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Cornell University joint MFA in Creative Writing Phd in English program

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Hi, there!


I am only an undergraduate freshman, so obviously I have a lot of time before applying to graduate school. However, I am eager to start preparing now. My fiction has been published in Tin House magazine, and I have several stories pending publication elsewhere (only one piece actually published so far, but hopefully more will come soon). I have taken one of the practice GRE tests in Literature and ended up with a mediocre score on it, but I have been reading extensively from the recommended reading list that is on the site (and enjoying every minute of it). Obviously, I am a voracious reader. In my first year in undergraduate, which is coming to a close now, I have recieved two official English department awards for Excellence in Writing Fiction and Excellent Work in Literary Studies. My GPA is a 3.2 (I am aware this is low. I recieved a fairly low score in a science class that through everything off, but I get As in all non-math/science courses). My majors are English (with concentrations in both literature and creative writing) and philosophy. My question is, as it stands now, does it seem that I have a chance to get into Cornell's joint MFA/PHD program in creative writing? I plan to apply immediately after I graduate from the small state college which I currently attend. Are my chances high? What can I do to improve them? Any advice at all would be wonderful. Thank you in advance!

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1. The academic job market in the humanities is atrocious. Please, please Google this. Read everything that says "just don't go," "worst idea ever," "am on welfare," "didn't get a job," "am very depressed," "department in X at university Y was just cut," "enormous teaching loads," "no health insurance," "was discriminated against in A, B, and C awful ways," "am about to begin my 10th year in the program," etc., etc., etc. Rinse and repeat.


2. Cornell's join MFA/PhD accepts 2 people per year. It goes without saying that there are more than 2 outstanding, well published writers who apply. You will need to be accepted by the faculty of the MFA and the faculty of the PhD program.


3. For the MFA application: the writing sample will be the most important thing. Congratulations on your publications and your award! But please know that while they may well get your application a second look, the writing sample will be all that matters, and it will matter in intangible ways that you cannot anticipate. 


4. For the PhD application: the writing sample will be the most important thing. Congratulations on your award and your great lit. grades! But please know that while they may well get your application a second look, the writing sample will be all that matters, and it will matter in intangible ways that you cannot anticipate.


5. As competitive as grad school applications are, job applications are (literally) several times as competitive, with numbers like 800-900 applicants for a single spot, many of whom graduate from highly ranked programs with excellent advisors, publications, conference presentations, fellowships, recommendations, teaching evaluations, and so on. (I'm terrified out of my gourd.) See #1.


6. If you read all of the articles recounting the misery and insecurity of the academic job market and still want to go, I would strongly suggest: speaking with your professors about your goals, widening your pool to programs that are _not_ joint MFA/PhD programs (and certainly widening your pool to more than just one program), and really, truly taking into account the fact that there is absolutely nothing you can do to ensure acceptance. Three things: (1) It is possible to continue writing creatively in a PhD program, although it takes a fair amount of dedicated effort and a program that is supportive (I'm doing this now: I write too, but I didn't apply to creative writing programs--if you're curious about how this is going, please feel welcome to PM); (2) Please note also that with the advent of creative writing PhD programs, the question of whether the MFA or the PhD is the terminal degree for creative writing positions seems a bit up in the air; (3) Other than the fact that you are good at and enjoy writing and reading, why do you want to go to grad school?

Edited by pinkrobot
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I am so non-pragmatic that the job market is the last thing on my mind. I will manage after I complete whatever graduate program I enter. The reason that I want to pursue graduate work is because I am passionate about literature and writing. I want to expand my mind with the best writers and readers that there are. The joint program seems to me to be the best place to do that. Additionally, I am extremely passionate about education and academia, and I seriously want to pursue that as a career in addition to writing. My professors all seem to think I have strong chances of getting in when I apply in three years, especially since many people wait until several years after they graduate while programs are looking for writers who are fresh out of undergraduate programs. I understand that there is no way for me to ensure acceptance. I am just looking for as many ways as possible to give myself an edge over the competition. Thank you for your response!

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In an effort not to repeat exactly the same advice pinkrobot gave, here goes:


1. As pinkrobot said, if you can make it past everyone telling you NOT to go to grad school, then at least you know that you are still really passionate about it. I have some friends who recently finished their PhDs and are upset about the job market and how much professors make for a living, etc. I'm always surprised that they are upset, because I knew about the downsides before going in. Their response is "well, I could have done something else and made more money." If you feel that way, that you could do something else, then do it. I know that there's nothing else I wanna do, so I'm taking the plunge and hoping for the best. The other thing is to really learn to accept rejection in this field. Be prepared to maybe not get into grad school the first time you apply. If you know that you still want to try again after that--and maybe even another time after that--then this is the right field for you. 


2. Research, research, and research some more about the schools you want to attend. Read some of the stuff that professors you want to work with publish. See how they write--what angle/theories they use. The major thing with getting into graduate school is making sure that you fit with the program. Simply liking literature/creative writing is not enough--you need to be a lot more specific and try to make yourself sound unique and in line with the interests of the program. And, as pinkrobot said, make sure to apply to a wide range of schools--like 10-12 schools. 


3. Since you're still an undergraduate, try to find your research focus now. Take courses in a wide range of time periods/literary movements, but also find your "lens" through which you read the literature. What questions motivate you? What do you find fascinating? What do you want to focus on in the future? How does this relate to your own creative writing? Why/how is the joint MFA/PhD going to satisfy all of this?


4. Talk to as many people as possible about advice--professors, advisors, secretaries at the schools you want to go to, etc. One thing I wish my undergraduate advisor had told me was to take classes in the subject area I wanted to specialize in. For example, I went to an undergraduate institution that had a really strong Victorian studies program. I knew that I liked Victorian literature, but really didn't look into what my program had to offer. If I had known that it was a good idea to do that, I would have taken classes with the best of the best professors and even tried to do research with them or something. That way I would have had a letter of recommendation from someone with the same specialty, etc. Maybe other people knew to do that, but I was never told to do that--I just wound up taking random English classes instead. Point is: do your research in your department; figure our what your speciality will be, and then talk to people who are in that speciality. 


I think that's all I've got for now...

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Oh, in regards to my #3, I meant that you should try to investigate those questions in your own writing. If you have several papers that explore similar lines of questioning, then you get to do a lot of research each time and continue to hone your own line of thinking. 


Maybe others have different advice, but I think it's a good idea to do that...

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I'm going to add that, while I appreciate the fact that thinking about the job market is not really inspiration to apply to graduate school in the humanities, I feel really strongly that you need to think about it anyways.


Are there other paths to getting where you want to go?  Do you really want to spend time in grad school instead of working more independently or taking different avenues to arrive at the same place?  Also, will a PhD/MFA/both actually hurt you?  Though people tend to talk about this less, there are many jobs that will not be available to someone with such advanced degrees.  I am really against the opinion that academia can be even a bit separated from practical things.  And I think that, if you don't ever think about this boring crap, the chances are good that you will stumble into serious regrets and struggles come the day that you decide you want to buy a house, a horse, a boat, a whatever, or have kids, or raise flocks of geese or whatever the hell it is that we might all be doing in 10 years.  It's great to know now that you want to really develop intellectually and enter into these wonderful conversations that we get to have, but it's also worth considering if, when you factor in all of the financial, geographic, emotional, and social hurdles that come with graduate school, they will prevent you from actually getting where you want to go.


I do not by any means mean to condescend in saying this; it took me my first semester of the MA to figure out that there is something very essentially practical that is and must be a factor here.  My realization of all of this nearly led to me dropping out of graduate school, and I still occasionally dream about running away to work in marketing, where I will surely make more money.


I also want to add that you should take everything your professors say with a grain of salt.  They will like you more than adcomms (unless you're an asshole, and it doesn't sound like that's the case at all).  They will see more potential in you than is blatantly apparent in the written materials you will submit to other programs.  Absolutely aim high and try for the programs you really want to go to, but also cover your bases.  Consider that the adcomms will look at 25+ other students with similar--if not basically identical--credentials and letters of recommendation.  You have to pull ahead of the pack on paper, and don't get complacent about that just because your professors think you're the tits.  (I have read arguments that professors/supervisors are perhaps blinded by the flattery of their proteges demonstrating, in their desire to go to graduate school, a strong inclination to emulate said supervisors, and I think there's real merit in that consideration.)  


I have, since my senior year of undergrad, applied to 29 graduate schools.  I've been admitted to 7, but only truly considered 3.  I have never been admitted to my top choice for an admissions cycle.  My profs in undergrad and my MA thought I was lovely or even amazing and they were super encouraging.  Perhaps that will help you consider that there needs to be practical consideration from start to finish here; apply places that you think you might enjoy studying, even if they are not your top choice.


On a less gloomy note: look into what opportunities you might have to get in touch with Cornell faculty and really orient yourself with the program and the people there.  As far as I know, the School of Criticism and Theory (http://sct.arts.cornell.edu/indexLaunch.php?time=1367974302) is for grad students only, but there might be opportunities there and elsewhere for you to poke around and 1) make sure that you really like the people, the program, and the department(s) and 2) introduce yourself to some of them.


Also, start saving money for apps and the GRE.  They are expensive!

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I know somebody who got into Cornell's joint MFA/PhD program.  I don't believe she was widely published, but she wrote two honors theses in her senior year--one critical, one creative.  Though I didn't read them, my understanding was that they were related to one another, in that they explored similar questions about literature.  I think that aside from having both an excellent MFA application and an excellent PhD application, you'll need to justify why earning them together, at the same time, will profit both your critical and creative development.  She most likely got in because her double-thesis demonstrated a cohesive intellectual project.  


I'll echo the practical concerns voiced above, but I do think that your advantage in considering this as a freshman is that you have a lot of time to develop such a cohesive project.

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The chances of getting accepted into Cornell's MFA program are so incredibly, incredibly slim that there is no way to gauge whether you're a strong applicant or not.  Though a Tin House publication helps.  (Seriously--you are a freshman with a Tin House pub?  Doesn't that qualify you as some kind of wunderkind?)  I don't know as much about Cornell's PhD program but again the MFA one of the most selective in the country (like 1-2% acceptance rate).

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I am only an undergraduate freshman


Woah, slow down there.  I of course agree with much of what has been written above, but I want to emphasize that you really shouldn't worry too much about graduate school applications at this point.  Enjoy college life and your growth as a thinker and person; stressing about Ph.D. applications can wait!  That's not to say, of course, that you shouldn't be thinking at all about these sorts of things, but I strongly suggest letting these concerns take a backseat to just being an undergrad.


When I was a freshman, I made the mistake of being so wrapped up in worrying about Ph.D. applications that I ended up missing out on a lot.  I feel like I'm writing to a slightly younger version of myself here.  :)


I am so non-pragmatic that the job market is the last thing on my mind.


If I may be so bold, this sentence here does not bode well for your chances as a graduate student or future professional.  I suspect your attitude on this reflects your age (again, either academically or physically; I don't want to presume that you're young), but assuming it isn't just that: the job market isn't the last thing on most everyone else's minds, so you're already at a disadvantage.  Think about that.


I speak as someone who will be starting a Ph.D. at a top-20 program this fall.  I think my advice--and especially that of previous posters-- is eminently sensible, so I encourage you to mull over these things.

Edited by Two Espressos
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I second Two Espressos comment on your age/stage in life as an undergraduate. I was trying to find a way to say it as elegantly earlier, and couldn't, so I just left it out. But, Two Espressos is right--thinking about going to grad school at this point is good, but already working on your applications is a bit too much. By the time you're a senior, what you would put in your applications is going to be so different than what you would say right now--or it least it should be after years of classes and different experiences. 


I would say, make sure that you're talking to the right people and taking the right classes and investigating your options, but beyond that you don't need to be writing any statements of purpose or worrying about the GRE, etc. 


Sorry, I didn't really add much here--just wanted to second the comment about your undergraduate status. 

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