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Everything you always wanted to know

about English Graduate School . . .

but were afraid to ask


1. What is English Grad School?


Most top graduate programs in English grant two degrees, an MA and a Ph.D.  Typically MA programs require 2 years of study; Ph.D. programs require at least 4 additional years of study, though the average Ph.D. takes between 6-7 years.  Should you choose to pursue a Ph.D., you should plan to spend at least 6 years studying beyond the undergraduate degree (several programs do not offer an MA; instead, they offer a 5-year Ph.D. [know that such programs are rare and that students rarely succeed in finishing in 5 years]).  I recommend pursuing the MA and following it up with the Ph.D.


The MA degree typically requires the following: 1) completion of an introduction to graduate study/research course; 2) completion of approximately 10 additional, graduate-level courses; 3) a comprehensive examination or research thesis.


Ph.D. course requirements vary from institution to institution, but your plan of study will frequently consist of the following requirements:


A)                One to two years of additional course work.

B)                 Mastery of at least one foreign language

C)                Completion of Comprehensive Examinations (usually 3 to 6 days of 3-6-hour long tests)

D)                Completion of the Dissertation Proposal

E)                 Oral Defense of the Dissertation Proposal

F)                 Completion of the Dissertation (an approximately 300-page contribution to English literary theory/history/criticism).

G)                Oral Defense of the Dissertation

H)                Revision and Submission of the Dissertation


Graduate study in English is more than a full-time job.  You will be working in a highly competitive environment, surrounded by equally smart and ambitious classmates.  You will be expected to analyze literature through various historical, theoretical, and literary critical perspectives.  You should not go to graduate school because you like to read.  On the other hand, you must love to read if you plan to go to graduate school; if you find yourself skipping reading assignments in college, do not go to graduate school.


2. How Will I Pay for Graduate School?


Most top programs award candidates Teaching Assistantships.  In return for teaching a course or two per semester, your tuition costs will be covered, and you will be paid a stipend of approximately $15,000-20,000 per year.  Ideally, you will attend a program that requires only 1 teaching course per semester and makes available additional summer teaching opportunities.  You should plan to spend about 20 hours per course, per week, preparing, grading, etc.


Many programs offer top candidates additional funding in the form of Fellowships (money that does not require teaching in return), computer money, travel money, or time off from teaching.


You should not enroll in a graduate program unless you are awarded either an assistantship or a fellowship.  Faculty salaries are not great.  Without funding, it will take you decades before you will be able to repay your loans.


3. How Hard is it to Get In?


Very hard.  Top programs receive hundreds of applications and have room for about 10-20 incoming students. 


4. What will my Application Consist Of?


A)                An application form—provided by the university—which will ask for proof of the following credentials:


1.                  A top-notch GPA.  I wouldn’t think of applying unless you have better than a 3.5 GPA.  You should aim to have a minimum 3.7 GPA (personally, I generally am not interested in students with a GPA under 3.7, though there are some exceptions).


2.                  Top-notch GRE scores.  For the Verbal, you should aim to be in the 90th percentile.  For written, you should aim to be in the 90th percentile.  Math really does not matter.  The subject test is required by many programs (to prepare, I recommend the British and American Norton Anthologies, the Bible, and a solid grounding in Classical literature).


B)                 3 strong letters of recommendation.  Do not ask a professor unless you received an “A” in the course.  Only ask a professor you believe will write you a very strong letter.  Provide him/her with detailed information about your interests, plans, GPA, work experience, community service, etc.  Also provide a copy of your best paper from his/her class.


C)                A strong 15-20 pp. writing sample.  If you have completed an honors thesis, send a condensed version.  If you are applying with a particular emphasis in mind (Renaissance studies, feminism, or Theory, for example), send a relevant sample.


D)                A 2 pp. personal statement.  Should personalize what is an otherwise completely impersonal application.  Lay out your plans, your reasons for wishing to go to grad school, and your reasons for applying to this particular school.  Avoid the “I have always loved reading” story.

5. What is the Ideal Timetable for Applying to Grad School?


A)                In the summer, practice GRE tests.  Begin drafting a personal statement and revising the writing sample.  Research programs.


B)                 By September, know the 10 schools (minimum) to which you will apply.  Arrange the official GRE testing date[s].  (Some schools will reduce application costs for students on financial aid).


C)                By October, request Letters of Recommendation from 3 professors.  Begin obtaining applications.


D)                By November 1, provide professors with a folder including the following:


1.                  The information about you and your credentials (discussed above).


2.                  Appropriate forms and envelopes.


3.                  A clear timetable that tells the professors the deadline for their completion of the letters.


E)                 By, January 1, mail all applications.


F)         By April 15 (MLA deadline), choose your school.


6. Where do I Apply?


The answer to this question will depend largely on what you wish to study once you get to grad school.  Unlike undergraduate program rankings, graduate program rankings are often unpredictable and surprising because the quality of a particular program may depend on the presence of one or two faculty members.  For example, although the University of Illinois is not necessarily a better university than Northwestern University, Illinois has a far superior Renaissance Studies program.  Your decision about which schools to send applications to should depend on the following:


A)                Which schools do your professors recommend for your area of interest?


B)                 Which schools offer the best funding?


C)                Which schools offer the best teaching experience?


D)                Which schools offer the most reasonable teaching load?


E)                 Which schools offer the most courses in your likely area of study?


F)                 Which schools have the best job placement rates?  What sort of placements are these?


G)                Which schools offer the sort of campus environment/location you can live in for at least six years of your life?


H)                Which schools offer the best health care/child care benefits?


I)                   Which schools do your gut instincts lead you to?


Obviously you may have certain geographical preferences that will dictate where you apply.  The best policy, though, would be to apply to the best and most appropriate institutions, as opposed to the ones that happen to be closest to home.  You should bookmark, which will make your research much more efficient.


7. What will I do After Grad School?


With an English MA, you can teach at a number of institutions, including some community colleges.  You might also be employed as an editor, technical writing specialist, or school administrator. 


The only purpose of getting a Ph.D. is to become a faculty member at a university or college.  About halfway through your graduate career, you should try to determine which type of setting would suit you best.  Would you prefer to teach in a small college atmosphere (such as Connecticut College), where you will teach more and be expected to research less?  Would you rather teach at a Research 1 university (such as the University of Connecticut), where you will be expected to perform a great deal of research and teach fewer courses?  Or would you prefer something in between?  Obviously your success as a grad student will dictate your ability to choose a certain type of university.  The academic job market, you should be aware, is brutally competitive: there are approximately 200 candidates per literature job in the USA.  In order to ensure that you are a solid contender for one of these positions, you will need to focus, while you are a graduate student, on the following tasks:


A)                Increasing your knowledge of world literature and especially of the literature (primary and secondary) most relevant to your field.


B)                 Establishing strong “connections” in your field.


C)                Choosing a sexy but serious dissertation topic and writing it well.


D)                Developing excellent teaching skills and accumulating excellent teaching evaluations.


E)                 Publishing articles.


F)                 Conferencing.


G)                Performing service on departmental committees.


A successful academic career is defined by one’s ability to succeed in three particular areas: service, teaching, and research.  You must be able to show hiring committees that you have experience balancing these demands (the average tenure candidate at a Research 1 university must, in 5 years or so, write and publish a book, publish multiple articles, conference regularly, serve on several committees each year, and plan and teach at least 4 courses each year). 


Obviously, it is not easy to earn a Ph.D.  Nor is it easy to balance the demands of an academic life (figure an average of 60 work hours minimum per week).  On the other hand, few careers offer the challenges, pleasures, and personal rewards that teaching at a university can offer.  You should go to graduate school because you are completely obsessed with literature and believe it is the most important thing you can pass on to other generations.  But you should also know how serious a commitment you are about to make.


For more information about earning a Ph.D. in English, succeeding on the job market, and beginning a professorial career, see my book: Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century.