The MFA Exam and Thesis
Thesis Proposal, Advisor, and Committee
Thesis Responsibilities (Advisor, Student, Readers)
Thesis Submission Format
Exam, Thesis, and Graduation Checklist
Departmental Policy on Early Graduation
Departmental Policy on Delayed Graduation and Leave-of-Absence
Re-enrollment after an Absence of More Than Two Semesters
Graduate School Five-Year Rule
A Note about Seeking Letters of Recommendation
The MFA exam is taken during the penultimate semester of your coursework. If you plan to graduate in May, you’ll take the exam in the preceding October (3rd weekend); if you plan to graduate in December, you’ll take the exam in the preceding March (3rd weekend). Typically, students pick up the exam on a Friday afternoon and have the entire weekend to complete it. The exam consists of three published selections in the student’s primary genre and a writing prompt. The student will choose one of the selections as the basis of their response. The responses require skills in close reading and knowledge of practical criticism and aesthetics. Sample exams (complete with answers) in all three genres are available for review in the CRW office. The second part of the exam is a more philosophical response based on the student’s writing aesthetic.
The faculty has developed an extensive suggested reading list to aid you in preparing for the exam. The MFA suggested reading list is available on our department website. We suggest that you consult this list early in your course of study. Other resources for the MFA exam can be found on our department SharePoint site.
Note: Before you can take the MFA exam, you must have established a thesis director and committee, and you must have received approval of your submitted thesis proposal (see below).
Students will submit the Intent to Take MFA Exam form and submit it to the thesis director for signature by the due date on the form. This notifies the director to submit the published writing selection for the student's analytical response, and notifies administrators to prepare an exam for the student.
The Graduate School requires all students to fill out graduation applications in SeaNet during their graduating semester. This ensures that all your course credits are being correctly counted toward your degree, and that your name is printed correctly in the commencement program. Details and instructions are available on the Graduate School’s website under <Current Students> and <Graduation>.
- For December graduates, the deadline for the graduation application is September 15.
- For May graduates, the deadline for the graduation application is February 15.
An MFA candidate must complete a substantial, book-length thesis manuscript of literary merit and publishable quality acceptable to the thesis committee. This ordinarily will be a novel; a novella; a collection of short stories, poems, or essays; a single long poem; a long nonfiction narrative; or, in specially approved instances, some combination of the foregoing. “Book-length” is ordinarily defined as 48-64 pages of poetry, or 120-240 pages of prose. Early in the process the student should discuss the projected length of the manuscript with his/her thesis director.
It is expected that the thesis will be composed of work written and revised throughout the course of the student’s study. Thesis hours, then, are to be used to polish existing work and to create what new writing is deemed appropriate. It should be understood that thesis work cannot be successfully accomplished in only the six designated thesis hours, nor in one semester’s time. Though the typical period of MFA study is three years, and though typically the student’s thesis draft is completed in the next-to -last semester and polished during his or her final semester of study, it is not unusual for students to take longer than three years to complete both the necessary course work and the substantial thesis. While we strongly urge students to complete the MFA degree in three years, in the event that a delay is necessary, please review the Creative Writing Department’s policy on delayed graduation, further below.
The thesis must be completed in the candidate’s primary genre. Should the candidate wish to change genres, he/she must reapply for admission and be accepted into the program in that genre. Note: this practice is highly discouraged.
By the end of your second year, you will request and be assigned a committee of three faculty members to oversee your thesis: a thesis director (also called a thesis chair or thesis advisor) and two readers. (Students planning to graduate early should consult with the MFA coordinator as soon as possible.) Your thesis director and readers will be in charge of approving the quality of the final project. The MFA coordinator and faculty will do our best to assign you the thesis director you request, but in order to distribute thesis duties equitably, you may be assigned a director and/or readers who are not your first choices on your list of preferences. You should meet with your thesis director early in the thesis-writing process to ensure that the thesis is completed successfully and on time. (Note: your thesis director will also serve as your academic advisor in your third year.)
After your thesis committee is established, the deadline and instructions for thesis proposals will be announced via e-mail. (You can download a copy of the thesis proposal form at any time from our website.) The thesis proposal is developed by the student, and forwarded to the student’s thesis committee for approval and signature. Along with your thesis proposal narrative, you must submit a sample of creative work in your primary genre for your committee’s review; this is to ensure that all committee members have a sense of your course of study and endorse the quality of your writing. Once the signed thesis proposal is approved, make a copy for Lisa Bertini to file in the CRW office, and the thesis director will retain a copy for his or her records. Acceptable writing samples are 10 poems or, for prose writers, a book chapter or complete story. Note: All students should submit a thesis proposal in the antepenultimate semester of study. (due dates)
The format of the thesis proposal:
One to three pages (double-spaced) of text explaining the focus and intentions of the thesis, to include genre, form, table of contents (if applicable), and anticipated length of the manuscript. Large and complicated projects, especially those requiring planning and research, should be outlined according to the expectations of the thesis committee. The objectives and scope of the project should be manageable and clear to all concerned.
Note: It is normal, even desirable, for the thesis to evolve into a project very different than that originally described in the proposal. The student should consult with his or her thesis director as work progresses, but in general students are not required to submit a new thesis proposal, unless graduation is delayed by two or more years and a new thesis director and committee are assigned.
Again, your thesis proposal should be submitted and approved one year prior to your expected graduation date, and one semester before you take the MFA exam.
The student will:
- Forward the proposal (by email, paper copy, etc.) to the thesis committee by April 15 (November 15 for Fall graduates). (It is the student's responsibility to contact the committee members.)
- Email to Lisa in a combined pdf document the abstract and the writing sample by April 15 (November 15 for Fall graduates).
- Submit the mandatory thesis proposal cover sheet to the committee members for signature approving the proposal, then ensure the completed cover sheet is submitted to Lisa Bertini for Department filing.
- Deadline to submit the signed thesis proposal cover sheet to Lisa is May 15 (December 15 for Fall graduates).
Most students email--by April 15th--their three committee members (and copy Lisa) the thesis proposal abstract & writing sample, and include the note that the student will leave the thesis proposal cover sheet in the director's mailbox to have the director, upon review, sign his/her approval and then forward on to the other committee members for their signatures, returning it to Lisa by May 15th.
Faculty thesis directors and student writers work together in different ways; as you write your thesis, your thesis director may be involved in your manuscript’s evolution from its earliest drafts, or may only want to see the “first finished draft.” But for all, the following guidelines are in effect: If you plan to graduate in the spring, a draft of your thesis must be submitted to your director no later than December 15 (for fall graduates, May 15). Please note, faculty are not required to read over the break between semesters, though some may prefer to do their reading at that time. By February 1 at the latest (for fall graduates, September 1), the director will respond to the student. When the director determines that the draft is acceptable, the thesis defense will be scheduled. The student will then provide copies of the thesis for the remaining committee members, no later than three weeks prior to the defense. All thesis defenses for spring graduates must be completed between March 1 and April 15 (for fall graduates, between October 1 and November 15).
Remember: The thesis is not meant to be the masterpiece of your career, the best and last book you will ever write. We expect it to be the first book you will write, with plenty more to follow. So while it is important to write the best thesis you can, do not put artificial pressure on yourself to make it perfect. If we have done our job right, you are still evolving as a writer, expanding your vision and ambitions. Typically before seeking publication, an MFA graduate spends the next year or two polishing the thesis into a book, even doing extensive revisions that didn’t occur to the writer during the thesis semester.
The Student’s Thesis Responsibilities
- Hand in thesis proposal and writing sample as directed.
- Meet with director as appropriate to formulate project and discuss progress.
- Hand in a completed draft of the thesis to your director and readers by the deadlines.
- Make the appropriate revisions.
- Follow through on the two-part thesis defense:
- A private discussion (the actual oral defense) with your thesis committee. The committee will discuss your work, pose questions, engage you in a conversation about your craft, and will possibly review your MFA exam with you. In any case in which the student receives conflicting advice for revision from different committee members, the judgment of the thesis director should prevail.
- Participate in a public reading of thesis work with other graduating MFA students.
- Bring two copies of your final (i.e., approved-format) thesis cover page on thesis paper to your defense for your committee members' signatures (no need to print your whole thesis yet).
- Finish all revisions and hand in correctly formatted copy of thesis to the Graduate School by the final deadline.
- Follow the guidelines (further below) for thesis formatting, the final bound copy, and the PDF electronic copy.
The Thesis Director’s Responsibilities
- Review thesis proposal and approve it when appropriate.
- Meet with the student to plan thesis semester.
- Meet with student as appropriate to discuss progress of manuscript.
- Schedule Part 1 of the thesis defense.
- Chair Part 1 of the thesis defense.
- If the thesis defense passes, supervise signing of student’s final pages by all members of the committee. If the defense does not pass, meet with student and MFA coordinator to discuss options.
The Thesis Committee Readers’ Responsibilities
- Read the thesis draft and make appropriate suggestions for revision, either written or orally, at the defense. You need not read subsequent drafts of the thesis.
- If you have a serious problem with the overall quality of the manuscript, or any other substantial reservations, contact the thesis director immediately.
- Be present for both parts of the thesis defense, and ask questions during Part 1.
- At your discretion, you may discuss the thesis manuscript with the student.
- In any case in which the student receives conflicting advice for revision from different committee members, the judgment of the thesis director should prevail.
The Graduate School provides a Thesis Guide online for all graduate students. The manual is available online at http://uncw.edu/gradschool/thesis.html. This thesis information page also includes thesis requirements, forms, and deadlines.
You will need to consult the Thesis Guide in order to format your thesis so that is approved by the Graduate School. The MFA Resource Room (Kenan Hall, 2nd floor) also has copies of bound MFA theses; review one for an example of the finished product. Please do not remove theses from KE 2111.
The Graduate School requires students to submit theses in electronic PDF format, and typically holds thesis-format workshops during which electronic theses are discussed. For questions regarding thesis formatting, please remember that the TAC is a valuable resource for help with setting up a pdf, formatting issues, etc.
The Creative Writing Department also requires one paper copy of your thesis (see item #6 below) for archival in our thesis library in the MFA Resource Room.
The formatting/submission process is as follows:
- You’ll submit to Nancy Holland in the Graduate School (email@example.com) a draft copy (pdf) of your thesis for initial format approval, by the due date, along with the format approval sheet.
- Nancy will okay your formatting (by email) and you will schedule your thesis defense.
- Make sure to bring two copies ON COTTON THESIS PAPER of your thesis cover page to your defense in order to get signatures from your thesis committee members (see below for special thesis paper requirements).
- After successful completion of the thesis defense, you will email to Nancy Holland and to Lisa Bertini (1) your final electronic thesis in pdf form, by the due date, along with (2) the ETD (electronic permissions) form (see notes below).
- You will send by campus mail to Nancy (the Graduate School mail code is 5955) both signed thesis cover pages. Include a note on the second cover sheet requesting that the Graduate School Dean sign it and return it via campus mail to Lisa Bertini (the CRW mail code is 5938) for inclusion with your bound thesis.
- You will print one paper copy, single-sided, of your entire thesis on 100% cotton, 20- or 24-lb. white paper, bring it to the Creative Writing Department (preferably in the box the thesis paper was in) and leave it with Lisa Bertini. The deadline to submit the paper copy of the thesis is May 15 (December 15 for Fall graduates). Lisa will take all the MFA theses together to Randall Library. The Creative Writing Department will pay for the binding of this single copy per student, which will be returned to the Department for our thesis archive library in the MFA Resource Room.
The Graduate School will take care of submitting your electronic thesis to the Library for posting to the electronic-archival server.
For more information regarding the ETD submission form, please see http://www.uncw.edu/gradschool/thesis.html.
Generally speaking, CRW recommends, on the ETD form, selecting <Option 2> and <indefinitely>. This designation will release your electronic thesis, for an unlimited time, for UNCW-wide access only.
Randall Library thesis requirements give more information about permissions, as well as information about getting a personal copy of your thesis.
All MFA students must defend their thesis in two sessions. Part 1 consists of a one-on-three discussion, or “defense,” with your thesis committee. Part 2 is a public reading of your work given with several other graduating MFA students, to be followed by a reception, sponsored and publicized by the Creative Writing department.
Your thesis director will work with you to schedule Part 1 of your defense. Your director will not allow you to schedule this part of your defense, however, if he/she does not deem your thesis to be of passable quality.
Remember: Before your defense, you must submit a formatted draft and abstract of your thesis to the Graduate School. You may not defend a thesis that has not received format approval from the Graduate School.
All thesis defenses for spring graduates must be completed between March 1 and April 15 (for fall graduates, between October 1 and November 15).
Part 2 of the defense, your public thesis reading and reception, will be scheduled by the department. Thesis readings will take place throughout the academic year; for example, you might give your reading in fall even if you graduate in spring. Note: Even if you delay graduation, you should schedule your thesis reading during your third year. Due to time constraints, we cannot guarantee space in the events schedule for thesis readings delayed beyond a student’s third year in the program.
Here is an abbreviated checklist for your final semesters. See the sections above for more details.
- After you have a thesis committee, submit the thesis proposal by the deadline one year prior to graduation and one semester prior to taking the MFA exam. (Even if you are considering delaying graduation, you should submit a thesis proposal at the end of your second year of study.)
- Submit the Intent to take MFA Examination Form, and take the MFA exam in the semester before you graduate.
- If you plan to graduate in the spring, a draft of your thesis must be submitted to your director no later than December 15 (for fall graduates, May 15)
- Follow the procedures and file all necessary forms for graduation in your final semester by the due date (February 15th for Spring graduates; September 15th for Fall graduates).
- Work with the Graduate School to assure appropriate thesis format. Use the Graduate School’s Thesis Format Manual, available online (see previous page).
- Submit your formatted thesis draft and thesis abstract to the Graduate School for approval by the deadline.
- Follow the Department of Creative Writing process for the two-part thesis defense.
- Bring two copies of your final (i.e., approved-format) thesis cover page on thesis paper to your defense for your committee members' signatures (no need to print your whole thesis yet).
- Finish all revisions and submit the correctly formatted copy of the thesis via email to the Graduate School by the final deadline, and copy Lisa Bertini.
- Follow CRW guidelines for preparing and submitting the final paper copy of the thesis for binding (see previous MFA Handbook section).
Though the MFA program is designed to allow students to complete the MFA degree in three years, occasionally a student will work toward an early graduation. Should this be your choice (for financial or personal reasons), understand that while we will all work toward helping you achieve this goal, it may mean that you will need to be more flexible than other students when it comes to course selection and thesis committee assignments.
While our main concern in offering Graduate Teaching Assistantships is to help support our graduate student recipients, we also have a responsibility to the undergraduate students who are served by courses assigned to our GTAs. Since our department invests a great amount of energy in training our GTAs, it is imperative that a teaching assistant fulfill the duties of the position for three entire academic years. Thus, as a matter of both necessity and professional courtesy, should a GTA wish to graduate in the fall of the third year, that GTA must notify the MFA Coordinator of his/her intent as soon as the decision to graduate early has been made, and must surrender his/her assistantship no later than the end of the second year.
The MFA program is designed to allow students to complete the MFA degree in three years. However, a student will occasionally find it necessary to delay the thesis defense and graduation. UNCW’s Graduate School requires that you complete the degree by the end of five years, maximum. Any decision to delay defense and graduation should be made in conjunction with your thesis director. If you postpone your thesis defense by more than two semesters, your thesis committee is subject to change. In addition, even if you postpone your defense by only one or two semesters, it is possible that your thesis director or readers may be unavailable to serve, and substitutions on your committee will be necessary.
If you are considering postponing your defense and graduation, please thoroughly review the following departmental policies, and consult your thesis director and the MFA coordinator, to ensure you understand how these policies apply to your situation.
An MFA student who has been absent (not enrolled) for more than two semesters, who has completed all coursework and needs only to defend the thesis in order to graduate, must do the following: Resubmit to the MFA coordinator an updated thesis proposal (including writing sample) by a date no later than one month before the end of the semester prior to the semester in which the student seeks to defend and graduate. The proposal should indicate how close the manuscript is to completion.
The thesis proposal will be reviewed by MFA coordinator and graduate faculty. If proposal is of defendable quality, the MFA coordinator will assign the student a new thesis committee, which may or may not include faculty previously assigned to this student. If proposal is rejected, a student who is still within the five-year graduation limit may re-enroll, but may not graduate in the upcoming semester. The student will receive notification of the thesis proposal’s acceptance or rejection prior to the start of the semester in which he or she seeks to re-enroll.
If an MFA student (1) has exceeded the Graduate School’s five-year limit for completing the degree; (2) has not been enrolled in either thesis hours or CRW coursework for at least two semesters; and (3) has not been granted a leave-of-absence by the MFA coordinator prior to becoming inactive; he or she will not be re-admitted to the program except by re-applying (submitting full application) to the Graduate School. In order to receive a leave of absence, the student must complete the appropriate paperwork and submit to the Graduate Coordinator (provide link here).
Ordinarily it will be the policy of the Creative Writing department not to endorse or grant extensions on the above five-year limit except (1) in cases where medical leave-of-absence has been granted in advance by the MFA coordinator; and (2) in cases where the student has finished all coursework but has been continuously enrolled in thesis hours or in GRC 600, Continuous Enrollment (http://uncw.edu/gradschool/registration/forms.html).
In the event that an extension is granted to the five-year rule and a student is readmitted to the program, his or her previous UNCW coursework taken outside the five-year limit will be reviewed by the MFA coordinator in order to determine whether and how it will count toward the degree.
In your final year of the MFA program, you will be asking your professors for letters of recommendation. As a rule, faculty are happy to do this. We want you to succeed at the next level of your ambition. But there is a protocol about how to get letters from your faculty without abusing their time and goodwill. The protocol also makes it more likely that the letters will get written and reach the people they need to reach in a timely fashion.
- If you have not already done so, set up a dossier—either with UNCW Career Services, the Associated Writing Programs (AWP), or independent portfolio services such as Interfolio. In some cases, this will cost you a fee up front and a nominal fee each time you request that your dossier be sent to a university, employer, etc. The dossier itself consists typically of college and/or grad school transcripts, letters of recommendation, and anything else that has to be handled “blind”— that is, by a third party to ensure its integrity and authenticity.
- Once you have set up your dossier, select which professors, employers, or colleagues (if you are already functioning as a professional) to ask for letters. To ensure the best possible references:
- Be sure the letters come from people whose credentials are relevant to the purpose of the letter; in other words, a letter from your minister or a family friend most likely won’t help convince a potential employer to hire you—but strong letters from writing professors or visiting writers might.
- Make sure the person you ask to write the letter will write a strong letter—it’s no good having a Pulitzer Prize winner write a letter in which he or she just says, “So-and-so was in my class.” That can be worse than no letter at all. And a professor with reservations about your work or attitude has the obligation to express those to his or her colleagues at another university. So ask the recommender honestly if he or she can write you a favorable letter. If not, then thank him or her and try someone else. You’re better off knowing this up front (much as it may disappoint you or hurt your feelings) instead of having a letter floating around in your file that will torpedo your chances.
- Once you have chosen your recommenders and they have agreed to write positive letters on your behalf, do the following:
- Fill out all forms completely before you forward them to recommenders.
- Provide each with a readable resume or short list of things you have accomplished—including the class which you completed with that professor. Your recommenders may have taught hundreds of other students in the intervening years, and you want specifics in the letter which may have faded from the instructor’s memory over time.
- Provide a stamped and addressed envelope, along with any necessary forms to attach. The letter will go directly to the university where you are applying, not to you, except in rare cases. If the letter is sent to you to enclose in your application packet, it will have the recommender’s signature across the back of the envelope. Do not open! This is meant as a confidentiality measure; the letter is not meant for your eyes. Though many recommenders routinely show their letters to the candidates they concern, this is the recommender’s choice. He or she has done a professional service for you—written a candid assessment of your abilities and performance. You should already know you can trust it, or you shouldn’t have asked for it.
- Given a choice between “Waive right to see letter” and “Do not waive right to see letter,” always waive the right. Otherwise, your recommender and the person who gets the letter might feel you don’t trust your recommender and wonder why.
- Give your recommenders enough time to write their letters. Remember, dozens of other graduates, former students, and colleagues ask for letters each semester. Allow at least a month. A week before the letter is due, give the recommender a gentle reminder and a way to contact you if he or she has misplaced the original form. Do not wait to ask until after the deadline has passed (unless the university or employer has requested you to trace the letters and you are still under consideration). Normally, by then, it is too late.
Our department routinely offers panel discussions and informal Q & A sessions conducted by faculty on how to apply for academic jobs and other post-graduate career-related matters. If you are graduating, you should not consider these sessions optional.