Procedural Guide for MFA in Creative Writing Students

MFA Program Overview

The Creative Writing Program offers the MFA degree, with a concentration in either poetry or fiction. MFA students pursue intensive study with distinguished faculty committed to creative and intellectual achievement.

Each year the department enrolls only eight MFA students, four in each concentration. Our small size allows us to offer a generous financial support package that fully funds every student. We also offer a large and diverse graduate faculty with competence in a wide range of literary, theoretical and cultural fields. Every student chooses a special committee of two faculty members who work closely alongside the student to design a course of study within the broad framework established by the department.

Students participate in a graduate writing workshop each semester and take six additional one-semester courses for credit, at least four of them in English or American literature, comparative literature, literature in the modern or Classical languages or cultural studies (two per semester during the first year and one per semester during the second year). First-year students receive practical training as editorial assistants for Epoch, a periodical of prose and poetry published by the creative writing program. Second-year students participate as teaching assistants for the university-wide first-year writing program. The most significant requirement of the MFA degree is the completion of a book-length manuscript: a collection of poems or short stories, or a novel, to be closely edited and refined with the assistance of the student’s special committee.


Requirements for the receipt of the MFA in Creative Writing are:

  • Satisfactory completion of 4 required graduate workshops and 4 required graduate-level courses (plus, Literary Small Publishing, WRIT 7100, Creative Writing Pedagogical & Thesis Development, Teaching Internship, and Advanced Pedagogy Workshops) prior to M Exam;
  • Satisfactory completion of one year as an Editorial Assistant in Epoch and one year as teaching as a Teaching Assistant in the Department of Literatures in English;
  • Satisfactory completion of the 2nd year Student Progress Review;
  • Satisfactory completion of the Master’s Exam at the end of the fourth term;
  • A minimum of four registered semesters (full-time study);
  • Submission of approved Final Thesis to the Graduate School for an August conferral in the second summer;
  • Completion of all degree requirements in no more than 4 registered semesters (2 years) from the time of admission.

The Special Commitee

Graduate study at Cornell requires each student to work out a program of study in consultation with a special committee, selected by the student, from the membership of Cornell Graduate Faculty. This procedure, commonly referred to as “the committee system,” takes the place of uniform course requirements and uniform departmental examinations. The university system of special committees allows students to design their own courses of study within a broad framework established by the department, and it encourages a close working relationship between professors and students, promoting freedom and flexibility in the pursuit of the graduate degree. The special committee guides and supervises all academic work and assesses progress at a series of meetings with the student. Such a system places specixal demands on the energy and adaptability of both faculty and students, and it requires a high degree of initiative and responsibility from each student.


The MFA special committee is comprised of at least two members of the Cornell Graduate Creative Writing Faculty:  1 chairperson and 1 minor members. The committee chair and at least one minor member must be a general member of the Cornell Graduate Field Faculty in English Language and Literature and a member of the Creative Writing Faculty.

The Director of Creative Writing (DCW) serves as the student’s main academic advisor and provisional chair during the first semester of residence. A student must select their committee chairperson by December of the first year. One minor committee member must be added by May of the first year. Per Graduate School requirements, the full special committee must be in place no later than the end of the third semester of study. Since the Special Committee is charged with guiding and supervising all of a candidate’s academic work, it is important to establish this committee as soon as possible.

A student may change the membership of the special committee with the approval of all the members of the committee and notice of such change must be filed with the Graduate School. No change may be made during the three months prior to the Master’s Examination except by approval of the Dean.


The Cornell Department of Literatures in English strives to be an inclusive and welcoming environment for a diverse community of students, staff, and faculty. It is our collective role to preserve that inclusivity. All of our departmental spaces are professional, and the values of respect, equity, and nondiscrimination should inform our conduct in those spaces. We should all treat each other as having equally valuable contributions to make. If, as a student, you experience any unwelcome behaviors, please tell someone—a departmental administrator, departmental staff member, or graduate school administrator or staff member. We take instances of disrespectful, demeaning, and harassing behavior very seriously.

In addition, faculty/student and advisor/advisee relationships, as you know, come in all shapes and sizes. Some are informal and egalitarian, while others are formal and hierarchical. Some are strictly intellectual, while others become quite personal. There are many different mentoring styles, and what works for one advising pair may not be productive for another. However, while we acknowledge and even honor the various textures and flavors of academic mentorship, the Department of Literatures in English does not condone the abuse of graduate students in any form. You are entitled to professional treatment that respects your autonomy and integrity as students, teachers, and intellectuals. If you have any concerns about your interactions with a faculty advisor, particularly if there is something that is preventing you from full and equal access to your graduate education, you are urged to share those concerns with the Director of Graduate Studies, Department Chair, Graduate Coordinator, Director of Administration, and/or the Senior Assistant Dean for Graduate Student Life in the Graduate School.

A student’s special committee is charged with the following formal responsibilities, guiding a student to meet the requirements and expectations of the MFA degree:

  • Advising students in course enrollment each semester
  • Meeting with students at least once each semester
  • Committee Chair’s must complete the Student Progress Review in the fourth semester for each student they advise
  • Advising students in thesis development
  • Conducting the Master’s Examination
  • Approving the final thesis submission
  • Writing informed letters of recommendation for job applications

The Graduate School specifies the student/faculty advising relationship in more detail. Please review these guides for details and additional resources: Advising Guide for Research Students and Graduate School Faculty Guide to Advising Research Degree Students.

Courses and Grades

Course Requirements

In consultation with their special committee, MFA students are expected to successfully complete 4 graduate-level courses (at least 4 in English, Comparative Literature, Cultural Studies or Modern or classical language, or theory), 4 MFA writing workshops, Literary Small Publishing, and the Creative Writing Pedagogical & Thesis Development course (workshops, Literary Small Publishing, & CW Pedagogical Thesis Development must be taken for letter grade). Additionally, the Teaching Training (required in the first summer), Writing 7100, and non-credit Advanced Pedagogy Workshops (which are organized by the Director of Graduate Student Teaching and are required in year two).

In the first semester of study, an MFA candidate is expected to complete one graduate-level courses, Literary Small Publishing, and the MFA writing workshop of their genre for credit. In the second semester of study, an MFA candidate is expected to complete two graduate-level courses and the MFA writing workshop of their genre for credit. In the third semester of study, while teaching, students are expected to complete a total of one additional graduate-level course, the MFA writing workshop. In the fourth semester of study, students are expected to take the MFA writing workshop and the Creative Writing Pedagogical and Thesis Development Course. Please reference the MFA Program Timeline, for complete details on degree program requirements.

All students must be enrolled for a minimum of 12 credits per semester. If credits fall short with required coursework in any given semester, the Graduate School will enroll students in the Graduate Student Research “course” for the remaining credits so full-time status is achieved.

Course Selection

Graduate students may enroll in and receive graduate credit for courses designated as level 5000 and up, depending on their relevance to the students’ needs and special interests. Courses at the 6000-level, designed primarily for graduate students, aim to provide advanced coverage of significant periods, figures, genres, and theoretical issues; 7000-level courses are intensive seminars intended to serve as paradigms of scholarly research or specialized study. ENGL 7940: Directed Study, and ENGL 7950: Group Study, give students the opportunity to enroll for more informal work in areas and on problems of special interest to them. Students are permitted to take one independent/directed/group study to count towards degree requirements. Independent/ directed/group study work should not be thesis work. If enrolled in independent/directed/group study this must be approved by the special committee and a course syllabus must be sent to the GRA. Prior to each semester, the department issues a revised semester-list of course offerings and descriptions.

Undergraduate (3000/4000 level) courses do not fulfill MFA degree requirements. If there are no graduate-level courses available in the desired focus area and there are undergraduate course offerings, students must consult with their special committee. The student may be allowed (with special committee and instructor permission) to enroll in a graduate-level group study and complete graduate-level work for credit. If permitted, the student should work with the home department to properly enroll and work with the faculty member to develop a revised syllabus. The graduate-level syllabus must include a separate section identifying additional graduate-level reading, assignments, and meetings with the faculty to transform the course into an adequate graduate-level designation. This is true for Directed Studies, Group Studies, as well as undergraduate courses with a supplemental 5000+ number. The new graduate-level syllabus should be provided to the Graduate Coordinator to keep on record.

In addition to required coursework and with faculty permission, students may take undergraduate-level courses or audit (non-graded) graduate-level courses. Neither of these course options count toward MFA course requirements, even though these courses will appear on transcripts. As a rule, graduate credit is also not awarded for courses devoted principally to the acquisition of a foreign language, unless that course is offered in the Department of Literatures in English at the 6000-level or above.


Most graduate courses may be taken either for a letter grade or S/U (Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory). MFA in Creative Writing Students are required to take 4 MFA Seminars, Literary Small Publishing, and CW Pedagogical & Thesis Development for a letter grade. With the consent of instructor(s) (and in consultation with the committee, the student may change their grading options at any time before the established University deadline. After this date, changes can only be made by special petition to the Graduate School and are discouraged/only considered in cases of extenuating circumstances. An instructor may permit a student to audit a course, but audited courses don’t count toward program requirements. Grades given to graduate students in the department will be interpreted as follows:

A+, A                        Distinguished
A-                               Commendable
B+                              Satisfactory
B, B-                           Borderline
C+, C, and below     Unsatisfactory

If a student is unable to complete all the work for a course before the end of the semester in which it is offered, they may request a grade of Incomplete (INC) from the instructor. Graduate School policy mandates that all incompletes be made up within one year of the end of the semester during which the course was taken, otherwise it will become a permanent part of the transcript and the course will need to be re-taken in order for it to count.

A student must satisfactorily complete coursework in a timely manner in order to remain in good academic standing (defined below), and thus to be eligible for continued funding.

  • Year 1 Fall: MFA seminar, Literary Small Publishing, 1 additional graduate level courses
  • Year 1 Spring: MFA seminar, 2 additional graduate level courses
  • Year 1 Summer: Teaching Writing 7100
  • Year 2 Fall: MFA seminar, 1 additional graduate level course, Advanced Pedagogy Sessions (no credit)
  • Year 2 Fall: MFA Seminar, Creative Writing Pedagogical & Thesis Development
  • Year 2 Summer: Summer Grad Level Research
  • All courses with grades of INC/NGR (if needed to fulfill coursework requirements) must be satisfied before the M exam can be scheduled.

If a student fails to meet any of these requirements, the student will not be in good academic standing, and will be ineligible for Department and Graduate School funding the following year including lectureship years. Some deadlines may be slightly extended in the event of extenuating circumstances (such as student illness or family emergency).  

Exams and Milestones

MFA students are encouraged to review the MFA Timeline, for additional details on MFA exams and milestones.

Scheduling the Master’s Examination

MFA students are expected to file their Master’s Examination Scheduling Form no later than May 1 of the second year and at least 7 days prior to the exam date.

Master’s Examination

The Master’s Examination or Thesis Defense must take place no later August 1 of the second year. This date is subject to change based on appointment periods. Upon completion of the M exam, students must submit their M Exam Results Form within 3 days of the exam.

Filing the Final Thesis Document

When approved by the special committee, the thesis must be formatted in accordance with Graduate School specifications. Full details concerning dissertation form and deadlines may be found in the Thesis and Dissertation section of the Graduate School’s website. The degree requirements are not complete until the thesis has been filed with the Graduate School and approved by the student’s committee.

Evaluation of Student Progress

Graduate Admissions and Review Committee (GARC): GARC consists of five or more members of the Graduate Field Faculty in English Language and Literature, including the Director of Graduate Studies. Every fall, MFA students are provided with a status report from GARC detailing their progress in the program and suggestions for returning to good academic standing, if there are any concerns.

Student Progress Review (SPR): Students are required to complete the Student Progress Review (SPR) process in April of the second year. The SPR process supports regular communication including written feedback between a student and their committee, requiring research degree students and their special committee to have at least one formal conversation about academic progress, accomplishments and future plans. Students complete a form describing milestones completed, accomplishments, and challenges, as well as set goals. The special committee chair responds in writing and indicates whether the student’s progress is excellent, satisfactory, needs improvement, or is unsatisfactory. Feedback that is documented on the SPR will be made available to the student, the student’s special committee chair, and the DGS/GFA of the student’s field.


Upon admission, each MFA student is awarded a two-year financial support package (including a stipend, a full tuition fellowship, and student health insurance), which is guaranteed provided the student remains in good academic standing and performs satisfactorily in any assistantship capacity. Support is as follows:

  • Year One:  Graduate Assistantship as Editorial Assistant in Epoch
  • Summer Year One:  Stipend for participation in the required Knight Institute teacher-training program. Residence in Ithaca is required.
  • Year Two: Teaching Assistantships
  • Summer Year Two: Picket Summer Fellowship

Additional Funding Opportunities

The Graduate School is pleased to provide MFA students the opportunity to travel to enhance their scholarship. Eligible students are encouraged to apply for grant funding related to professional conferences, research travel, or summer foreign language education. Research and Travel Grants are also available through the Einaudi Center for International Research.

Employment Limit Policy

Because earning a graduate degree involves a significant time commitment, Cornell limits the amount of employment a student may hold while in a full-time registered status (during fall, spring, and summer). Students are considered full-time if they are registered, enrolled in courses, or are working on their thesis or dissertation.  Additional information can be found here. University-imposed employment limits: 

  • 20 hours per week: The total employment limit for all full-time students. This includes the combined assistantship, hourly student appointments, and/or outside employment per week. This is also the maximum employment allowed by law for most international students on F1 or J1 visas.
  • 5 hours per week: The limit for students with standard teaching assistantships (defined as 15 hours/week): no more than five hours of additional assistantships, readerships, hourly student appointments, and/or outside employment.  

Teaching Assistantships, Readerships, and Lectureships

Teaching is considered an integral part of training for the profession. The Field requires a carefully supervised teaching assistantship (TA) experience (in the capacity of a graduate student instructor or graduate teaching assistant).

In addition to TA opportunities, supplementary readership opportunities may be available. Readers assist faculty members with grading papers and/or leading discussion sections for undergraduate lecture courses. These are part-time paid commitments and are not available as a primary means of graduate student support.

MFA students in their final year may consider applying for Lectureship. This is a paid teaching position that requires the student to complete their M exam and terminate their registered student status prior to the appointment date. Lecturers may not hold any student fellowships or any student employment positions simultaneously with the lectureship appointment. In all lectureship cases, the thesis must be filed by the end of the first term of lectureship or before.

Please consult the Teaching Handbook for Graduate Student Instructors, Lecturers, Teaching Assistants, and Readers in the Department of Literatures in English at Cornell University for complete details on applying for teaching, readership, or lectureship.

Registration and Degree Requirements

In addition to coursework, milestone, and teaching requirements outlined in the department’s MFA Program Timeline, degree candidates must satisfy all requirements specified by the Graduate School’s Code of Legislation. Relief from these requirements must be sought by petitioning the Graduate School. Petition requests require endorsement from special committee members and the DGS. Here are a few highlights to be aware of

  • A student must complete a minimum of 4 semesters of registration at Cornell (full-time study) in order to fulfill MFA degree requirements.
  • A student must complete their M Exam by the end of the second year, since lectureship appointment hinges on successful M Exam completion and final thesis submission.
  • Candidates must complete all degree requirements and submit the final thesis within two years (4 registered semesters) of entering the MFA program.

Graduate Student Committees and Organizations

Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GPSA): brings together Cornell’s community of graduate and professional students to address non-academic issues of common concern. Drawing upon the strengths of its diverse community, the GPSA is responsible for setting and distributing the graduate student activity fee and representatives to University committees. The GPSA is composed of delegates from each graduate field and the professional schools and nineteen voting members, elected from the larger body of field representatives.

Graduate Policy and Curriculum Committee (GPCC): consists of four elected representatives (3 PhD students and 1 MFA student) who represent the interests of the student body regarding graduate policy and graduate curriculum in the Department of Literatures in English. Representatives are expected to meet at least twice per semester with the Director of Graduate Studies. This committee provides a formal mechanism for the exchange of ideas between faculty and students. The Committee’s principal responsibility is to transmit to the Literatures in English Graduate Faculty its advice on matters of policy affecting the graduate programs within the Field in order to improve the graduate student experience.

English Graduate Student Organization (EGSO): fosters PhD and MFA student life and culture by striving to create community, to plan and implement programming for academic and professional development, and to establish unity and cohesion among the English Department’s graduate student body. Elections are held each spring. EGSO also offers a graduate mentoring program to foster connections between incoming and current graduate students. This helps first years navigate student and social life in department, the graduate school, and the larger Ithaca community. Mentors and mentees connect prior to orientation day and meet formally and informally over the course of their first year. The program organizes lunches and other social events to welcome new students to Cornell and cultivate relationships within the department.

Reading Groups and Extracurricular Activities: The concept of “residence” comprehends more than attending seminars and writing papers. An important part of one’s education comes from informal contacts and extracurricular discussions. Every year there are several social gatherings, formal and informal, sponsored by the department. The department also encourages attendance at public lectures, readings, and conferences, and participation in reading groups and independent study groups with or without a faculty advisor. Graduate students can organize lectures, conferences, readings, workshops and other events on their own. Funds for this purpose are typically available from a variety of sources.

Informal reading groups--some established gatherings and others that form from year to year--focus on such topics as Queer Theory, U.S. Latino Literature, Marxist criticism, and Victorian Literature. Conferences largely organized by graduate students also provide a chance for graduate work to reach a wide audience of the Cornell community. Organizations such as the Renaissance Colloquium, The Lounge Hour Reading Series, Literatures in English Department Roundtable, Quodlibet (a forum for work in Medieval Studies), and the Visiting Writers Series organized by the Creative Writing program bring scholars and writers to Cornell for readings, talks, and seminars. 

Departmental Resources

Administrative Faculty/Staff Contact Information:   

Faculty/TA Office Hours:  

Graduate Students have access to the Resources for Graduate Students and Lecturers Canvas resources area (log in using you NetID and password).


Graduate School Resources

The Office of Academic and Student Affairs works with graduate faculty and graduate students on academic policy and programs, academic integrity and misconduct, responsible conduct of research, petitions requesting exceptions to graduate school policy as outlines in the Graduate Faculty’s Code of Legislation, and academic progress and students status.

The Office of Inclusion and Student Engagement (OISE) supports an inclusive and welcoming

environment for all graduate and postdoctoral scholars, but especially for those from marginalized communities and/or backgrounds historically excluded from and underrepresented in the academy. OISE supports systemic change and promotes a climate of diversity, belonging, equity, engagement, and achievement, which are integral components of graduate and postdoctoral education. OISE supports scholar success through recruitment, diversity fellowships, mentoring, professional, leadership, and community development programming, and ongoing support.

Recognizing that health and academic performance are intimately linked, the Office of Graduate Student Life is a source of information, support, and advocacy that creates a more student-centered graduate student life experience.  In addition to being a first-point of contact for students who are struggling or experiencing any form of distress, the Office of Graduate Student Life serves as a coordinating hub with campus-partners that focus on promoting a healthy and holistic student experience.  More information on available support is available: 

Faculty Resources from the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity:

Faculty Resources from Graduate School:

General inquiries about registration, enrollment, leaves, exams or other student requirements can be directed to the Student Service Office (

Contact Information for Graduate School staff can be found here: Graduate School Staff Directory

University Resources

The university’s Mental Health at Cornell website offers information and resources to help students get support, practice self-care, help others, and get involved in campus health initiatives. Special tips are provided for graduate and professional students.

Cornell Health supports the health and well-being of graduate students with medical and mental health care and workshops to help busy students thrive. They also offer non-clinical support services, including Student Disability Services and Victim Advocacy.

Mental health care at Cornell Health includes drop-in consultation, workshops, individual counseling, and group counseling (including several groups specifically for graduate students).

Notice & Respond: Friend 2 Friend for Graduate & Professional Students,” helps graduate and professional students learn connect peers in distress with appropriate sources of support and care.

Guidance for faculty, staff, and TAs supporting student mental health: