The M.F.A. in creative writing is considered a terminal degree, and therefore qualifies graduates to teach at the college level. But Ph.D. programs in creative writing have become an increasingly attractive follow-up to the M.F.A. for writers looking to improve their chances of landing competitive tenure-track teaching positions—or for those who want to buy more time to work on their projects without the pressures of a day job.
As his M.F.A. at University of Arizona came to a close, poet Jerry Williams was looking for more time. “I wanted a couple more years to focus on my writing and not have to go back into the regular work force.” Like the majority of students who go through an M.F.A. program, Williams wasn’t graduating with a published manuscript. He knew that the teaching market was becoming increasingly competitive and many M.F.A. graduates were still stuck in the kinds of jobs he’d gone to grad school to escape. “I didn’t want to tend bar,” he says. “Or worse.” He was awarded a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State in 2006.
While Williams was enrolled in Oklahoma State’s program, he published his first book, Casino in the Sun (Carnegie Mellon Univ.), which, along with the Ph.D., helped him land a visiting professorship at Roger Williams University. Now Williams is a tenured professor at Marymount Manhattan College. He says that when he makes hiring decisions, he tries not to weigh a Ph.D. over other kinds of experience, but does admit that the lit-heavy course load is good preparation for teaching. “It’s more academic,” says Williams. “The Ph.D. program is more like a lit degree with a creative dissertation. You’re reading 4,000 pages a week.”
Louise Krug just finished her Ph.D. in creative writing at the University of Kansas, a process she found more academically rigorous than her M.F.A. “To get my Ph.D. I had to take—and pass—comprehensive exams in three literary fields and write a creative dissertation with an academic component. You also have to take four semesters of coursework.”
The University of Kansas awarded Krug a teaching assistanceship while she worked on her Ph.D., which required her to teach two classes in exchange for free tuition and a small stipend. Most creative writing Ph.D. programs offer funding packages that include teaching fellowships that help students bankroll their years of study. Krug hopes that her Ph.D. will help her land a university-level teaching job; she’s been on the job market since last spring, working as an adjunct at Kansas in the meantime.
A recent search of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’s online database of creative writing programs yielded only 28 Ph.D. programs in creative writing across the U.S.; if the lens is widened to include programs in the U.K. and Canada, another seven more can be tacked on. While that may seem like small potatoes next to the 100+ low-residency M.F.A. programs currently attracting students, and even smaller potatoes next to the hundreds (literally, hundreds) of full-time programs churning out writers at a university near you, there’s no denying that the Ph.D. program is slowly and steadily insinuating itself into the academic creative writing marketplace. As recently as 20 years ago, creative writing Ph.D. programs were rare, only offered at a handful of forward-thinking schools like the universities of Houston and Ohio. Now there are enough to warrant their own Poets & Writers ranking—among the top 15 are the Ph.D. programs at Utah, USC, and Florida State.
Williams sees the creative writing Ph.D. as here to stay. “Probably, in about 15 or 20 years, all of these M.F.A. programs will be Ph.D. programs. It’s degree inflation, maybe, but it’s not going anywhere.”