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Six More Myths About the Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts

12/27/2010 06:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In an earlier article, six myths about the creative writing Master of Fine Arts were busted. Here, six more go under the ax (myths in bold, myth-busting in regular face):

1. There are more than 800 MFA programs now in operation.

In fact, there are 198 low-residency and full-residency programs in the world, with over 95% of these located in the United States. The higher figure comes from a misreading of data released annually by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), which recently calculated the total number of creative writing "programs" of any type in North America and the United Kingdom: everything from non-degree-granting creative writing "tracks" within undergraduate English majors to non-terminal Master's degrees in English with the possibility of a creative thesis, from doctoral programs in English Literature with the possibility of a creative dissertation to the 198 low-residency and full-residency MFA programs referenced above (152 full-residency MFA programs offering study in fiction, poetry, and/or nonfiction, and 46 low-residency MFA programs offering study in these genres and others, such as screenwriting, children's literature, and dramaturgy).

2. The best programs are located in major cities.

According to the preliminary 2012 MFA rankings, due for official release in 2011, fully 60% of the Top 50 full-residency programs are located in either the South or the Midwest (38% in the South, 22% in the Midwest). Another 16% are located in the Rocky Mountain region (8%), the Southwest (4%), or New England (4%). Only 8% are located in New York City. None of the Top 50 full-residency programs are located in San Francisco or Chicago, and Los Angeles has only one entrant to the highest tier of programs (University of California at Irvine). The only other big-city programs in the Top 50 are University of Minnesota (Minneapolis), Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore), University of Houston, University of California at San Diego, University of Miami, and University of Nevada at Las Vegas. Apart from these few programs, the top schools are by and large located in small, non-coastal college towns across America.

[NB: The author of this article is the primary data collector for the annual Poets & Writers low- and full-residency rankings linked to above. At present these are the only comprehensive program rankings published in the field].

3. Most MFA students come to their programs directly from an undergraduate college or university.

Recent unscientific polling (using a Google-sponsored polling application) on one of the two highest-traffic websites for MFA applicants shows that the average MFA applicant has been out of college for approximately five years. More than 30% of new MFA students are in their thirties or older. Given that so many young fiction-writers and poets begin writing in high school, this polling suggests that the average MFA matriculant has likely been writing for a decade or more. Fears that these aspiring literary artists will somehow be indoctrinated into a neo-conservative aesthetic by their MFA mentors are therefore--it would seem--specious.

4. The national network of full-residency programs is in the midst of a massive privatization trend.

In fact the opposite is true: The most successful full-residency MFA programs tend to be at large public universities, as these programs are best able to fund their students with teaching assistantships and tuition waivers. At present, forty-one of the nation's prospective Top 50 full-residency MFA programs for 2012 (82%) are at public universities, as are sixteen of the next twenty programs in the rankings (80%). In contrast, rankings of MFA programs done in the mid-1990s showed private universities making up 30% of the then-Top 50.

5. Allegations that MFA applicants value program funding more than program reputation are bunk.

According to a recent unscientific poll on one of the two highest-traffic websites for MFA applicants (a poll again taken using a Google-sponsored polling application), 65% of applicants consider funding a top-five consideration in applying to MFA programs, while 63% rank reputation as a top-five concern. Fewer than half of applicants report considering faculty, curriculum, selectivity, student-to-faculty ratio, postgraduate placement, or alumni success top-five reasons to apply to an MFA program. Apart from funding and reputation, only location (56%) is a top priority for a majority of applicants. This suggests that, going forward, full-residency MFA programs will need to place more emphasis on program funding than previously. Already, a close tie between program funding and program reputation can be observed: Presently, all thirty-six of the nation's fully-funded full-residency programs are ranked in the Top 50 or Honorable Mention (#51-65) sections of the national rankings, along with a clear majority (62%) of those programs that fund 70% or more--but not all--of their incoming poets and writers.

6. Doctoral programs in creative writing are overtaking MFA programs as the sole terminal degrees in the field. The number of doctoral programs in creative writing (or English Literature doctorates with the option of a creative dissertation) has held steady in the mid-thirties for more than a decade. Meanwhile, the ranks of low- and full-residency MFA programs have swelled: While there were approximately 75 such programs in 1996, there are now more than twice that number. If present trends hold, it's unlikely that the Ph.D. in Creative Writing (or Ph.D. in English with Creative Dissertation) will become the sole terminal degree in the field anytime within the next twenty-five years. Instead, the two degrees will remain co-terminal well into the foreseeable future.

A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of two collections of poetry, Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize, and The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009). He is also a contributing author to The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2008).