Six Myths About the Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts
1. MFA programs are “cash cows.”
Nearly a third of the world’s 148 full-residency MFA programs fully fund 75% or more of incoming students. More than half of the top 50 programs are fully-funded, with 70% fully funding half their students or more. And most applications from the nation’s three to four thousand annual full-residency MFA applicants go to these top 50 programs. Compare this funding record with that of other Master’s degrees and the generosity of the MFA system becomes apparent. With so many fully funded programs, no student need feel forced to apply to even a single non-fully-funded program. In fact, the MFA is fast becoming the largest patronage system for artists in the history of the United States.
2. MFA programs are desperate for tuition dollars, so they’ll admit almost anyone.
The average non-top-50 full-residency MFA is harder to get into than Duke University’s undergraduate program. Portland State’s full-residency MFA (ranked #52 nationally) is a tougher admit than University of Pennsylvania (an Ivy ranked in the top five of 4,000+ U.S. colleges and universities). So is #78 University of New Mexico. So is #62 University of Idaho. Many of these comparisons stand even if “yield” (the percentage of admitted applicants who accept their offers) is taken into account, as top MFA programs generally boast 75%+ yield.
Creative writing MFA programs compare just as favorably to some of the nation’s top graduate schools in other fields. Of the 67 full-residency creative writing MFA programs in the United States with known acceptance rates and applicant pools larger than a hundred applicants per year, 41 (61%) are more difficult to get into than Harvard Law School.
The same number of people apply to full-residency MFA programs annually as apply to a single small liberal arts college, and on average one in four applicants is rejected by every program to which they apply. So it’s a myth that everybody’s doing an MFA.
3. MFA programs promise applicants a job and a book deal upon graduation.
Most full-residency programs concede publicly that they can’t even teach students anything — they can only provide a nurturing space for their talents. The MFA is, at base, a non-professional, largely-unmarketable art-school degree that can’t get anyone a full-time teaching job (at least not in the absence of significant in-genre publications) and is not designed to “network” graduates into magazine or book publications. The myth that poets and writers attend MFA programs to “professionalize” themselves — to get “credentialed” — has been proven false. According to 2009 polling, less than 30% of applicants reported that they sought an MFA for the credential.
4. To be a successful poet or writer, you must attend an MFA program.
This rhetorical bogeyman has been given life by MFA critics, whose paranoia about not being degreed leads to speculation of an MFA-born conspiracy aimed at pushing non-degreed artists to the margins of the national literary community. In fact, the conventional wisdom these days is that if you’ve already found room for writing in your daily schedule, and you’re already plugged into a local writing community, there’s no need for an MFA. Even if you lack these things, you’re still better off suffering workaday culture for awhile before seeking the time and space an MFA program provides.
5. The best way to choose an MFA is by its faculty.
2009 polling showed that only 18% of applicants regarded “faculty” as the most important consideration in applying to an MFA. The reasoning’s clear: one can’t determine a professor’s teaching aptitude, personality, or appropriateness as a mentor before meeting them. Trying to deduce such information from a published novel or poetry collection is folly. Instead, applicants concerned about mentoring seek programs with low student-to-faculty ratios, large and highly-selective communities of student-artists, and a studio curriculum that allows for extensive, one-on-one thesis work.
The old conventional wisdom held that artists can’t assist those with different aesthetics; the new wisdom says that programs don’t accept any student they don’t feel they can work with profitably. The old conventional wisdom herded applicants toward “superstar” faculties; the new wisdom (as The Atlantic wrote in 2007) observes that such faculty often teach as little as one class every year and a half — and are usually on staff for their notoriety, not their teaching. There’s a sense now that faculty superstars are more likely to be on sabbatical, on a book tour, or acting as visiting faculty at another institution than their peers are. Some “name” writers are simply so distracted by their own celebrity that teaching becomes a secondary priority at best.
6. MFA programs produce “cookie-cutter” writing.
If the nation’s bookshelves are filled with mediocre poetry and fiction, it’s not the fault of the MFA, whose pedagogical setpiece (the workshop) lends itself not to consensus but dialogue and even argument. With the average age of a starting MFA student being twenty-six, most workshop participants already hold strong views on aesthetics they’re not likely to sacrifice lightly. And professors’ aesthetics are sure to be widely divergent. So if tepid “mainstream” work seems ubiquitous, consider that this phenomenon pre-dates the MFA — and that those responsible include editors, who flood stores with cookie-cutter dreck; readers of such dreck, who demand more of it; and critics, who reward dreck with ostentatious praise.
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).