How to Start an MFA Program from Scratch (Part 3 of 3): Opening the Doors

Christopher Coake | January 2016

How to Start an MFA Program from Scratch (Part 3 of 3): Opening the Doors

In previous posts in this series, I’ve discussed how the creative writing faculty at the University of Nevada, Reno, conceived and built our new MFA program, now in its first year. What I’d like to address in this, the last post, are some of the practical difficulties—and outright surprises—we faced in implementing the program, and how we faced them.

We received approval for our new program from the NSHE Board of Regents in June of 2014. Immediately afterward, however, we received an unwelcome surprise: before our program could be advertised, we’d first have to submit it for review to the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. At no point during the previous year had our department been warned about this step, even though we’d made certain to map out a careful timeline. Approval by the NWCCU, we were told, was almost certain—but would take 1–3 months. This was worrisome news. Our department’s deadline for graduate applications is January 15th; we’d planned on having half the summer of 2014, as well as the entire fall semester, in which to advertise the program.

We did as much as we could in advance of the NWCCU’s decision. A sizable and talented community of writers calls the Reno/Tahoe area home, and many of those writers had known an MFA was in the works. Several of us participate in regional writers’ conferences as well; for instance, I frequently teach at the excellent Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference in Northern California, and my efforts to start an MFA at UNR were never a secret to its participants. Though we had not planned on talking publicly about our program before we had official approval, we felt we couldn’t delay any longer. We began putting out word of our probably new program to the audiences we knew well, and made a point of talking one on one with writers we’d identified as likely applicants.

We received the NWCCU’s approval in mid-September of 2014: almost exactly four months before our applications would be due. We’d already prepped a webpage that could be easily activated, but we’d missed the deadlines for any print ads that could conceivably help us. We had no choice but to trust in social media, and we immediately posted about the program via Twitter and Facebook. We also divvied up the alphabet, and spent a tedious couple of afternoons directly emailing every writing program director in the AWP database with information about the program, and a link to our webpage.

A related worry was that we had begun rethinking our plans for the size of our new program. Our proposal called for us to take in a smallish first class—maybe 6 students in total—and increase the size of our subsequent classes gradually. This was a sensible plan on paper, at the time we’d written it. However, our department had been under more and more pressure to run graduate seminars with at least five students, and we worried, a lot, about the quality of a very small workshop. Let’s say we admitted three fiction writers and three poets in our first year—even if we were allowed to run workshops of that size, would they be worth attending?

In my mind, this was an issue of student experience. We were very shortly going to have convince writers to attend a brand-new program. Shouldn’t we be able to promise those applicants, as much as possible, a similar experience to the one later students would have? A larger first class, we reasoned, would not only help ensure that our required seminars would be viable, but also that our students would have more of a community and cohort—the primary strength of a good MFA program, I feel—at a time when our program would be at its absolute smallest. We began to think that a first class of five fiction writers and five poets would be ideal.

The application deadline passed, and—to our relief—we discovered we’d received enough strong applications that we could accept 11 students: six fiction writers and five poets. Not all of them were locals, too, which suggested that at least a couple of our email bombs had landed!

Now, of course, our job was to get all of these applicants to say yes to our offers. We invited our accepted students to visit campus in March for our annual graduate recruitment weekend, and were relieved when a great many came. Our department has long been proud of our ability to recruit graduate students—sure, we’re good salesfolk, and we believe in our programs, but we have other cards to play, too: UNR has a beautiful campus, and a strong community among its graduate students. (It also never hurts that we can drive potential graduate students to Lake Tahoe, only 45 minutes away.)

Even with these advantages, we also got lucky, in that our applicants formed immediate friendships; in retrospect I’d say they recruited each other as much as we recruited them, and I could tell by the time the weekend was over that we’d do well. In fact, we received yesses from 10 of our 11 accepted students, and the 11th only said no because of a change in circumstances. Our first class was complete.

A number of other logistical problems and surprises arose during these months, of course—I learned to expect trouble whenever I opened my email in the morning. (Nobody told us we had to have a program-specific transfer policy! Someone forgot to open a web portal for our applications! We probably need a program Twitter account!, etc.) I need not—and could not—list them all. But before I conclude this post I do want to talk about two more broad-based surprises.

Some of you reading this may be thinking about starting programs of your own, and I want to make sure you know, going in: Our new program has kept us extraordinarily busy. Without question my workload has increased, from the moment I sent the program proposal up the chain, and far more than I predicted it would. My time to write has been restricted. My days are consumed with meetings and emails and sudden anxieties. I feel I have to say yes to any number of service opportunities that might provide some benefit, however small, to the new program. Students come to my office hours unannounced now. I will admit to being overwhelmed by it all, sometimes—and we haven’t even admitted our second class yet! We haven’t even begun assigning students their thesis committee members!

However, as I’ve mentioned in my first post, I believe in arts education, and I am a writer who loved and was transformed by his experience as an MFA candidate. I wanted to build a program at UNR because I hoped to provide for others the experiences and opportunities that so changed me. In so doing, I have found that my job has taken on much greater meaning. I see my younger self in every one of the students in our program, and it is no secret—to my colleagues or to the students—that I am overjoyed and sometimes amazed by their progress. They have begun to publish; they’re teaching students of their own; they’ve formed a close, happy community; they’re helping to transform their department, their school, and their city. I’ve always loved my job; my biggest surprise was discovering that after so long it could change so much, and so much for the better.

Maybe I should put it this way: an MFA program transformed my life once, and—much to my surprise—an MFA program seems to be transforming me again. If you begin a new program, I hope this is your experience as well.


Christopher Coake is the author of the novel You Came Back (2012) and the story collection We’re in Trouble (2005), which won the PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship for a first work of fiction. In 2007 he was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. His short fiction has been anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories 2004 and The Best American Noir of the Century, and published in journals such as Granta, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Five Points, and The Journal. A native of Indiana, Coake received an MA from Miami University of Ohio and an MFA from Ohio State University. He is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he directs the new MFA program in creative writing.