What You Always Wanted to Know About Applying to Graduate School,
But Were Afraid to Ask: A Student's Guide
Compiled and collected by Christopher Vilmar
If you stopped by my office to talk to me about graduate school, the first thing I’d ask you would be: “What do you plan to do with your degree?”
See, a lot of people think going to graduate school is exciting, or glamorous, or better than facing the real world. And not many of them have any definite notions about what graduate school is like. Some liked reading literature as an undergrad, and want to keep doing it. Some aren’t sure about their job prospects, but want to lend the allure of higher education to living like a student for a few more years. Some dream they’ll be teachers, professors, or novelists. For whatever reason, people think graduate school sounds like fun. Well, it is—but it’s important to be clear about your particular reasons for going in order to get the most out of the experience. You have to make informed decisions. The alternative is wasted time, and probably a tidy little pile of student loan debt (which no one wants).
Many people entertain the idea of going to grad school without knowing much about what the different graduate degrees in English are good for, or even what they are and how much work they require.
The M.A. degree (Magister Artium) generally takes one or two years to complete. Many schools have M.A. programs, and they are generally less selective than Ph.D. programs. Generally M.A. programs require a minimum 3.0 or 3.5 GPA and good scores on the verbal GRE. The requirements for the M.A. are coursework, an exam, and possibly a thesis. The courses will generally require more independent study and research than was required of you as an undergraduate. The M.A. is more generally useful than a Ph.D., however. At a talk that I attended, Donald Asher (see Bibliography: Books) claimed that an English M.A. is the one of the most lucrative graduate degrees going. It is much more flexible than the Ph.D., and people who get an M.A. go on to many careers. Some teach at the secondary or community college level, some write, edit, do research, go into publishing or the business world, and so on. There are a lot of options.
The Ph.D. degree (Philosophiae Doctor) generally takes five to seven years to complete, and some people take longer. Only research institutions have Ph.D. programs, and they are highly selective. Your GPA should be a 4.0 or nearly that, and you will generally require very high scores on both the GRE and the Literature Subject Test. The Ph.D. program requires still more coursework, often highly theoretical, many independently written research papers, several exams both written and oral, and a final book-length dissertation in a single, narrow field of specialization. While there are people with Ph.D.s who go into other careers, the degree is professional training in the skills you will need to teach and do research as a professor. Be forewarned: the job market is bleak and there is no guarantee that you will become a professor when you are finished. I don’t say this to scare you, but to make you think. If you have any reservations whatsoever about your abilities or your desire to become a college professor, I would advise you to get an M.A. first.
Preparing for Ph.D. programs should begin early, before your senior year. Take as many literature courses that you can, in as many of the literary periods both British and American as you can, so that you will be well prepared for the GRE Literature Subject Test. It is helpful to have courses in history and philosophy also. You will need to be well grounded in literary theory. You will need proficiency (not fluency) in at least one and possibly two foreign languages. Once you have identified a general field that you think you want to study in graduate school, start each paper on that subject with an eye towards using it as a writing sample (about 15-20 pages). Basically, you’ll need to be very bright, very determined, and very persistent. If you don’t have these qualifications, get an M.A. and fill in whatever gaps you have (often foreign languages are a big problem, but theory and coverage are increasingly problem areas too), and then apply again.
You should also keep in mind that not everyone is cut out for an academic career. Just ask your professors. In fact, that’s my first official piece of advice: if you’re thinking of going to graduate school, go find out what it’s like from people who’ve been.
Much of the information that follows is aimed at the student who is applying to Ph.D. programs, who looks past graduate school to getting a job as an assistant professor. But most of it applies to M.A. students as well; keep in mind that the timeline is usually a little later, however.
It pays, not least in helping you to avoid various fees and later student loan debt, to learn as much as possible about the profession and the process of admission before you begin. The admissions hurdle is just the first step on a journey that, which hard work and good luck, will lead to your first job. Remember: you are trying to persuade a university to invest a substantial amount of time and money in your professional development. You need to demonstrate to them that you’re a safe bet: that you have a basic understanding of your own professional goals, and that you have the drive, ingenuity, and determination to carry you through the program in a reasonable amount of time.
BASIC TIMELINE FOR APPLYING TO Ph.D. PROGRAMS
(Remember to make adjustments based on the specific deadlines of the program being applied to!)
Summer between Junior and Senior Year:
Fall of Senior Year
December/January of Senior Year
Spring Senior Year
Researching programs – Before you can start applying, you have to figure out which schools you want to apply to. It’s important to know that you will be applying to a department, not a school. Each department has different requirements for its applicants. Take note of the department’s strengths, the research interests of its faculty, and so on. Every Ph.D. program that I’ve looked at has a separate website for its graduate program. It’s also important to know that you will ultimately work with just a few professors. So when you’re looking at the faculty, take note of whether there are any faculty working in a field or on theories or approaches that match your interests. If you want to get a Ph.D. in early modern literature and the department has no early modernists, it doesn’t make much sense to apply there. But if there are, take note of them: you can use the information to fine-tune your application later.
Once you’ve weeded out those places that are obviously not suitable, you’ll need to decide which and how many programs you will apply to. Take a closer look at the professors whose work or specialization made them likely advisors. Do an MLA Bibliography search or a WorldCat search on their research. Make sure they’re still active and still taking on graduate students. If you can’t find that information on the web, call or email the department assistants and ask.
I recommend applying to as many Ph.D. programs as you can afford. Aim for more than 2 and less than however many will drive you insane and/or bankrupt (the applications get expensive). My personal opinion is that you should only attend a top school. A Ph.D. from Middle of Nowhere University is not going to open many doors on the job market. One crucial marker of quality, and one not often on the minds of prospective graduate students, is job placement (cf. the "The Quality Measure"). But many top programs will keep an online account of where their graduates have gotten jobs, like the one at Emory where I got my Ph.D. Choose at least some first-tier programs from the top 25, and some back up schools. Ideally they should not exploit the labor of their graduate students by asking them to teach every semester.
Studying for GREs – There are two GRE tests: the General Test, which is not unlike the SAT, and the Subject Test on Literature in English, which tests specifically your knowledge of English, American, and World literature (but mostly English, roughly 60-70% of the questions according to some sources). I recommend buying a standard study book for the GRE General Test, and looking at the Practice Booklet (available free online at Educational Testing Service website) for the Subject Test. You can begin to study for the Subject Test by reading the introductions in the Norton Anthologies (English and American) or other popular undergraduate anthologies.
Writing Sample – You will need to prepare a writing sample for most Ph.D. applications. Many departments specify the length of the sample, but the standard is probably around 15-20 pages. Most likely this will be a revision of an undergrad paper, but might also be a part of your honors or senior thesis (if it’s finished in time). Ideally, your writing sample ought to be in at least one of the fields you are considering in graduate school. So a paper on Nathaniel West is fine if you’re studying 20th century American literature, a paper on Swift for 18th century British literature, and so on. It should be your strongest work, and you should ask at least one professor to read your revisions before you send it out.
Personal statement – You’ll need to write one, and you’ll need to start on it early. Trust me, they’re a lot harder than they sound. See some of the items in the bibliography below for advice, but the basic rule of thumb is to write an intellectual statement of purpose, not a starry-eyed love-letter to literature in the abstract. You want to sound enthusiastic but professional. Show the reader that you understand what is at stake in graduate school and how you plan to handle it. You can use the personal statement to address weaknesses in your application, but be warned that if your candidacy seems too weak you’ll simply be rejected by Ph.D. programs. In the Annotated Bibliography: Websites below, you’ll find a link to Shannon Chamberlain’s page, which contains a copy of her personal statement; she got into UC Berkeley, one of the top three or four departments in the country, so it’s worth checking out.
Take GREs -- Take them as early and as often as possible until you have the highest score that you feel you are likely to achieve. October is a good time to take them, but if you can start in the spring of your junior year so that you can take them again if necessary.
Letters of Recommendation -- Most departments will require letters of recommendation. One of your letter writers will probably be the person who is advising you on all of your application materials, and the others can be drawn from the other professors that you've taken classes with. Get letters from the most accomplished professors you can; if they’ve published books or are otherwise well-known in the field, this is helpful. One thing to keep in mind: ask your letter writers early, so that they have time to write the letter and post it before the deadline. Try to give them as much notice as possible. Being asked for a letter with a week's notice (or less! I've had it happen) is bad form--and it'll also force the professor to write in a hurry instead of taking the time to describe your strong points in loving, persuasive detail.
And that’s that. Once you’ve done everything above and submitted all your applications, there’s nothing left to do but wait for the acceptances and rejections to arrive. And trust me: there are very few candidates, none that I’ve ever known, who didn’t get rejected by at least some schools.
ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY: WEBSITES
These are the ones you can start with, because they’re on the web and free, but don’t worry: you’ll be hitting the books in no time.
ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY: BOOKS
You did want to become a researcher, right? Time to get started looking at some actual books.