Overview of Graduate Degrees in Literature and Creative Writing


The M.A. is a two-year terminal degree and is offered in areas including literature, rhetoric and composition, library science, or journalism and mass communication. Schools offer terminal M.A. degrees and/or an M.A. leading to a Ph.D. The degree is a combination of coursework and a thesis and/or terminal exam. It is a good degree to consider if you are interested in non-academic careers such as publishing, journalism, library science, and high-school teaching. (You will also need a teacher's certification, M.A.T. for the latter if you intend to teach in public schools). Financial aid is limited but may be available for exceptional students.

Admission requirements for the M.A. generally are a GPA of 3.5 or higher, undergraduate major in the intended field of study (or closely related field), GRE exams, statement of purpose, writing sample and letters of recommendation.


The M.A.T. (Master of Arts for Teaching) is a one-year course that gives you the license to teach in high school (grades 9-12), private or public. The degree is a combination of courses in the subject you intend to teach, courses in education, a two-semester teaching internship and a master's portfolio. Financial aid is usually available in the form of scholarships, tuition remission, and tuition and fellowship in exchange for a one- or two-year binding teaching contract at a high school.

The M.A.T. calendar year runs from early July through the end of June. Application deadlines, therefore, are earlier than for regular master's programs. Admission requirements are in general the following: a GPA of 3.0 or higher, undergraduate major in the intended teaching field (or in a closely related field), GRE exams, writing sample, letters of recommendation and possibly an interview.

M.F.A. (Creative Writing)

The Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing is a terminal degree that may require 27 to 45 hours of coursework (in areas such as literature, literary theory and creative writing) as well as a thesis in the form of a publishable manuscript. In addition, some M.F.A. programs also require completion of comprehensive exams in your chosen genre (typically poetry, nonfiction or fiction).

Students who pursue an M.F.A. in creative writing often do so because: 1) They feel they need the two to three years that the program affords to garner publications or to hone the craft of writing with the guidance of professional writers. 2) They want to "try out" a short-term writing program before committing to a Ph.D. program. 3) They have a specific job in mind that requires an M.F.A. in English.

Low-residency M.F.A. programs are unique in that they do not require students to live near campus while they complete coursework and write their theses. These programs offer intensive workshops and classes on-site several weeks throughout the year. Writers are then assigned to mentors who review their work. Low-residencies are a good choice for students who want to work while going to school; however these programs do not typically offer teaching assistantships as part of their financial aid package, students who plan to teach at the college level may benefit more from programs that allow them to gain experience teaching while taking classes and writing.

Aspiring writers who complete M.F.A.s may find work teaching English in junior high, high school or college (though increasingly colleges and universities seek candidates who have Ph.D.s). They may also work as editors, contributors to magazines, writers for Web sites or non-profit organizations, literary agents and numerous other professions related to the study of English. Writers who complete the degree with significant publications (such as a book) may have an increased chance of finding placement (at an increased rate of pay).

An M.F.A. program may be right for you if love to read, study and write for hours on end, and if you realize that, while the degree is classified as terminal, the written work you produce and the publication or acclaim it receives during graduate school may be worth far more (in terms of finding a job) than the actual degree that is handed out at the time of graduation.


The Ph.D. in English Literature, (Library and Information Science, or Journalism and Communication) is a highly specialized degree that takes five to eight years to complete. The Ph.D. is granted in a general category (eg. English Literature) but you are required to specialize in a sub-field, such as Eighteenth-Century Literature, Postcolonial Literature, Queer Theory, Rhetoric and Composition, etc.  Library Science and Journalism are stand-alone departments, but the application process is similar in all.

The Ph.D. is a combination of coursework (which will require research papers), one or two qualifying exams (these may be oral and/or written or a combination of both), a foreign language requirement (in Rhetoric and Composition, this might be replaced with courses in linguistics), and a terminal thesis. Typically, the coursework lasts from two to three years, and the research and writing of the thesis, an additional two to three years.

A Ph.D. is usually undertaken with the objective of teaching at the college or university level and engaging in sustained research through the course of one's career. Since the academic job market in the humanities is tough, you want to think carefully about whether you really want to pursue a Ph.D. You should have a strong, sustained interest in literature and critical perspectives and a desire to contribute to the field via publications of your own. In other words, you should love reading and writing and be self-disciplined and self-motivated. Though you have advisors in graduate school, much of the work is self-directed.

A Ph.D. in some disciplines and subfields is more marketable than others. A specialization in Rhetoric and Composition, for instance, with an option to specialize in business writing, opens doors in the corporate world. A degree in Library Science, similarly, can have good career opportunities as there are plenty of openings in the field at the college, school and community level. A degree in Communication also offers non-academic job prospects.

Admission requirements for the Ph.D. are similar to those for the M.A. Additionally, GRE subject tests are also required.

Ph.D. (Creative Writing)

The Doctor of Philosophy in Creative Writing is a terminal degree that may require students to complete approximately 60 hours worth of coursework, reading comprehension exams in two foreign languages, comprehensive exams in literature, and a dissertation in the form of a publishable manuscript. Some programs offer an M.A. or M.F.A. that is linked with a Ph.D. in creative writing, but it is generally considered best to diversify your learning experience by completing degrees at two (rather than one) institutions. Your chances of being accepted into a Ph.D. program are greatly increased if you already have an M.A. or an M.F.A. in creative writing in hand at the time of application.

A Ph.D. program in Creative Writing may be right for you if you love scholarship as much as you love creative writing (keep in mind, you have to pass the same set of comprehensive exams that literature students have to pass to earn their Ph.D.s). Students who pursue a Ph.D. in creative writing usually do so because they want to teach creative writing at the college level and they want increase the breadth of their knowledge, or because they feel they need more time (four to seven years) to publish their work, before seeking a position in academia. While Ph.D.s are usually considered more desirable candidates as professors, they may be considered "overqualified" to work in other fields that they were competitive for when they held M.A.s or M.F.A.s. Like the M.F.A. in Creative Writing, the Ph.D. is a degree that may not help you procure a job in academia unless it is paired with significant publication credits.

Researching a School


The College has several resources available for you to begin your school search. A starting place would be the College Source Online, where you can search by discipline, geographic area, ranking and a host of other variables. Another good place to begin researching is the MLA Guide to Graduate Programs in English. The Career Center also has paper publications and counselors who can help you in your search. In addition, we strongly recommend that you consult faculty members in the English department. Faculty will be able to guide you to appropriate schools with strengths in subfields that match yours.

Keep the following things in mind when researching schools:

The strength of the program. You may look up program rankings on U.S. News and World Report or on the MLA Web site.

The strength of the sub-field you are interested in. This might seem obvious, but a strongly ranked program does not necessarily indicate a corresponding strength in the subfield of your choice. Research prospective department Web sites individually to ascertain if there are enough faculty members in your field to serve as dissertation advisors when the time comes.

The kind of financial support the program offers. Schools usually offer a combination of tuition waiver and fellowship or tuition waiver and teaching assistantship. Given the competitive nature of the humanities job market, it is not advisable that you join a Ph.D. program on your own money or on a loan.

Potential advisors. Research faculty members both within and in related departments whom you would like to work with.

Geographical location. You will be spending a minimum of five years of your life at the prospective school, so make sure you can envision yourself living there!

Creative Writing

Three things to consider:

Areas of interest. Standard degree programs in creative writing focus on literary forms of fiction, nonfiction and poetry; however, a few programs also focus on areas such as writing for television, playwriting, screenwriting, journalism, children's literature, genre-fiction (such as horror or historical romance) and writing for comic books. When choosing a program, look at its course requirements to get an idea of how many, and what type of, classes are offered in your chosen genre. If your favored form is the novel, then you may profit most by attending a school that offers a novel seminar and that allows you to take it more than once.

Your ideal mentors. It makes good sense to study with a professor whose work you admire. Many of the living writers you have studied (and whose books you've read) teach at the institutions to which you could be applying, so find out where they hold professorships. If you don't have favorites, or if you can't locate them, then at least read a sampling of the works of current faculty where you plan to apply so that you may avoid entering a program that is an "ill-fit." For instance, if you read and write formal verse,  it doesn't make much sense to apply to a school where faculty are more interested in experimental verse or language poetry. By the same token, if you read and write historical nonfiction, you may not find your best fit at an institution whose faculty members specialize in the memoir.

Rankings. School rankings may take into account a wealth of data, including: job placement rate, student surveys of satisfaction with the program, financial aid availability, number of distinguished faculty, percentage of applicants accepted, etc. When considering schools to which you apply, do not allow rankings to serve as the sole determining factor in making your decision. Here's why: 1) Rankings may shift by the time you graduate. 2) Writing is not one of those professions where what school you graduated from is the major criteria in determining your employability. Your employability as a writer, after graduate school, will most likely be determined by your quantity and quality of publication credits. 3) Top ranked programs tend to accept only the top percentage of applicants (and many of these students have taken time out of school to write and to publish their work before applying for a graduate degree).
Links That May Help You Begin Researching Schools
"The Best of the Best" (graduate school rankings)
"Writers in Training" (comparison of programs in paragraph form)
The AWP Official Guide to Graduate Programs (this also contains a "Writing Director's" official handbook that is full of useful information about the inner-workings of writing programs)
"English Literature and Language Rankings"

How to Increase Your Chances of Getting In and Doing Well


Your junior year is the time to begin thinking of graduate school and preparing for it. Keep the following in mind:

Course Work
There are several course-related decisions that you want to make at this stage.
    1. Make sure that you get historical breadth through your coursework. This will be useful both in the GRE subject tests and MA exams which often tend to be comprehensive.
    2. Take at least one course in critical perspectives/theory. Ideally, you want to take a couple more classes such as feminist theory, postcolonial theory, etc.
    3. Save your research papers so you can re-work the strongest of them into a writing sample.
    4. Become proficient in at least one foreign language. The ideal would be to have proficiency (reading knowledge) in two languages.
    5. Take more than the required number of courses for major in the intended field of graduate study.

 Work outside the classroom
    1. Read as much as you can in your field of interest: this includes primary literature as well as critical publications.
    2. If for some reason you are unable to get historical coverage through your coursework, pick up a Norton Anthology in the neglected area and read it cover to cover.
    3. Attend scholarly talks given by faculty and outside speakers so you become familiar with academic discourse.
    4. Write an honors thesis if you qualify.
    5. Familiarize yourself with databases in your field and search engines for critical articles. This will help you be up and running when you arrive at graduate school.
    6. Take a practice GRE exam (these are available at the Career Center) sometime in your junior year so you can figure out how much time you need to master it.

Creative Writing

Here are some things you can do that may help prepare you for graduate school while you are studying creative writing at Hamilton College.

Exceed the minimum requirements to complete a degree in your major
The more coursework you have completed in your field, the more impressive your transcript will seem to the review boards where you submit your applications. But the best reason to take extra classes in your field is to diversify your learning, to improve your writing, and to receive extra mentorship in your field while you are here. There are a few MFA programs that require submission of a 15-25 page critical writing sample along with your creative writing sample. In preparation for meeting this requirement, you may want to consider taking upper-level courses in literature or literary criticism.

Read current publications in your field
The two major publications that most emerging writers subscribe to (and that you'd benefit from reading) are the AWP Chronicle and Poets & Writers. These publications contain articles and interviews covering issues that pertain to writing and writing programs, postings for jobs in the field of writing, information on how to obtain grants and fellowships, and submission deadlines for writing contests and conferences. Hamilton provides AWP Chronicle for English majors.

The other publications you should read in preparation for graduate school are the literary reviews that are housed in the periodical section of the library. These journals feature new work from emerging and established writers who work in the field you plan on entering (assuming you are most interested in writing fiction, nonfiction, or poetry). Hamilton juniors and seniors may want to consider submitting the best work in their final portfolios for publication in these journals.

Extend your study beyond the classroom
You may also join the conversation of writing (and enhance your credentials in your application materials) by forming a workshop group of peers outside of class, by working as an editor for an undergraduate publication (such as Red Weather), or by attending one of the summer writing programs or conferences advertised in AWP or Poets & Writers. Aside from giving you material to include in your personal statement, engaging in these activities may also help you to practice your craft while establishing working relationships with peers who have similar interests. 
Links to Journals with Submissions Guidelines and Deadlines For Submitting Work to Contests
Poets & Writers

Undergraduate Summer Workshops
Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets
Les Brouzils Summer Arts Workshops (France)
Prague Summer Workshop

The Keystone of Acceptance (The Application)


The Ph.D. application consists of a statement of purpose, the actual application form, GRE and subject scores, a curriculum vitae, a writing sample (about 10-12 pages), and letters of recommendation.
M.A. applications are identical to the Ph.D. except that GRE subject tests might not be required. Ph.D. applications in Library Science also do not usually require subject tests.

Every item in your application portfolio is important, but the written submissions — statement of purpose and writing sample — are crucial and carry the most weight. Make sure you run both documents by faculty; they will be happy to read and offer feedback on both.

The statement of purpose
This is a one to one and a half page (single spaced) document and should give an intellectual biography and the direction you see yourself headed. Make it clear. Avoid jargon and general proclamations of interest and love of literature; instead focus on the specific area/topic that interests you, how you arrived at it, and explain why you would want to work in the area. Name specific works and theorists you are interested in exploring. Gear the application so it is evident to the reader that you are a right "match" for the college. One of the ways to do this is to research the department so you can name the faculty members (or their work) you would be interested in working and engaging with. Make sure that such references are well thought out and do not appear as "name-dropping."

For samples of statement of purpose, get in touch with your advisors.For detailed information on the statement of purpose refer to an excellent article by Steven J. Olswang.

The writing sample
This is a 10-12 page essay of literary criticism. Ideally, it should be in the sub-field you are interested in. However, if your strongest paper is in another field, then submit this. The writing sample is probably the single most important document in your file and you want to make this the best you can.

GRE scores
The GRE scores are weighed differently across programs and might well be the least significant part of your application. Departments will invariably have a lower cut off limit, however, and the scores may weigh in in determining financial aid and other monies. Make sure you schedule your GRE tests well in advance and give yourself room to repeat it if you need to. The same goes for subject tests.

For additional information on the content of GRE and Subject tests, visit Washington and Jefferson University.

Letters of Recommendation
Give your professors ample notice (a minimum of three weeks) to write your letters of recommendation. You need to fill out all preliminary forms and provide faculty with your statement of purpose, writing sample, list of universities to which you are applying, and mailing addresses of the universities. We strongly recommend that you waive your rights to seeing the recommendation letters as these are considered more objective by the evaluating department.

Creative Writing

Please speak with members of the English Department Faculty before submitting your applications to graduate school. They have materials on file (such as examples of personal statements) that may save you time in preparing your application.

This should be thoroughly filled out on a word processor or typewriter if at all possible. Application fees  range from $25-$85.

Personal Statement
As a student, you may be asking yourself "Am I good enough to get in" to a particular program, but most admissions committees are more concerned with whether or not you are a good "fit" for their program. Much of the criteria they have to decide the answer to that that question are based on objective data such as your GPA and test scores. The personal statement is, in a sense, the best indicator they have of who you are, what academic goals you hope to achieve, and why you will succeed in a particular writing program.

This may consist of 10-50 pages of creative work. Top ranked schools' admissions committees may assess your portfolio before they decide whether or not to look at your personal statement or letters of recommendation, so be sure to ask a member of the creative writing faculty to help you decide which work to include in your writing sample. If you have a particularly strong writing sample, then other criteria (such as GRE scores and GPA) may be overlooked when considering your application for admittance.

Critical Writing Sample
These are rarely required when applying to graduate school in creative writing, but when they are required, they are often taken as seriously as your creative portfolio. These samples may range from 10-25 pages, and before submitting them you may want to have a member of the English faculty look at them and suggest revisions.

Letters of Recommendation
If you are applying for admissions in a creative writing program then at least two of your three letters should come from creative writing faculty members who know your work well. Etiquette for asking for a letter of recommendation is as follows: 1) Fill out forms as completely as you can before giving them to your recommender. 2) Be sure to give your recommender plenty of time (three weeks or more) to complete the recommendation before the deadline. 3) Waive your rights to see the recommendation (your recommendation will not be taken seriously if your rights to see it are not waived, and you will receive the same quality letter regardless of whether or not you waive the rights to see it). 4) Provide your recommender with a detailed list of your accomplishments (you may also want to include papers that have been handed back with professors' comments), addresses where the letters of recommendation are to be sent, and the deadlines for when the letters are to be received.

Graduate Record Exam
Many of the top ranked schools in creative writing will not ask for your GRE scores when considering your admission to an MFA program, but often you must meet a minimum GRE score for admittance to the university. M.A. and Ph.D. programs are far more likely to require high scores on the GRE for admittance. Even then, your scores will generally be taken into account after your other materials are reviewed.

That said, GRE scores are sometimes used to help determine what sort of financial aid you may receive. If you have an excellent GRE score, then you may qualify for a fellowship that would allow you to forfeit a teaching assignment (thereby giving you more time to write). It is rare for a creative writing program to ask for subject test scores when considering your admittance to a program. It's advisable to take the GRE a year in advance, so that you may have time to retake it if you do not meet the minimum score for university admittance.

Grade Point Average
Having a high GPA, particularly in your subject area, may help you earn extra financial aid in graduate school.

Links With Specifics Regarding Applications
University of Washington (this site has particularly good advice on what information to include in your personal statement)
MFA Blog (by Tom Kealy, author of Creative Writing MFA: A Guide to Prospective Students)
G.R.E. information