Dispatches | August 28, 2013

Today’s blog post comes from LaTanya McQueen. 

My AWP panel got rejected which is a shame because it would have been awesome. That said, I decided to do a blog post about what I learned these past two years about PhD programs because even though there’s a lot of information about MFAs there seems to be close to zilch about PhDs. I put together as much information as I possibly could to help those of you who are even thinking of applying.

First off, what is a PhD in Creative Writing and why should you get one?

Well, it’s actually a PhD in Literature. Why is this important to mention you may be wondering?   Because I think one of the biggest misconceptions (at least for me) was that this degree is somehow going to be an extension of the MFA. You’re going to be taking literature courses and they won’t be craft-oriented. You’re going to take comps. Aside from the major difference of being able to write a creative dissertation, the requirements for the PhD for the most part are the same.

There are roughly 30 (give or take) PhD programs that offer this option. The majority range 5-6 years in length. You spend the first couple of years taking classes and fulfilling general requirements, a year doing comprehensive exams, and then 1-2 years writing a dissertation. The dissertation, although creative (meaning writing a novel, short stories, a poetry collection, an essay collection, etc.), will most likely have a critical component as well.

As for why you should pursue this degree—well, I can’t tell you that. The answer is going to be different for everyone. There’s the hope that the degree will potentially lead to better job prospects (whether this is true or not is still to be determined). For writers, 4-5 years to try and finish a book is also a consideration (although it’s really more like two years considering all the other things you have to do for the degree). Maybe it’s because you want a more well-rounded education, one that involves the study of in-depth study of literature. Whatever your reasons, one thing you should do is    think long and hard if this really is a path you want to go on because it will be long, it will be more stressful than anything you’ve ever done, and will require more work than you thought possible.

All that said, if you’re still thinking about applying to one of these programs, there are some things you should know…

Unless you are James Franco, do not pay for this degree.

Did you know there are PhD programs that don’t offer funding to everyone? I didn’t until I applied.  Schools can be pretty sneaky with this information, wording their funding situations in interesting ways. Key tip: “We have a number of assistantships” is not the same as “we have assistantships for EVERYONE accepted.” Why is this important? Because said school could have funding for 1-2 people while accepting several more without it. There are a surprising number of schools that offer funding on some sort of a tiered structure, similarly to the MFA (some students get assistantships and extra fellowships, some have just an assistantship, some maybe a fellowship but no assistantship, and others have to pay to play, basically). Ideally, you want to be somewhere where everyone is  funded equally, or at the very least funded.

I don’t need to point out why you shouldn’t pay but I’ll do it anyways because SERIOUSLY DO NOT PAY. 4-6 years (sometimes even longer) is a lot of years to get in debt, and you really don’t want the stress while trying to avoid poverty. To be fair, considering the amount of some of these  assistantships, you’re going to be poor anyways, which brings me to another question—is the assistantship enough to live on in whatever city the school’s in? Remember that whatever that number is you’re going to have to subtract several hundred dollars (up to even $1,000 or more!) for  fees and then another several hundred for books and parking for each semester. The money you’re given may be enough to live on now, but will it be enough in the next two years? Four?

Funding is always the big one but there are so many things tangentially related you need to consider that tend to get overlooked until it’s too late. Do you have to pay for your health insurance? What about dental? Does the school offer additional funding opportunities that you can apply for? Does the school have funding for professional development like conferences or research and how much?  What about dissertation fellowships? Are there funding opportunities for additional years you’re in the program in the event you don’t get teaching position anywhere? Remember: even with this degree there are no guarantees. When all is said and done there is still a very real possibility of not  getting the elusive tenure-track track job or even any job at all.

Location is not everything but it is something.

Real talk: a lot (meaning the majority) of these programs are in pretty undesirable locations. The good news about this is you’re going to be so busy that it won’t matter too much where you live. Seriously. All those things you think you’re going to get to do if you move to a cool place are going to go by the wayside real quick once the term starts. All that said, you’re not going to be working all the time, so wherever you go should hopefully have stuff you like to do/go. Are there places to de-stress? Coming from someone who’s naturally an anxious person to begin with, this may not seem like a big one but it can be.

Realistically think about where you could live. Are you married? Have kids? Look at the schools.  Look at cost of living. Are you single? Do you want kids? Look at the social scene (more importantly, is there a social scene?). Sit down and have a long conversation with yourself about what you need at minimum to be happy.

Research! Research! Research!

There are so many things to consider when thinking about programs:

–Teaching. How many classes do students teach each semester? Your teaching load can very wildly from school to school. You could be not teaching your first year or teaching two or even three classes each semester. Also, what are the classes you get to teach while in the program? Will it be just composition your first year or is there the possibility of teaching something else? What about literature classes and what kind? Do you get to structure your own syllabi? Are there other opportunities, like research assistantships and the like, to relieve your teaching load?

–Courses: If you can go and look at the course listings for the past two years. Are they aligned with your interests (I’m not just talking about creative writing here but also literature)?  Pay close attention to the program’s requirements. How many literature courses do you have to take and what are they? What about workshops? Can credits from your MA be transferred and fulfill some of  these? Does the program seem interdisciplinary? What is the comprehensive exam process like (they are not all the same!)? Spend a good deal of time looking at what comps are like for each prospective school. While the time frame (a year) may be the same the process could be very           different. How many books will make up your comps list—50? 100? 200? How many written and oral exams are there, when do you have to take them, and how long are each? How much leeway do you get in constructing your own lists? You may not be thinking about these things now but trust me when I say that you really should be.

While you’re looking at the comps process, look at the requirements for your dissertation. Will you need to do a critical component as well, and if so, how long? Are their school dissertation fellowships that you an apply to that will make writing your book (and your life) easier?

–Literary Journal: Does your school have a literary journal? Yes? I hope so because you are definitely going to want to be on it. Not just for the obvious reasons, but sometimes I feel like the day-to-day of a PhD program gets swamped with solely academic concerns. Working at a literary journal helps keep that literary connection, reminding you that yes you are a writer still and not just an academic. This will feel especially true if you end up moving to a place that’s not some major literary metropolis, which pretty much categorizes the locations of the majority of these programs.

Speaking of literary journals, I need to mention that working at TMR has been one of the best experiences I’ve had here. Everyone, and I mean absolutely everyone, is incredibly passionate about finding and supporting writers—both emerging and established. Hopefully, you will have the same experience at working at a literary journal as I’ve had here.

–Faculty: Along with looking at the course listings, pay close attention to the faculty, not just the  creative writing faculty but literature as well. Look at the courses they’ve taught. If you can, read  their books (or articles and short fiction/poetry/essays if you’re pressed for time). Again, are these  people whose interests match yours? Can you see these people on your committee for comprehensive exams? Reading your dissertation?

–Job Placement: This is another big one to think about even though you may not be thinking about  it yet. How does the program prepare students for the job market? Do alums from the program get jobs? What are the jobs? Are the jobs specifically tenure-track teaching positions? Are they visiting writer positions? Or are a lot of alums adjuncts?  Like with funding schools can be pretty shady about this info too so you will need to put on your stealth hats and go digging.

So, you’ve thought about all those things and now have a good working list of places you’re going to apply to. Now what?

Find a group of people to talk to while you’re applying.

When I applied to programs two years ago I knew no one who was applying which sucked because I had all these ridiculous questions I didn’t know who to go to for. I also had no one to complain to or stress about the process with so I stalked old posts in the Poets and Writers Speakeasy as well as The Grad Cafe. Luckily I managed to find a PhD draft group on Facebook and I suggest if you’re thinking about applying or are applying you join the group. It’s good to have people to vent to who understand what you’re going through. I met a lot of really wonderful people in the group during my year, many of them I talk to regularly even now.

 Test it and forget it! How to take the GRE and GRE Literature test.

I hate the GRE with the burning passion of a thousand scorching suns. The only thing I hate more than the GRE is the GRE in Literature. There’s no doubt about the fact that this test blows but guess what? Take it anyway. A lot of PhD programs require the GRE in Literature and you’ll have a pretty short list of places to apply if you don’t take it.

From the costs to the huge time-suck studying for and taking it, everything about the GRE just absolutely suck suck sucks. All that said, my advice to you is to take it, take it early, and never think  about it ever again. Take it early because in my experience spots for it fill up fast and if you wait too late you might luck out completely from being able to (this almost happened to me). Also, you really don’t want to be studying/taking a test when you should be working on essays or your creative/critical samples.

Once you take the test and have sent out your scores to your schools, DON’T THINK ABOUT THE TEST EVER AGAIN. This will be hard. It’s going to be very hard. It’s easy to stress about GRE scores because it’s the one quantifiable thing you can use to measure yourself. You may not know if your samples are good enough or if your essays make sense, but your GRE scores are right there to tell you how good you are. Now, I don’t know how much these scores are factored into applications but I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s not much, especially compared to everything else in your application, and I really don’t think you’ll be able to improve your scores that much if you take it again. So take the test, pat yourself on the back for getting through it, and move on.

Do as much as you can as early as possible.

Along with taking the GRE (ugh) there are things that you can get out of the way pretty quickly. Request your school transcripts. Update your curriculum vitae. Ask for recommendations because sometimes professors take forever. Many schools have online applications now so fill out as much of that as you can. You want to spend as much time as possible on the big stuff like your samples and  statements/essays.

You should also try and talk to schools/students at prospective schools as early as you can. Ask them as many questions as you can think to ask. Don’t hold back. Remember this is your future we’re talking about here.

So after months and months of waiting, you find out you’re accepted (yay!)! Or you find out you were rejected (it’s not the end of the world). What next?

Acceptances are amazing! First thing you should do is celebrate. Life is short and in this field  acceptances can be few and far between. Take a moment and celebrate this huge accomplishment.

If you get accepted to multiple places definitely negotiate. This is hard and to be honest I have no advice for it. If you’re torn between places but one has better funding and the other has a better   teaching load, talk to them and see what, if anything, can be done.

If you get accepted someplace but know that for whatever reason you’re not going to accept, be a good person and let the school know. Don’t squat on an offer. The reason I say this is because if you squat on an offer it holds up the wait-list. If everyone squats then the wait-list never moves. Then you have a weird situation where it’s near the deadline and everyone’s having to make last-minute decisions because slots suddenly opened up, or it’s post-deadline and people get accepted to places   off the wait-list after they’ve already made a decision. Trust me, if your answer to someplace is no tell them. It’s good karma for you in the long run.

Ideally, you’ll want to visit schools but if you can’t because you spent all your money on application fees and GRE scores, don’t worry! There are things you can still do. First, ask the school is maybe they can afford your plane ticket to visit. Some will have the funds and some won’t. It’s a crapshoot either way but it doesn’t hurt to ask. If they don’t and there’s no way you can afford to go, do what I did and practice your creeping skills:

–Yelp is awesome. You can find out a lot about a place from looking at Yelp reviews. Make a list of places you like and stuff you like to do and look on Yelp and see what they have. Get an idea of what options are available to you if you move there.

–Craigslist. Craigslist is great for researching the cost of places to live in different areas.

–Google Maps. I love Google Maps. I spent a good deal of time before I moved looking up different places on Google Maps and staring at the pictures and using that little orange man icon to virtually travel down the streets. It’s not much but it’s something.

If it turns out you only get accepted to one school unfunded (DON’T GO) or if you get rejected from everywhere you applied, then take a very deep breath and remind yourself that it’s going to be okay. Really, it will be. You may be nearing the end of an MA/MFA program and faced with unemployment and no health insurance, or you may be barely surviving with adjunct work from semester to semester, or you may be in an overly stressful underpaid job with no benefits or respect that’s slowly sucking away your soul. Whatever your situation is, tell yourself that this is not end of the world. Speaking from someone who worked a very long series of dead-end jobs, I completely understand what you’re going through but IT WILL BE OKAY.

What to do when it’s all said and done:

Even if you get accepted or you have to spend another year applying, you should spend this interim time now writing. So write.  Write a lot. Write more than you’ve ever written in your entire life.  Even when you don’t want to do it. Even if you think you’ll have time later. Guess what? You won’t.

No matter what happens write as if you don’t have tomorrow to wait for. Write as if this is all you have. Write like the world is on fire.

LaTanya McQueen’s stories have been published in New Orleans Review, The North American Review, Fourteen Hills, Nimrod, Potomac Review, and others. She received her MFA from Emerson College and is currently in the PhD program at the University of Missouri.