Is a Ph.D. Worth It after the M.F.A.?


Fanelli_Brian - 2016

By Brian Fanelli

When I was an undergraduate student, one of my best friends predicted I would ultimately complete my Ph.D. I scoffed at the idea. At the time, I wasn’t committed to the idea of spending additional years continuing my education, especially as tuition kept rising nationwide. Besides, as a comparative literature major, I already had enough of the lit theory classes and hour-long debates with classmates over certain texts. My goal was to work as a full-time news reporter, and for a few years, I did just that. However, as newspaper circulation kept shrinking and I saw no future for myself in the industry, I eventually went back to school, first to complete my M.F.A. at Wilkes University and then to complete my Ph.D. at Binghamton University. Both were accomplishments I don’t regret, and in a flooded academic job market, the M.F.A. coupled with the Ph.D. is a wise decision for anyone serious about working in higher ed.

Near the end of my career as an M.F.A. student, I worked part-time at a number of schools in the Scranton area, teaching composition, literature, and creative writing. In time, one of those schools had a tenure-track opening, and I was encouraged to apply. However, it was made clear to me a Ph.D. would be necessary and the sooner I enrolled in a program, the better. Due to my location, my options were limited. Lehigh University and Binghamton University were my only options. Ultimately, I chose Binghamton University. It is much more affordable than Lehigh, and I was more familiar with the faculty which included poets Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Joe Weil, whose working-class narratives resonated with me as a reader and poet. I also respected the school’s history of poetry faculty such as Ruth Stone and Galway Kinnell, among others. In addition, several of the Wilkes’ M.F.A. faculty, including Bonnie Culver, Christine Gelineau, Phil Brady, and Nancy McKinley, are all Binghamton alums. In that regard, Binghamton felt more comfortable.

The first semester as a Ph.D. student was grueling. I taught at a number of universities to pay my bills, had stacks of papers to grade weekly, and had to read 300 pages a week, at least, and write 20-page papers. My classes included “That Old Shakespearean Rag,” an intense look at the American Modernists, and a language theory class entitled “Metaphor.” Even though I now have a Ph.D. next to my name, I’m still not certain I could explain George Lakoff’s theories on brain mappings and language structure.

About halfway through my first semester, I learned I did not get the job I applied for at a local college. I remember the blustery March day when I received the news. I had just pulled into one of Binghamton’s parking lots, and after the phone call, my hands clenched around the steering wheel until my fingernails dug into my palms. I skipped the Metaphor class that Friday afternoon, and it was the only class in the history of my graduate work that I skipped. I still feel guilty about it, but I had to figure out my life, yet again. Instead of quitting the Ph.D. program, however, I plowed forward, determined to finish the degree as a personal goal, but also because I realized an M.F.A. and a Ph.D. made me more marketable. I would do what I had to do to escape adjunct limbo.

Ultimately, I landed a tenure-track job as an English professor at Lackawanna College, and considering the job market, I feel fortunate to work at there, especially as we continue to grow and expand. I am certain the M.F.A. and Ph.D. made me more desirable to the hiring committee, just as I am certain the intensity of the M.F.A. program, including the lengthy reading lists and writing discipline, prepared me for the rigor of doctoral work.

All of this said, completing a Ph.D. after the M.F.A. does not guarantee you a full-time, tenure-track job, at least not immediately. GOP-controlled legislatures across the country have slashed education funding, and this has had a profound impact on higher ed. Google what has happened to colleges across Pennsylvania, especially the state institutions, as well as in Wisconsin, and more recently, in Illinois. Furthermore, the market is flooded with applicants, and there are few tenure-track positions available. According to Inside Higher Ed, in the 2007-2008 academic year, there were 1,680 tenure-track positions nationwide for English professors. By the 2013-2014 year, that number shrank to 1,046. That same year, there were only 112 tenure-track positions for creative writing professors, according to the AWP job list. That said, a hiring committee is more likely to at least interview a candidate with an M.F.A. and Ph.D. In fact, several of my colleagues at Binghamton also have M.F.As, and most of them landed full-time positions after finishing the Ph.D., though they did move across the country.

Consider, too, what most colleges and universities are seeking. Several professors, myself included, don’t just teach creative writing or literature and both the M.F.A. and Ph.D. allows an educator to teach both subjects. Though my background is in writing, I primarily teach literature, including African American Literature, Women’s Literature, and Survey of American Literature. The Ph.D. in English prepared me for this. I have found ways to weave creative writing exercises into those classes, such as re-writing a story, journaling, mirroring a poem, and other various creative writing prompts to enhance the students’ comprehension of the literature. It is also possible to find a Ph.D. program that offers a degree in English with the option for a creative dissertation. Binghamton is one such school, but there are others. My dissertation was a full-length book of poems entitled Waiting for the Dead to Speak, which will be published this fall by NYQ Books. The dissertation defense was fours hour long, and during it, I discussed poetic theories and writers who have influenced my work. I also addressed my three field exams, which focused on Modernism, 20th Century narrative poetry, and African American Literature.

If you are considering a Ph.D., do your research. See how much funding is given to teaching or research assistants. Also understand Ph.D. coursework is much different than M.F.A. coursework and features more theory and literature-based courses, so some background in these areas will be necessary prior to entering the program, even for the GED literature tests, which feature everything from Chaucer, to Faulkner, to the post-structuralists. Now that I am finished with my Ph.D, I know I made the right decision. I’m also certain the time and energy I spent completing my M.F.A. prepared me for the following years I would spend enrolled at Binghamton University.

Fanelli_Brian - 2016

Brian Fanelli is the author of two books of poems, the chapbook, Front Man (Big Table Publishing), and the full-length All That Remains (Unbound Content). His third book, Waiting for the Dead to Speak, will be published in the fall by NYQ Books. His poetry, essays, and book reviews have been published by The Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, The Paterson Literary Review, Blue Collar Review, Main Street Rag, Chiron Review, Kentucky Review, [PANK], and elsewhere. He is a two-time Pushcart nominee and a finalist for the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize. In addition, he is a contributing editor for Poets’ Quarterly. He is a professor of English at Lackawanna College and holds an M.F.A. from Wilkes University and a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. 

11 Responses to “Is a Ph.D. Worth It after the M.F.A.?”

  1. Some Thoughts on the Ph.D. and M.F.A. Debate | Brian Fanelli Says:

    […] had the opportunity to write about my experience getting a Ph.D. after an M.F.A. The article was published in The Write Life, a publication that is part of Wilkes University’s M.F.A. […]

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  6. asmith6360 Says:

    Hi Brian, Thanks for the information. I found it because I’m trying to figure out my next steps. 🙂 I’m currently adjuncting at a school that offers an Ed.D. I could pursue the degree at no cost as long as I continue to work here. I find the coursework interesting, and though I would consider a position in administration, the classroom is where I belong and want to be.

    Do you think gaining a doctorate-level degree, though not a Ph.D., would help my chances of a track position? Or would it be regarded like a narc infiltrating the cool kids club.

    • Brian Fanelli Says:

      I just checked back on this article and saw this comment! By now, I assume that you’ve probably made a decision about this. If you obtain an Ed.D., you would be eligible for TT jobs in the field of education, so that’s an option. You can later work as an administrator, but it sounds like you never want to do that. If the school is going to pay for it, that’s a real bonus. However, you should also consider that several Ph.D. programs offer full funding. I’m curious what you decided to do!

  7. Amy Says:

    Hello, Dr. Fanelli. What is the difference (daughter has already received her MFA) between a PhD in creative writing and/or a PhD in English literature? I have read online that there are 2 differences, yet they don’t say what these 2 differences are. Thanks in advance.

    – Amy

    • Brian Fanelli Says:

      Amy, I’m just looking back on this article now and never saw your initial comment! Most Ph.D. Creative Writing programs also include course work in literature and/or lit. theory. A Ph.D. Creative Writing program would include a creative dissertation, such as a novel, memoir, or full-length poetry collection, whereas a Ph.D. in English/Lit involves an academic/scholarly dissertation. If your daughter already has an M.F.A., then either degree would really work for her, and it would make her attractive to search committees for full-time, TT positions because she’d be able to teach both creative writing and/or literature. It’s becoming more and more common that M.F.A. graduates go on for a Ph.D. if they’re hoping to snag a TT job. I hope that this was helpful! Your daughter should really ask herself if she’d rather do a creative dissertation or a scholarly dissertation.

  8. Taylor M. Riley Says:

    Hi Brian! We had a super similar path career-wise in newspapers, MFA and now PhD. I’m considering the PhD in Rhetoric and Comp. Did any of your MFA credits translate?

    • Brian Fanelli Says:


      My M.F.A. credits did not count towards my Ph.D. work, though I really enjoyed my Ph.D. program, as difficult as it was at times. The track in Rhet. and Comp. sounds like a good plan, at least judging from the number of job postings.

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