Sep 18, 2009, 7:12 PM
Post #1217 of 2090
Re: The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers
[In reply to]
I think you've asked the question of the century--perhaps literally--as far as graduate study for poets and writers is concerned. I do think many of the discussions over the value of the CW Ph.D. have (perhaps necessarily, given the nature of this medium) missed the boat somewhat on many of the complexities of the issue.
First, the primary value of the CW Ph.D. is, and will be for the foreseeable future, some combination (or all) of the following: 1) funded time to write; 2) continued participation in a community of artists; 3) teaching experience in the field (creative writing) most graduates will be seeking employment in; 4) a greater likelihood of direct mentoring than with the MFA, due to the level of engagement required by a dissertation versus a thesis; 5) an opportunity to remain (as tends to be most productive for those with artistic temperaments) outside the 9-to-5 workaday world/schedule; 6) a slight advantage over other job applicants in a situation where the CW Ph.D. graduate and another without a CW Ph.D. are essentially neck-and-neck for a position; 7) the opportunity to study poetry with a level of seriousness not possible either in college or in private workshops or courses (though often possible in MFA programs as well).
At this point, the growth rate of CW Ph.D. programs is glacial, even as MFA programs are multiplying at an almost alarming rate (around 6 new programs per year, or 60 per ten years). MFA program growth may not reach its "saturation point" for many, many years--as evidenced, in part, by how many of the top universities in the country have yet to initiate a program (Harvard is coming soon, as discussed on the ALC MFA Blog, but even that's a few years away). Another way of looking at it is to say that one of the nation's great cities for poets, for Philadelphia, will see its first CW MFA this fall (at Temple; story here). Until MFA programs reach a saturation point, a) they will remain the most widely-recognized terminal degree in the field of creative writing, and b) little thought or effort will be attached/put into to the "prestige question" re: CW Ph.D. programs, which is to the detriment of graduates of these programs because employers don't know or haven't decided yet what cultural capital accrues to such degrees. I will say that, it's true, this process is starting--Houston, Georgia, Florida State, and USC, in poetry, have made a name for themselves (and perhaps a couple other programs)--but with only 35 programs, and with a program-creation rate of less than one per year, there's less "at stake" right now in even the few analyses of CW Ph.D. programs that have been undertaken or one might undertake. Anyone who says they "know" what the degree is worth is kidding themselves; the first large batch of CW Ph.D. graduates is only just hitting the job market this decade, so there's little precedent to which one can refer. Certainly, it's worth noting that--in the only study of this sort that, to my knowledge, has ever been done--the placement statistics for the 1,200+ current professors at the top fifty colleges and universities in the United States break down this way:
Professors Who Graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison Currently Working at a Top Fifty College or University: 23
Professors Who Graduated from Any of the Thirty-Five U.S. Universities That Have CW Doctoral Programs Working at a Top Fifty College or University: 27
When you consider that (as I recall) perhaps two of the 27 professors mentioned above (in the second category) graduated from that university's CW doctoral program, and that both of those two went to highly-esteemed MFA programs (making it unclear what the CW Ph.D. was adding to the equation), one has to conclude--not that we know what the degree is worth--but that, again, we don't know. It is simply too early to say. If someone were to ask me that question now I'd probably say, "Come back to me in 15 to 20 years and we might know something."
To my knowledge, University of Wisconsin-Madison is the only traditional (i.e. critical dissertation) doctoral program in English Literature that has an Internal Minor in Creative Writing. It also happens to be home to the #6 MFA program in the country, meaning that during the course of one's Ph.D. here one is essentially meeting all the requirements for graduation from one of the nation's top Master's programs in the field (except, technically, the thesis, but one produces enough work in one's workshops to put together a thesis if one wanted to). The difference is that having an English Literature degree has a proven track record on the job market; it makes one a "double-threat" of sorts in that one then has two terminal degrees--and in two different specializations--rather than (in effect) one terminal degree in one specialization (the situation of someone with an MFA and CW Ph.D.). It's very tough to analogize those two situations, except to say that--objectively--the former is considerably more desirable at the time present time and under the present conditions, especially given the field of Poetry Studies being a recognized area of specialization in English Literature doctoral programs (i.e., one can study poetry obsessively in a traditional Ph.D. program, and, as many poets have already proven to us, you can continue writing poetry in a traditional Ph.D. program, especially if you're somewhere that you can take workshops for credit).
But applicants to CW Ph.D. programs and traditional programs often have different goals; if one's goals conform to those I listed at the beginning of this post, a CW Ph.D. program may well be a good fit. If one has a strong desire for several of those same goals, but also academic study of poetry and a significantly enhanced job-market portfolio, one might well do a traditional Ph.D.--while, yes, risking the likelihood that one will get much less writing done, relatively speaking at least, in that sort of program (i.e., you can certainly continue writing--just as those with a full-time job often write regularly; certainly, it's no worse than that and likely much better--you just won't write as much).
I chose University of Wisconsin-Madison because I felt it was--and now believe it is--the perfect compromise between the two goal-sets. It is, I truly believe, the best of both worlds, and not just because a) Madison is one of the best places to live for four to six years in the United States, but also b) I want to be able to approach, understand, and internalize poetics from not merely an aesthetic standpoint but also a conceptual one. I think that will make me a better reader of poetry and a better writer. My honest opinion: I can't imagine any poet or writer considering a Ph.D. not at least applying to University of Wisconsin-Madison. I think you owe it to yourself to at least have that option, if admitted. Because a third major reason to come--reason "c)"--is that sometimes you come to a point in your life when you want an entirely new challenge that nevertheless acknowledges your current values and interests. Doing a traditional Ph.D. is very different from doing an MFA, but then--really--doing a CW Ph.D. is also very different from doing an MFA. UW is the only school in America, as far as I know, which lets your first three years seem very similar to a CW Ph.D., and then lets you do the critical dissertation that will make you a very attractive find on the job market (keep in mind that only two Ph.D. programs in this entire conversation--University of Wisconsin-Madison and, to a lesser extent, University of Southern California--could be said to be "highly regarded" or "prestigious" English Ph.D. programs; UW is #17 nationally [and First Tier in contemporary American literature], while USC is a Top 40 program).*
Best to all,
* UIC and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee are knocking on the door of the perennial top 40 for English Literature doctoral programs but are not quite there yet (and it's not clear whether either is in the moving-up phase; it seems more likely they're either in a holding pattern or in slight decline, based on at least a rankings-only analysis [with all its evident limitations]). The problem, of course, is that while UW is ranked #17 on the basis of the degree we're talking about here, even USC isn't really in the top 40 because of its creative writing doctoral degree, but because of the quality of its English Department (and anyone familiar with MFA internal politics will know that that's not one and the same, and certainly not to the professors and administrators who oversee hiring of tenure-track faculty).
(This post was edited by umass76 on Sep 18, 2009, 7:13 PM)