2014 MFA Index: Further Reading

Seth Abramson

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 901 placement events between 2003 and 2013. 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 2003 and 2013 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 2003 and 2013 was divided by the size of the program's annual incoming cohort. The resulting scores ranged from 5.92 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).

Job Placement
Between 2008 and 2013, the most popular online discussion board for creative writing job-seekers pursuing full-time employment at the university level, The Academic Jobs Wiki, listed 437 full-time positions available for poets and fiction writers. Data on the individuals ultimately hired for these openings was available for 294 of these 437 listings (67 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.

2012–2013 Hiring Season: Eighty-four positions available; hire information available for 79 percent; male/female split for those positions with available data for final hires was 53 percent female, 47 percent male.

While the number of available creative writing positions in higher education appears to be gradually increasing, given that the world’s 234 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 168 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.

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 calculations, 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 MFA 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 2014 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 2 to 9 students, per matriculating class, across all genres combined); S (Small, 10 to 19 students); M (Medium, 20 to 30 students); L (Large, 31 to 49); XL (Extra-Large, 50 to 75 students per year); and XXL (76 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 five-year applicant surveys (the program’s previous-year percentage of survey responses in the “off-year” genre—that is, the percentage of all fiction-applicant responses compiled for the 2011–2012 application cycle that the University of Wisconsin’s fiction 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.

Full Funding
While not listed in the 2014 MFA Index, one of the seven areas of MRP Index assessment was “full funding,” which 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, by the definition of the term used by the MFA Research Project, do not pay tuition.

The program assessment 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 forty fully funded full-residency programs, only five are known to offer cost-of-living-adjusted stipends of less than $10,000/academic year.

Cost of Living
The cost of living in the various programs' listed host locations was determined using Sperling's Best Places (www.bestplaces.net/COL/default.aspx). All cost-of-living data were then compared to a randomly selected national-average-range constant, in this case Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Notations used for cost of living are as follows: Very Very Low (25 percent or more below Ann Arbor, Michigan, the national-average-range constant for the 2013 MFA Index); Very Low (between 16 percent and 24 percent below); Low (between 6 and 15 percent below); Average (between 5 percent below and 5 percent above); High (between 6 and 15 percent above); Very High (16 percent or more above); and Very Very High (25 percent or more above the cost of living in Ann Arbor). While some students may choose to live outside the boundaries of their program's host location, commuting to an MFA program rather than living near campus includes hidden costs of its own, indeed costs of both a pecuniary and nonpecuniary nature. For this reason, only a program's host location was assessed for this measure. Cost-of-living adjustments were also used to determine the package value at individual programs for the funding and “full funding” categories.

Teaching Load
While individual applicants’ interest in teaching composition, rhetoric, literature, or creative writing to undergraduates will vary, generally speaking the most popular teaching load is a 1/1 (one course to be taught in the fall semester, one in the spring semester). The teaching loads of individual programs have not been ordered in a vertical hierarchy per se, yet this 1/1 standard has been used to determine whether a given program's teaching load is considered Low (“L”), Average (“A”), or High (“H”). That is, because the 1/1 load is the most popular amongst applicants—though it is not the most common teaching load at MFA programs—average annual teaching loads of 0/0, 0/1, 1/0, and 1/1 have been denominated “Low” by the MFA Index. An average annual teaching load of 2/1 or 1/2 (the most common teaching load) is termed "Average," while an average annual teaching load of 2/2 is considered "High." Note that the term “load” is not used here pejoratively; some applicants will wish to teach more rather than less, even as other applicants prefer to do no teaching whatsoever. At present the MFA Index takes no position whatsoever on the academic or professional value of teaching a large or small number of undergraduate sections per academic year, nor on the effect such teaching may or may not have on individual students’ personal writing practices.

The term “average” is used here in two different senses: First, to denote a category of teaching load; second, to indicate that all programs are assessed by their “average” teaching load. Because many programs offer different teaching-load packages to different students, and/or increase or decrease teaching load over the duration of the program, the average (mean) number of courses taught per year per student in each program is used. In some instances, students may request and/or get assigned—once admitted to a program—a larger and therefore better-compensated teaching load. Such additional teaching sections are by no means guaranteed, however, and therefore are not noted in or considered by the MFA Index.

Some programs fund a small enough percentage of admittees through teaching assistantships that to assign such programs an "average teaching load" would be to wrongly imply that admitted students are likely to receive an assistantship. For this reason, programs that offer assistantships to less than one-third of their incoming cohort received an em-dash (“—”) in the “teaching load” column. Programs eligible for a “teaching load” designation, but which do not publicly disclose the teaching load they assign their teaching assistants, are indicated with a “no data available” (“n.d.”) notation.

CGSR Compliance
The Council of Graduate Schools Resolution, also known as the “April 15th Resolution,” states that graduate programs that are signatories to the Resolution shall keep funded offers of admission open through April 15 of each application cycle. Colleges and universities that adhere to the Resolution represent that all of their constituent programs and departments adhere to the terms of the Resolution, which include mailing a copy of the Resolution with all acceptances. Under the terms of the Resolution, programs may neither rescind nor threaten to rescind offers of admission to which any funding whatsoever is attached prior to April 15, nor may they explicitly or implicitly indicate to such accepted candidates, in writing or in person or via telephone, that there is any deadline for their matriculation decision other than April 15. Historically, MFA applicants have reported widespread noncompliance with the Resolution, which is problematic for applicants because CGSR-violative programs often require final matriculation decisions from applicants well before they have heard admissions responses from the other programs to which they applied. Applicants increasingly see such acceptances as excessively restrictive of their options and opportunities.



I think people mistake all education with vocational training these days.  They want a certificate and a job when they finish. Money in, money out.  At Columbia, I was given time (and academic credit) for writing.  There were no teaching fellowships and no one chased after you to give you career counseling, agent counseling. There was not one single lecture on marketing your work.  Much of what I learned had to do with developing a certain angle of vision. Attitudes about my work and how to pursue my ideas with both faith and objectivity.

"academic" versus "studio" MFA program distinction

I've read comments on a couple of sites claiming that the so-called studio-versus-academic distinction regarding MFA programs was created by the AWP. If so, that's too bad. It's an unfortunately misleading distinction.

What does "academic" mean? I attended one of those so-called academic programs, where certain courses were modeled after earlier courses at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where one of the co-founders of my program studied under Donald Justice in the 1960s. Our "Form and Theory of Fiction" and "Form and Theory of Poetry" courses were modeled after courses in Iowa's MFA program, including "Form and Theory of Fiction" and its later versions under later names. In fact, here's an example:


I read a few years ago on the MFA blog a comment by one potential MFA applicant who stated that she would prefer a "studio" MFA program because she couldn't stand the thought of writing another lit crit paper.

After having read plenty of "critical theory," etc. on my own in an effort to figure out what all this jargon-laden prose by contemporary lit scholars was saying, I became determined to never write such a paper EVER. The sole reason I didn't major in English (I majored in "analytic" philosophy instead) is that I was appalled by the obscurantist writing that characterized so much of the scholarship I'd come across in literary theory, and I didn't think I would benefit from any course that would reward me for writing that badly.

And had I been expected to write such papers in my "academic" MFA program, I would have left the program after one semester. Fortunately, the focus was on craft, not Derrida or post-structuralism, etc, etc.

So in case anyone fears the more "academic" programs, rest assured that at least SOME of those programs won't torture you by making to write a Marxist or feminist or Foucauldian analysis of "Sense and Sensibility." (As physicist Alan Sokal demonstrated, one can be politically liberal, or "progressive," without embracing the ideas of the “academic left.”)

the claim that creative writing can't be "taught"

I'd like to avoid altogether referring to Seth Abramson, the creator of this system of "rankings," but he's created such a world for himself around his views on MFA programs that it's impossible for me to avoid referring to his other comments on the topic--or impossible to avoid if I'm to again raise questions about the wisdom of his system and about the wisdom of Poets & Writers for advocating the system's worthiness. 

Abramson has a habit of proclaiming that something is true and then assuming, as if through magical thinking (or so it seems to some of us), that the mere the stating of the idea therefore makes it true.

One of those truisms of his: that being a good writer has little or nothing to do with being a good writing teacher. Yet, he provides utterly no evidence for that claim--not even his own anectdotal evidence.

Here's my own anedtodal (experience-based) evidence:

With one exception, all the good writers I had as writing teachers were very good writing teachers. True, it's not necessarily the case that a good writer would be a good writing teacher. But unless the teacher has an emotional problem, is self-centered (and, therefore, uninterested in students' needs), or has some other emotional/social/psychological reason she cannot communicate her ideas orally or in writng to students, it would make sense that good writers would tend be good readers and good at expressing themselves in language about the art of (say) fiction writing and, therefore, would make good writing teachers.

Having an asute reader is vital to learning to write well. 

Rust Hills wasn't a fiction writer but he was a great fiction editor (meaning, a smart fiction reader) and, therefore, a good writing teacher:


On the other hand, good fiction writers tend to think about what they're doing and--barring some bizarro problem with their abilty to work with other human beings--tend to be (if they communicate even a tenth as well outside their writing as they do in their writing) perfect candidaties for being good writing teachers.

I'd like to see us rid ourselves of this romatic/romanticized notion that writing teachers are pretty much irrelvant in these programs.

Oh, and by the way: I, like many other voracious readers when we were young, was able to read astutely long before I entered an MFA program (even though I didn't major in English!). Although the sprouting of more and more MFA programs would serve Abramson's purposes well, the idea that MFA programs should increase in number so that Americans can become better readers of literature is not only absurd when we look at literary history--including the history of readership--in the U.S. but also conspicuously self-serving on Abramson's part.   

Abramson's expertise on MFA programs and literature

Also, Abramson has claimed that he's acquired special expertise on MFA programs, and Poets & Writers editors have quickly supported/defended that claim. Yes, he's got some numbers down--though those numbers don't satisfy either a doctoral-level mathematician or statistician I've talked to about this.

The problem is that, in a broad range of areas, he doesn't display great expertise:

1) He shows an almost obsessive need to classify things: literature, writing teachers, periods in the history of poetry... 

But the difficulty with a tendecy to classify that intensely is that it veers increasingly toward over-classification--and, as many people realize, overclassification often leades to oversimplification.

Seth Abramson is trying to learn about the history of poetry, and I laud him for that effort, but he so often gets that history wrong. And his rather grandiose claims about the worthiness of MFA programs does next to nothing to elevate the status of MFA programs in the eyes of those who didn't attend one. Pre-Seth, we had Dana Gioia as the main detractor of MFA programs. I seems obvious to me that as more of these programs have sprouted, the more resistence I'm seeing among "literary" (and I mean that in the best sense) poets and witers who didn't get an MFA. And to be honest, had my first encounters with MFA programs been with Abramson's description of them, I would have likely regarded the whole phenomenon with much more suspicion.

As it is, Abramson sometimes seems like a kid who's just encountering a whole new history of poetry, but his reaction seems to be an over-simplified thinking about that history

His latest view on the future of poetry: Metamodernism is taking over lierature--or lit crit? (It's an intersting conclusion for someone who supports the ideal of the "studio" program where no "analysis" takes place.)


And while this exchange is clever on the surface, it's also worth reading because it shows that literary history is messy and complex:


By the way, the latest (as far as I can tell) fad in lit crit is "neuro lit crit." My favorite sentence from this particuar article:

"Given that many philosophers saw critical theory as a way for English professors to do philosophy really badly, it should not come as a surprise to find that some with a keen understanding of neuroscience are deeply skeptical of this attempt to say something new about old books." 


about the value of the MFA

I was in a dark hole-in-the-wall corner of a restaurant when I wrote my last post, but I nonetheless apologize for the typos, etc. therein. (If there's a spellcheck on this site's keyboard, I missed it).

A New Yorker piece from 2009 about the many attempts to define or explain the worth and purpose of the MFA program in creative writing:


Based on the accounts of two people I know who got their MFAs at Iowa, former director Frank Conroy didn't appear to believe that faculty ought to just "get out of the way" of students and let things happen, creatively. (And WERE that truly the case for the faculty at Iowa's writing program, the university might want to consider putting those same faculty members' salaries toward another use.) Anyway, Conroy was known to sometimes say to a student (and in front of that student's classmates) some things that certain others in the class saw as emotionally damaging. In any case, Conroy was, apparently, never known for "getting out of the way" and leaving any discussion of a story's merits solely to the students in a particular workshop. 


"Beautiful prose in the service of what?" That's the sentence one Iowa-alum friend of mine described Conroy as saying when the prose in a story that was being workshopped was lovely but nothing of consequence was actually happening in the story. My friend, who saw Conroy as sometimes very unkind to students, has still said, all these years later, that he "learned" a great deal about story-telling from being in Conroy's workshops.

Besides Stop-Time, his memoir (written before the memoir became hip and widely marketable), Conroy's work includes the short story Midair (first published in a collection by that name), and it's astonishingly good--one I've read three or four times in the past 15 years.


After reading your post, I would like to talk to you and get your advice. When it comes to an MFA and Critical Theory, NH Institute of Art is big on that....I applied and got in....now I am strongly wondering if this will help me.....I applied to Lesley as well. What are your thoughts about both programs? Which one is better???


What Seth still seems to fail to grasp is that what he calls "selectivity" is really just the school's acceptance rate. A school that generally draws less qualified applicants but has (or claims to have) a 5 or 10% acceptance rate is not going to be as "selective" as a school that attracts much more qualified applicants and has the same acceptance rates as the first school. He never makes that distinction.

Of course, it would be hard to compare the quality of current MFA students in one program with those in another on the basis of any clearly quantitative measurement.