U.Va. Creative Writing Program Ranks Third in MFA Survey

October 26, 2009 — The University of Virginia's Creative Writing Program ranks third among 140 full-residency programs offering a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry, fiction or nonfiction, according to a survey by Poets & Writers magazine, reported in its November/December issue.

The Creative Writing Program was ranked among the top 50 programs in 10 categories, including funding, selectivity, size, cost of living, teaching load and studio or academic emphasis.

Poets & Writers surveyed more than 500 applicants to M.F.A. programs in 2008-09 to focus on their most important considerations in the application process. The magazine compared their responses to those of applicants in two other years.

None of the data is subjective or based on popularity, unlike the U.S. News & World Report rankings of graduate programs, said Seth Abramson, the article's author. Thus, location is not included, because people have different preferences on what's important to them in their living area. Neither are the programs ranked on the basis of their faculty's prestige or publishing records.

Housed in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences' English department, the Creative Writing Program was ranked No. 2 for poetry and No. 4 for fiction. Nonfiction is not available at U.Va. or in about half of the country's programs. U.Va. was second in its selectivity and ranked seventh in its postgraduate placement.

It is described as an extra-small academic program that provides full funding to its graduate students and a "light" teaching load of one course per semester. Only about five students are accepted in poetry and seven in fiction each year.

In the absence of any other creditable ranking – U.S. News & World Report and the National Research Council haven't rated graduate creative writing programs in more than a decade – this attempt by a respected nonprofit organization like Poets & Writers carries considerable weight, said Christopher Tilghman, fiction writer and director of U.Va.'s program.

"We still don't think the methodology used in this ranking is perfect, but one is always glad to come out on top," he said.

Tilghman thinks one quantifiable measure this ranking does not capture is the success of recent alumni in getting post-graduate fellowships and publications.

"By that measure, relative to our size, I don't think Iowa or Michigan come close. And you can quote me on that," Tilghman said.

Jeb Livingood, a graduate of the program and now its associate director, believes U.Va.'s stipend parity helps.

"For the last several years we've been able to offer all our students roughly the same level of financial support. Many schools give one candidate a full ride but make others pay their way. That doesn't always foster a healthy and supportive workshop environment, which we generally seem to have.

"It's a struggle for us to maintain that funding equality – especially with today's budgets – but we're committed to the effort."

An average of six new M.F.A. programs are founded each year, Abramson said. U.Va.'s program started almost 30 years ago. The first program in the country, the University of Iowa's, established in 1936, ranked No. 1 overall, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor was second. After U.Va., the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and the University of Texas at Austin tied for No. 4.

"Because there are 140 full-residency programs in the United States, any school whose numerical ranking is in the top 50 in any of the ranked categories ... should be considered exceptional in that category," the magazine said.

— By Anne Bromley