Thursday, June 08, 2006

How did Ph.D's come about?

Probing Higher Degrees in New York writes....

How did PhDs in Creative Writing come about? Are they a recent phenomenon,
and was there controversy about the existence of a PhD in creative work?
Were people upset that the MFA would not longer count as terminal?

What I really want to know about is the process that took place. Which
departments and schools had the first such programs, from whom did they
need to get permission, and how did they do it?

That's way too many questions, Probie. But I'll post it here anyways.

I'm completely guessing here, but hopefully it will start a conversation in the comments section, and we'll get to the bottom of things: Cornell, Utah, Florida State, UNLV, and USC strike me as Ph.D. programs that have been around for a while.

Okay readers. Help me out.

UPDATE: I should've been clearer about Cornell, as a number of readers have pointed out. Cornell has a program for a limited number (one or two) of students that is a joint MFA/Ph.D program. The Ph.D is in literature. The MFA is in creative writing.

52 comments:

Anonymous said...

Cornell does not have a creative PhD.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Cornell doesn't have a creative Ph.D. I think USC is the best Ph.D. program out there, it's in a good location but it requires GRE subject scores for addmision. Denver and Utah have been around a while. I'd suggest you do a traditional English Ph.D.if you want to do a Ph.D. It will better prepare you for getting a teaching job than a creative Ph.D. since there're so many creative Ph.Ds out there from crappy writing programs.

RLN said...

For a UK perspective with some mention of US and world trends, read Graeme Harper's article "The Creative Writing PhD: Creative Trial or Academic Error?" in the journal NEW WRITING. I forget which year, but the journal is published at Bath Spa University College. Harper's institution is Portsmouth. Hope this helps.

Anonymous said...

I think people go to Ph.D. programs because they can’t publish, so need more networking to further their writing career, or you got a MFA from schools with bad reputation so want a Ph.D. to compete with MFAs from top schools in the job market, well, I don’t know…

Anonymous said...

How about Houston? I thin it's the only one worth mentioning in the South.

Anonymous said...

UNLV and USC are relatively new Ph.D. programs, I think. I heard people saying Denver is the oldest.

Anonymous said...

Saying that people go on for a Ph.D. because they "can't" publish or because their MFA was from a "bad" school is extremely simplistic and insulting.

People get doctorates for plenty of reasons - namely, because many schools won't consider hiring someone with just an MFA, unless they have a stellar publishing record (i.e. at least one book.)

You act like getting a Ph.D. is a sign of academic failure when, in fact, it is quite the opposite. A Ph.D. in any field requires time and effort that most people just don't have.

I also take offense to the idea that there are MFA programs with "bad" reputations. No, not every program can be Iowa or UT, but you make it sound like an MFA program can be "bad" like a high school girl on prom night.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, angry anony, I didn't intend to offend writers with Ph.Ds. Don't get insulted and go get a Ph.D. if you think it'll help you find a teaching gig.

Anonymous said...

It should be noted that one of the contributors to Tom's book did a PhD at Florida State, which I believe is considered one of the better PhDs out there (they do have Pulitzer winner on faculty, after all), and he has amazine publications: Paris Review, etc. I do think it is legitimate to say that getting a PhD is a way to buy more time, but that's not a bad thing. After all, most people don't start really publishing until a couple years out of the MFA. Usually it's only the really lucky ones who publish either while in the MFA or just after. There's nothing shameful in taking awhile (Richard Yates once pointed out in a letter that some of the greatest works in literature took nearly a decade to write, while others, like Gatsby, only took a couple months, so time doesn't really matter, it's just what you're doing with it). I imagine a lot of people doing creative PhDs mainly have the intention of teaching, but I'm sure a lot are just buying themselves more time--and, hey, that's something I'm sure most of us would like, and something we shouldn't snear at. I mean, hey, just do the numbers. Iowa takes 25 writers in fiction a year, but they don't produce 25 book deals a year. No matter what level of MFA you go to, most of us are going to have to find a way to buy time while we keep struggling and working.

Anonymous said...

please forgive the typos in the above. argh.

jaywalke said...

My experience inside academia leads me to believe that there is still a lingering suspicion among some older, more traditional folks (i.e. those most like to be on hiring committees) that the MFA degree isn't "terminal enough". It's a relatively new concept, and things change slowly in the ivory tower. So, the PhD may be an attempt to legitimize a touchy-feely art.

I have always seen the MFA/PhD split to be a choice between practice and theory. (Remember: In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they're different!) I think the creative writing PhD may just be another approach to the same problem: how to write well. In a recent tenure-track English search in which I was (peripherally) involved, the vast majority of the candidates had both degrees, although the PhDs were more likely to be traditional rather than creative.

jaywalke said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I disagree it’s a relatively new concept that he MFA degree isn't "terminal enough" for academics. It’s been like that since the beginning of MFA programs. So less established CW programs created Ph.D. programs to respond to the demand of fairly traditional English departments many of which happen to be in the South. So the Ph.D. programs produce creative writers who can talk theory and speak the language of academics.

Let’s be honest that many creative people can’t STAND academics or literary critics. One of the secrets for Iowa’s and Columbia’s success despite their poor funding--especially Columbia--is that they can recruit writers who HATE literary critics. Their programs are separate from the English departments, so students there don’t have to deal with academics, that is, they don’t have to take traditional lit classes taught by literary critics.

I am often surprised to see some creative Ph.D.’s with only a few story publications get TT CW jobs. You can often see this in very traditional English departments in the South.

Anonymous said...

This is an enlightening comment. It explains why a mojority of Ph.D. creative writing programs are in the South or middle America.

jaywalke said...

Perhaps I was unclear in my use of pronouns. The "it" to which I was referring is the MFA degree itself, not the resistance to it.

I can't speak for art or music, but academic theatre has the same degree biases.

Anonymous said...

I think this brings up an interesting question: are people often getting an MFA with the focused intention of then teaching creative writing in a university english department?

This question, I think, also points to the difference in structure between types of MFA programs (ie: the appeal of the workshop/elective-only vs. the appeal of the lit-mandatory programs--this came up in a pervious discussion on the blog).

When I was applying to programs I didn't do much research and just assumed everything was on the workshop/elective only model probably because I assumed that eventual teaching would only ever come about as a byproduct of a good publishing record, and that a sole focus on writing would lead to lots of writing getting done (I'm not saying this is necessarily true, I'm referring to my assumptions at the time). An MFA seemed to me to be a useless academic degree, but a really awesome version of an apprenticeship: someone would pay me to write for a few years (I agree wholeheartedly with Tom on the funding issue there).

Anyway, I learned (upon actually looking closely at programs when responses came back) that about half of the programs required Lit classes and when I inquired as to why, was, in so-many or not-so-many words, told that programs were trying to prep people to teach in an english dep't, in whatever capacity.

It made sense on a practical level for the dep't, but to me (since I don't have a desire to be an english prof or talk about theory) it seemed quite separate from my own reasons for heading to an MFA.

Anyway, point being: I wonder how many people heading to MFA programs are specifically interested in teaching in a university english department--in a focused way --down the line, and how many really don't think of the degree as particularly practical.

It seems to me that there's something of a divide on that count. It came up in a previous discussion of whether or not the MFA is, by nature, a particularly academic degree. I don't think of myself as heading off to "study" per se. I think of myself as managing to score a really cushy gig for the next few years--which doesn't mean that I don't take it seriously; I do. But it means the academic side of it is a really minimal part of the equation in my reasoning.

Anonymous said...

"
People get doctorates for plenty of reasons - namely, because many schools won't consider hiring someone with just an MFA, unless they have a stellar publishing record (i.e. at least one book.)"


I don't think the poster was talking about getting a PHD per se, but in getting a PhD in creative writing.

Getting a PhD in english or something can easily help your chances of getting an acade3mic job. But a PhD in creative writing?

It normally comes down to your publications and if you can publish, you can get a job with an MFA easily. If you can't, a PhD probably won't help.


I also take offense to the idea that there are MFA programs with "bad" reputations. No, not every program can be Iowa or UT, but you make it sound like an MFA program can be "bad" like a high school girl on prom night.


Huh? You don't think programs can have bad reputations? Programs in any subject have good or bad reputations. Academia is immersed in reputation. Personally I could see an argument for why reputation matters MORE in MFAs than other things.

Anonymous said...

I got burned in my undergrad lit classes, so I'd rather choose programs with no or less lit course requirements even though they look less attractive funding-wise. So I have already removed from my list programs like Cornell, the U of Texas, Indiana, Michigan...

Anonymous said...

It came up in a previous discussion of whether or not the MFA is, by nature, a particularly academic degree. I don't think of myself as heading off to "study" per se. I think of myself as managing to score a really cushy gig for the next few years--which doesn't mean that I don't take it seriously; I do. But it means the academic side of it is a really minimal part of the equation in my reasoning.

I believe I was in that discussion and let me point out I was initially just stating that an MFA is an academic degree by definition... you are getting it from academia.

But an MFA IS academic in the sense people seem to use it here - ie, anything other than workshops - and I think its probably healthiest to go into it with that understanding. If you aren't interested in reading and studying writing, then you aren't going to get the most out of an MFA. You can look at an MFA as a cushy 2 years of writing - kinda like most kids look at undergrad as 2 yeras of subsidized drinking - and I don't begrudge you that, but it probably isn't the best attitude to learn the most.


I mean, even if you get great funding and consider that funding your income, the money is pretty small. What is a good stipend? 10,000?
You could make a lot more than that waiting tables and probably with less time spent working.

My point? That if you only goal - and I'm saying this in general, not to the poster I quoted specifically - is to have time to write and you want to have nothing to do with academics... well, there are a lot easier ways to buy time than going to an MFA.

I'm just surprised at the number of people I see who say they hate acadmics, hate literature classes, hate the academic atmosphere and even hate workshopping... yet are going to MFA programs!

Anonymous said...

I got burned in my undergrad lit classes, so I'd rather choose programs with no or less lit course requirements even though they look less attractive funding-wise.


-Do programs actually exist that don't have ANY lit course requirements? What would that be, merely four workshops?

Anonymous said...

Iowa, Johns Hopkins, Columboa. Yes just four workshops and a bunch of electives. I think Iowa is the most flexible one.

Anonymous said...

Yes but the electives are mostly lit classes or other academic type classes, no?

Anonymous said...

Tom's ranking is accurate if you only consider the funding factor, but you consider the other important factors, I really think the old US News Ranking is more accurate.

Anonymous said...

I don't know whether to call them lit classes, but they are elective craft courses taught by writers, not by literary critics. So no critical papers are required.

Dan said...

So basically, these schools w/out many lit classes, we're talking just going there to write and get better, eh?

I wish we had a whole list of these. (~promptly tosses off question to TK~) I'm completely uninterested in lit classes taught by scholars. I want craft and workshops and writing, and that's it.

Anonymous said...

I don't know of any programs that don't have any academic requirements beyond the workshop (although I'm definitely not an expert). However, there are lots of programs that don't have any LIT requirements.

The difference is that there's an expectation that you'll take electives in something offered by the university every semester: it can be physics, math, history, anthropology, you name it. You don't just take a workshop; you take a workshop and an elective.

Also, in response to the comment about someone not understanding why people want to go back to school but have this hatred for academia; I certainly never said that, and I hope I didn't imply it.

I'm really excited to be heading back to academia. I'm certainly not anti-learning or anti-studying. I was referring to this idea of studying writing in an academic sense.

I'm psyched to talk about writing, to read, to write, and to study whatever it is I want to study at a given moment in time--medieval history, 17th century philosophy, Russian Film, Quantum Mechanics, Buddhism, whatever.

That's what I find to be great about MFA's w/o a lit-req. I've always found that non-English classes actually made me more motivated and more curious to write than English classes do. I think it has everything to do with temperment and general taste. History classes teach me things about history that compel me to think about stories; psychology compels me to think about the way the human mind works; philosophy compels me to think about the structures of my own belief system. Physics makes me think about the incredible complexity of the natural world in which I live. All of this feeds into the way I think, and therefore the way I write.

I also want to think about writing as a method of communication, but I don't want to think about it according to the current constructs of literary academia. It's not a hatred of academia--it's not even a hatred of lit dep't's ... I honestly don't hate them--it's a personal taste issue. I'm more inspired by classes outside lit departments, and therefore the idea of enrolling in a program that required me to take a grad-level lit class every semester left me with a sour taste in my mouth.

What I was getting at was more a question of the degree to which people assume that if you want to write, you must want to study literature in an academic setting--or be involved with literature in an academic setting. I've just been sort of surprised by the number of people who've assumed that to be the case when I said I was getting an MFA. To me it's like saying I'm getting a degree in studio art; that doesn't imply that I want to study Art History.

I've read some great pieces of lit analysis--there's a terrific Stanley Fish essay on Paradise Lost that is a beautiful thing in and of itself--but a lot of it just doesn't appeal to me; it dilutes a great deal of the visceral joy of writing and reading I have. This is not true of everyone; it is true of me.

So, in my experience, I just don't see writing-as-craft and writing-as-academia as being the same thing at all. Connected in some sense, sure. But I see writing as connected to history and philosophy and psychology too. Even physics.

So I was interested in seeing which way most people fell on this count.

Wow. That was long.

Anonymous said...


Tom's ranking is accurate if you only consider the funding factor, but you consider the other important factors, I really think the old US News Ranking is more accurate.


I love Tom's book and have found his advice very helpful all around... except for the rankings. They are the only thing that don't seem right to me.

I consider funding to be important, but it isn't the be all end all of a programs importance. Tom is certainly free to use whatever criteria he wants, but when 2 of the 3 programs normally considered as the best (Iowa, UCI, Columbia) aren't even in the top ten... well, it just seems like the list doesn't jive with reality.

However, the part where it really fails is that too many of hte programs offer partial funding. If Tom made a list of the top programs that fund everyone, and just stated at the beginning he wasn't going to rank the others, it would all be swell.

But you have the odd situation in his list where you could get into one of his top programs and have to spend more than at another, generally better regarded program. For example, a prospective student could easily get no funding at NYU and partial funding at Columbia and end up ahead with the Columbia deal. Most people would agree that Columbia is a much better program in this scenario, yet TK's rankings wouldn't show this.


Of course, any kind of ranking is hard and subject to a lot of factors, so it is hard project in the first place.

Dan said...

Amen, Anonymous.
Leave a name next time. ;)

Dan said...

That would be an Amen to the Anonymous who ended w/ "Wow. That was long."

Anonymous said...

Anonymous (haha, that was specific), I guess we just have a different definition of "lit class." I just meant any class where you are studying literature. I, at least, had undergrad lit classes that didn't require any critical papers.

"To me it's like saying I'm getting a degree in studio art; that doesn't imply that I want to study Art History. "

Well, I guess to me you should to some degree if you want to get a studio art MFA.

Its less that writing as craft and writing as academia are the same, and more that studying them in an academic setting overlaps a lot.

Jason MacLeod said...

Montana's MFA is quite flexible--you can get out of here having just taken one "real" lit course. (Four are required, but there are a number of ways to sub craft and special topics courses in their place).

As for the Ph.d. situation, I haven't quite decided yet if I'm going to apply next year though I certainly have nothing better to do on my calander. I do know that the five people who applied from Montana this year to Ph.d. program all got in at multiple programs--most to their 1st choice. So I'm not entirely sure what that says about admission difficulty. I certainly think those folks (who are also my friends) rock, but that also seems like a weirdly high acceptance rate. (Example: three of them got into Florida State). Anyway--for those who want a Ph.d and think it will help them in their future plans, go for it. Those who don't think so, don't. Kumbaya!

Anonymous said...

Florida State is one of the programs that mass-produce creative Ph.D.s It's not a competitve program at all considering the number of students they admit each year.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, they will bend over backwards for Montana graduates. Most of their students come from marginal or low ranked programs.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone have a list of the creative writing PhD programs out there? It turns out it's not that easy to google, or if it is, I apparently have no idea what I should be googling. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

There's a list in The Book.

Jason MacLeod said...

Partial list off the top of my head: Houston, University of Denver, Nebraska, Flordia State, Utah, USC, North and South Dakota, Ohio University, Missouri, Southern Miss, Louisianna-LaFayette, University of Georgia, Las Vegas, Hawaii, Western Michigan, Oklahoma State, Illinois State, SUNY Binhamton, SUNY Albany. And there are others.

Anonymous said...

SUNY Albany? I never heard of people getting a creative Ph.D. from there.

Anonymous said...

And it's probably not Illinois State but U of Illionois at Chicago.

Anonymous said...

If I rank them in three tiers, it should look like this:

USC, Houston

University of Denver, Las Vegas, U of Illionois at Chicago, Utah, Missouri, Flordia State, Nebraska, Ohio University, University of Georgia,

Western Michigan, Hawaii, Oklahoma State, SUNY Binhamton, Southern Miss, Louisianna-LaFayette, North and South Dakota and others.

mike said...

Well, none of them are good schools probably except USC. They're just all crappy programs like someone said above.

Anonymous said...

I was an editor for a small independent publisher and I am now a literary agent, and it seems to me that many of these CW Ph.Ds try to hide in their cover letter that they have a Ph.D or they are in a Ph.D. program as if they’re shameful of that. They will say it proudly only when they apply for those lousy teaching jobs, right?

candidobsvr said...

I have three comments as regards the creative writing PhD versus MFA.

Technically speaking there is little difference between a PhD in creative writing and an MFA in creative writing. Both require that you generate a thesis. They also require that you spend a certain amount of time studying literature or composition. That being said I would caution that there is only so much "theory" that one can impose before you move from the creative process into the theory of the creative process. It has been my experience that people who have PhD’s in creative writing spend far too much time discussing the theory of creative writing, rather than the process. One of the important aspects of the MFA, one that I feel is not covered in enough detail in many programs, is that there is quite a lot of craft involved with good writing, not just art. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what program you choose, if they don’t talk about craft, then it’s not worth it. That’s just my opinion.

BTW the PhD at USC is in literature, not creative writing. I know it’s advertised as a PhD in creative writing, but if you look at the curriculum you realize that it is really a lit degree with creative writing seminars tacked on. I seriously looked at going out there until my advisor cautioned against that idea because many people who undertake the PhD process loose their creativity when they start tackling academic theses. There is a very broad distinction between an academic thesis and a creative one.

There is another option that no one seems to have mentioned. That is the possibility of pursuing a doctorate in Composition and Rhetoric or writing studies. Both of these types of degrees would be suitable for someone coming out of an MFA program, especially someone who is interested in language use and compositional elements. This is the track that I personally intend to pursue. Just thought I would throw it out there for people to think about. Cheers!

Meg Taylor said...

A fantastic blog yours. Keep it up.
If you have a moment, please visit my advice career graduate site.
I send you warm regards and wish you continued success.

Bill Harrison said...

Your blog I found to be very interesting!
I just came across your blog and wanted to
drop you a note telling you how impressed I was with
the information you have posted here.
I have a advice career teen
site.
Come and check it out if you get time :-)
Best regards!

brooke said...

Just for info.: "New Writing: the International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing" is published by Multilingual Matters (http://www.newwriting.up.to) and is independent (ie. not published by any university). The Editor, Graeme Harper, is Director at http://www.nieci.org.uk

ali said...

I'd like to address these comments:

"Florida State is one of the programs that mass-produce creative Ph.D.s It's not a competitve program at all considering the number of students they admit each year."

"Yeah, they will bend over backwards for Montana graduates. Most of their students come from marginal or low ranked programs."

Admittedly, I am a M.A. graduate in creative writing from FSU, so this may be biased; however, these comments are completely off. FSU is a larger program, but there are far more M.F.A. students than P.H.D. students, and FSU creative writing grads go on to publish widely and well. So much information about creative writing programs is hearsay, and this is no exception.

Emilie said...

This is in regard to MFA programs that only require creative workshops. I'm a student at the University of British Columbia. The program was established in the late 60s with Iowa as a model. It's a very reputable program with very successful students and alumni. But more importantly, I have had an excellant experience here. Great profs and peers.

Ryan said...

For a Phd in fiction, does anyone know the acceptance rates for these programs?

University of Georgia
Georgia State University
University of Denver
University of Houston
University of Utah
Florida State
University of Southern California
UNLV

Any insider info. on applying to these programs?

Thanks.

BARRY GRAHAM said...

i realy appreciate conversations like these. my comments are not meant to be disrespectful, my degree is from a school with a "bad reputation," so i am sympathetic. but to me the phd seems almost like a way of weeding out. there are sooooo many mfa programs popping up all over, low res, etc. where anyone with a few thousand bucks can get an mfa. does that mean they should all be teaching at universities. of course not. i think in some respects a phd serves as just another filter, a way of disqualifying applicants, eliminating an endless pile of 200 applications for every 1 academic teaching position.

of course this is only a small part, i acknowledge that, but it is a part indeed.

JACKSON BLISS @ 水と魂 said...

I disagree with the people who said that FSU mass-produces PH.D's in creative writing for the sole fact that the Ph.D group in CW is much smaller than the MFA program. Further, since people here like rankings so much, The Atlantic ranked FSU one of the top 10 MFA programs and one of the top 5 CW Ph.D programs in the country. Not to mention graduates there seem to have won virtually every important award there is out there. It looks like it's time to update your analysis people.

JACKSON BLISS @ 水と魂 said...

Other thoughts:

•All Ph.D programs in CW will require you to take lots of Literature classes because you have to pass the same oral exams as normal lit students. This is actually a good thing because then you will be qualified to teach CW and also literature classes.

•USC, like the other Ph.D programs, allows you to take CW workshop while you take lit classes, and then your dissertation is a completed creative work. Ditto with FSU. But if that's killing your creative urges, the consider that the alternative--getting a Ph.D without any creative writing classes or dissertation, or working at a gas station, for example, though noble--will do even less for you in terms of giving you time to write.

•If you have a stellar list of publications, you don't need a MFA, or if you do, it really doesn't matter where you got it from. If you DON'T have lots of pub.'s, then the reputation of your school will matter more, but only because no one's heard of you.

•A Ph.D in CW is becoming the norm for tenure track jobs, but plenty of writers don't want to work at a university. For me, I'm not sure I can afford NOT to, anymore.

•Denver, USC, FSU, Houston, Utah, OSU are all great CW Ph.D programs and I don't think you could go wrong with any of them. I think their acceptance rates are higher than MFA's because less people apply to them, but this is because you normally have to take the GRE general and subject test, have a lot of lit classes under your belt, usually you have to demonstrate foreign language proficiency, and some publications can make a difference. So, less applicants, but higher expectations . . . does that make sense?

•Getting more time to write is the only justification you need to apply to a Ph.D program in creative writing (and yes, I have publications)

•Think about it: 3-5 more years to write, read and learn. For most of us, that's a dream in itself.

•Good luck peeps, whatever you choose

JACKSON BLISS at 水と魂 said...

Candid Observer,

Now that I'm in my first year at USC, I can confidently say you're wrong: it's a PhD in Literature AND Creative writing. It's not one or the other, it's both. Yes, we all take critical coursework, but we also take just as many workshops + form/craft classes, which is EXACTLY what happens in most MFA programs (1 lit class + 1 workshop per semester). While it's true we have to pass our field + subject exams like the regular lit PhD students, we also write a short critical dissertation + a 100-300-page creative dissertation. The creative part isn't "tacked on" but is an integral part of the program. Most of my classmates deal with the critical in order to focus on the creative. Yes, we're here because we're poets + writers, we just happen to be able to do critical/literary part too.