Which Schools Should You Apply To?
Posted by R. H. Kanakia on April 4, 2012
For most applicants, the biggest factors when considering schools are: availability of funding, location, faculty, teaching load, and selectivity. For the first four factors, the best place to research a school is at mfaresearchproject.blogspot.com. For genre-influenced writers, there’s also the issue of a school’s purported friendliness to genre-influenced work. The best place to research that factor is right here in this blog post.
Genre-Friendliness – For me, this (and funding) were the major criteria. There is not much data on this. That’s because almost no program is willing to describe itself as ‘genre-friendly’. Even at North Carolina State (where a real SF writer, John Kessel, is one of the creative writing profs), they emphasized that they were training students to write stories of high literary quality, not formulaic genre pap. I’m pretty sure that schools are just deathly afraid of getting an influx of stories about: teens in high school who are choosing between vampire boyfriends and werewolf boyfriends; space ships that shoot lasers at each other in space; men that ride horses and hit each other with swords; zombies; etc., etc., etc. No full-residency program really wants to see core genre material. If you aspire to write standard science fiction or fantasy or horror novels, I think you’re unlikely to get into any MFA program.
However, even sophisticated genre-influenced work is a pretty hard sell at most schools. There’s nothing wrong with that. Professors have a right to accept only the students that they want to work with, but it is something that genre-influenced writers need to realize and to think about when they’re applying to schools. Luckily, you guys are not going to have to think about it nearly as hard as I had to. I scoured the internet, chasing down discussion forum posts and blog posts and author bios and faculty bios and a hundred and a half little hints and wisps of genre-friendliness. And now, I am going to present to you my grand list of schools that might possibly be willing to accept a student who writes stories that are influenced by science fiction or fantasy. An asterisk means that the school is fairly well funded. Where possible, I’ve provided the reason why I think the school is ‘genre-friendly’ (and in some cases that reason is pretty thin indeed). But in other cases you’ll have to accept that I don’t have any explanation, the school has merely, somehow, acquired the reputation of being open to different things. I’ve ranked these schools in alphabetical order. Also, I’d like to issue a disclaimer right here. Even though these schools may be open minded, they will probably still reject you. Many of them rejected me. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that other schools–ones that are not on this list–would be open to a genre-influenced writer. In creating this list, I am relied on rumor, anecdote, and other incredibly scanty data (like a school that’s only graduated one genre writer, ever. Who knows what the story behind that one writer was. Maybe he/she was a genius. Maybe he/she applied with realist stories [like Joe Haldeman did in order to get into the Iowa Writer's Workshop])
- Arizona State*
- Brown* – Brian Evenson and Robert Coover are professors here. Stacey Richter is a graduate.
- Columbia – Karen Russell went there.
- Cornell* – Junot Diaz and Tea Obreht are graduates.
- Iowa* – Nebula winner Rachel Swirsky is a graduate. Last year, they accepted SF writer E.J. Fisher. Has also graduated Kevin Brockmeier and a few other writers who’ve written non-realist works.
- Johns Hopkins* – Prof. Brad Leithauser has written a few SFnal novels. Cat Rambo is a graduate of this program.
- Kansas* – Wasn’t previously a genre-friendly program, but since Kij Johnson has just become a professor here, I’m gonna guess that it’s gonna start becoming a destination for aspiring genre writers.
- Louisiana State* – Hey, they waitlisted me. That’s gotta indicate a certain receptivity, right?
- Mills – Naamen Tilahun–an up and coming SF writer–is finishing an MFA here. Rachel Swirsky was somehow associated with this program.
- North Carolina State* – Nebula-winner John Kessel is a professor there.
- Notre Dame – One of their professors has written some SFnal novels. Also, they waitlisted me two years ago when I applied with two SF stories.
- Oregon State* – Their application FAQ contains the question “Do you accept students who write fantasy, science fiction, etc” and in response they write, “The MFA program welcomes experimentation with literary forms new and old. While we do not wish to restrict our students from pursuing the writing that most excites them, the workshop emphasizes literary fiction, and encourages students to complicate generic conventions and subvert clichés, rather than recreating and reinforcing them.” To me, anything that isn’t a ‘no’ is a ‘yes’.**
- San Diego State University
- Southern Illinois University at Carbondale* – The buzz on the MFA applicant Facebook forum was that they didn’t mind non-realist stories.
- Syracuse* – George Saunders is a professor here. Also, they waitlisted me two years ago when I applied with two SF stories.
- Temple – Nebula-winner Samuel Delany is a professor here.
- Texas State at San Marcos – Megan McCarron–an up and coming SF writer–currently attends this school.
- UC Irvine* – Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender, and Alice Sebold are graduates. Also, I think Prof. Ron Carlson writes some non-realist stories.
- UC San Diego* – I figured that since Clarion was headquartered there, they had to be at least a little bit friendly to genre work.
- UMass Amherst – Jedediah Berry attended. Prof. Sabina Murray has a novel that seems based on detective novels. Samuel Delany used to be a professor here.
- UNC-Greensboro – Kelly Link went there.
- University of Alabama* – Prof. Michael Martone has written formally experimental and non-realist stories.
- University of Houston* – One of their professors, Chitra Devakuruni Banerjee, writes magical realist stories. Also, I applied with a fantasy story and they waitlisted me.
- University of Michigan in Ann Arbor* – Elizabeth Kostova is a graduate.
- Washington University in St. Louis* – Alice Sola Kim–an up and coming SF writer–attended this school.
The following schools were identified from the comments section of this blog post by Jeff Vandermeer.
- NEOMFA – Chris Barzak is a professor here
- Denver – Laird Hunt and Selah Saterstrom are open to non-realist work.
- Cincinnatti – Christian Moody teaches here. He’s written non-realist stories.
- Boulder – Stephen Graham Jones is a professor here.
- Cal-Arts – Steve Erickson (no, not the one Malazon one) teaches here. He’s written non-realist novels.
- UC Riverside
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s what I have to say about the other considerations.
Availability of Funding – Some schools (Columbia, NYU, Sarah Lawrence, etc., etc.) offer very few funded slots. Whether you think it’s worthwhile to pay out of pocket for an MFA degree is up to you. Personally, while I might see the reasoning behind taking out loans to cover living expenses that are not met by a stipend, I think that it doesn’t make financial sense to take out loans to cover tuition. Ideally, what you want is a funded slot: some kind of teaching assistantship that comes with a tuition waiver, a stipend, and health insurance. Most schools will offer at least one assistantship and many schools offer assistantships to all of their students. If you like a school (due to its location or faculty or whatever), it’s definitely worthwhile to apply there even if they don’t fund very many of their students. There’s always a chance that you will be one of the folks who gets funded.
Location - This is kind of self-evident. If you want to study in San Francisco or New York (or, really, any of America’s tier one cities) and get a teaching assistantship, then you’re kind of out of luck. Most of the best-funded schools are in the middle of nowhere. For months, I tortured myself with thoughts of what my life would be like as a gay men in West Lafayette, Indiana (Purdue University) or Tuscaloosa, Alabama (the University of Alabama). I have no objections to the South or the Midwest…it’s just the smallness that gets me. In a town of 50,000 people, there probably aren’t more than 1000 gay men, which seems like a scary, incestuously small number. Also, I didn’t want to go somewhere which had snow. Man, snow sucks. However, I applied to tons of places that were in small and/or snowy towns. In the end, one of the criteria has to be less important the others, and, for me, it was location.***
Faculty - If you really love a writer, you should definitely apply to the school where he or she is teaching. This is why I applied to North Carolina State (John Kessel), Temple (Samuel Delany), and Syracuse (George Saunders). Be warned, though. Since alot of poorly-funded schools are in major cities, a lot of well-known writers teach at poorly-funded schools. For instance, the faculty lists of CUNY-Hunter and Columbia are totally unreal. I kind of understand why people are willing to go into tens (or hundreds!) of thousands of dollars into debt in order to study at those places.
Teaching Load – I’m just going to come out and say what I’ve been thinking for awhile. If you’re teaching two classes a semester and only getting a $12,000 stipend, then that’s not a job…that’s indentured servitude. Two classes a semester is not a half-time appointment; it’s full-time. Each class is going to take at least five hours a week to teach and an additional 10-15 per week of preparation and grading. I applied to a few schools with 2/2 teaching loads, but I mostly applied to schools with 1/1 (or, even more deliciously, 0/1) teaching loads.
Selectivity – Before applying, I scoured, the MFA selectivity data, cross-referencing it with the funding data, to find the mythical school that was well-funded and had an acceptance rate of above 5%. I found two: University of Miami and University of South Carolina. This year, I think the acceptance rate at both places dropped down to near 5% (other people were doing their own scouring!) It is insanely difficult to get into a decent MFA program. The hardest programs (Brown, Cornell, UT-Austin, Syracuse) have acceptance rates that are around 1.5%. The thirty-eight top schools all have acceptance rates of less than 5%. (Johns Hopkins’ acceptance rate is around 2.5%). Basically, apply to as many schools as you can. Don’t discount the difference between a 1% acceptance rate and a 5% acceptance rate, though. The latter is five times easier to get into than the former. Finally, as the economy improves (turning the job market into an attractive alternative to grad school) and we head into the downslope of the Echo Boom****, it is getting easier to get into grad school with each passing year. Selectivity at MFA programs seems to have peaked during the ’09-’10 application cycle (the first time I applied).
**In contrast, Vanderbilt’s FAQ contains the question ” Do you consider applications in genre-fiction (speculative, science fiction, fantasy, mystery writing, children’s literature, and the like)?”. and their response is “No, we do not.” Ouch. I definitely did not apply to Vanderbilt
***On a side note, I am really happy to be heading to Baltimore–a fairly large city where it rarely snows.
****The Baby Boom was a period of greatly increased fertility during the fifties. When Boomers grew up and had children, they created a shallower, but still pronounced, Echo Boom: a clustering of births during the late 80s and early 90s that is the result of all the Boomers deciding to have kids around the same time. The Echo Boom resulted in a disproportionately large number of applications to undergrad institutions around 2008, and, presumably, a disproportionately large number of grad school apps right around now.
Next: The Application Process