General Program Information and Where to Look | Getting Started in the MFA | MFA Degree Requirements | The Thesis | Checklist of Steps Toward the MFA Degree | Further Course Information | Other Opportunities | Final Note
General Program Information & Where to Look
This Guide gives information you’ll need as you move through the Program. You’ll find facts on assorted requirements, expectations, and procedures related to your MFA degree. It is your primary guide to the ins and outs of the MFA and the University; please consult it often.
The MFA faculty and the Graduate Programs Advisor are ready to answer your questions. In addition, the University offers a number of organizations, publications, and other resources that will be valuable to you.
The current Graduate Bulletin contains information about what the School of Graduate Studies requires of all students, including general academic regulations. You are expected to be familiar with all university regulations and with all rules and regulations in the Graduate Bulletin. In conjunction with each semester’s Schedule of Classes, the Bulletin outlines the academic calendar and gives dates of registration, add/drop, and graduation application deadlines.
The MFA program may send out some reminders about deadlines, but it is the student’s responsibility to stay apprised of course descriptions, deadlines, and other regulations.
The Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment Services offers a directory of university services and policies. There you’ll find a variety of information about topics ranging from grade-review procedures to parking options. The Division of Student Affairs is located at 901 Floyd Avenue, Richmond, VA 23284, phone (804) 828-1244.
Getting Started in the MFA
Types of Advising
Remember that this Handbook and the Graduate Bulletin are your first sources of information. If you need further advice about requirements, forms, deadlines or other administrative aspects of your degree, please see the English Graduate Programs Advisor. The Graduate Programs Advisor serves as the students’ initial advisor upon entrance into the Program and remains available for all students throughout their enrollment.
By midway through your fourth semester here, you should select a thesis advisor, who will then become your primary academic advisor. Your advisor can help you choose the courses that are most appropriate to your personal goals.
Students, however, are expected to keep their own tallies of credits and lists of classes that will fulfill the degree requirements. The ultimate responsibility rests with you.
E-mail is an essential means of communicating throughout the University, the Department, and the Program. All graduate students must have an VCU e-mail account. VCU e-mail is the one official means of conveying programmatic announcements and other vital information. Incoming students may obtain a VCU eI-D and e-mail account online at http://www.ts.vcu.edu/askit/eID.html.
Potential Transfer of Credit
While the Graduate Bulletin indicates that “a maximum of one-third of the hours required for a master’s degree may be transferred” from another program or institution, the MFA Committee generally limits the amount of appropriate graduate credit that can be transferred from another VCU program or from an outside institution to a maximum of twelve hours. All credit transfers must be approved by the Program Director.
Transfer work must be at the “A” or “B” grade level, from an accredited institution or university, where it must have been applicable toward a graduate degree at the offering institution. Only six VCU graduate credits may be transferred if the student has taken those credits as a “special student” (non-matriculated) before being admitted to a degree program. Note that no credit from an earned degree may be transferred toward a VCU graduate degree.
Waiver of Requirements
In some cases, specific degree requirements may be waived for students whose academic or professional backgrounds constitute appropriate equivalencies. For example, the Department may waive the twelve-hour literature requirement for students who already hold an MA in English, if said degree was obtained within the past 10 years. Please note: while the program can waive a subject-specified requirement (literature, electives, workshops, etc.) it can not reduce the total number of credits required for the degree.
If you are hoping to transfer credit or waive requirements, you should speak with the Graduate Advisor and/or the MFA Program Director early in your first semester so you can design an appropriate course of study.
Please see the Graduate Programs Advisor for forms and information about the procedure you need to follow in order to apply for transfer of credit or waiver of requirements. While it’s not guaranteed that all requests will be granted, the Program strives to allow appropriate flexibility within the framework of a nationally recognized terminal degree.
Maintaining Student Status
A graduate student at VCU is considered full-time if he or she is enrolled for a minimum of nine credit hours and a maximum of fifteen credits per semester. More than fifteen hours is an overload and requires special permission. No more than twelve semester credits may be earned in a summer semester.
Graduate Teaching Assistants must register for nine graduate credit hours each semester. Depending upon one’s GTA work assignment and/or full-time enrollment requirements, GTA’s may be required to take three hours of English 500 (Practicum in Teaching College English), which may count toward that total. Please note, however, that English 500 hours do not count toward your required graduation credits. For more on GTA’s, see heading below on funding and responsibilities.
During each academic year (fall and spring semesters), GTA’s must complete a total of at least fifteen hours of coursework or internships that do count toward graduation. This “reasonable progress” toward a degree is required to maintain financial aid.
Time Limit for Completion of Requirements
The maximum time limit for completing an MFA degree is seven years. This limit includes five years with two possible one-year extensions, available only upon approval. Upon written petition through the MFA Program Director, extensions may be granted by the Dean of the School of Graduate Studies. All work applied toward the degree, including work transferred from other institutions, cannot be more than seven years old when all degree requirements are fulfilled and you apply for graduation.
MFA Degree Requirements
(30 hours plus 18 hours of electives, for a total of 48 credit hours)
Visit MFA Degree Requirements for current, and previous, requirements.
Your thesis is a collection of your best work; it may be a complete novel, a related series of poems, or a compendium of representative work—including, for example, short stories, a novel excerpt, and a series of poems.
MFA students take thesis credits (English 798) as a way to carve out time to create and revise a substantial and sophisticated thesis. You must take at least 6 thesis hours and generally no more than 9; students wishing to enroll in more than 9 thesis hours may do so only with permission for the Program Director.
Most theses are in poetry or fiction. With special permission, it is possible to work on theses in drama, screenwriting, or nonfiction. In fiction, a typical thesis is 115 pages or longer; in poetry, 48 pages is an appropriate minimum length (the industry standard for chapbook submissions).
Students must choose a thesis advisor before signing up for 798. You must have your thesis advisor’s permission to take thesis hours. For this reason, first-year students may not take thesis hours, and you may not begin thesis hours until your fourth semester. Most students take their thesis hours, along with one additional course, in their final year.
Prior to enrollment on thesis hours, all MFA graduate students must complete and submit an Admission to Degree Candidacy form which requires the approval of both your thesis advisor and the MFA Program Director. Please see the Graduate Programs Advisor for more details.
Required thesis overrides are available from the Graduate Programs Advisor. Your thesis advisor, who then becomes your academic advisor, is the MFA faculty member who will supervise your hours and work with you to develop and complete a creative thesis.
As stated, students must take between 6 and 9 semester hours in thesis work. The grades for thesis hours are Satisfactory (S), Unsatisfactory (U) or Fail (F). Students who have completed all non-thesis course requirements may take additional thesis hours in order to maintain full-time and/or enrollment status. Third-year students should plan on taking at least one course (workshop or seminar) in addition to thesis hours.
University regulations require that each student be enrolled for at least one credit during the semester in which he or she completes the thesis and graduates.
Your Thesis Committee
Per the rules stated in the VCU Graduate Bulletin, graduate advisory committees shall be appointed for each master’s degree candidate for whom there is a requirement to produce a thesis or its equivalent in the form of a research project, performance, exhibit, or other production. The committee will coordinate and supervise the preparation of the thesis or its equivalent. The committee shall have a minimum of three faculty members, one of whom must be from a discipline other than creative writing. The chair of the committee will be designated as the candidate’s faculty advisor. Every member of the committee must hold a graduate faculty or affiliate graduate faculty appointment.
The thesis advisor must be a graduate creative writing faculty member, ordinarily one with whom you have taken workshops in the genre of your thesis. The second member of the committee should also be selected from the MFA creative writing faculty. When appropriate, and with the consent of the Program Director and thesis advisor, the third member must come from the non-MFA graduate faculty of the English Department or from another unit entirely (Education, Art History, Theater, etc.). Students who do not know such faculty members will be given assistance in their selection. Please see the Graduate Programs Advisor for more further instruction/guidance.
The thesis committee supervises the preparation of the thesis and is chaired by the thesis advisor (thesis director), who naturally makes the most important contribution to this supervision. Other readers will be involved at different levels; consult them as to preferences for early readings, etc.
As mentioned, you should select your thesis advisor (and obtain that person’s acceptance) by your fourth semester of study. You will work with that person through your final year.
By October 15 of your final year, make sure to have selected and received consent from your other two readers. Some second and third readers like to see early drafts of your work; that decision is up to you and your advisor.
We recommend that you complete your thesis draft by February 28 of your final semester; however, your committee may have different needs. You should definitely distribute your final copy by Spring Break. Most second and third readers will have minor suggestions to make. Many of those suggestions will be up to you to follow. In some cases, a committee member will require a student to make some revisions before the thesis signing ceremony.
The thesis signing ceremony takes place in late April and is a celebration of the work you’ve done in your years here. Your committee says a few words about your thesis, and then everyone signs the signature page. Next it’s up to you to deliver the thesis to the Department Chair, Dean, and beyond.
As of fall 2009, students are required to submit their theses and dissertations electronically to the Graduate School. However, as a longstanding member of the Associated Writing Programs, the MFA Program in Creative Writing at VCU and its faculty herein agree to the recommendation that creative theses shall not be made available on the web. Creative writers must have control over the dissemination of their works. For example, it is critical that writers retain first serial, book, and other rights for the purpose of their works first seeing print in literary venues. Therefore, colleges and universities should not mandate as a condition for graduation that creative theses or dissertations be published or broadly disseminated in ways that preclude any student from offering all or any portion of publication rights, including electronic rights, to publishers. This is absolutely critical to the success of creative writers and creative writing programs. If a college or university implements Electronic Theses and Dissertations (ETDs), students should have an option to file a traditional paper thesis. If creative writing students are required to file ETDs, then such ETDs should not be made available on the World Wide Web, but instead be available only to the same communities that paper theses and dissertations have been made available to in the past, for instance by password protecting access to the creative thesis or dissertation. Consequently, MFA students may request a 5 year, 10 year, or permanent embargo on public access to their work via the Web.
ETD Web Access Exemption Forms may be obtained from the Graduate Program Advisor. For complete detail on the ETD submission process, students should consult the guidelines at:
Checklist of Steps Toward Finishing the MFA Degree
1. Selecting a Thesis Advisor and Filing for Candidacy:
Sometime before or during your fourth semester, you should select a thesis advisor. Prior to enrolling in thesis hours, all MFA graduate students must complete and submit an Admission to Degree Candidacy form, which requires the approval of both your thesis advisor and the MFA Program Director.
Please note: Upon reaching candidacy, students must be continuously enrolled each semester (fall and spring) until they complete the degree. If necessary, students may ask for a leave of absence by submitting a written request to the Program Director. Students who have not registered for courses for more than one calendar year may be required to re-apply to the program and the university.
2. Selecting a Thesis Committee:
Again, by October 15 of your final year, you should secure your other committee members and send confirmation of your committee to the MFA Program Director and Graduate Programs Advisor.
3. Graduation Application:
During the first two weeks of your final semester, you must submit a formal application for graduation to your thesis advisor. Graduation application forms are available from University Enrollment Services/Records and Registration. You should schedule a conference with your both your thesis advisor and the Graduate Program Advisor to review your application well ahead of the deadline. The application form requires the approval of the advisor, the MFA Program Director, and the Department Chair, as well as the Dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences. You must be enrolled during the semester in which you plan to graduate.
4. Thesis Revision:
By the sixth week of your final semester, you should submit “reading copies” of your thesis to your thesis advisor and the rest of your committee to solicit their responses. Be sure to check with all members of your committee about this and other due dates; many readers will want to see a copy earlier. The reading copy should be as close to the final version of your thesis as possible. The committee will then comment on the content of the thesis, suggest final revisions, and determine its acceptability. Should major revisions or additions to the thesis be required, the thesis advisor may recommend that you postpone graduation until the following semester or summer session (this very rarely occurs). After making appropriate revisions, you should distribute copies to your committee for their final review no later than April 1, approximately three weeks before the thesis signing ceremony.
5. Thesis Preparation:
Students preparing a thesis, especially the final, formal version, should carefully read and follow the guidelines in the VCU School of Graduate Studies Thesis and Dissertation Manual. The most up to date manual can be accessed here:http://www.graduate.vcu.edu/pdfs/Thesis_and_Dissertation_Manual.pdf
6. Signing the Thesis:
Upon approval, the thesis committee will sign the cover sheets at the Thesis Signing Ceremony, usually held in late April. Generally, the Chair of the Department attends the signing ceremony as well; it is a celebration of your achievements and your professionalism. You will still need the signatures of both the Dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences and the Dean of the School of Graduate Studies for final sign off. Consult the Graduate Programs Advisor for further thesis guidelines/details on signatures and e-submission requirements.
Further Course Information
(the fine print)
Credit for Courses
Graduate courses in creative writing are listed in this Handbook, as well as in the Graduate Bulletin. Each semester, the Department website provides an electronic list of English graduate classes and course descriptions. Instructions for accessing the website are available from the English office and the Graduate Advisor.
The meeting times and registration information for these classes can be found in the university’s Schedule of Classes, published each semester. (For detailed course descriptions, see also Courses.)
All classes must be at the 500, 600, or 700 level. At least half of the required courses for the degree must be numbered 600 or above. Students must achieve an overall grade-point average of 3.0 (“B”) and will receive no credit for courses graded lower than “C.” Students receiving two or more “C’s” or any grade of “D” or “F” will be reviewed for possible academic termination.
Graduate-level classes offered in other departments are often approved for MFA students if they relate to your professional goals. You must get approval from the Program Director prior to enrolling.
The Graduate Bulletin contains further information about the School of Graduate Studies’ regulations, including attendance requirements, the grades of “W” (withdrawn) and “I” (incomplete), time limits for completing courses graded “I” and other academic policies. Please consult the Bulletin to familiarize yourself with the guidelines before bringing questions to the Department.
Not all courses listed in the Graduate Bulletin will be offered every semester. For course availability on a semester-to-semester basis, you must consult the Schedule of Classes for that semester, as well as the Department’s online course descriptions.
Questions regarding courses offered in other departments should be posed to the directors of graduate studies in those departments.
It is recommended that you pre-register for classes each semester as soon as you can because some courses fill up early. The university’s online registration system makes registration easy. If you have any problems with the process, please see the Graduate Programs Advisor. If you have questions about particular courses that cannot be answered by an online search, please speak with the professor or your advisor.
Graduate Teaching Assistantships (9-month and 12-month)
The Department of English offers a limited number of Graduate Teaching Assistantships to incoming students each year. GTA’s receive a stipend and have their full-time tuition paid for the academic year. Assistantships are awarded on merit. Occasionally a student who enters without funding will receive a line later during his or her career. Assistantships are available to full-time students only, and funded students take certain required courses (see subheadings) as part of their responsibilities.
In the first year, assistantship duties usually involve working as a tutor in the Writing Center or assisting faculty members with teaching a large lecture course. Some opportunities are available as Research Assistants, helping faculty members with research or administrative duties. Other assignments may be made according to Departmental needs and funding availability.
Graduate students on nine-month assistantships will be assigned to teach, assist, or carry out other teaching and service work for 20 hours per week during the Fall and Spring semesters. Stipends and work assignment are not provided during the summer session.
Graduate students on twelve-month assistantships may be assigned to teach, assist, or carry out other teaching and service work for 10 to 20 hours per week during the Fall and Spring semesters. During summers, they will be required to enroll in 3 to 6 graduate course credits in order to continue to receive their stipends. However, no work assignment will be given so that a student may focus the rest of his or her available time on research and thesis preparation or writing.
This policy accords with the Graduate School’s “Policies and procedures on graduate fellowships and assistantships,” in particular the final paragraph in the relevant section, which states:
Graduate assistantships are awarded for not longer than one calendar year and are not renewed automatically from year to year unless specifically stated in writing. Graduate program directors generally determine eligibility for renewal of graduate assistantship awards in subsequent academic years. Specific work assignments, scheduling and arrangements relating to vacation and personal leave are determined by the department, program or administrative unit to which the graduate student is assigned.*
* See the complete policy here.
Additional Graduate School Funded Assistantships
Several opportunities are available to entering and continuing students.
The Department of English, through the School of Graduate Studies, awards one or more grants each year to an outstanding new students in fiction or poetry. The grant covers the cost of tuition and fees and provides a stipend in return for the equivalent of only ten hours of work per week in the Writing Center or a classroom.
In addition, second-year fiction students are eligible for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Fellowship. The application process begins in March. Recipients work with faculty and the Library to assist in administration of the annual VCU Cabell First Novelist Award (http://novelist.library.vcu.edu). The Fellowship covers the cost of tuition and provides a twelve-month stipend with limited summer GTA work in support of the award.
Second- and third-year poetry students are eligible for a nine-month assistantship to coordinate the annual Levis Reading Prize, named after former MFA faculty member and renowned poet Larry Levis. The award honors a first or second book of poetry.
Either poetry or fiction students may apply, at the end of the first year, for the Associate Editorship of Blackbird (see description of Blackbird under Internships).
The School of Graduate Studies also offers a few one-year dissertation/thesis fellowships on a competitive basis for students who have completed all program requirements but have yet to complete the thesis (generally third-year students). These fellowships cover the cost of tuition and fees and provide an increased stipend. They require no work in return. The program nominates eligible students and has had several successful honorees recently.
Other scholarship support may be available to qualified students from the School of Graduate Studies. See http://www.vcu.edu/graduate/pops/p_ext_funded.html.
Graduate Writers Association
The Graduate Writers Association is a student organization, registered with the Office of Student Activities, that is open to any English graduate student, whether in the MFA, MA, or MATX program. The organization promotes the literary arts at VCU—primarily through the Moveable Feast reading series, which provides an opportunity for students to present a staged reading in front of an audience on one of the last Fridays of each month.
The GWA also helps sponsor and plan the Visiting Writers Series.
Graduate Student Representatives to the Creative Writing Committee
Graduate creative writing students are given the opportunity to ask questions and make suggestions to the MFA Committee through an elected student representative. The graduate student representative to the committee is not a voting member but attends committee meetings and reports to other MFAs. The VCU Cabell First Novelist Fellow typically attends as well.
In addition, the Program Director periodically will announce open-agenda meetings for all creative writing graduate students. These meetings are an opportunity for you to express your views. See below for details.
Life During the MFA
This program is an open forum or “town meeting” at which students may ask questions mid-program. You should, of course, be familiar with the information in this Handbook and the Graduate Bulletin, but we welcome your questions and concerns, as well as your suggestions for the Visiting Writers Series. Usually offered every third semester.
Life After the MFA
This meeting also occurs ever third semester and gives tips and perspectives on what you might do after completing your MFA and perhaps before finishing your first book. We discuss academic careers, office jobs, c.v. preparation, and other means of professionalizing yourselves. Bring questions!
We hope this information will prove helpful as you plan your career at VCU. We want all of our MFA’s to succeed; please feel free to ask questions about topics not covered here, and stop in to see your Program Director and Graduate Programs Advisor with cheery news. We celebrate each success in a first-class, cooperative Program.
Clint McCown, Director of Creative Writing