Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Decision Time: Discussion Question No. 2

Hello again friends. Thanks for all the enthusiastic (and helpful) responses to the first discussion question. This next question is another one that has been covered at length, especially at the P&W Speakeasy, but one on which I would nonetheless appreciate your opinions.

Yes, it's the old MFA/PhD discussion again. Here's the scenario. Let's say that one receives offers with comparable funding to both MFAs and PhDs (with creative emphasis). No matter what, one's ultimate goal is the PhD, so MFA only is not an option. The options then become:

(a.) Go for the PhD. Some people spend as few as one or two years in MFA programs and still manage to find employment, finish manuscripts, etc. Spending five years in a PhD program, then, would just provide even more time to write and accumulate teaching experience, and afterward one would also still qualify for some of those jobs at small English departments out there that require a PhD for consideration. Oh, and one might hit the job market by the time he or she is 30.

(b.) Go for the MFA first, and then apply to PhD programs. This would maximize one's number of funded writing years as well as one's opportunities to acquire mentors and readers, etc., an added perk being that you end up with two terminal degrees after all is said and done. Of course, this significantly extends one's time in school, which means that one hits the job market later and with more gray hair and much more accrued interest on those unsubsidized government loans and (even worse) those ill-advised, vampiric Sallie Mae loans.

Those are the two sides as I see them anyway.

What do you all think? What would you advise, and why? Feel free to augment, complicate, or refocus the question as needed.

Very much looking forward to your perspectives.


  1. This is an interesting question for me as I am in the first year of a three year MFA program and I'm now thinking about doing a Phd after. (Oh, and btw I am very gray--and 40ish). I am thinking I (1) want more time to write, and (2) want that Phd for the leg up on jobs in academia. Oh, and, by way of full disclosure--I first started thinking about all this when I found out Hawaii at Manoa has a Phd program!!!!

  2. I'm adding in a third option, since this is the route I've taken: BA, MA (with emphasis in creative writing), MFA, and I plan on applying to PhDs this fall.

    Why not stay in school and get every possible degree? Like you said, it increases the number of funded writing years--it gives you time to learn how to write, to learn how to teach, to send out stuff to be published... I could never turn that down!

  3. I'm planning to do the MFA and then the PhD -- more funded years of writing, more time to wait it out and see if the job market gets better, more time before I have to "grow up" and go out into the "real world" (I think both of those terms are subjective...)

    Jennifer, one of my profs did her PhD at Manoa. From what she's said, it's a great program.

  4. I am still debating whether to apply to PhD programs after the MFA. When I came in to the program, I really thought I wanted that PhD, but after living with the realities of grad student life and university politics, I'm questioning whether I want to stick it out another 4 years.

    So, my thought is to go for the MFA first, and if you're still committed to getting a PhD after you've been through that, then go for it.

    There's a lot of talk nowadays about the state of higher education and the future of "the university as we know it". A lot of people are in no hurry to jump into the academic job market right now, so that's more justification for taking more time to do both degrees.

  5. So, I'm in a PhD program right now. I just spent the first semester of said program wishing I'd gone for an MFA. My PhD program is really tough, heavy on theory, not always enjoyable. My MA program and most MFA programs are a lot more fun. Something to consider. Obviously, the decision is more complicated than that. I'd write more, but I have to go read some Kant.

    Feel free to email me through my blog (the link is on the sidebar), if you want to.


  6. I'd have to second Emily's thoughts on this one. If they have similar funding go for the MFA and then if you still need and/or want the additional time towards the PhD that option is always there when you are done :)

    I think gray hair is easier for academic hiring panels to deal with then if you look young. I say this, not from my own experience, but for that of a dear friend of mine.

  7. Hehe, I'm not actually worried about gray hair specifically--I'm only 24 and I've already got plenty! My half-brother Steve was already completely gray by this age! So yeah, not so much the hair itself ;)

  8. My desire to apply for a PhD next hinges solely on my success in my first grad level lit class that I'm in this semester. It's been pretty rocky thus far and my confidence in my ability to be passionate about looking at literature in the way that is required for YEARS is just not there. I must have passion. I had no doubts about my passion to do an MFA since it's focused on craft (my craft lol). Since a PhD isn't craft focused...I just don't know. Leaning more toward "no" right now.

  9. Oh, so my advice is MFA first.

  10. I’m applying for both PhD and MFA programs this year as well. That said, the PhD programs I applied to are some of the most competitive PhD programs in the country (Rochester VCS, Berkeley Rhetoric and Brown’s MCM) and aren’t specifically related to creative writing. I figured I could tack and MFA on the tail end of my PhD if I was lucky enough to get admitted at of those schools. Right now, I’m rejected from Berkeley Rhetoric and Rochester VCS, and I only have a Wait-list at Minnesota on the MFA side of things.

    PhD programs can be quite different from program to program. Berkeley Rhetoric (which houses some of the most impressive/innovative theory scholars around, period) can up to nine years to complete. If you get the MFA degree and then proceed to a PhD program in creative writing, it may only be 3 additional years. MFA+PhD = 5 years or PhD = 9 years or MFA + PhD = 12 years. And so on. It all depends on the programs.


  11. This feels to me like a bit of a false dilemma, as the answer depends not on the mythical qualities of the MFA or the PhD, but rather the specific values of each program (and the desires of the student).

    If the PhD gives you a good offer (and is your eventual goal), why not go for it? The MFA will still be there when you get out, as will any number of fellowship opportunities (Stegner, Wisconsin, Provincetown, etc.)

    Obviously, a lot depends on the program, but if it's a creative-writing PhD (or at least emphasis), the gulf is significantly smaller in terms of what the programs are offering. The PhD allows more years to read and study (and probably more of a literature focus), really as much as it does more years to write.

    The only thing I think the MFA would have going for it is size of community, but if the PhD is sufficiently creative-writing focused, and has enough students, then that's a moot point.

    One question: What is your first goal? Is it to be a scholar and professor or is it to be a writer? Because the programs will have separate purposes and ideas about what its students are specializing in...

    Okay. That's my response to the differences between the MFA and PhD.

    One thing I'm mostly concerned about the statement "maximum number of funded years." (And also, being in school for meeting other writers/teachers.) For two reasons.

    The first reason: You are going to meet other writers/teachers everywhere, because you are a voracious poet. You will always be able to find a writing community, so building up contacts doesn't seem unique to specific academic programs.

    The second (and more important) reason: burn out.

    (This reason is also closely related to Donald Hall's "McPoem.")

    I'm not even a full year into my program, and already I worry about my poetry getting insular and personal in an uninteresting way (self-obsessed, I mean). I'm not anti-workshop--I love my community, and my teachers have been a huge help--I just don't know if I want to be in school for 10 straight years, especially with such little time spent in the real world after college.

    It would be one thing if I was a bit older (as most of the creative writing PhD students at UH are, who seem to do really well in that set-up, and who are as interested in being scholars and getting jobs as they are in having mere time to write). But I (and you) are pretty fresh young dudes.

    That being said, I think that the literature courses make the MFA work feel less insular (a different way of being in the real world, perhaps, and there's always everything you do outside of workshop, of course...), and I'm not anti-PhD...I just don't think it would be so easy to do the MFA and then the PhD in quick succession. (Maybe with a few years in between? And if you want the PhD, why not just cut out those middle few years?)

    I know that some people really feel the need to have as much time and space to write (and who knows, I might be one of those people, certainly there are people who benefit from this), but as good as it might feel for the person, I just don't know how good it is for the writing, if adequate time isn't spent out of academia...

  12. At this point, being a neurotic planner, I already have my snout rooting out info on Ph.D programs in CW and feel that, more likely than not, when the time comes for me to leave OSU I will probably be looking to jump ship to another funded writing opportunity. I also have feelers for other post-MFA opportunities like the Stegner at the Wisconsin Institute (which seems more of a lock if anything is at this point--after rejecting their offer last year, I was strongly encouraged to apply later).

    I am knee-deep in lit classes here, and I don't feel that unprepared in the few I've taken thus far. UCLA seems to have prepared me well. That being said, I feel like that way of thinking is slipping away from me somewhat because it isn't my focus now. Weird how that works, huh?

    I am looking at programs at Hawaii, UNLV, USC, Chicago, and Houston (so some of you guys have first-hand experience in those programs) though it is a long, long way off from now. I am trying to not to worry too much about it, but worrying about the future is my specialty.

    I'd say doing the MFA first makes the most sense due to what Josh pointed out re: burnout. I think that if I were in a Ph.D program right now I'd be clawing my eyes out due to the stress of having to develop as a writer of poems as well as a critical scholar of literature. Right now I feel like I am developing as a writer first, a scholar second. I think that is an ideal paradigm considering the mantra that an MFA is about becoming a better writer, not necessarily a better scholar. It's something to think about, but it seems at this point we have world enough and time. Go for the maximization!


Related Posts with Thumbnails