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How do I make myself the most competitive English PhD candidate possible?

I'm currently pursuing an MFA, but I'm considering getting my PhD in either Lit or Rhet/Comp in order to better my job prospects. Of course, all the writing I've been doing for the past two years has been creative, and I only have poetry publications to my name. 

I plan to take off a few years between the MFA and the (potential) PhD. What could I do in that time to improve my application? Publish scholarly papers? Audit a literature class?

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Hi Hazel!

I'm in a similar boat. I have an MFA in poetry and was just admitted into a PhD program in literature with a full fellowship. Honestly, I was surprised they took me! I had all sorts of impostor syndrome as I was prepping my application. I hadn't published anything scholarly beyond a handful of academic book reviews. 

I've been a lecturer for a good number of years and have a strong background in and understanding of pedagogy, so maybe that helped. I also have a lot of creative publications (two poetry collections, another forthcoming), and in my SOP, I made a case as to how this was connected to the kind of scholarly work I want to do. My area of interest is gender studies, and my poetry is fiercely feminist. I think being able to articulate that connection made a big difference, but who knows. 

When I spoke to the grad director on the phone about my offer, she seemed to know a lot about my creative CV, so clearly she looked at it.

I have pretty mediocre GRE scores at best.

I  also audited a few lit classes where I teach. I wrote a term paper for one of them and got feedback from a few colleagues, which I used as my writing sample. I don't think it was particularly great, but hey, it worked.

So I think, as a creative writer, if you can articulate and explain how you're best suited for scholarly writing in your SOP, it will make your application competitive. But then again, this is my first year applying and really I felt a little lost the entire time! 

 

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Hi hi! I'm getting my MA in English with a Creative Writing Concentration and a creative dissertation right now.  I'm not accepted anywhere but have been waitlisted at several pretty good schools, so apparently I'm not a terrible candidate (to my surprise and pleasure).  I actually do feel like a huge imposter, as I don't have either critical or creative publications.  My SoP had a lot to do with prejudices I've come up against from people about being a creative writer in critical literature circles, and using those two areas of interest in harmony, etc.  

I agree with @PoetInCowgirlBoots about making your writing and critical interests cohere! Mine are bizarrely disparate -- my creative dissertation is historically and contemporarily set in the Pacific Island area, and my critical interest is medieval and early modern ecocrit and ecofem, but both involve ecological awareness and feminst dynamics so I talked that up.  Even if your two interests seem not similar like mine, I'm sure there's more in common than first meets the eye!

If you can, take English classes where you're doing your MFA.  Mine has the option to do English courses alongside my fiction workshops, and I honestly feel like that's the thing that helped me most.  It gave me a strong graduate level critical writing sample, demonstrated my proficiency and ability to succeed in graduate lit courses, and two of my recommenders were English profs I took classes with.  That would be my biggest bit of advice!

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Thank you all for this advice! :) 

For a while I was debating whether to apply for a PhD in Lit or Creative Writing, but lately I've been leaning towards Lit. I'm not interested in repeating the MFA experience, and I want to be qualified to teach a variety of college English classes. (Not that I'm complaining about my MFA. It's great!)

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Right, I came to a similar conclusion, Hazel, so I understand completely. I think it's a solid call. Lit (or rhet comp if you swing that way) will broaden your opportunities. That was my thought process as well. I already have a terminal degree in CW, so another feels a bit redundant. I was unsure if I would be able to get admitted into a lit program given my background, but I really don't think it's a huge deal if you market yourself appropriately.  

I'm visiting my prospective program this week, so we'll see how it goes! 

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This might be a helpful way to think about it: if a person came to you and said, "My MA is in literary studies and critical theory. I've never taken a single creative writing class, or I took one as an undergraduate and maybe one as a graduate student, but I want to pursue a PhD in creative writing," what would you say to that person? 

The ability to deploy theory to support novel arguments/ideas is central to success in a literature-focused graduate program. I can't speak about Rhet/Comp; I just don't know enough about how they function. 

With respect to a lit PhD: I would strongly advise taking some literature classes at a local university--ones that deal with critical theory and approach literature from an analytical/expository perspective instead of creative writing. Basically, in order for you to be competitive, you're going to have to demonstrate that you've had some preparation in critical theory and that you can produce critical writing.  

In addition to the classes, I would participate in as many conferences as I possibly could and see if I could get published as well. 

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Hazel, are you a poet or a fiction writer? Edit: I just saw that you're doing your MFA in poetry. Guess that answers my question.

If You are a poet, you probably have a good understanding of how poems work (or don't work). I've found that the transition from Poet to Poetry-Critic is a fairly simple one to make--my old standby as an undergrad was to analyze a poem based on the poetic devices I saw at work--How does the enjambment work in a few crucial lines? Why does the metre lend itself to the message/undermine the lesson of the poem? In undergrad, it served me well to use the insider info I gained during my failed attempts at poetry. 

Sure, you'll need to show that you can incorporate theory into your work, but I found that my time spent as a poet taught me how to closely read (and write) in a way that my fellow English majors usually couldn't.
 

Edited by positivitize

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32 minutes ago, orphic_mel528 said:

With respect to a lit PhD: I would strongly advise taking some literature classes at a local university--ones that deal with critical theory and approach literature from an analytical/expository perspective instead of creative writing. Basically, in order for you to be competitive, you're going to have to demonstrate that you've had some preparation in critical theory and that you can produce critical writing.  

In addition to the classes, I would participate in as many conferences as I possibly could and see if I could get published as well. 

I've been holding off on responding, but I think O_M is right on the money here. The "anything is possible if you try" part of me wants to say that you should have no problem getting into a Ph.D. program with only a creative background, but frankly that's not realistic. I think @PoetInCowgirlBoots' experience might be a bit unique -- still encouraging, of course, but atypical. Like it or not, there is still a perceived divide between creative work and critical literary work. I personally think it's a false dichotomy, for reasons I'll mention momentarily, but what I think and what seems to be the case among literary faculty are two different things...and the latter is what matters. As with the orphic one, I believe you'll need to take several literature courses and be able to produce critical writing in literary fields to be considered for a Ph.D. Taking a course per semester for the next couple of years at your nearest institution might be enough. Just remember that you're also going to need to build connections with literary faculty so that they'll write you letters of recommendation, and you'll need to produce a ~15-page paper of high literary merit to demonstrate your suitability for doctoral study. Needless to say, you'll also need to dedicate some space in your statement of purpose to why pursuing a literary degree makes sense when you're coming from a creative background...and "job prospects" shouldn't receive a single word in the process...

 

19 minutes ago, positivitize said:


If You are a poet, you probably have a good understanding of how poems work (or don't work). I've found that the transition from Poet to Poetry-Critic is a fairly simple one to make--my old standby as an undergrad was to analyze a poem based on the poetic devices I saw at work--How does the enjambment work in a few crucial lines? Why does the metre lend itself to the message/undermine the lesson of the poem? In undergrad, it served me well to use the insider info I gained during my failed attempts at poetry. 

Sure, you'll need to show that you can incorporate theory into your work, but I found that my time spent as a poet taught me how to closely read (and write) in a way that my fellow English majors usually couldn't.
 

I second this excellent advice! I think @positivitize has outlined a legitimate area of pursuit for you. My pre-academic background is in creative writing. I never got an MFA, but I wrote around 400 sonnets (and many other poems in other forms) in my mid-to-late twenties, publishing about 50 of them overall, and being very involved in poetic pursuits. My shift to academic work in my early thirties pretty much nullified my creative writing impulses (other than a workshop in undergrad). That being said, in my final semester of my M.A., I'm taking an MFA course dedicated to the long poem, and the course has been a hybrid of reading and writing. I've been very impressed by the level of discussion regarding the readings. The tenor is a bit different from pure literature courses, but there's not a lot of difference otherwise. I think that a transition into critical perspectives on poetry might be a great avenue. Take a few courses that deal with an era of poetry that interests you, and that might be enough to make a good narrative for how your interest in writing poetry led to an interest in studying poetry on an academic level. I used similar language a couple of years ago when I first applied to graduate programs, and it got me into my current M.A. program, at least.

 

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Have a strong scholarly writing sample, a high GPA, acceptable GRE scores, and a personal statement that articulates why you will be a good fit and why you have the potential to produce good research someday and why you'll be a valuable member of the department.  If you haven't produced a substantive research paper to use as a writing sample, I would recommend getting together with a Lit/Comp Rhet professor you're thinking of asking for a letter of rec and talking through a paper, and seeing if they'll give you notes on your drafts.  Auditing couldn't hurt, since they'll want to see you've completed some substantive coursework (if you haven't already).

I was accepted to my top choices without any publications, and without any conference presentations other than undergraduate conferences.  I've seen little to indicate that these are all that important to adcoms - if they expected you to be a finished scholar you wouldn't need a PhD. Though every program is definitely different, and your mileage may vary. My program is (as I understand it) very well regarded in rhet-comp and has admitted a number of rhet-comp students with MFAs in CW but no scholarly publications.

However, I'll second the comment that "I want PhD in English" and "I want to improve my job prospects" are not especially consonant aspirations! 

Edited by jrockford27

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20 hours ago, hazelnutworld said:

Thank you all for this advice! :) 

For a while I was debating whether to apply for a PhD in Lit or Creative Writing, but lately I've been leaning towards Lit. I'm not interested in repeating the MFA experience, and I want to be qualified to teach a variety of college English classes. (Not that I'm complaining about my MFA. It's great!)

From my understanding of friends who did an MFA followed by a PHD in CW: The two are extremely different. I think in terms of rigour, the University of Southern California does a good job of combining Creative Writing & Literature together. In most PHD programs, you'd be doing everything the lit majors would do + a creative dissertation. USC's dissertation project requires both a creative and critical manuscript. Houston is also well regarded in those terms of offering a "woven" experience.

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18 hours ago, Warelin said:

From my understanding of friends who did an MFA followed by a PHD in CW: The two are extremely different. I think in terms of rigour, the University of Southern California does a good job of combining Creative Writing & Literature together. In most PHD programs, you'd be doing everything the lit majors would do + a creative dissertation. USC's dissertation project requires both a creative and critical manuscript. Houston is also well regarded in those terms of offering a "woven" experience.

Yes to this!  "PhD in Creative Writing" is kind of a misnomer, since it is actually exactly what Warelin said. There are a handful of schools that do this (quick google search should turn them out), but USC is obviously the best.  However, hedging one's bets on USC isn't a good idea, as they only take a couple people per year, require strong Subject scores, and basically everyone applies there.  If your work is avante-garde, you might be a good fit, but it's a bit more of a reach if you write traditionally.  I might also recommend UCSC, since they have a creative dissertation and a very heavy emphasis throughout the entire school on interdisciplinary work and comp lit type things -- combining your creative and critical would actually prove a strength.

I recommend joining next season's Creative Writing PhD Draft group on facebook!  Not sure if there's one up yet, but there's bound to be soon.

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Hmmmmmmm, okay I'm going to keep thinking about this, then.

For those of you who are familiar with PhD CW programs: Any program suggestions for a more traditional writer? Or for someone who writes poetry in a confessional/narrative vein? Asking for a friend. ;) 

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Re: CW programs amenable to confessional/narrative poetry, I'd encourage you to investigate U of Houston's and U of Utah's programs (and, for that matter, the U of Southern California's also) while bearing the following in mind. To springboard off of what previous commenters have indicated, the CW PhD hybridizes elements of the studio MFA and the PhD in literary studies in a manner like and, arguably, unlike what you may have experienced in your MFA. There is far less time to write during a CW PhD, for example, based upon the poets I know who've attended and/or are attending such programs -- because of teaching responsibilities, for one, which may be less true if you also served as a TA/AI during your MFA.

Along the same lines: the other thing that distinguishes a CW PhD program, at least hypothetically, from an MFA program is the requirement to think about your chosen genre of focus (poetry/poetics, fiction, creative nonfiction) critically as a "scholar" of that genre in addition to as a practitioner of that genre (as a poet, for example). That certainly involves literary history, to be sure -- the history of the 'confessional' poem in English, let's say, which could take you all the way back to the poetry of the fifteenth-century poet Thomas Hoccleve -- but as other respondents have noted, that assuredly also involves literary theory. So if confessional poetry is your jam, for example, you could be expected to construct a lineage of practitioners to which your work belongs. That might involve connecting such disparate poets as Berryman, Bishop (who disavowed the term), Lowell, Snodgrass, Plath, Sexton, etc -- those whose work bears the hallmarks of that heuristic -- and might also look into other more unlikely examples of the "confessional mode", ie Roethke, Jarrell, etc. You might also be asked to extend the chronology forward into the poetry written during centuries supposedly "after" the "confessional movement" had had its heyday. Is Kinnell a "confessional" poet (why or why not)? Is Olds (why or why not)? Is Rich -- and, to use her work as an example, what might gender and the theory (because it was a theory as much as a practice) that the "personal is political" have to do with writing based upon the material realities of one's life? Of course, if that is a definition of confessional -- and you would likely be required to invent such a definition -- does that mean that Wordsworth is also "confessional," Clare, or Hopkins? Moving into the 20th and 21st centuries, what about the movement sometimes called "post-confessional" (ie, the work of Olena Kalytiak Davis)? This doesn't begin to scratch the surface of questions related to poetic genres like "lyric," "narrative," etc, which have their own tangled histories. 

I elaborate like this to illustrate that a PhD program will likely require that you create and study such a genealogy (queered or not). Additionally, as others have already pointed out, some departments will (and won't) operate along a scholarly/creative binary -- where the operating assumption is that poets don't think about historical and/or theoretical issues related to the writing of poetry, for example. Virtually all of us involved in straddling both sides of these supposed extremes are well aware that the opposition is finally false, but that doesn't lessen its effect in how some departments operate on a day-to-day basis. It's also worth considering what the degree requirements are. Are you interested and/or willing in potentially gaining (or proving) reading knowledge in one or more foreign languages? Are you willing to teach not only intro creative writing courses (which might not be possible until you're a PhD candidate, program-depending) but also freshman composition courses?  From the programs of study I researched when I was contemplating a CW PhD versus a Lit PhD -- and, for the record, I ended up going the Lit Phd route -- the number of required courses in pedagogy, methods, and literature/theory courses far outweighed creative writing workshops. This admittedly differs from program to program and would be worth researching in full to see what (does not) fit your interests and your goals. But an argument can be made for the fact that PhD's in either concentration make very little sense unless the kind of career you desire is as a teacher of creative writing and/or literature. To put it bluntly: if being an academic, with all the rigamarole that entails, isn't of interest to you, pursuing a PhD in either arguably makes little sense in terms of what you aspire for the future. That getting being a professor is the only thing that a PhD is good for -- far from it. The growth of alt-ac careers proves that lie. But it is very important to recognize that the reality for tenure-track positions in CW positions, which normally focus on one or more genres, is as dismal or, arguably, more dismal than for scholars and teachers of literature.

As for which kind of program you should apply for: if you contemplate pursuing a PhD in literary studies as opposed to creative writing, I second what other respondents have said regarding looking into possibly taking graduate-level courses at a university near you if such is feasible. (If your undergraduate degree is in English, which is to say focusing on British and American literatures, this may be less urgent.) Regardless, what is important is having your application have its finger on the pulse of what is beating your chosen interest / area of focus (be that historical, genre-driven, cultural studies, etc). Your statement of purpose will need to articulate whatever that is and, ideally and/or necessarily, your writing sample will need to demonstrate it also. By this I don't mean that you need to have a 99% certainty of what your dissertation will be about before you even enter a PhD program. But an adcomm committee will want to see what you're aware of the critical conversations your declared field has already had in addition to those it is currently having. 

I posted a lengthy response to a post similar to this not too long ago that covers some of these points -- at least from my perspective as a poet and scholar trying to balance the vicissitudes of both job markets (which do have some some potential overlap), which you can find here:

//forum.thegradcafe.com/topic/88543-help-deciding-on-a-program/?do=findComment&comment=1058465713 

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