FinancesOne 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 LearnIn 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.
AttitudeThis 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 DevelopmentOne 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!)