Applying to a PhD Creative Writing Program

Picture of Anne BarngroverAuthor: Anne Barngrover


What factors did you consider when making a choice to apply for a creative writing PhD?

Once I realized sometime during the first year of my MFA that I truly wanted to make a serious career out of both writing and teaching at the collegiate level, I set my goal on getting accepted to a creative writing PhD and never looked back. In fact, I applied twice. First, I applied to six programs during the last year of my MFA, and I didn’t get in anywhere. Then I scraped up my dignity and applied to thirteen programs the following year. I was accepted to, oddly enough, six of them. Clearly there were some really big changes that happened in between those two years, but I’ll get into all that later.

Anyway, the factors I considered when applying to CW PhD’s ranged from economical necessity to feeling bad-ass. Some of the things I thought about were:


  1. I’m one of those freaks who unabashedly loves school—I still get giddy while buying new pens and notebooks for the first day. If you’re not one of these freaks on some level, then four plus years of chattering about Foucault and metaphor are probably not for you. Not all writers need to get their PhD, and that’s perfectly ok.
  2. For me, writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I need to be around people who say sassy things and don’t judge when I spill wine on myself. And, yeah, people who have intelligent, critical minds and crazy imaginations and who genuinely want to help me succeed. Community is essential to me as a student and writer.
  3. It’s really hard to get a tenure-track teaching job at a university these days if you don’t have a PhD, or at least a wildly successful book deal. Not exactly the sexiest reason for getting the degree, but I do like to eat expensive cheese and keep the AC on.
  4. I want to get a book out soon. And hopefully another in the next three to four years. Smart, savvy, and caring professors would be able to help me to do that.
  5. I would be the first ever female Dr. Barngrover. Whatever gets you through the Lit GRE.


What were some important factors when selecting a program? Geography? Funding? Faculty?

Yes, yes, and yes. I’ve always thought that it’s the people who make the place, but you do still have to consider some practical things about where you’re going to spend the next half-decade. If you move to a place you despise, with weather you can’t stand, and that’s insanely expensive to fly in and out of to go home for Thanksgiving, I’d expect that you’d be miserable. At the same time, you may not want to be in a place that’s without its character. The town where I did my MFA, for example, was located in what many dub “The Redneck Riviera,” but living there sure made for some gritty writing. I’m really excited about the small, Midwestern town where I’m going to be for my PhD. But, then again, I’m a pretty simple girl: as long as I have slow-drip coffee, some cool bars and local bookstores, and a decent burger joint, I’m set. I’d suggest somewhere with civilization but enough ugliness to keep you writing.

As for the monies, I’ve always heard to never go to PhD that doesn’t give you full funding. My new program was generous enough to grant me a four-year fellowship where I’d only have to teach one class instead of two for the same amount of money. That sweetened the deal a lot.

And, finally, the faculty is what clinched the decision for me. Even before I was admitted to my program, my future mentor emailed me possibly the kindest, most encouraging email I will ever receive in my writing career. I met up with her twice before I formally accepted: once for a two-hour lunch at AWP Chicago, and then for a weekend in April when I went to check out the program. Not only does she dazzle with energy (I’m fairly certain she knew every human at AWP) and compassion (she invited both my boyfriend and me for Easter brunch at her friend’s house), but also I know this is someone who’s going to stand in my corner, and that means everything to me.


What advice would you be able to give someone when starting the PhD application process?

Stock up on post-its (to keep track of passwords and deadlines), flashcards (to study for the GRE), and your sugar rush of choice—mine is tropical Gushers. Create folders for your Gmail. Make lots of very mini-goals, and just take it one hour at a time. Realize that existential meltdowns will happen, sometimes over the phone with a grad secretary. These people have seen it all. Research the programs really well, but still apply to more than you think, if your funds allow for it. Get in the mindset not to take rejections personally. I’ve given up trying to understand the politics and deliberations behind them, and CW decision processes are a crapshoot if I’ve ever seen one.

Also, make sure to be really gracious towards the professors who write you recommendation letters. It’s a more complicated process than we see from our side of things, so help them out the best you can with organized folders, sufficient postage, and several weeks (if not months) in advance of the deadlines. Don’t be afraid to send friendly reminder emails when the due dates get close. Also, this is my Midwestern mother speaking—make sure to write them a thank you card afterwards. They’ll be even happier for you when the good news comes in.


What resources did you use when researching programs? Websites? Faculty? Fellow students?

For basic information, I relied on the 2011 and 2012 AWP Program Rankings and general hearsay. I created an initial list based on program strength and location, and then I spent the summer reading like a maniac—I read at least one (poetry) book from each faculty member at each program I’d listed. Doing this helped immensely for two reasons: 1) I was able to narrow this list even further in terms of whose work resonated with me and who I’d like to work with, and 2) I was then able to mention specific professors and their specific work in my personal statements. I didn’t do that the first time around, and I think that was one of the things that made a big difference.


What was the biggest difficulty in approaching the application process?

Ok, so my biggest difficulty was that, for me, it was a two-year process. I’ve heard, though, that that’s not unheard of, so if you don’t get in anywhere the first time, don’t despair. I also had an interesting case in that I switched genres: I got my MFA in Fiction but realized, after many failed short stories, that I’ve always had the heart of a poet. Therefore, it took me an extra year to play “catch up.” Right after I graduated from the MFA, I applied and was accepted to a three-week summer workshop at the University of Iowa. That workshop, and the connections I made there with peers and professors, really changed everything. Over the summer and into the fall, I read all the poetry I could get my hands on, wrote like a crazy person—Black Swan­-style—and put all of my energy into sending out to journals and contests. Since I was adjunct-teaching but no longer taking any classes, I had time to keep cranking out poems, editing them, and then submitting all over again. It was nothing but insanely focused hard work. By November, I had poems accepted by over a dozen respected print journals and was even nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Also, most importantly, I wasn’t in the greatest state of mind when I applied the first time around. Even though I still loved school, I was feeling a little lost and burned out after getting my MFA, and at twenty-five, I was in a weird personal moment where I didn’t feel very self-assured. But just a year of working hard and getting my confidence up made me feel like this time is now the right time for me to get my PhD.


What was the most exciting part of the application process?

It finally ending! I accepted at the University of Missouri a week ago in the Dean of Graduate Students’ office, actually emailing him at his desk while he was still in the room. After that I bought a Mizzou Tigers t-shirt, and that night in St. Louis, my boyfriend and I went to the famous Pappy’s Smokehouse and destroyed some BBQ ribs to celebrate.

I hope that all of you reading this interview will experience a moment like that at the end of your PhD application process, and I hope too that this advice was somewhat helpful. Just keep working hard, and best of luck with everything!