How to Get a PhD or MFA in Writing

Do you dream of writing your own novel, short story collection, screenplay, or nonfiction book? Earning an MFA or PhD in writing is one way to gain the technical skill you can use to tell your story.

Take control of your writing career with a doctoral-level degree in writing. Your career goals and writing aspirations can help dictate the specific degree you choose. Whether you're eventually interested in teaching, or your goal is to write and have your voice heard, an MFA or PhD in writing could be the best next step for your career.

Earning an MFA in Writing

The Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in writing is considered a terminal degree, meaning that no further education is necessary for students to work at the highest levels of the field. However, students who hold an MFA may go on to complete a PhD, potentially expanding their teaching options to the university level.

Typical Coursework for a Writing MFA

Studying to earn an MFA in writing means providing yourself with the environment you need to pursue your art. MFA degree programs typically last two or three years. Coursework in a typical MFA program is likely to include the following elements:

  • Group and individual workshops: Present your work for critique by peers and professors in an engaging workshop setting. Students show two to three pieces per semester.
  • Literary theory: Learn more about writing by studying its theory. Courses may focus on a particular genre of work, a period of time, or a specific style of literary criticism.
  • Cross-genre instruction: Some MFA programs offer and encourage coursework that allows the writer to experiment with different genres of writing, including nonfiction, poetry, fiction, playwriting, and more.

In addition to writing training, some MFA programs offer pedagogy instruction, preparing students to teach composition and creative writing at the college level. The final year of an MFA degree is typically dedicated to writing a thesis, a book-length work that's read and approved by a committee.

Beyond Terminal: Earning a PhD in Writing

Graduates who already hold an MFA in writing return to school for the PhD for a range of reasons. You may be looking for more studio time, or collaboration with like-minded individuals. Perhaps you didn't receive teaching instruction or adjunct classes, and your goal is to eventually teach in the field. Or, you may be looking for a PhD writing program that offers a cross-discipline education, including literary theory or other genres.

No matter your reason, PhD writing programs provide a high level of studio and academic instruction for writers interested in fiction, creative nonfiction, screenwriting, playwriting, poetry, and more.

Alternative PhD Degrees

Beyond terminal MFA and PhD degrees in writing, alternative degrees exist to offer the highest level of training in literature, technical communication, and more. Take a look at a few alternative PhD degrees related to writing:

  • PhD in Literature: Considered the standard degree for literature professors in college, this degree can be customized by study of a certain language, time period, specific writer, and more.
  • PhD in Poetics: Considered a research-based academic theory degree, the poetics PhD prepares students to teach poetry and other literature at the college level.
  • PhD in Technical Communication and Rhetoric: Prepares students to teach in a range of college writing programs, including technical writing, business writing and more.

The degree path you eventually choose will reflect your needs and interests as a student. Because PhD programs require students to hold an MA in literature or writing or an MFA, you have the opportunity to begin to focus your degree goals before you begin a doctoral program, if you choose to go on to obtain a doctoral degree.

On-Campus Versus Online PhD Writing Programs

Unlike some lab-based doctoral-level programs, writing degrees may not necessitate classroom attendance. Because of this, some schools may offer online MFA, MA, or PhD programs in writing, technical communication, literature, and more. There are benefits and challenges to each style of education. Here are just a few:

  • With an online PhD writing program, you can attend school on your own time and from anywhere in the world. Upload your work for an online workshop, and interact with professors and classmates. However, cutting out the campus-based requirements may not be ideal for students who benefit from face-to-face interaction.
  • A campus-based doctoral degree program in writing requires a high level of attendance among its students, but students benefit from face-to-face interaction, personal meetings with professors, and a community of peers that could mean a more enjoyable and beneficial time at school.

In addition to the main options above, some schools offer hybrid degree programs, blending campus-based interaction with online instruction. Your ideal educational model should be based on your own needs and desires as a student. Explore all your educational options and find out which type of education is right for you.

Compile a List of MFA and PhD Writing Programs

Ready to begin the process? Researching potential writing programs is an essential step in finding a graduate degree program that works for you. Instead of simply focusing on schools in your area, consider writing programs across the country as you compile your initial list.

  • Poets & Writers has ranked the top fifty MFA writing programs in the nation for 2010. Schools can be ranked in order of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, funding, selectivity, and postgraduate placement.
  • Talk to writers and writing teachers you respect for their opinions on the best writing programs for you. Programs vary widely based on faculty, genre focus, program length, and educational goals, and it's best to take your advice from a wide range of sources.
  • Use WorldWideLearn.com's writing courses page to compile a list of online writing courses. From there, it's simple to use the site to make first contact with any program that interests you.

Once you've created a list, you can begin to narrow potential programs down to the best few options. The research process can be time consuming, but once you've narrowed your list of potential MFA and PhD writing programs down, you can apply with the confidence that you're choosing from a list of schools that truly meets your needs.

Focus Your List of Potential Graduate Degree Programs

Narrowing down your list of potential graduate degree programs in writing may seem like a daunting task, but the rewards are obvious. Focus your list down to the programs that most appeal to your budget, needs, and goals, and you'll be more likely to enjoy and benefit from the time and financial commitment of a graduate degree. Consider the following categories alongside your list of potential MFA and PhD writing programs:

  • Accreditation: The accreditation process means a third-party agency must approve the academic rigor, faculty credential, and other facets of writing schools.
  • Funding: While some schools offer teaching stipends, fellowships, scholarships, and other financial incentives to attend, not all do. All accredited schools should be able to offer federal financial aid beyond school-specific funding.
  • Faculty: The faculty of a writing program can mean a lot to the program's prestige and success. Look for writing schools with faculty members who might match or appreciate your interests as a writer. Read their publications in print and online in order to get a feel for the work they're doing in the field.
  • Program: No two writing schools are alike, but little details can make a big difference in the overall enjoyment and use you get from your education. Essential program details include whether or not students are required to teach, complete courses in literary theory, or cross genres in their writing.
  • Community: The community of writers in a program can mean a lot to your happiness as a student and graduate. If you value the views of a group, for close-knit groups of students who enjoy each other's company and benefit from each other's ideas. If you're more of an individualist, consider online writing programs or schools that don't place as much emphasis on community involvement.
  • Alumni: The success of the alumni in a writing program can speak to the success of the professors and overall program. Learn where students and alumni are publishing, including literary journals, book deals, contests, and more. Statistics on tenure-track employment and other job placement may also be useful.

Working your way down the list above is one way to efficiently learn which schools and degree programs are ideal for your needs and learning style. Find the information above by consulting admissions representatives, department assistants and chairs, and alumni groups. Whether you're looking for the targeted education of a low-residency MFA or an intensive PhD writing program that means lifelong colleagues and friends, the range of writing programs exists to help meet your needs.

Preparing for Your Online PhD: Valuable Resources

The following resources from WorldWideLearn.com can help you through all steps of your educational journey; from considering your college major to repaying student loans as an alumnus:

  • Guide to College Majors. Take the first step towards picking a major or minor using this guide. Master's and doctoral degrees in writing, literature, and the arts are covered. Anyone can use this guide to take an in-depth look into interesting undergraduate and graduate degrees.
  • Financial Aid. Worried about funding your writing education? Browse the financial aid page for facts and tips on federal financial aid, loans, grants, and scholarships. Learn the financial aid secrets that can simplify paying for college.
  • Education Resources. Looking for more resources? Browse to the education resources section for more information on accreditation, online learning, plus a mission statement from WorldWideLearn.com.

With the resources above, you can get informed, speed up your degree research process, learn study tips, and feel more confident with your future degree.

Join the Writing Community

Part of becoming an active voice in the academic and literary community means joining professional organizations and contributing to shared resources valued by the group. Take a look at the most popular literary journals, professional organizations, and conferences for writers across genres:

  • Literary Journals: Tin House, Ninth Letter, McSweeney's, Puerto Del Sol, Gulf Coast, Quick Fiction, Hobart, Barrelhouse, The Southern Review, Mid American Review, The Sonora Review, Open City
  • Professional Organizations: Associated Writing Programs AWP, Popular Culture Association, American Culture Association, Modern Language Association, Writers Guild of America, National Writers Union
  • Conferences: AWP, Popular Culture/American Culture Association, American Literature Association, WWU Children's Literature Conference

Whether you're interested in writing the next big string of bestsellers or expanding the horizons of literature, earning a PhD in writing can help give you the technical proficiency you can use to support your interest and skill in the craft.

 

Sources

  • Associated Writing Programs
  • Poets & Writers
  • Texas Tech University Department of English