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MFAs Applying to / Accepted to PhD Lit Programs


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Hi! Just wondering if there's anyone else out there applying to or accepted to PhD lit programs with an MFA. Interested in your reasoning (love of field - obvs, job market, etc.) and your concerns. One of mine is that it took me a little while after my MA to stop reading like a critic and to begin reading like a writer; my MFA sort of bashed that into me and it's been really helpful for my fiction. But now I'm taking a grad course in the English dept and I've realised the writer's perspective is doing all kinds of weird things to my critic-brain! It's a bit confusing.

 

Thoughts?

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I can't give you the perspective you asked for of going from an MFA to a PhD, but I was interested to learn a little more about what led you to be in that position. When I began looking into graduate programs, I was really torn between MFA and PhD programs at first, particularly because advice from my lit professors made me feel like I needed to suppress my interest in creative writing to be successful as a PhD applicant, and I wondered whether my creative writing would always be pushed down if I took that path. I looked into pursuing options such as a PhD in creative writing or a dual MFA/PhD, but much of the feedback I got back from professors on both the lit and the creative writing sides was that such a path might make me less marketable as a university would ultimately want to hire me to teach and publish in one field or the other.

 

For me, it came down to the fact that while I am equally passionate about writing critically and creatively, I don't have very much interest in teaching creative writing. I also think it is easier to be a strong creative writer without an MFA program than it is to be a successful literary scholar without a PhD program and a connection to current research in the field. Then again, I suppose there is really no substitute for two years spent focused entirely on your writing, but that's the side of things I came down on. I think the fact that you're looking to do a PhD following an MFA program AND a master's is ambitious and awesome, and I agree with you that the two perspectives enhance each other (hence my desire to progress with both). Are you hoping to eventually teach one or the other?

Edited by kayrabbit
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Hi Kayrabbit,

 

Most of the reasons are personal rather than practical. I won a fellowship to do my MA, just as I was finishing up my BA in the UK. I had intended to take a little break from university before I applied to PhD programs (I'd just moved house) but the opportunity seemed amazing. So... I applied for the fellowship and nothing else, thinking I probably wouldn't get it. That complicated things and brought me back to America (I'd spent a year in an exchange program at UPenn) for two years. Whilst at UVa, which happens to have an exceptional MFA program, I began to think much harder about my creative writing as a potential career path; aside from working alone and attending the odd workshop, I'd been reluctant to think about creative writing in a professional context because it seemed so unbelievably difficult, impossible almost. Working with CRWR faculty at UVa changed that. I began to think I could carve a life for myself doing what I love, hence the MFA application. I wasn't torn at the time of making it, although I always believed I would complete what I started at UVa in another graduate literature program.

 

Lit profs will almost always advise against revealing your CRWR ambitions and CRWR profs will probably really hate the idea of someone who they think should be dedicating themselves to the craft of fiction or poetry, "lowering themselves" to become a literary scholar. As one CRWR prof once said to me rather snottily, "why in the hell would you just want to talk about something if you can MAKE what everyone wants to talk about?" It's hilarious to me (and on some days a little stressful :blink: ) that each course of study seems to feel itself slightly superior to the other. The way I see it, writers generally want people to engage with their work, so they shouldn't diss critics, and (literary) critics wouldn't have a job if artists didn't produce. The relationship can be symbiotic, which is something I'd like to explore informally as my career progresses. I've always felt an understanding of theory and a critical eye helps me think about and manipulate craft, and that craft can help me think about theory and criticism in really interesting ways. It can get confusing, sure, but it takes time to work that kind of stuff out properly. Oh, and you're right about the difference between the programs: you simply can't be an academic without a PhD (unless you're some kind of savant) but it's also damned difficult to make it as a professional writer without access to a supportive creative community and funded time to write / develop your craft, both of which the MFA provides. If I think about where I'd be in my writing now without the MFA, well, it'd put me back years in so many ways.

 

At the risk of getting kicked off the forum ;) I'm a writer first, academic second. I love scholarship but I could probably live the rest of my life never gaining a PhD (if worst comes to worst ;) ), but never writing creatively again or teaching it again would kill me. Part of the reason I wish to apply for the PhD, then, is that I feel I have a lot more to learn. A lot more that could underpin my creative work. I'm also aware that CRWR tenure track jobs are much more competitive than any Lit job out there, and that's where I'd like to head depending on whether or not I have any creative success - I love teaching literature, love, love, love it, but teaching CRWR is soooo great, and personally I find it a much greater challenge (communicating craft in a way that doesn't kill creativity is HARD). Increasingly it is in the expectation that (in addition to numerous literary creative publications - once again, way harder to achieve than scholarly ones), a Lit PhD is highly desirable. The MFA is still the terminal degree in my field but that's changing... All hiring departments respect flexibility (breadth as well as depth of knowlege and teaching capability) so it makes sense that schools where CRWR is housed within English departments would like candidates who can muck in with literature if needs must. I also want flexibility in my career. I don't want to be bored! I don't want to give up anything that excites me and makes me happy!

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This wiki is an interesting source of info on the CRWR job market.

 

http://academicjobs.wikia.com/wiki/CreativeWriting_2013

 

I'm not interested in the CRWR PhD - they're few and far between and it'd feel like overkill to me. I would like to give myself a plan B with the Lit PhD, becuase nobody is getting an CRWR TT job without a couple of decent books.

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It sounds like you're well-informed on the realities and shortcomings of the market for someone with such a diverse background as yours.

 

This is anecdotal, but my most respected professor from undergrad comes from the same background as you. She is an incredible poet/researcher/teacher, and she's just an overall badass. She got a BA in creative writing and an MFA, and she planned on getting her Ph.D. in poetry; however, she got connected with a really great researcher at her Ph.D. institution that led to her getting her literature degree.

 

I understand certain misgivings you've been given for wanting to take this specific path, but maybe look into SLAC's for job placement at least. If you do enjoy teaching, the multiple skills required for such TT positions at these types of institutions seem right up your alley.

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Thanks for describing your experience, hopefulscribbler. It's interesting to see how others have navigated passions for critical and creative work.

 

Lit profs will almost always advise against revealing your CRWR ambitions and CRWR profs will probably really hate the idea of someone who they think should be dedicating themselves to the craft of fiction or poetry, "lowering themselves" to become a literary scholar. As one CRWR prof once said to me rather snottily, "why in the hell would you just want to talk about something if you can MAKE what everyone wants to talk about?" It's hilarious to me (and on some days a little stressful :blink: ) that each course of study seems to feel itself slightly superior to the other. 

Yes, I found it extremely funny to walk around the English department to talk to several of my professors and come away with opposite advice from those on the lit and the creative sides. Both made me feel a bit like I would waste my talent in one area if I chose the other. It was flattering to see that they all felt strongly about my continuing to work in their field, but it added a lot of pressure to the choice because it felt like I had to risk betraying a pursuit that I care about either way.

 

At the risk of getting kicked off the forum ;) I'm a writer first, academic second. I love scholarship but I could probably live the rest of my life never gaining a PhD (if worst comes to worst ;) ), but never writing creatively again or teaching it again would kill me. Part of the reason I wish to apply for the PhD, then, is that I feel I have a lot more to learn. A lot more that could underpin my creative work. I'm also aware that CRWR tenure track jobs are much more competitive than any Lit job out there, and that's where I'd like to head depending on whether or not I have any creative success - I love teaching literature, love, love, love it, but teaching CRWR is soooo great, and personally I find it a much greater challenge (communicating craft in a way that doesn't kill creativity is HARD).

I completely agree with you — teaching creative writing would be much harder than teaching literature. That was part of my decision to pursue a PhD; usually I feel enthusiastic to take on a challenge, but the challenge of teaching craft and judging students' creative work was one that dissuaded rather than excited me. I have had some wonderful creative writing professors, and I admire them for finding a way to refine students' work, engage their creativity and remain sane after reading countless workshop stories over the years that have the same problems. I don't think I would stand up to it very well!

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