Per my MFA student…

Per my MFA student Lori's request: The Ph.D. in Creative Writing


One big difference between the MFA and the Ph.D. is financial. Most MFA programs will charge you some amount of money for tuition. They may offer some tuition remission, contingent on your teaching or tutoring, or they may have some scholarships. But in general, it seems that most MFA students will spend a fair amount on their degree. In my program at Mills, I ended up spending $40,000. I paid for tuition the first year, had tuition remission the second year (and did a little tutoring in the Writing Center in exchange), and took out additional loans to cover my living expenses, since I wanted to focus entirely on my studies. You can spend a lot less, especially if you work while you're in grad school. You can spend a lot more. The MFA at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago currently recommends you budget a little over $48K/yr (two-year program) for tuition, living expenses, health insurance, etc.

In most Ph.D.'s, on the other hand, all admitted receive tuition remission and most if not all also receive a stipend in exchange for teaching. If you live somewhere cheap, and have roommates, you may actually be able to live on that stipend and not take out loans at all. At Utah, I had full tuition remission and received a $10K stipend for the first two years of classwork (for which, in exchange, I taught three classes of freshman comp. a year). I think this was a standard offer to all accepted. A few incoming students received fellowships that gave them additional money or let them out of the teaching. (Doing some teaching is valuable experience, but doing a lot of it does take away from your writing/class time, and can feel particularly futile if you're teaching the same section of freshman comp for the sixth time in two years.) There were some fellowships available later in the program; I was lucky enough to receive a Neff fellowship (which released me from two of my teaching classes my second year, and then a Steffenson-Canon fellowship, which increased my stipend to $12K and released me from all my teaching for the year. Note that we are not talking about big money here, no matter where you go, but it's enough that in a Ph.D. program, thinking in terms of the old-school guilds, you feel much more like an apprentice (or even a journeyman), and much less like just another paying student.

What You Learn

In some ways my classwork was very similar in my MFA and Ph.D. -- we did workshops, we did lit classes. But the Ph.D. program was clearly operating at a higher level, both in terms of the quality of the workshops (and the students' work within it, my own work included), and in terms of the challenge of the literary theory presented. I had to work hard at understanding lit. theory in the Ph.D., and was also presented with some narrative theory (I would have liked more) and a fabulous course in post-colonial theory. Overall, it was more intensely academic, more challenging, and in my opinion, more interesting.

In part that was because we had the third year, where we just read intensively for a year (120 texts on a focused topic, 40 historical, 40 contemporary, 40 critical) and then took our comprehensive exams. That allowed for a certain literary depth that just isn't possible in an MFA program, where you're usually aiming for broad coverage (this period and that, American and British, etc.) And of course, on the creative side, you get a year+ to write your dissertation after that, where you're working on a focused creative project, as opposed to writing one-two pieces for a different workshop every month. (Note: some Ph.D. programs expect some portion of this final work to actually be critical rather than creative; please factor that into your decision-making process.)

I also had much more opportunity (it seemed) to shape the courses I took towards my own interests (including doing an independent study in Sri Lankan history). It's hard to say how much of that, though, was my own having a better idea of what I was doing by the time I did the Ph.D.; I don't want to say that you can't be focused in a MFA program. Just maybe that most students didn't seem to be, myself included? I did learn a lot during my MFA, from wonderful, talented teachers -- but I think I learned a *lot* more in my Ph.D. I don't think that was the fault of the instructors or the program, actually; it may just be inherent in the differing purposes of the two types of programs.


This goes back to what I was saying about apprenticing. I was talking to Kevin about this during the first few months of the Ph.D. program, and saying how different it felt, though I couldn't say why. He said that in math, there really was a tremendous difference between MA students and Ph.D. students. The MA students were in the program for a variety of reasons -- maybe they just loved math, or planned to be high school math teachers, or weren't sure if they wanted to do a Ph.D., or or or. Whereas the Ph.D. students were there with a very specific purpose -- they were in training to become academics, to take over the jobs of their professors. And as such, the faculty treated them differently; they knew they were interacting with (hopefully) future academic *colleagues*, rather than a set of students that would come in, learn something, and then go out into the wider world.

Another way of thinking about this is perhaps how the Princeton Review describes it: "An M.F.A. is not necessarily a job-preparation degree like a lot other graduate programs. Rather, an M.F.A. is largely an artistic endeavor."

One thing this meant for me (YMMV!) is that I felt much more respected as a Ph.D. student than I had in my MFA program. Treated not quite as an equal, but as someone who might become an equal someday. I felt like the faculty took my work seriously, which in turn encouraged me to take my own work seriously. It created the space for the development of an intense long-term project, and gave me the help I needed to do the best job I could with that project.

Professional Development

One big consequence of all this is that if you're interested in the academic job market (which is brutally tight, esp. in English), you're likely to be a stronger candidate with a Ph.D. behind your name. Though of course, in the end, publications (especially if they come with awards and other honors) matter more than anything else for a creative writer trying to get an academic job.

Here's what Utah currently says about their program, which seems about right:

The Ph.D. in Literature with Creative Writing emphasis is neither a fine arts degree nor simply a traditional literature Ph.D. with a creative dissertation. The program is designed to help the student become a better writer, as well as a writer who knows the history of his or her chosen genre and is aware of the critical theory relevant to it.

The Ph.D. is generally recognized as a writer's best preparation for a teaching career at the college or university level. Many colleges cannot afford to hire someone to teach only creative writing; the Ph.D. is strong evidence that the writer can also teach literature courses, and that she or he can take a full and active part in the academic community.

Okay, those are my initial thoughts on the subject. Questions, corrections, addendums? (Nicole, Lynn, Paul -- it'd of course be most interesting to get your take on this!)

6 thoughts on “Per my MFA student…”

  1. Interesting. I had no idea, realy, about these things outside of mathematics. I had alw3ays assumed that in a lot of fields you needed to pay all the way to the Ph. D. I assumed that the only exceptions were the fields which had a really large service teaching load, so that grad students were needed, such as math and English.

  2. The Princeton Review’s comment is describing a recent phenomenon. The MFA (at least in poetry) used to be a terminal degree because it was similar to an apprenticeship. It was to help you learn to teach yourself and had nothing to do with academia.

    I’m a little sad to see that the higher education is mostly geared toward those who will become academics (clearly I’m not one) since I feel our society could used educated folks in all walks of life, not just those intending to teach as a career.

  3. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Hmm…I dunno, Mary. In a lot of fields, much of what you learn in a Ph.D. program is so specialized that it’s really not that useful in the rest of life. It seems wasteful to me to spend four years studying to be a doctor and then not practice medicine, y’know? Similarly, if I spent the time to get a Ph.D. in say Sociology, I’d want to go be a practicing sociologist at the end of it (which of course encompasses not only teaching, but also (and perhaps primarily) research.

    Even for Creative Writing — I’m not sure high-level narrative theory is going to help most readers’ understanding or enjoyment of a story. It’s more like study the mechanics of composition if you’re a musical composer; nuts and bolts on both abstract and concrete levels, to help you make the stuff. I can’t really think what I would *do* with my CW Ph.D. other than write and teach; I don’t think it helps me anywhere else in life.

    And while I agree that the MFA used to be a terminal degree, I think you’re slightly mistaken as to what that means — you don’t need a terminal degree to be a better artist. You need a terminal degree so universities looking to hire faculty know what the highest expected level of education should be. That used to be the MFA in the arts, because it was expected that the publishing world was supplying the rest of the needed experience.

    There are a variety of reasons why MFA’s are no longer as useful as they were in the academic job market — one big reason being that there are simply so many of them being granted now that they don’t winnow sufficiently for those on faculty hiring committees.

  4. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Or, maybe to put it more clearly:

    – the *degree* itself (BA, MD, JD, MA, MFA, Ph.D.) is a sorting criteria that is useful to those looking to hire professionals with a certain expected level of knowledge

    – the actual *stuff you learn* in classes (college, master’s, doctoral) is useful to anyone wanting to learn a field (and whether you take 1 workshop or 8 workshops or 80, they should each one, ideally, make you a better artist/doctor/whatever — in that sense of apprenticeship, the learning never ends, so there’s no good reason to ever stop studying, as long as studying isn’t getting in the way of *doing*)

    – the lower-level stuff is more likely to be generally useful in life, but as you progress to higher levels, most people specialize enough that their field narrows correspondingly

    – as always, there are exceptions — there are always some people who can take high-level knowledge and apply it more broadly, in a cross-disciplinary manner; but I’d argue that that’s actually a rare talent, and those few people who can do it should be cherished and highly valued by society

  5. MA–thanks so much for taking the time to put this out there for me (and for anyone else considering the option). I don’t know yet what I’m going to do—will keep you posted.

    In the mean time…where’s that *job list* you mention a couple of posts after this one? That’s the sort of thing I should looking at, to see what’s available at MFA level, as opposed to PhD.

    I also second Danielle’s comment from the post later on. Roosevelt misses you. At least, I do.

  6. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    It’s the JIL (Job Information List), and it’s put out by MLA (Modern Language Association). You need to be a member of MLA to access it (which you’ll also need to be in order to attend the big conference over Christmas where English departments do most of their interviewing (though a bunch of Creative Writing jobs get interviewed later, at the AWP conference). My graduate program offered access for its students, though, so I’d ask Janet (or whomever’s running the Roosevelt program now) if you guys get access through that. If so, you’ll access it through your department here:

    Good luck! Keep me informed of how it goes!

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