Thinking about a PhD or MFA?

Take a look at this article, “What a Difference an MA Makes” written by Gina Brandolino, about the benefits and deficits of pursuing a terminal MA before going on to a PhD.

Faculty members constantly receive numerous requests for advice from MA students who want to continue their graduate studies in a PhD program. Your program directors offer this advice:

Before you decide to go on, do some serious soul-searching. Teaching at the university level can be profoundly rewarding, but doctoral study involves intensive and solitary research. Even for an MA graduate, earning a PhD represents a serious and significant investment of time, effort, and money. And job prospects for PhD’s are, to say the least, not bright. Recent Modern Language Association statistics place the odds of finding a tenure-track position at 50-50, and some administrators feel that even this estimate is optimistic.

With these conditions in mind, seek out a few professors who know your work well for advice. Ask them honestly to discuss with you your aptitude and preparation for doctoral work. Go also to the DePaul Career Center and see what kinds of careers might be available for smart people with your interests and training. Take the Strong Inventory test (for online information, go to and other vocational aptitude tests. (Better to try this now than after several years of fruitless job searches for a tenure-track college teaching job!)

High scores on the GRE general and subject tests are essential for getting into good PhD programs. You are strongly urged to take the GREs early in the application process, so you can retake the tests as necessary. If you are unsure how good a test taker you are, invest in a Kaplan course, buy study guides, and work hard on mastering the discourse of the multiple-choice standardized test.

When you decide to apply to PhD programs, do your research carefully. Look for faculty who work in your intended area of specialization, find out what they’ve published, what they teach, and ask around about the general environment of the program. For more specifics on this (including the all-important issue of etiquette), check out the resources below.

Approach potential faculty recommenders early and ask them if they are able and willing to write you a strong letter of recommendation. If they agree to do this, make a packet for each that includes the forms (signed where appropriate), stamped and addressed envelopes, detailed instructions and timelines, the writing sample and personal statement that you’re submitting with your applications (this will help your recommenders convey your strengths and potential convincingly).

Or, creative writers, are you thinking about the MFA?

For tenure-track positions in literature, composition, rhetoric, cultural studies, linguistics, or related areas, the PhD is the required degree, but the situation is different for those who plan to teach poetry writing, fiction writing, nonfiction writing, or play- or screenwriting. For these people, the Master of Fine Arts or MFA degree is the likely ticket to a tenure-track position at the college and university level. During the past decade a number of PhD programs in creative writing have sprung up, and future professors in creative writing should consider these programs as well as the older MFA programs. At least for now, though, MFA programs continue to train the bulk of people headed for tenure-track slots in four-year institutions.

If you are not familiar with the MFA degree, you should know, first, that this degree covers not only creative writing but also painting, sculpture, acting, music, and other areas associated with the fine arts. Second, the MFA is a more advanced degree than the MA, and many holders of an MFA in creative writing earned the MA first.

Many of the comments about the PhD offered above apply also to the MFA as well, so seek out the counsel of faculty who offer courses in the Literary Writing concentration.

And finally, feel free to ask your program directors for advice.