Advanced Degrees in Writing Genre Fiction

by Michaela Roessner

In the Science Fiction & Fantasy courses I teach here at Gotham, I’ve experienced something I’m sure other genre faculty have too: Students mentioning in their bios that they have advanced degrees in Literature, English, or Creative Writing. I always ask these students that since they already know how to write and therefore their presence in my classes will be an enormous treat for me, what could I possibly have to teach them?

The heartbreaking answer is always the same: While getting that degree they were never allowed to write in their preferred genre (Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, etc.). Some were even made the class whipping boy or girl as soon as they mentioned they wanted to write any kind of genre fiction.

Some years ago a well-known creative writing professor outright boasted in a respected journal of the shoddy way she treated students who wanted to write genre fiction, pleased as punch with herself with the way she’d beaten it out of them. Only to confess on the very next page that she’d eventually run across those “charming” Harry Potter books and decided that maybe some genre fiction wasn’t all that bad after all.

I seethed at this, wanting to track down every student she’d abused for no other reason that she didn’t know a damned thing about genre fiction or how to write it, and tell them to sue her for every wasted dime they’d spent for her classes and even more for their pain and suffering.

Now if any of you might hanker to attend a creative writing graduate program where you’d not only be allowed to write in your chosen genre but be encouraged to do so and taught by faculty embedded in genre fiction, take heart! You no longer have to risk signing on for years of abuse. Nor pine away if there aren’t any genre-fiction friendly institutions nearby. In other words, you don’t have to settle.

There are now more genre-fiction-friendly brick-and-mortar programs that provide coursework in at least some Genre Fiction subjects. Rosemont College’s MFA program in Pennsylvania is a good example. Among more standard MFA creative writing courses, they also have classes in Mystery/Horror, YA, and literature courses in Speculative Fiction.

But if you don’t have any nearby genre-fiction-friendly institutions, there are three low-residency MFA programs offering full concentrations in popular/genre fiction.

A low-residency program means that students travel to the institution itself for brief intensive sessions, then study during the intervening months via some form of distance learning. This allows students to maintain their jobs and take care of their families while earning the desired degree without having to pull up stakes and move.

Typical low-residencies consist of two in-house residencies a year of usually eight to ten days per residency, with study plans for the interim months that students negotiate and prepare with an assigned mentor that include creative writing, a required readings list, and penning academic analytical pieces. During residencies students attend writing workshops, topic-specific presentations, and public readings by faculty and graduating students.

Students can apply to join a typical low-res program starting with either a winter or summer residency. All low-residency programs include a completed thesis component.

Here are the three current low-residency MFA programs that offer concentrations in Popular/Genre Fiction:

Seton Hill is the oldest full-genres genre-fiction program. They used to offer an MA degree, but switched to MFAs a few years ago. They operate on a typical “traditional” low-residency format. The genres that Seton Hill supports in its program are Romance, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, and YA. Seton Hill’s curriculum also includes a pedagogy course and a writing-about-popular-fiction class.

Stonecoast U. of Southern Maine is also a typical two-residencies-per-year (summer and winter) and mentors-in-between model. The genres that Stonecoast currently supports in its Popular Fiction concentration are Speculative Fiction, Romance, Mystery and its subsets like Crime/Noir, and YA.


Western State Colorado University has an MFA Genre Fiction curriculum that covers Westerns, Mystery, Crime, Thrillers, all Speculative Fiction subsets, Horror, Romance, and YA. WSCU’s paradigm is different from typical low residency programs. It hosts just one onsite two-week session in July. Students may only enter the program in the summer, but that also means they incur the extra travel and housing expenses, time off work, etc., just once a year.

WSCU’s students attend in cohorts, during their first year focusing on workshop and survey classes that cover all the basic genre fiction subsets. In their second year they also take the-business-of-writing and pedagogy courses in addition to being assigned a mentor as their thesis advisor. During WSCU’s summer residencies, students attend classes that focus on the needs of their particular cohort – where they are in the program.

Instead of presentations throughout its residency, WSCU’s program culminates in the university’s annual writing conference—Writing the Rockies—which has its own presentations and workshops that address all three of WSCU’s concentrations of Genre Fiction, Poetry, and Screenwriting.

Seton Hill’s program concentrates wholly on genre fiction, but do note that if you’re accepted to either Stonecoast or WSCU, although you’ll study in your specific subgenre, you won’t be studying just your subgenre.

At Stonecoast, besides the genre fiction workshops, students may be assigned to non-genre-fiction workshops and can choose to attend lectures and presentations in the other concentrations in order to broaden their perspective and options.

In the online coursework at WSCU, students must study across all the major genre fiction subgenres, learning the standards/benchmarks and dipping a toe in writing in all of them in order to learn the possibilities and advantages of borrowing from other subgenres to improve one’s chosen field, and to introduce students to subgenres they might not have previously considered as writing options. In their third semester students also take a course in one of other dedicated tracks (Poetry or Screenwriting).

To find out the submission requirements and information for any of these three programs, visit their websites.

So if you want to get an advanced degree writing genre fiction, when looking at any creative writing program, do make sure to see if their listed coursework supports and encourages genre fiction and that they have instructors who are informed about, embedded in (i.e., published in), and qualified to teach those subjects.