So, I graduated from FAU’s MFA program in the spring of 2012. That last semester was full of applying to creative writing PhD programs (there aren’t that many) specializing in creative nonfiction (there are even fewer). After getting rejected from everywhere that first round of applications, I had to do a lot of thinking.
One thing I wish I knew when I was applying to PhD programs is the same thing I had been told about submitting to journals all my writerly life—know where the hell you’re sending your work. For some reason it didn’t transfer over to my frantic lights-on/bar-closing-time pitches to any graduate school that had a program that might be willing to take me. This approach resulted the aforementioned smattering of rejections. After I had time to reflect on my rejections and digest them properly, I actually researched some of these programs (like, actually researched them for the first time) and was surprised to see that the kinds of writing their faculty did and the kinds of writing their alumni produced were nothing like the writing I was doing. This isn’t to say that their writing was better or anything quantifiable like that, but it was different. And I guess I wasn’t entirely surprised at that, but it helped me get over the idea that the rejections were a matter of not being good enough. This sort of thing isn’t a matter of good; it’s a matter of fit. And I found a place where I fit, explained how I thought I would fit in my application, and saw my first program acceptance the next year. The thing is, there are so few PhD programs out there compared to journals that it might be wholly inaccurate to say there’s somewhere you and your work are suited for like you would when talking about journal submissions. There might not be a program that suits your work. And that’s fine, but resist the urge to send your experimental hybrid work to a very traditionalist program. And no, I'm not naming names.
The worthwhileness of pursuing the creative writing PhD is, as with everything, a matter of what you want to get out of it. I would say completely worth it in my circumstances, as I would like to get some sort of tenure-track job one day, but as you are reading this and no doubt already laughing, I say well fine, you’re right, I probably won’t get one of those. But I do get four more years of what my MFA was—a time where someone is always telling me to write, where I have a large writing project to complete, where I can get eyes on my work, and where I am surrounded by talented artists from so many different places. And I know that isn’t something you need a PhD program for. You can find a community of writers anywhere you happen to be. But there are some particulars about a PhD program that are valuable to me: the rigor and expectations of a research degree, the requirement to not only produce creative work but also (in my particular program and dissertation) both a critical apparatus and a section on pedagogy, the latter of which being a special focus of the program I find myself in. This will hopefully make me more attractive to some hypothetical hiring committee for a teaching job one day. And my English department is operating under an “English Studies” model, one where the various sub-disciplines of English (Literature, Composition and Rhetoric, Creative Writing, Pedagogy, and Linguistics) are represented and considered in an interdisciplinary way. Taking a look at creative nonfiction through the lens of a required linguistics seminar I took one semester offered me a somewhat unique perspective on the field.
But I guess I’ll find out how unique (or valued) that perspective is when I find myself on the job market in two years. Those are some applications I’ll be a little better about researching for.
Mike Shier holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University and is currently in Illinois State University’s PhD program for the same. Poems from Folie à Deux, a collaborative poetry chapbook manuscript written collaboratively with Nicole Oquendo, have appeared in Menacing Hedge and are forthcoming in Grist.