Almost from the moment I stepped into the classroom twenty years ago, as a teaching assistant in the George Mason University M.F.A. Program, I knew I wanted to teach. I loved being in a classroom with college students, even though at the time most of them were only a few years younger than I was (and one of them, a retired Coast Guardsman I'll never forget named Art Owen, was twice my age). I loved spending my days either writing, reading or talking about writing. When I graduated, however, the job pickings for a thinly published young M.F.A. graduate on the advanced-degree-saturated East coast were slim and the Ph.D. option began to hold more appeal.
To be honest, my husband and I looked into our Ph.D. program at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette rather casually; it was the only program we applied to that year. At the time, the application only cost five dollars. If we got their coveted fellowship it seemed like an excellent way to spend three more years writing and pick up another degree at the same time. If we didn't, well we'd look into some more programs the next year.
And actually, we didn't get any money at first. When the school called to say we'd been accepted but that there were no assistantships or fellowships to spare, we thanked them very kindly, said we didn't want to pull up stakes and go into debt at that point and that perhaps we would apply again next year. My husband and I were engaged and planning our wedding as well as adjuncting at our alma mater, George Mason, and working a few other part time jobs between us. I started looking at apartments in Northern Virginia we might be able to afford, if we scrimped (another reason Louisiana looked good was the significantly lower cost of living).
Then, out of the blue, we got a second call a month later. The University had managed to convince two doctoral fellows to hurry up and graduate and as a result, they were offering us both fellowships. At 12,000 each per year, along with full tuition, no teaching responsibilities (we wanted to teach but we also knew we needed to work on our writing), and subsidized married student housing ($200 per month for two bedrooms, utilities included, which in subtropical Louisiana was a godsend) we felt as if we had won the lottery.
And financially, we certainly had, although over the next three years, we would learn that we had also won the lottery in terms of a writing community, in terms of teaching, in terms of mentoring, and in terms of professional support. While our M.F.A. had accelerated our writing development in important ways, our Ph.D. did much more to accelerate our development as academic professionals. We both finished big writing projects -- me a novel and my husband a book of short stories -- with some of the most attentive mentors we'd ever had; we both filled in significant gaps in our literary knowledge as we read for comprehensive exams that covered all of American literature and several centuries of British, which was also terrific for our writing, and I picked up another field of expertise that seemed tailor-made for me: Composition Theory. We started to publish our work. We developed life-long mentors and friends, widening our literary community significantly and permanently. We are not unhappy people, my husband and I; at any given time our glasses seem pretty much half-full, but we would probably still tell anyone who asked that those four years at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette were easily some of the best of our lives.
Should you get a Ph.D.? It depends. Do you want to teach? If the answer is yes, unless you've already bagged a couple of published books during your M.F.A. program, it wouldn't hurt. In addition to buying yourself precious time to develop as a writer, you will exponentially deepen your knowledge as a scholar/teacher in ways you can't even imagine yet. But select the right program: one that will support you, with either an assistantship or a fellowship (read: don't go into debt) and provide you with mentoring as a writer and as a burgeoning academic professional. And if you don't want to teach, by all means, look for something else to do while you build your writing career. There are plenty of other possibilities but a Ph.D. is probably not for you.