For one, it’s a misnomer.
As one of my professors made clear in the Intro to Graduate Studies course at the University of Cincinnati, the degree was not a “Ph.D. in Creative Writing” but a “Ph.D. in English”–with a creative dissertation.
This means that the first three years of preparation for my degree look just like those of my scholarly compatriots: two years of coursework in literature, theory, composition, and creative writing + one year of reading/taking exams in designated concentration areas (mine were American Literature and Literary Theory). It was only in the final year–the dissertation year–that our paths divided, and I worked on a novel while they worked on a scholarly project.
So my professor’s distinction was exactly right, and it begs the question, what would a Ph.D. in Creative Writing actually look like?
As with most things, the Brits seem to have it figured out. Here’s how Emma Darwin, novelist + great-great granddaughter of Charles Darwin (= awesome), describes the British “Creative Writing Ph.D.,” which she just completed. She calls it “the paradoxical beast”:
So what kind of creature is the Creative Writing PhD? Creative Writing (henceforth ‘CW’), as an academic discipline, is the study of creative and imaginative work-in-progress, and so research is “practice-led”, using the act of writing creatively as a research process, as well as studying the process and product of that writing. It does this by means of some sort of large-scale creative piece – long fiction, life-writing, a poetry or short fiction collection, perhaps something in the new media – and some kind of commentary, critical essay or exegesis.
Thus, in the British system, Creative Writing itself is “an academic discipline,” whereas in the U.S., it’s even more paradoxical and beastly in that the workshop is the only space for pursuing its “study,” and in all your other courses, you’re pursuing the discipline of literary scholarship.