Phd with creative dissertation vs. MFA
March 30, 2006 1:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm wondering if anyone knows much about Phds with creative dissertations versus MFAs. I want to eventually teach college-level creative writing.

I know that publishing is important to success in this field and that MFAs don't guarantee you a job, but what's the difference, careerwise, between the two degrees?

I also know sometimes, if one is qualified enough or whatever, that jumping directly into a Phd program is possible. Is it advisable to do MFA, then Phd, with a C.D.? Or just go into the Phd or just do the MFA and publish, publish, publish?
posted by Destroid to Education (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee Department of English has a PhD program specifically for creative writing and allow degree candidates to do creative dissertations (poetry, stories, plays, etc.).

Their website is here. If you have specific questions about the program, feel free to e-mail me directly (at the address in my profile). I am currently a dissertator in the same Department (but with a different emphasis).
posted by richardhay at 1:48 PM on March 30, 2006

An MFA is supposed to be a terminal degree, so I would say it's less common to get an MFA and then go on to get a PhD, but people do it. I have friends who have done both - gotten MAs and then PhDs, gotten MFAs and then PhDs. Gotten an MA and an MFA AND a phD. Some people can't get enough school, I guess :)

Both an MFA and PhD will 'qualify' you to teach creative writing.

I have a creative M.A. which is (possibly) a more common route to getting a PhD with a creative dissertation, but I'm not personally going that route at this point. I also don't teach, so maybe that bit of info isn't really that helpful to you, but thought I'd throw that out there.

People with MFAs in creative writing are very common these days, so anything you can do to separate yourself from the hordes of MFAs will definitely help you get a teaching job. I have been advised that a PhD is more likely to get you a teaching job than an MFA at this point.

That said, what really matters is publishing, and to some extent networking. I have several friends with creative writing PhDs who have not published, and have administrative jobs at universities, or adjunct, or do something else entirely. I also know many people with MAs and MFAs who have great tenured jobs, but they also have published books. I've also seen people with moderate publishing cred, teaching experience, and Phds from small programs get pretty decent tenure jobs, but they were also real pros at getting to know as many people as they could and letting them know what they were working on.

One thing I've noticed is that creative PhD programs are a bit rarer than MFAs - a creative phd from a lesser known program may be much less valuable (from a job-seeking standpoint) than an MFA from Iowa or the like.

Anyway, if you want to be a writer, I think the key is to write and read all the time, make your writing better, and get it published. The degrees don't hurt, but to get the most out of them, think of them as a precious few years to do nothing but read and write, and not as resume builders. With luck, the other stuff will follow.
posted by drobot at 1:49 PM on March 30, 2006

I believe the main difference between an MFA and a PhD in creative writing is that the latter is a more formal degree which insists upon coursework, theory, comprehensive exams, and sometimes foreign languages. (Basically an English Lit PhD with a creative dissertation.) For example, the creative writing PhD programs at Nebraska and USC.

Not sure where you live, but creative writing PhD programs in the UK are a little less formal (as are their English Lit PhDs) - like Manchester.

This doesn't really answer your question about which to do in order to be more employable as a creative writing instructor, but my guess would be any type of postgraduate degree in creative writing plus a lot of publication credits is your bet. Some schools have great MA/MFA programs in the genre - specifically University of East Anglia (where the Poet Laureate teaches), Columbia, Iowa, Johns Hopkins and University of British Columbia. I'm sure other MeFites either have experience with these or other programs or can recommend others.
posted by meerkatty at 1:49 PM on March 30, 2006

If you get an MFA, a PhD with creative dissertation is basically overkill. You say "publishing is important to success in this field and that MFAs don't guarantee you a job," but the truth is that publishing is the only important thing in this field. An MFA really won't help you get any sort of permanent (read: tenure-track) job without extensive publishing credits (read: a book) behind it. All you can really get with an MFA is adjunct teaching work, which will help pay the bills until your book comes out, assuming it eventually does.

A PhD, either in creative writing or in English with creative dissertation, won't really help you get a permanent job either. In both cases it's really a book and only a book that will get you to the Promised Land.

I went through all this 4 years ago and can give you more thoughts about this if you like. My email address is in my profile.
posted by BackwardsCity at 4:08 PM on March 30, 2006

Looking back on my answer, I didn't really address the real question, which was MFA, PhD, both, or neither.

The MFA is your best best. It usually lasts two years, with a year or two of adjunct teaching afterwards, should give you a sense of whether you are likely to make it to the place you want to go in this field.

Just make sure, wherever you go, that you aren't paying a dime to get the MFA. The only schools worth going to for creative writing are those that will remit your tuition and give you a job, usually a teaching job, with a stipend to live off of.

Any place that expects you to shell out money to go there (ie, Columbia) is not going to be worth it, as very few people will ever see a solid return on that investment.

Sorry to give two such long replies. Hope it helps.
posted by BackwardsCity at 4:13 PM on March 30, 2006

BackwardsCity (great journal, btw) - I disagree, somewhat - you're right that publishing is a huge part of it -- these positions are hugely competitive -- but I know several folks with creative PhDs in teaching positions that they would not have gotten with MFAs. They do have publishing credits, but nothing huge - none of them had books when they got their jobs. They may be lucky, but I think the Phd was a big part of it.

An MFA is a great degree, for sure, but if you were on the hiring committee for a college looking for somebody who could teach writing and literature, and had your choice of candidates, all with similar publications, but three MFAs and one PhD - the PhD is going to have an advantage over the MFA. There are other factors, but colleges want to hire people with doctorates. Sure, a book is really what they're looking for, but even with a book, these jobs are highly competitive and anything you can do to make yourself more attractive is going to be beneficial. A phd takes a lot longer than an MFA, but IMO it's much more valuable.

At any rate, you should do some investigation - pick a dozen schools you could picture yourself teaching at and see what qualifications the writing faculty has. I think you'll find a pretty wide variety - MFAs, PhDs, big names, no names, etc.
posted by drobot at 5:21 PM on March 30, 2006

All the folks I know with an MFA who've gotten PhDs have done so in a scholarly subdiscipline (e.g. 17thC BritLit or drama). Yes, it helps with the teaching slots. Many of my MFA friends (I'll include my wife here) have opted not to do that, but to work elsewhere in the academy either as an adjunct or other while they just try to polish that book.

On another note, there are a few DA (Doctor of Arts) programs out there for writers. Worth looking into if you're serious about a doctorate but want one tailored to creative work.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 5:37 PM on March 30, 2006

Boy oh boy do I have a lot to say about this, but I'll keep it very short. Even though both PhDs and MFAs are terminal degrees, they are not equal. The MFA prepares you to engage a career as a writer in a professional, disciplined manner. If you end up being really, really, really good, you will get a university level tenure-track teaching position (i.e. you are the top 0.5%). If you are only really, really good, you'll get a low paying, no benefits, adjunct postion (i.e. you are the top 2%). Everyone else will get the satisfaction of a degree. There are thousands of MFA writers and poets being turned out every year who do not get jobs. And if you aren't going to top program, don't even waste your time.

The PhD prepares you to write, teach, and research. It is a much greater investment of your time, your foregone earnings, and lifestyle. That being said, your chances of getting a tenure track teaching position is probably on the order of 10% if you are pursuing a position where your focus is teaching creative writing -- you will be competing with other PhDs with two books, an editorship, and loads of teaching experience. But you just might seem more promising than they are because you are 10 years younger and a hell of a talker. You'll be able to find adjunct work for as long as you are willing to teach 14 classes a year for 14-20K a year. With the Ph.D., after a few years of postdoc fellowship, adjunct work, etc., your chances of getting a tenure-track job increases dramatically.

Of course, if you turn out to be the next big thing, all of this is moot.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:04 PM on March 30, 2006

Oh, and the only reason I've known people to get an MFA and then a PhD is because they realized an MFA will never get them a job. The ones that got a PhD and then an MFA it was because of a mid-life "fuck teaching and research, what I really want to do is nothing but write" realization.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:07 PM on March 30, 2006

Most university-level creative writing jobs go to successful, or at least published writers. Creative writing positions are few and much sought after by established authors trying to gain a more predictable (or actual) income. At the A-list schools, writers with marquee names like Toni Morrison or Seamus Heaney are offered positions almost as honorifics and teach small, infrequent-offered courses (see So, the way to get a creative writing job at a decent school is to attain public recognition for your work. As for the Ph.D. question: I have a Ph.D. in English from Princeton and assure you that you would not be helped in your quest to teach writing by completing a dissertation in an English program. In fact, other than seeking an academic position, there is no obvious reason why anyone would do such a thing, although I am glad I read Paradise Lost and The Prelude carefully all of Auden in 1989 with a marvelous professor called Sam Hynes as a result of my otherwise useless doctoral program.
posted by Toolshed at 8:45 PM on April 4, 2006

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