creative Writing Job Placement

The methodology for this measure was identical to that employed for full- and low-residency MFA programs (see “The Full-Residency Rankings Chart: Additional Program Measures: Job Placement”) with the exception that job placement “events” involving graduates of creative writing doctoral programs were used to create a separate and distinct job placement ranking for such programs. Necessarily, the “N” for this measure was much lower than for full-residency programs, though also much higher than for low-residency programs, whose graduates usually do not enter the academic job market upon graduation due to their in-program employment status. In all, 33 of the 145 hiring events analyzed between 2008 and 2011 (23 percent) involved individuals with creative writing doctoral degrees.

Departmental Job Placement and Departmental Reputation
In 2010, the National Research Council (NRC), a federally-funded entity, released its first comprehensive analysis of the nation’s doctoral programs in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences in fifteen years. NRC analyses are generally considered the “gold standard” for doctoral rankings in the United States, though the NRC has never provided an assessment of creative writing doctoral programs in its more than a quarter-century of providing roughly-once-per-decade assessments of the nation’s doctoral degrees. Data collection for the 2010 report began in June 2006, with the final release of the report delayed several times between 2008 and 2010.

All of the 2010 NRC data are available on www.phds.org. On this site, prospective doctoral-program applicants can not only view NRC data but also use an online interface to rank colleges and universities’ constituent graduate departments by various measures. Three measures available to prospective doctoral applicants in all fields are “Academic Quality: NRC Survey-Based Quality Score” (a statistical rating of departments’ academic quality based on a questionnaire sent to individuals working in the same field as the department being assessed), “Academic Quality: NRC Regression-Based Quality Score” (a statistical rating of departments’ academic quality based on a multi-variable regression analysis conducted by professional statisticians), and “Placement Rate” (described by the NRC as a measure calculating the percentage of “doctoral recipients [who] have a job or a postdoctoral position…at graduation”). Note that, as to this last measure, no distinction was made by the NRC between full-time academic employment for doctoral-program graduates and employment of any other kind. In contrast, the “Creative Writing Job Placement” measure in the 2012 Poets & Writers Magazine doctoral-program rankings considers only graduates’ success in securing full-time employment in academic positions in higher education.

For the Departmental Job–Placement category, the NRC “placement rate” rankings were reconfigured to only include programs that offer a creative writing doctoral degree in fiction and poetry. Nevertheless, prospective applicants must remember that this is departmental, not program-specific, data, and so these rankings correspond to the performance of individual colleges and universities’ entire English departments, not merely those students within those departments who are studying creative writing. This data is provided for prospective creative writing doctoral-program applicants because job placement data specifically relating to creative writing doctorate-holders is unavailable for nearly all creative writing doctoral programs in the United States and abroad. Consequently, NRC placement-rate data specific to individual English departments is the best available alternative for applicants to creative writing doctoral programs interested in prospective programs’ postgraduate job-placement records.

For the Departmental–Reputation category, the two NRC “Quality Measures” (one survey-based, one regression-based) were averaged—with each score given equal weight—to produce a single score for each of the thirty-two creative writing doctoral programs in the United States. These scores were then ordered automatically by the www.phds.org user interface. The purpose of this category is to give prospective doctoral-program applicants some insight into the academic pedigree attached to the universities to which they plan to apply. While the value of a creative writing doctoral degree on the academic job market is as yet unproven—due to the relatively low numbers of such graduates on the job market (see “The Doctoral Rankings Chart: Additional Program Measures: Creative Writing Job Placement”)—because university hiring committees are often organized by department, not by subject area, many graduates of creative writing doctoral programs will ultimately have their job applications considered by English department faculty familiar with the reputations of various English departments but not those departments’ graduate creative writing tracks. Consequently, measuring the respective pedigrees of the thirty-two English departments with such tracks is a useful exercise for creative writing doctoral-program applicants.

More information about the NRC rankings (formally known as the United States National Research Council Assessment of Research Doctorate Programs) can be found at the Council’s website, sites.nationalacademies.org/PGA/Resdoc. Available for free on this website is the Council’s July 2009-published methodology document, A Guide to the Methodology of the National Research Council Assessment of Doctorate Programs.

Offers MFA/MPW
Creative writing doctoral program applicants are divided on whether it is preferable for a creative writing doctoral program to also offer a terminal master’s degree in creative writing, and for this reason data on such “bi-terminality” at certain doctoral programs is provided in the 2012 Poets & Writers Magazine doctoral rankings. Some applicants report preferring English departments that offer two different terminal degrees in creative writing, because this suggests both a high level of support for creative writing on the part of the host institution, and because it necessarily means a larger and more vibrant in-program creative writing community than would otherwise be the case. Other applicants believe that asking creative writing doctoral students to workshop alongside individuals who have not yet earned a terminal degree in creative writing dilutes cohort quality and unsuitably alters a program’s workshop dynamic. Conversely, some MPW and MFA applicants may be interested in this data because programs that offer doctoral degrees in creative writing alongside master’s degrees in creative writing permit generally younger, less-experienced students to workshop with individuals who are already performing at a high level within their genre. On the value of “bi-terminal” English departments the rankings take no position; these data are provided solely to offer prospective master’s and doctoral applicants in creative writing more information about prospective programs than they would otherwise have.

Seth Abramson is the author of Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose, and The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009). A contributing author to The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2008) and a 2008 recipient of the J. Howard and Barbara M. J. Wood Prize from Poetry, his work has recently appeared in Best New Poets 2008, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New York Quarterly, and elsewhere. Currently a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he is a graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers' Workshop.