MFA Program Guide

Welcome to the Department of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. We hope your course of study here will be intellectually stimulating and academically enriching. This guide is designed to give you the information you’ll need as you progress through the program. It provides general program information as well as details about advising, registration procedures, and requirements.

General Program Information

This guide provides general program information as well as details about advising, registration, curriculum and thesis/directed study options. 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.

It is the responsibility of all graduate students, both on- and off-campus, to be familiar with the graduate bulletin as well as the academic regulations in individual school and department publications and on program websites; however, in all cases, the official policies and procedures of the University Graduate Council, as published on this graduate bulletin website and on the Graduate School website, take precedence over individual program policies and guidelines.

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.

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Getting Started in the MFA

Types of Advising

Remember that the graduate bulletin is your first source of information. This guide may provide further advice about requirements, forms, deadlines or other administrative aspects of your degree. Additionally, all MFA students are greatly encouraged to consult frequently with the 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, you should select a thesis advisor, who will may 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.

Email Accounts

Email is an essential means of communicating throughout the university, the department, and the program. All graduate students must have a VCU email account. VCU email is the one official means of conveying programmatic announcements and other vital information. Incoming students may obtain a VCU eID and email account online.

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 within the past five years, 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 12-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 cannot 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

Graduate students at VCU are considered full-time if they are enrolled for a minimum of nine credit hours and a maximum of 15 credits per semester. More than 15 hours is an overload and requires special permission. No more than 12 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, GTAs 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 total required graduation credits. For more on GTAs, see below for the section on other opportunities.

During each academic year (fall and spring semesters), GTAs must complete a total of at least 15 hours of coursework or internships that 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, and cannot be more than seven years old when all degree requirements are fulfilled and you apply for graduation.

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Degree Requirements

30 hours plus 18 hours of electives, for a total of 48 credit hours

Visit the links below for current requirements:

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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.

Dual genre candidates are required to submit a thesis in the form of a single document, combining their work in two different genres.

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 six thesis hours and generally no more than nine; students wishing to enroll in more than nine thesis hours may do so only with permission for the program director.

Most theses are in poetry or fiction. For dual genre concentrations, it is possible to work on theses in drama, screenwriting, or creative nonfiction. In fiction, a typical thesis is 115 pages or longer; in poetry, 48 pages is an appropriate minimum length. Length requirements for creative nonfiction and other genres are subject to the approval of your MFA thesis advisor.

As early as the end of their third semester, or more likely in the spring of one’s second year in the program, MFA students will have an opportunity to select a thesis advisor/director, choosing from the MFA core faculty. Students will have an opportunity to prioritize three different choices, and no more. Choosing a thesis advisor/director is a very important decision and you need to prioritize your choices very carefully chiefly based upon one’s workshop experience with the faculty.

MFA students must list all MFA faculty with whom they have taken a CRW workshop in their chosen genre(s). Your committee will consist of at least three members—a thesis advisor/director and at least two other committee members. Your #1 designation should be your preference for thesis advisor/director, and the others your choices for readers. Should your first choice be unavailable as advisor/director, we will move down the list of readers until the position can be filled, thus it is imperative that your first two choices be faculty who direct theses in your primary genre.

Dual genre students will list a minimum of two faculty members for each of their genres (for a total of four). In some cases (particularly with dual genre concentration) thesis committees may include an additional fourth committee member (* not mandatory). Regardless of your confirmed committee size (minimum of three or max of four), one member of your committee must qualify as an “outside reader.” To satisfy the outside reader requirement for theses, an MFA student may ask invite a literature graduate faculty member from within the English department to serve as an outside reader (i.e., an English department professor who teaches in the MA program). Of course, MFA graduate students may choose to use an outside reader from an entirely different department as well so long as they have graduate faculty status recognized by the university.

Again, we require that MFA students must list all MFA faculty with whom they have taken a CRW workshop in their chosen genre. You should list said faculty in preference order (top to bottom) to indicate your thesis advisor preference. While we make every effort to accommodate your choices, due to workload equity issues and departmental needs we cannot guarantee that all your thesis advisor preferences will be available. We understand that students may have aesthetic differences with some faculty members; moreover, you may have a compelling reason to request a particular thesis advisor/director, but realize you will only be accommodated if it is possible given equitable load distribution.

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 six and nine 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 they complete the thesis and graduate.

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 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.

Thesis Timeline

Most students work with the thesis advisor throughout the fall/early winter of the third/final year to create and revise their thesis draft.

We recommend that you complete your advisor-approved thesis draft by February 28 of your final semester; however, your committee may have different needs. You should definitely distribute your final copy to your entire committee 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.

All MFA students are required to submit their theses and dissertations electronically to the Graduate School (VCU Scholars Compass). 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 “for at least the period of (specified number of years).” 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 one year, five year, or "Do not release the thesis/dissertation until the copyright expires, with the exception of releasing the work to my advisor(s), my department(s), and scholars who are physically present in the VCU Libraries."  For creative theses our MFA program recommends the latter option.

A copy of ETD Web Access Exemption Justification Form may be obtained from the graduate program advisor.

For complete detail on the ETD submission process, students should consult the Graduate School's Electronic Thesis and Dissertations page.

Graduation is in May.

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Steps Toward Finishing the MFA

1. Selecting a Thesis Advisor, Committee and Filing for Degree Candidacy

Sometime before or during your fourth semester, you should submit your MFA Thesis Preference Form in which you will state your preference for a thesis advisor, as well as your entire thesis committee. 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. Working with Your Thesis Advisor

Throughout the fall of your final year, you should work with your thesis advisor in an attempt to develop and identify an advisor-approved draft by the first month of your last semester. In some cases you will want to keep your entire thesis committee apprised of any developments. Additionally, dual genre concentration with co-advisors may need to coordinate difference work schedule/deadline with the respective advisor of each genre. You are encouraged to also apprise the MFA program director and graduate programs advisor of any significant developments that may arise during this process.

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 filed online via VCU Banner and DegreeWorks. 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 requires the approval of the graduate programs advisor and/or the MFA program director. You must be enrolled during the semester in which you plan to graduate.

4. Thesis Revision

By the sixth week of your final semester (and/or by spring break), you should submit an advisor-approved “reading copy” of your thesis to 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; some readers may 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).

5. Thesis Preparation

Students preparing a thesis, especially the final, formal version, should carefully read and follow the guidelines provided by the VCU Graduate School and the VCU Scholars Compass. The most up to date information and instruction can be accessed on the Graduate School's Electronic Thesis and Dissertation page.

6. Defense and Signing the Thesis

In obligation for university policies regarding a public defense of thesis work, graduating MFA student must give a public reading of their work, often done as a part of the GWA Moveable Feast spring semester reading series. In rare cases, a student may request a more formal faculty review defense. For more information, please consult with the graduate programs advisor.

Upon approval, the thesis committee may sign the ETD Approval Form at the thesis signing ceremony, usually held in late April. Note: The university is moving to an online/electronic signature and approval system which may supplant the traditional hard form signature process. Generally, the chair of the department attends the signing ceremony as well; it is a celebration of your achievements and your professionalism. You will eventually 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.

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Further Course Information

Credit for Courses

Graduate courses in creative writing are listed in the MFA 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 MFA program director prior to enrolling. Again, please consult the graduate programs advisor for further information/instruction on this approval process.

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.

Course Availability

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.

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Other Opportunities (financial, etc.)

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. GTAs 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 their career. Assistantships are available to full-time students only, and funded students may be required to take certain courses (see subheadings) as part of their responsibilities.

In the first year, assistantship duties usually involve assisting faculty members with teaching a large lecture course. Other assignments may be made according to departmental needs and funding availability. Qualified continuing GTAs are afforded the opportunity to teach undergraduate courses which may possibly include ENGL295. HONRS250 and UNIV200.

Graduate students on nine-month assistantships will be assigned to teach, assist, or carry out other teaching and service work for approximately 20 hours per week during the fall and spring semesters. Stipends and work assignment are not provided during the summer session.

Graduate students on 12-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 three to six 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 their 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. All GTA awards are subject to annual review by the Department of English for possible renewal. 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.

Additional Graduate School Funded Assistantships

Several opportunities are available to entering and continuing students.

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. The fellowship covers the cost of tuition and provides a 12-month stipend with limited summer GTA work in support of the award.

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 Levis Reading Prize 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.

Other other scholarship support may be available from the School of Graduate Studies to qualified students.

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.

Graduate Student Representatives to the Creative Writing Committee

In general, the Cabell First Novelist Fellow and Levis Coordinator serve as the student representatives on the creative writing committee. On behalf of their colleagues, these representatives are given the opportunity to ask questions and make suggestions to the MFA committee. These graduate student representatives to the committee are not a voting members but attends committee meetings and report to other MFAs. 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

Occasionally, the program hosts an open forum or “town meeting” at which students may ask questions You should, of course, be familiar with the information in this guide and the graduate bulletin, but we welcome your questions and concerns, as well as your suggestions for the Visiting Writers Series.

Life After the MFA

Typically offered every three years, this meeting also provides students with 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, CV preparation, and other means of professionalizing yourselves.

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VCU Title IX Policy

VCU’s policy on sexual misconduct/violence and sex/gender discrimination applies to the entire university community: faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate student, and third parties. That means the policy applies both to your interactions with your faculty supervisor and, in turn, the undergraduates in the class you are assisting. As the policy details, “membership in a university community carries with it the responsibility for mutual trust and respect and adherence to the standards of conduct established by the community. Virginia Commonwealth University is committed to providing an environment that emphasizes the dignity and value of every member of its community and that is free from sexual misconduct, assault, harassment or any form of discrimination based on sex/gender.”

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Departmental Organization

The MFA committee monitors the program. The committee serves as an admission committee, reviews student requests for special action (including waivers of requirements), and evaluates thesis proposals. The committee also meets to consider curricular changes and serves as an advisory committee to the director.

The director of the MFA also serves on the graduate studies committee. This committee facilitates interaction between the MA and MFA programs and plans scheduling of graduate courses. Chaired by the department chair, the committee includes the director of the MFA, the associate chair, and elected members of the faculty. Any changes to the curricular requirements within either concentration are discussed and approved by the graduate faculty.

Catherine Ingrassia, Interim Dean, College of Humanities and Sciences
Daniel C. Bullard, Dean, Graduate School
Les Harrison, Chair, Department of English
Sachi Shimomura, Associate Chair, Department of English
Jennifer Rhee, Director of MA in English
Kathleen Graber, Director of MFA in Creative Writing
Thom Didato, Graduate Programs Advisor

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In Closing

We hope this information will prove helpful as you plan your career at VCU. We want all of our MFAs 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.

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