Monday, September 04, 2006

Poverman's Essay about Teaching Positions

Baffled in Bloomington writes in and says...

C.E. Poverman writes on the University of Arizona's website a rather dispiriting commentary about the shortcomings of the MFA in today's market for university teaching positions. Is the writing lecturer with only an MFA really a thing of the past, even at small universities?

And that essay includes this paragraph:

Fifteen years ago, according to the Associated Writing Programs, a writer could get an MFA, publish several stories or poems, and with the promise of a first book on the horizon, he or she might find an entry level job, sometimes at a large university or a community college, and in this way start a career. Dozens of writers have done this. But this situation has changed drastically in the last ten years. Partially through the proliferation and success of so many fine MFA programs, that same entry level job now might have over a hundred applicants; many of these applicants have published one or two books. In fact, people who receive those jobs will probably have published two books. They will be in their mid- or late-thirties, usually having spent over ten years writing after receiving an MFA, being rejected, succeeding, failing. In some instances, the MFA is not enough of a degree, and the search committee is looking for someone with two books and a Ph.D.

I really can't disagree with Poverman. On the MLA Job List this past year I noticed a significant increase in jobs preferring Ph.D candidates. And I also noticed a sharp increase in the number of jobs seeking, for lack of a better term, "swing" candidates: those who can teach both creative writing and literature classes. (And by the way, the sharp increases I'm noticing are over three years, from the last time I really looked at The List.)

I'm nitpicking with Poverman on one point though, and I do so respectfully: I don't think community colleges are looking for Ph.D candidates. However, he's right about the other isssues: If you've got two books published, plus a Ph.D in creative writing, then you're going to get a lot of interviews. If you've got an MFA and no books, you're going to get significantly fewer interviews. And the population of both groups is growing.

The fact of the matter is: most English Literature professors hold a Ph.D. For the longest time, there was no Ph.D in Creative Writing. Now there are. So it makes sense that universities will seek candidates with this particular degree.

This all brings us to to a main point: the MFA is primarily an artistic degree, not a professional degree. You're attending an MFA program to create time, community, and guidance for your writing. You can certainly have ambitions beyond that, but it's smart to be realistic and know that Poverman's outlook is overall very accurate.

I'm going to have another posting about the realistic outlook of the MFA degree soon. Thanks for the great question, BiB.


Third Person Limited said...

I respect programs that openly admit the actual prospects for MFA graduates. In fact, the only reason I'm applying to MFA programs now and not 4 years ago is because I know the degree often has little (if any) real world application. But I want to spend a few years writing and working on what is most important to me. Going for any other reason (such as a teaching job or a book deal) seems naive. I'm glad when schools like Arizona recognize this and perhaps dissuade the applicants who would ultimately be happier with a different type of degree.

Sara said...

I think the question is--does it matter how good you are, more than anything else? Does it matter more how the faculty in question views your writing than whether or not you got that PhD in writing? I just wonder if this is all one big game or if being GOOD--and published--can land you a job despite your one, tiny MFA degree. You know?

Boyd said...


The most rigorous part of the dissertation includes the

Methods Section
Study Design
Research questions and hypothesis formulation
Development of instrumentation
Describing the independent and dependent variables
Writing the data analysis plan
Performing a Power Analysis to justify the sample size and writing about it

Results Section
Performing the Data Analysis
Understanding the analysis results
Reporting the results.
When you enter this phase of the program, you are nearing the end of the journey. Given the difficulty of this phase, one often wishes they had previewed what was to come.
Many Ph.D candidates seem to hit a brick wall and feel disarmed when called upon to work on the methods and results section of their dissertation.
This is the point where many students diligently search for help calling on their advisor, peers, university assistance and even Google.
This is also the time when the student asks themselves the question" HOW MUCH HELP IS TOO MUCH".
Surely no one will deny that having your dissertation written for you is very wrong.

On the other hand, it is not unusual for doctoral students to get help on specific aspects of their dissertation.(e.g. APA formatting and editing) It also is not unusual for advisors to encourage students to seek outside help.

If you are a distance learning student it is almost essential you seek outside assistance for the methods and results section of your dissertation. The very nature of distance learning suggest the need for not only outside help but help from someone gifted in explaining highly technical concepts in understandable language by telephone and e-mail.

Distance learning, and the availability of programs, has increased exponentially over the last few years with some of the most respected institutions (Columbia University, Engineering; Boston University and others) offering a Ph.D in a variety of fields. If you are enrolled in a distance learning program, or considering one, you will be interested in reviewing the reference sites listed at the bottom of this page.

As stated above, many students hit their dissertation "brick wall" when they encounter the statistics section. Frequently, a student will struggle for months with that section before they seek a consultant to help them. This often leads to additional tuition costs and missed graduation dates.

If I were to name a single reason why a PhD candidate gets off track in their program it is the statistics and their fear of statistics.

So, the question is whether or not it is ethical to get help at all. If so, how much help is too much.

I don't know if there has ever been a survey of dissertation committee members who were asked this question, however, I know many advisors take the following position when they suggest or approve outside help:

To a large extent the process is self controlling. If the student relies too much on a consultant, the product may look good, however, the student will be unable to defend his/her dissertation.

It takes a committed effort on the part of the student and the consultant (resulting in a collaborative/teaching exchange) to have the student responsible for the data and thoroughly understand the statistics. The day the student walks in front of the committee to defend, there should be no question as to his/her understanding of statistics.

When their defense is successful, the question of "was the help too much" is answered.

If you are a Ph.D candidate and would like additional information, you may email me at:


Reference sites:

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