Making the Decision to Apply to PhD Programs

Picture of Nate Pritts

Author: Nate Pritts

What factors were most important for you when choosing to do a PhD?

When I was applying for my PhD – this was 1999 – there weren’t many institutions that offered the degree in Creative Writing. I think there may have been 5 or 6. So though I wanted a program that combined the creative dissertation with scholarly rigor, I don’t remember that really being something I was able to really evaluate the programs on. Also, maybe early in the process, I thought a bit about chasing faculty, the way many people do for their MFA degrees. But really my desire to get a PhD was tied up with my desire to be left alone. I had just (or was in the process of) completing an intense MFA experience & I wanted a PhD not for imagined future job security/mobility, but because I wanted time to write, time to digest, time to learn & integrate the lessons; I didn’t want to have to get a job just yet!

Location never entered into my thinking, because I was pretty sure that I would get the degree & then leave, pretty sure that I was making a short term move & that I could survive/endure/thrive pretty much anywhere.

So, that left just one thing – the overriding factor in my decision was that I would only attend a school that would give me full funding. No tuition & a stipend to live on. I didn’t want to pay for my PhD.

How have things changed with the PhD since you applied for your PhD? What do you think an applicant should expect coming into this process?

I’ve not completely kept up with the process. I’m not entirely sure how it has changed. I mean, except the obvious: there appear to be more choices. Another change, one that springs from the proliferation of the degree (the PhD in Creative Writing), is that it has become debased in some ways. Which means, rather than the DEGREE itself meaning something, now it’s the CONFERRING INSTITUTION that makes a difference in terms your future prospects – the prestige, the connections.

I don’t have answers but it seems to me that the type of jobs that many young poets want can be got as easily by having an MFA/PhD combo as from having an MFA/prize-winning book combo.

Which is to say that these jobs ARE NOT easy to get, should NOT be the end result anyone is shooting for. If you are getting your PhD for reasons having to do with CAREER or job prospects, then I can recommend other degrees, or other specializations within English, that appear to have much better prospects (the Chronicle of Higher Education publishes these types of results, fields that are growing & hiring, as opposed to fields that are graduating too many people).

What was the most nerve-wrecking moment in your application process? What was the most exhilarating? Looking back, would you change anything about how you approached that process.

The application process wasn’t nerve wracking at all, but mostly because I was too dumb to have my nerves wracked. I should have been worried about places saying NO to me, but I didn’t, & none did anyway. I should have been worried about how I would ever be able to make such an important decision, but I didn’t, & I made a decision anyway, one that worked out for me. (Because, like anything you do in life, it’s often what you make of it that matters.)

There was one exhilarating moment when I was on the verge of accepting at one University. I was sitting outside surrounded by / in Wyoming where I was hiding out at an artists’ colony, when a member of the administration from the colony came over & told me there was a man on the phone for me. This never happened. So I wandered over to the main building & picked up the phone & this man – who was the Dean from a different University – started giving me a real hard sell about why his school & his city were better fits for me. It was exhilarating & compelling & he was right.

What overall advice do you have for someone applying to a PhD program in creative writing?

My standard advice is to tell people who are considering applying not to do it.

I don’t mean this facetiously. I feel like many people run into a PhD program for all the wrong reasons, with all the wrong outcomes in mind. I enjoyed my program, & I learned a lot, & it worked for me – yes. But I went into it really wanting only 3 or 4 years away from having to worry about a job – having to worry about what came next. I got that – & I got a whole lot more. But people who go into it thinking they will come out with a tenure track job possibility, or a book or two published, have got it wrong. The numbers aren’t in their favor.

Then again, the numbers are never in anyone’s favor. Still, it’s okay for me to gamble with my own life. But if someone asks me what to do with their own life, I guess I play the game much more safely.

Overall, do you feel like getting a PhD was worth it? Why or why not?

Well, I hope no one extrapolates from this question that it IS worth it – rather just that it was worth it for me. The three years it took me to earn my PhD (2000-2003) were years well spent, years that marked me considerably, years that put into play many things that have shown themselves to be durable & are part of the very fiber of my continuing life.

I’m glad that, even though I did a creative dissertation option, I have an area of literary specialization (British Romanticism) that I focused on almost exclusively during my studies. I published in this area, taught in this area. I actually have 4 areas of specialization, which is common, but three were “minor” in terms of my commitment/coursework (one obvious (contemporary American), one non-traditional (Film), one an extension of the major (Renaissance Literature)).

I believe, as I believe about my MFA program, that the PhD worked as a kind of growth accelerator – that it helped me to reach certain levels that I might have reached on my own, but which certainly would have taken me longer to attain.

And from a practical standpoint, I know that over the course of my adult professional life (9 years & counting) I have been paid more for certain jobs than I would have been paid had it not been for the PhD. And it is true that I’ve had a few jobs that I probably would not have had were it not for the PhD.