~ By Jefferson Beavers, communication specialist, Creative Writing Program

Three alumni from the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing are making their mark in academe and in publishing by successfully pursuing Ph.D.s after earning their M.F.A. degrees at Fresno State.

The M.F.A. is widely considered a “terminal degree” — or, the highest degree in a specific academic area — for many professions in the arts. But by pursuing a Ph.D., creative writers are both giving themselves more structured time to work on their book manuscripts, as well as an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of literature and teaching. The hope: better and more publishable first books, and a better chance to land a full-time job in a tough academic job market.

We introduce you to three Fresno State M.F.A. alumni who went on to Ph.D. programs: Feroz Rather, who is two years into his Ph.D.; Jacob Kelly, who just finished his Ph.D.; and Sarah Fawn Montgomery, who finished her Ph.D. two years ago.

Feroz Rather

Feroz RatherRather studied fiction in the Fresno State M.F.A. Program from fall 2010 through spring 2013. He began his Ph.D. program at Florida State University in fall 2015 and is continuing his work there.

Question: After earning your M.F.A. at Fresno State, why did you decide to pursue a Ph.D.?

Answer: A Ph.D. focused on creative writing gives you four to five years to finish the manuscript that often remains unfinished during your M.F.A.. I am about to finish revising my novel-in-stories about the war in Kashmir, “The Night of Broken Glass,” which includes many stories from my M.F.A. thesis. It will be published in 2018 by HarperCollins. During your Ph.D. you also begin to work on a new manuscript. The Ph.D. helps you become a part of the serious literary community dedicated to finishing things.

Q: Based on your experiences, what advice would you give a creative writer with a freshly minted M.F.A. about considering a Ph.D. program?

 A: After completing my M.F.A. at Fresno State, I went back home to Kashmir and taught writing workshops at a couple of schools. I think one has to go away from academia until one longs for its rigor and discipline. My advice is to come back to it with a renewed enthusiasm and passion. For the writing sample, push yourself. Write something that you consider beyond what your M.F.A. made you capable of.

Our Ph.D. program at Florida State is amazing. I am not just saying it because I am a part of it. It is at a higher level, with an exceptionally accomplished group of writers challenging you to write. It is a place for those who want to sustain the daily madness of writing and reading for four to five more years of their life.

Q: Do you think you would’ve been able to make your book for HarperCollins what you wanted to make it with your M.F.A. alone, or do you think the “daily madness” of your Ph.D. program was a required ingredient? 

A: I got the contract from HarperCollins in India at the same time I got into the doctoral programs. But yes, I have been able to revise and rewrite it extensively over the last two years.

Q: What is your current job and how has your education contributed to your professional success?

A: Currently, I teach at Florida State in the English Department. But my M.F.A. at Fresno State trained me to teach at Ashoka University in India. It is a good, up-and-coming school, and I enjoyed teaching academic writing and argument in the leadership program for a year there before I joined the Ph.D. program.

Q: What specifically about the Fresno State M.F.A. program prepared you for your Ph.D. program and/or your current job?

A: As someone coming from Kashmir, I did not have much idea about America and its literary landscape. During my three years at Fresno State, not only did I get acquainted with the tradition, but also with the patterns of the large number of books published every year. I found great professors in Connie Hales and Steven Church and Randa Jarrar who helped and supported me and made me feel, despite coming from such a distant place, at home in American academia.

Steven made me conscious about how to use language lyrically while writing a personal essay. Had I not met him, it’s impossible that I would have been offered admission by such prestigious nonfiction programs like Ohio University and the University of Cincinnati. Although I chose to do my Ph.D. in fiction at Florida State, Steven helped me write that one personal essay that would have taken me to the greatest nonfiction programs in the country. I also worked with him on The Normal School magazine, and as an editor it helped me connect with a number of writers.

Connie is a great, unfailing mentor. Randa’s aesthetic teaches you that the fictional voice doesn’t necessarily need to be solemn and elevated. It is fine if it is funny and makes you giggle and laugh. 

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: I am grateful to my teachers at Fresno State and it’s one of the places I highly recommend.

Also, I’m proud that my most recent essay, which I started working on while I was at Fresno State, was published this year in the anthology “Mad Heart Be Brave” from Michigan University Press. The essay is called “Poet in Srinagar” and it is about the poet Agha Shahid Ali.

Jacob Kelly

Jacob KellyKelly studied poetry in the Fresno State M.F.A. Program from fall 2009 through spring 2012. He went straight to work on his Ph.D. at Florida State University in fall 2012 and just graduated in spring 2017.

Question: In your Ph.D. program, what areas did you study?

Answer: There are a few ways to answer this question. Much like an M.F.A. program, students in creative writing Ph.D. programs declare a literary genre, and mine was poetry. In addition, my comprehensive exams focused on British Romanticism, which might be like saying I have a minor in British Romanticism. And, according to Florida State, my degree is in English — not creative writing, not poetry. 

Q: After earning your M.F.A. at Fresno State, why did you decide to pursue a Ph.D.?

A: I decided to pursue a Ph.D. for a few reasons. One, I wasn’t sure what to do. I felt I wasn’t experienced or published enough to snag much of a job after graduation, so I needed to buy some time and build more skills. I think part of my insecurity made some sense, but I also think it was stoked by my paranoia surrounding the competitive nature of the job market. So I may have been attempting to avoid the market by throwing myself back into school. 

Two, I also knew that I had a lot more to learn as a writer and thinker. An M.F.A. was like an oasis where I just focused on writing and reading, which was wonderful. But I left wanting more history, more critical context, more discussions of craft outside of the workshop. 

Finally, I like change. 

Q: Based on your experiences, what advice would you give a creative writer with a freshly minted M.F.A. about considering a Ph.D. program?

A: If you’re pursuing a Ph.D. for professional reasons, as in you want to work at a college or university as a professor, I think it kind of makes sense. If you want to teach creative writing to graduate and undergraduate students, then you really only need an an M.F.A. and an amazing book (or two, or three). If, however, you and another amazing and published writer are up for the same job and you have the same credentials — your Ph.D. to their M.F.A. — it seems like you’d be more likely get that job. In other words, a Ph.D. helps you stand out, as it should, because it’s a lot of work for no guarantee of employment. But, it does not trump a good book. 

Also, let’s say you are you are interested in teaching any kind of college English class, in composition, literature, etc. The Ph.D. can be helpful because you gain more experience and take more classes. Again, on paper you’re a more attractive candidate than if you had an M.F.A. alone.

If you are someone who isn’t interested in teaching at the college level, I would avoid pursuing a Ph.D.. It’s a lot of work, as well as time and money. If you’re thinking about a Ph.D. because you want to remain in a community and workshop your writing work, money and time might be better spent on a conference or even another type of M.F.A..

Q: What is your current job and how has your education contributed to your professional success?

A: I recently accepted a lectureship in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced, teaching English starting this fall. I definitely think the experience I gained teaching English at Florida State and at Fresno State was a factor in my employment. I’m really excited about working at UC Merced for a program that appreciates the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to writing.

When I completed my M.F.A., I enjoyed teaching, but I had a lot more to learn about writing syllabi, making handouts, grading students, communicating with students. The best way, for me, to learn to be a better teacher was by trial and error, more practice. When it came time to apply for jobs, I made a point of showing this experience through the way I talked about teaching.

Q: What specifically about the Fresno State M.F.A. program prepared you for your Ph.D. program and/or your new job?

A: Everything about the Fresno State M.F.A. program prepared me for the Ph.D.. The writing workshops, the literature classes, the exit exams. To me, a Ph.D. program is simply a more involved, more time-consuming, more complicated version of an M.F.A.. More specifically, I would say that the literature courses required at Fresno State really helped prepare me for the rigor of literature classes at Florida State. In Fresno, I took grad seminars in William Faulkner, Walt Whitman and American nature writing.

Q: Do you have aspirations to publish a book of poems? How has the Ph.D. helped or challenged you in terms of your own poetry writing?

A: I’m not sure if the word aspiration fits my feelings toward publishing a book. The short answer is yes, I want to publish a book of poems. The kink in that general response is that there is this immense pressure to publish, now that I’ve completed my Ph.D.. “What was it all for?” is a question I ask myself all the time. On the other hand, I have a much clearer idea of what I am trying to accomplish with my writing work. A book of published poems feels like a more tangible goal now, and I credit that to my time at Florida State. 

With respect to how the degree helped or challenged my work, I would have to say it did both. For me, there was an initial process of deconstruction, questioning every decision I made in a poem, followed by two to three years of bad seasons, experimenting and copying people I read. In large part, this was precipitated by the amount of work I had as a Ph.D. candidate, from the required literature classes to studying for an entire year to take a four-day test. All that Shakespeare, all that Harold Bloom, all that stuff that you probably should read, in addition to all the criticism about that stuff you probably should read, doesn’t just take up first-book writing time, it bleeds into your own work. Now that I’ve finally got a bit of distance from coursework and comprehensive exams, I feel good about writing again. For all that toil, I feel like I am writing with a sense of context. 

I should add a disclaimer: My experience at Florida State is not representative of anyone but me. Everyone has a different experience, and I think it’s safe to say that for the most part, you get what you make of your Ph.D., just like with an M.F.A..

Sarah Fawn Montgomery

Sarah Fawn MontgomeryMontgomery studied creative nonfiction in the Fresno State M.F.A. Program from fall 2007 through spring 2010. She went straight to work on her Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in fall 2010 and graduated in spring 2015.

Question: In your Ph.D. program, what areas did you study?

Answer: I started out studying creative nonfiction, but I began writing poetry in my second year. I also became interested in women’s and gender studies and medical humanities, both of which I integrated into my coursework and dissertation. My dissertation, “We’re All Mad Here: An American Pharma-memoir,” is a mental health memoir that explores the gendered nature of illness and treatment, forthcoming with The Ohio State University Press. It won the university’s distinguished doctoral dissertation award.

I have also published three chapbooks: “Regenerate: Poems of Mad Women” from Dancing Girl Press, coming later this year; “Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide” from Finishing Line Press in 2016; and “The Astronaut Checks His Watch” from Finishing Line Press in 2014.

Q: After earning your M.F.A. at Fresno State, why did you decide to pursue a Ph.D.?

A: I’d planned on pursuing a Ph.D. since high school, though I always assumed I’d study literature. I applied to both MA and M.F.A. programs, but ultimately decided to attend Fresno State for an M.F.A. because the program allowed me to pursue literature along with creative writing. Reading and writing go hand in hand, so I was not interested in programs comprised primarily of workshops.

While my Ph.D. is in creative writing, my coursework was predominantly literature-based — I only took a few workshops — and this interdisciplinary approach allowed me to develop my research interests. My dissertation and forthcoming memoir is both critical and creative, incorporating research about the history of madness and mental health treatment alongside my own story.

In addition, I always wanted to teach in a college setting, and my time at UNL allowed me to teach a range of courses — composition, several genres of creative writing, literature, women’s literature, women’s and gender studies, and medical humanities courses — diversifying my teaching experience and preparing me for the academic job market.

Q: Based on your experiences, what advice would you give a creative writer with a freshly minted M.F.A. about considering a Ph.D. program?

A: The first bit of advice is to think about your reasons for considering a Ph.D.. Many people think they won’t have time to write unless they are in a structured program built around workshops. The truth is that Ph.D. coursework only lasts two years or so, and may only include one or two workshops. It is up to writers, whether in a Ph.D. program or not, to make the time to write. It is also important to remember that a Ph.D. program is very different than an M.F.A. program. A Ph.D. program requires much more self-motivation, dedication and isolation, and a more complicated balance of teaching, research and service time.

Another reason folks consider Ph.D. programs is they believe a Ph.D. is required to land an academic job. This simply isn’t true. What will land you a position are your writing, your publishing and editing service, and your involvement in the literary community, all of which can be accomplished without a Ph.D.. Many writers who teach do not have Ph.D.s, and today’s competitive job market means that not everyone with a Ph.D. lands a tenure-track job. It’s so important to keep this in mind before committing to five-or-more-year program.

You might also consider whether you want an academic job at all. Often, graduate school trains students to believe academia is the only pursuit, but plenty of writers make their living outside academia in publishing or editing, construction or law. And any writers are fantastic because they are inspired outside of academia. There is no one set path to becoming a writer.

For those pursuing a Ph.D., know your worth as a writer and make sure you are funded. It is essential that you receive funding for your time and work. Don’t put yourself into student debt to pursue a degree that may not land you the job or financial stability you hope. If you plan to pursue an academic job, you’ll want the teaching experience a funded position provides. Plus, the sense of community a cohort establishes will assist you as you move through the daunting process. If you don’t get funding to your dream school, go to a different one. There are many wonderful programs, and the work you do during your time there will define you more than the school name.

All that being said, don’t settle on a school you aren’t ecstatic to attend. A Ph.D. is a long, hard process, and you want to feel confident in your decision. If you don’t get funding or acceptance the first application cycle, try again. Committees change, student populations and program dynamics change. And keep writing — you can produce a lot in a year.

Q: What is your current job and how has your education contributed to your professional success?

A: I am currently an assistant professor at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. I have also been the assistant nonfiction editor for Prairie Schooner since 2011, and I’ve worked with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts for the last several years. Both my M.F.A. and Ph.D. provided teaching experience, the chance to work for great publications like The Normal School and Prairie Schooner, and opportunities to meet fantastic writers and scholars. At the end of the day, however, it comes back to the writing, and I keep that in mind every time I sit down at my desk.

Q: What specifically about the Fresno State M.F.A. program prepared you for your Ph.D. program and/or your current job?

A: The Fresno State M.F.A. program allowed me to study both creative writing and literature — in addition to workshops, I took literature courses in literary journalism, experimental nonfiction and 21st century poetry — which prepared me for doctoral study and the writing and teaching I do now. And the M.F.A. program’s editorial opportunities — the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry book contest and The Normal School magazine — initially got me interested in publishing and editing, but also helped me immensely as a writer by demystifying the submission process.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: M.F.A. or Ph.D., take advantage of the additional opportunities your program provides, whether it is working for a literary magazine, reading for a book prize, interning for a press or literary agency, establishing or participating in a reading series, hosting or attending a conference, co-authoring a paper or forming a writing group with your peers. Each of these is a way to engage more fully with the literary community, participate in literary activism and meet others doing good work.