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Should You Get a PhD in Creative Writing?

PhD in Creative Writing

Photo by Wrote courtesy of Creative Commons


At AWP in February, one of the best panels I attended was titled “What’s a PhD in Creative Writing Worth?” The conclusions I drew after hearing each panelist speak were:

A) You should only get a PhD in Creative Writing if you plan to teach and really like academic writing.

B) Don’t expect to have more time to work on your book.

C) A PhD in Creative Writing CAN help you get a job in academia, but a published book matters more. A PhD AND a published book are ideal.

D) You will spend a lot more money earning a PhD in CW than you will earn teaching, so don’t do it for the money.

Now let’s hear what the panelists had to say:

Will Donnelly

MFA from Iowa and a PhD in English and Creative Writing from University of Houston. Teaches at Berry College.

Some facts from Will:

There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 200-odd MFA programs operating in the United States. There are 30 doctoral programs that offer a PhD in Creative Writing in the United States. Most graduate about 5 students per year. So there are about a hundred new PhDs created every year. The average annual stipend for teaching a 2/2 load (two in the fall, two in the spring) is $17,000.

According to Connelly, the average PhD program will add five years to your graduate program, and those five years will be very very expensive. “I think of the PhD as an academic boot camp,” he says. You’ll mostly be taking lit classes, teaching, working for the lit journal, and “writing when you can.” With a 2/2 load, you may have 50-60 graduate students and working a second job to pay your bills. “As a general rule, try not to take out more total (student loans) than what you think you are going to be able to make in your first year working….If you think you can make $40k your first year working, make $40,000 your debt limit.”

“As a fiction writer, you’re more than two times as likely to get a non-adjunct job with an MFA and a book or two published than with a PhD,” Connelly says. “Your odds are better with a book.”

Of course, candidates with books published AND a PhD have an even better chance of getting hired. Valuable information Connelly learned while in his PhD program was how to navigate academic administration and teach lit classes. But “pursuit of a PhD to give you more time to write is probably a bad idea,” he cautions. “Pursuit of a PhD to give you more time to delay the job market is also a bad idea.”

Edward Porter

MFA from Warren Wilson, PhD in English and writing from Houston. Teaches at Millsaps College.

Why he got a PhD:

1. “I didn’t want to be the dumb kid at the party who didn’t know what ‘interpolate’ meant.”
2. To learn how to teach.
3. Because there are worse ways to spend your time on this precious earth.
4. Because he never thought he would support himself with book sales.

Why he REALLY got a PhD:

“When I finished my MFA, I was terrified that without some artificial structure chaining me to the written word, I would drift back to my (former) world.”

Did he find time to write while pursuing his PhD?

“I would have much more time to write if I had been a firefighter or a book store clerk. Much more.”

Will a PhD get you a job teaching?

An MFA, a PhD, published books, and a conspicuous web profile can all help, Porter says. “You get hired because of a web of circumstances, publications, credits…and a PhD is one string in that web.”

Advice for writers who do decide to pursue a PhD:

“Get into the best school possible because that matters a LOT. Get the best deal possible. Brutally limit your teaching hours. Identify recommenders and future mentors early. Identify an area of specialization. Publish as much as you can while in the program.”

Should you get a PhD if you want to teach?

“I don’t think anybody should do a PhD as a means to an end. It’s too long. It’s too costly…to make it work, you have to want both the process and the result.”


Rebecca Lehmann

MFA in Poetry from Iowa, PhD from Florida State. Teaches at Austin College.

Unlike Connelly and Porter, Lehmann says she DID find more time to write during her PhD.

Did getting a PhD improve her writing?

“My writing did get better… but most people’s writing improves over time.”

What does she wish she’d known before beginning her PhD?

“I wish I had known more about the cost…I was super broke all the time. I had a tuition waiver, but it didn’t cover fees or health insurance. I ended up taking out a LOT of loans. I won’t tell you the number because it will give you bad dreams at night.”

Did her PhD help her get a job?

Yes, but…“I would agree with Will that significant publications can outweigh the PhD….It’s extremely difficult to get a job without a book period in the poetry department….The market is ridiculously competitive right now…I moved across the country three times in three years.”

Was the PhD program what she expected?

“The Creative Writing PhD is a rigorous academic program….If you’re not academically minded, it can be a struggle. The people I knew who really struggled were people who thought it was going to be MFA part II.”

Rebecca Wadlinger

MFA from UT Austin. PhD in poetry from University of Houston, works in advertising.

Why did she get a PhD?

“Intellectual curiosity and to have people with whom to commiserate.”

How did she end up working in advertising?

“Getting a PhD doesn’t mean you’re immediately in line for impossible-to-get tenure track job,” she says. Besides, “good writers are really really hard to come by out in the real world…Creativity is a really marketable skill. If you want to get a PhD but you don’t want to teach,” you can sell yourself as a creative.

What about you? Have you considered getting an MFA or a PhD in Creative Writing? Why or why not?

68 comments to Should You Get a PhD in Creative Writing?

  • annerallen

    Fascinating, Meghan! It's even rougher than I thought for a creative writing PhD. $17,000 a year isn't going to pay off much student debt. And since it won't help you get published, and you'll need publication to teach anyway….yikes. You gotta really love academia to choose this path.

    • Meghan Ward

      I know, Anne. That panel really didn't make me want to get a PhD in Creative Writing…and I'd considered it in the past.

  • MarinaSofia

    Not just in creative writing, either. I have a Ph. D. in Social Anthropology but have ended up working in the business world rather than in academia, where it really only counts briefly on paper or on your business card. After that you have to work hard to impress people with your business skills, and the 'taint of the ivory tower' can actually work against you. So when friends ask me if they should pursue a Ph.D. , I always say: do it for the journey, if you are passionate about the subject, and if you can afford it. Don't do it in expectation of a better future.

    • Meghan Ward

      That's really interesting, MarinaSofia. I would think having that PhD after your name would help in the business world. How does the "taint of the ivory tower" work against you? I'm interested in hearing more about that.

      • MarinaSofia

        It's the usual 'you only know it in theory, not via experience' school of thought. Even am MBA without work experience is not worth all that much. Plus most of the people hiring you have less qualifications, so they are a bit wary of hiring someone who might be replacing them in the near future. Or they might fear that your salary expectations are unrealistic. I was even advised by a recruitment agency to leave the Ph. D. off my CV when I first started out…

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