Joint MFA / PhD Program

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PLEASE NOTE: We are pausing admission to our Joint MFA/PhD degree program for the upcoming admissions cycle, while we complete a program review. We encourage you to consider applying to either the MFA or PhD program, if you would like to be considered for Fall 2020 admission. Please check back in summer 2020 for a Joint MFA/PhD program update. Thank you for your understanding.

The Joint MFA / PhD Program is a unique opportunity for students to earn an MFA in creative writing and then complete scholarly research for a PhD in English language and literature. This program offers intensive study with distinguished faculty committed to creative and intellectual achievement and offers a fuller integration of literature courses and writing workshops.

Each year one or two students may be admitted to the Joint MFA / PhD Program, exploring a fuller integration of literature courses and writing workshops and fulfilling the requirements of both the MFA and PhD programs.

In their first four semesters in residence, joint candidates are expected to complete four writing workshops and four or five PhD seminars for credit, all of which apply to the PhD course requirement of twelve courses (of which six must be taken for a letter grade). The Q-exam is expected to be taken before the beginning of the third term. The program of any doctoral candidate’s formal and informal study, whatever his or her particular interests, should be comprehensive enough to ensure familiarity with:

  • The authors and works that have been the most influential in determining the course of English, American and related literatures
  • The theory and criticism of literature, and the relations between literature and other disciplines
  • Concerns and tools of literary and cultural history such as textual criticism, study of genre, source, and influence as well as wider issues of cultural production and historical and social contexts that bear on literature

Aside from their creative writing genre of fiction or poetry, areas in which students may have major or minor concentrations include African-American literature, American literature to 1865, American literature after 1865, American studies (a joint program with the field of history), colonial and postcolonial literatures, cultural studies, dramatic literature, English poetry, the English Renaissance to 1660, lesbian, bisexual and gay literary studies, literary criticism and theory, the nineteenth century, Old and Middle English, prose fiction, the Restoration and the eighteenth century, the twentieth century, women's literature  and creative writing (the major concentration for all MFA candidates).

By the time a doctoral candidate enters the fourth semester of graduate study, the special committee must decide whether he or she is qualified to proceed toward the PhD. Students are required to pass their Advancement to Candidacy Examination before their fourth year of study, prior to the dissertation. At the end of their fourth semester, candidates submit an MFA thesis and receive the MFA degree. They then complete the remaining course requirements for the PhD and write a final scholarly dissertation.

Special Committee

Every graduate student selects a special committee of faculty advisors who work intensively with the student in selecting courses and preparing and revising the dissertation. The MFA committee for joint degree candidates should be comprised of at least two Cornell creative writing faculty members: a chair and one minor member and may include one additional member from the field. The PhD Committee is comprised of at least three Cornell faculty members: a chair, and typically two minor members usually from the English department but very often representing an interdisciplinary field. The university system of special committees allows students to design their own courses of study within a broad framework established by the department, and it encourages a close working relationship between professors and students, promoting freedom and flexibility in the pursuit of the graduate degree. The special committee for each student guides and supervises all academic work and assesses progress in a series of meetings with the students.


At Cornell, teaching is considered an integral part of training in academia. The field requires a carefully supervised teaching experience of at least one year for every doctoral candidate as part of the program requirements. The joint candidate typically teaches in their second, third and fifth years in the program. The Department of English, in conjunction with the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines, offers excellent training for beginning teachers and varied and interesting teaching in the university-wide First-Year Writing Program. The courses are writing-intensive and may fall under such general rubrics as “Portraits of the Self,” “American Literature and Culture,” “Shakespeare,” and “Cultural Studies,” among others. A graduate student may also serve as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate lecture course taught by a member of the Department of English.

Language Requirements

Each student and special committee will decide what work in a foreign language is most appropriate for a student’s graduate program and scholarly interests. Some students’ doctoral programs require extensive knowledge of a single foreign language and literature; others require reading ability in two or more foreign languages. A student may be asked to demonstrate competence in foreign languages by presenting the undergraduate record, taking additional courses in foreign languages and literature, or translating and discussing documents related to the student’s work. Students are also normally expected to provide evidence of having studied the English language through courses in Old English, the history of the English language, grammatical analysis or the application of linguistic study to metrics or to literary criticism. Several departments at Cornell offer pertinent courses in such subjects as descriptive linguistics, psycholinguistics and the philosophy of language.


All Joint MFA / PhD degree candidates are guaranteed five-years of funding (including a stipend, a full tuition fellowship, and student health insurance):

  • A first-year non-teaching fellowship
  • Two years of  teaching assistantships
  • A fourth-year non-teaching fellowship for the dissertation writing year
  • A fifth-year teaching assistantship
  • Summer support for four years, including a first-year summer teaching assistantship, linked to a teachers’ training program at the Knight Institute. Summer residency in Ithaca is required.

Students have also successfully competed for Buttrick-Crippen Fellowship, Society for the Humanities Fellowships, American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), Shin Yong’Jin Graduate Fellowships, Provost’s Diversity Fellowships, fellowships in recognition of excellence in teaching and grants from the Graduate School to help with the cost of travel to scholarly conferences and research collections.

Admission & Application Procedures

PLEASE NOTE: We are pausing admission to our Joint MFA/PhD degree program for the upcoming admissions cycle, while we complete a program review. We encourage you to consider applying to either the MFA or PhD program, if you would like to be considered for Fall 2020 admission. Please check back in summer 2020 for a Joint MFA/PhD program update. Thank you for your understanding.

Eligibility: Applicants must currently have, or expect to have, at least a BA or BS (or the equivalent) in any field before matriculation. International students, please verify degree equivalency here. Applicants are not required to meet a specified GPA minimum.

To Apply: All applications and supplemental materials must be submitted on-line through the Graduate School application system. While completing your application, you may save and edit your data. Once you click submit, your application will be closed for changes. Please proofread your materials carefully. Once you pay and click submit, you will not be able to make any changes or revisions and we can not make any changes on your behalf.

DEADLINE: Dec. 15, 11:59 p.m. EST. This deadline is firm. No applications, additional materials or revisions will be accepted after the deadline.

Joint MFA / PhD Program Application Requirements Checklist

  • Statement of Purpose
    Please provide a one- or two-page single-spaced statement describing the reasons you are undertaking graduate work and explaining your academic interests as they relate to your undergraduate study and professional goals.

  • Four Letters of Recommendation: Two letters referencing creative writing + two letters referencing scholarly writing
    Please select people who best know you and your work. Submitting additional letters will not enhance your application. In the recommendation section of the application, you must include the email address of each recommender. After you save the information (and before you pay/submit), the application system will automatically generate a recommendation request email to your recommender with instructions for submitting the letter electronically. If your letters are stored with a credential service such as Interfolio, please use their Online Application Delivery feature and input the email address assigned to your stored document, rather than that of your recommender’s. The electronic files will be attached to your application when they are received and will not require the letter of recommendation cover page. If circumstances prevent your recommender from submitting a letter electronically, we will accept the letter in paper form mailed to: Graduate Coordinator, Department of English, Cornell University, 250 Goldwin Smith Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853. Please do not postpone submitting your application while waiting for us to receive all of your letters. We will accept recommendation letters that arrive after Dec. 15.

  • Transcripts
    Scan transcripts from each institution you have attended, or are currently attending, and upload into the academic information section of the application. Be sure to remove your social security number from all documents prior to scanning. Please do not send paper copies of your transcripts. If you are subsequently admitted and accept, the Graduate School will require an official paper transcript from your degree-awarding institution prior to matriculation.

  • English Language Proficiency Requirement
    International applicants must demonstrate proficiency in the English language by submitting official test scores from TOEFL or IELTS. Graduate School minimum scores are required. For more information, please view the Graduate School’s English Language Requirement.

  • Creative Writing Sample
    Please submit your required writing sample according to the limits stated below. Excess pages will not be reviewed. All writing samples must be originally written in English. Translated work will not be accepted.

Fiction applicants: Your sample must be between 6,000 and 10,000 words, typed, double-spaced, in a conventional 12- or 14-point font. It may be an excerpt from a larger work or a combination of several works.

Poetry applicants: Your sample must be 10 pages in length and include a combination of several poems, where possible.

  • Critical Writing Sample
    Your writing sample must be between 3,000 and 7,500 words (12-30 pages), typed and double-spaced. We accept excerpts from longer works, or a combination of shorter works.

General Information for All Applicants

Review Process: Joint program applicants will be considered for the joint program, the MFA only program and the PhD only program when applying for the joint program. Applications are reviewed by all committees. If a joint program space isn’t offered, there is still the possibility that the MFA committee or PhD committee would offer admission for that specific degree instead. Application review begins immediately after the submission deadline. Notification of admissions decisions will be made by email or by telephone by the end of February.

Writing Samples: Both a critical writing and a creative writing sample are required for joint degree applicants, as stated above.

Application Fee: Please visit the Graduate School for information regarding application fees, payment options, and fee waivers.

Document Identification: Please do not put your social security number on any documents.

Status Inquiries: Once you submit your application, you will receive a confirmation email. You will also be able to check the completion status of your application in your account. If vital sections of your application are missing, we will notify you via email after the Dec. 15 deadline and allow you ample time to provide the missing materials. Please do not inquire about the status of your application.

Credential/Application Assessments: The Admission Review Committee members are unable to review application materials and applicant credentials prior to official application submission. Once the committee has reviewed the applications and made admissions decisions, they will not discuss the results or make any recommendations for improving the strength of an applicant’s credentials. Applicants looking for feedback are advised to consult with their undergraduate advisor or someone else who knows them and their work.

Visiting: The department does not offer pre-admission visits or interviews. Admitted applicants will be invited to visit the department, attend graduate seminars, and meet with faculty and students before making the decision to enroll.

Transfer Credits: Students matriculating with an MA may, at the discretion of the Director of Graduate Studies, receive credit for up to three courses.

For Further Information