What to Know Before Starting Your PhD – AWP 2012

I’m live blogging at AWP. If you’re unfamiliar, I keep updating this post as the panel goes along. Hit refresh to see more notes.

The room is pretty full!

A cursory look at the job listing a MFA seems insufficient to be hired for teaching.

The average PhD takes five to seven years. At times working on a doctorate can cause frustration or despair.

The objective of the panel is to ease the path of those pursuing the degree.

Christian Jerard (sp?) is a poet who is with the University of Tenn. after finishing his MFA he thought he needed more education to really feel like he “owned” a classroom. He loves teaching and wanted to teach. He thought the PhD was the next step. His most important lesson was that his creative dissertation was that he’s still doing a lot of research and critical work.

One of the struggles is how to be a scholar when you think of yourself mainly as a writer. But the benefit is to bring a sense of tradition to your work. You feel apart of something much bigger than yourself.

Writers bring a different perspective to their lit classes that “straight lit” kids can’t.

This is not an MFA vacation.
Doland – “my story is really about stumbling and staggering through life.” She’s a historical novelist.

After college she didn’t know what she wanted to do, so she went to Japan, then came back and took a workshop where her work was ripped apart. She went to another workshop. Then went to AWP and decided to move to Washington DC her parents said she should go to school (MFA)Her first paper was about Mammies were masculized. Her professor said she was good at doing criticism.

After her dissertation she realized she really loved creative writing and wanted to teach creative writing. She felt like an imposter though because she was teaching without publishing a book.

It helps to have a PhD helps you because you can teach more courses.

Having a PhD helped her writing as a historical novelist because she knows how to research.

Roger Reeves -poet, the name of his presentation was something like this… advice for writers who want to go to graduate school because the economy tanked in 2009. Advice: drop big words in your conversation to impress your professors.

Roger was told by a poetry professor that he wasn’t a black poet because his poems followed the tradition of French poems. He launched into a litany of black poets and their poetry’s tradition.

He tells this story because often what graduate students are discouraged about what they want to study. Roger says to risk, risk, risk! We are building birds not bird cages. Parroting back is often rewarded in programs, but risk doing something new.

There is a space for our brilliance despite the pressures of money, jobs, etc.

New panelist – just finished her PhD two days ago at U of Penn. She’s a fiction writer. Her thesis was on contemporary black women authors. She became a writer because she fell in love with voice. Her scholarly self discusses voice and so does her creative self.

Her MFA in creative writing was literature classes with PhDs and creative writing workshops.

Going to a PhD seemed organic because she realized she’s always thought critically as a writer. Even though she’s creative. In college she had a fellowship for playwrighting and critical writing.

Misconceptions.. She thought shed be able to write during her PhD because she was only taking three courses.

She thought everyone would understand her scholarly work and creative work, but it wasn’t so. People did not see the connections between her scholarship and creative work.

Strategies.. Plan to write, revise and submit. Get organized about it. She realized her writing time was limited and so it had to be productive. While she was out of classes and writing her dissertation she gave herself permission to take time out and write creative projects.

There are far more people who want to do creative and scholarly work at the same time then we realize. Talk to them!

The mod got her PhD in 2010. She got her PhD in poetry. Just having doctoral candidate on her resume opened doors to teach. Her research was how Jewish poets adopted Walt Whitman.

She didn’t realize how much work it would be to write an academic dissertation . As she continued she realized her desire for creative writing growing and writing about poetry shrinking. She had a hard time switching from critical, prose writing to creative writing in poetry.

Finally she realized that she should do creative dissertation, but she was already deep into her process. She was living where there were no creative programs. She finished, but with lots of tears.

1. Know your limitations and inclinations..
2. Choose a thesis topic that interests you (not that you’re not sure of) it’ll keep you going.
2a. Do not let anyone discourage you from your topic, it’s a marriage you have to love it.
3. Time management (break it down, set a schedule)
3a. Start small.
4. Pick advisors who are supportive because you’ll be wanting to have a relationship with them for years to come.
5. Persevere!

Christian thinks writers often make a divide between creative and academia but they’ve always been linked.

An MFA doesn’t make you a writer.

Roger did an MA in English. Had a professor tell him, “creative writers are the niggers of the English department.” this was 2005, and this is someone who was his advocate. So be firm on what your direction is before you enter a program and know what the program requires. Be aware of the politics.

You may be up against judgements or assumptions.

Question: easy way to figure out funding other than digging through their websites?
A: call them. It can change year to year. Also, apply for scholarship. Once you’re in a program talk with the dean if the money isn’t there. See yourself as an investment for the college and ask for the money.

Question: do people get a PhD without wanting to teach?
A: most wanted to teach but not all got teaching jobs. Do a PhD because you want to do it. if you just want to write, just sit in your chair and work on your craft.

Do a PhD for a variety of reasons, but don’t do it just to teach.

Resource: doctorates without boarders

If you do want to teach make sure you’re willing to move.

Comment from the audience is that the PhD is different in the UK. Your research must mesh with your creative work.

Question: as a fellow starving academic what are your projects so we can support?
Roger has a book coming out in 2013 from Copper Canyon Press

Question: is it more beneficial to go from MFA to PhD if you want to teach?
Roger: yes. Because it gives you progression and gives you free time to write.

Question: I heard you need clearly articulated idea for your research. Did you have one?
Yes, but it’s okay if it changes. It’s to prove you know what a research topic is.

Question: how do you balance between creative writing and scholarly?
Mod took 3 weeks on dissertation and then 2 weeks on poems
Roger took whatever what was more important to him. To switch modes he will run in between or read someone else’s work.

Question: how do you do a PhD with a family?
Child care. Or if you have a partner they need to understand and respect “thinking” time.

Question: Age?
PhDs usually in 30s and 40s, but there’s older. People are professionalizing early. There is ageism in the job market because we celebrate the wunderkind.

On that note… The end!

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