Graduate Study in English

The Ph. D. in English Literature

Doctoral programs in English have one primary goal, to prepare teacher-scholars for a career in college or university education. While various colleges and universities give them different emphasis, success in this field requires talent for both teaching and research. If you have a passion for both then this can be a highly satisfying career.

The information that follows concerns the Ph. D. Those interested in obtaining an M. F. A. in order to pursue a career in creative writing should consult the Creative Writing Program.

Job Prospects for the English Ph. D.

Although being an English professor is a wonderful career, we would be less than honest if we did not add that the number of job openings is very small. We certainly do want to encourage our best students to pursue graduate study, but you should know that success requires both talent and dedication. The Modern Language Association regularly publishes information about the job market in English.

How to Prepare for Graduate Study

The earlier you begin planning for graduate school the better. You should discuss your plans with your advisor or the Director of Undergraduate Studies as early as possible. In general, you should seek to develop both depth and breadth of knowledge of literature written in English. This will mean, among other things, taking more courses than the minimum required for the English major. We also recommend joining the Honors Concentration and writing a thesis in your senior year.

Where to Apply for Graduate School

You will be best served by gaining admission to a highly-ranked English doctoral program. These programs have the faculty who will best prepare you for your career (a fact driven home by the state of the job market). Fortunately, there are many very good English programs, and any of the top forty or so will serve you well. However, given that there are well over 100 doctoral programs in English you would be well advised to re-consider your plans if you can only obtain admission to one of the lower ranked schools. While reliable rankings of programs are hard to come by—and all rankings should be treated with caution—rankings such as those published by the U. S. News and World Report will give you a starting point. Even better, however, is to discuss your choices with one or more faculty in the department. As not all programs excel in all areas, your advisors will be able to recommend programs that are best suited for you.

M. A. versus Ph. D.

The Ph. D. is the credential required for nearly all full-time positions in English Departments at colleges and universities. The M. A. degree does not really stand alone and is generally considered a stepping stone to the Ph. D. Furthermore, it is not necessary to obtain an M. A. before obtaining a Ph. D., and you can be admitted to a doctoral program without the M. A. The advantage of doing so is that most graduate programs award financial aid only to doctoral students. That said, many students are not sufficiently well-prepared for doctoral study (and especially to gain admission to a strong doctoral program) by the time they complete their undergraduate education. In such cases, the best strategy is to attend the best Master's program you can gain admission to and, upon completion of the M. A. degree, apply to doctoral programs.

How to Apply to Graduate School

Although job prospects are difficult, admission to graduate programs remains highly competitive, much more competitive than for undergraduate study, so you must put together an application that truly stands out from the crowd.  The graduate school application generally includes the following:

  • A statement of your scholarly interests or plans for graduate study. These statements are quite different from the statements you wrote for undergraduate admission. They should focus primarily, if not exclusively, on the nature of your interests in literary study. To this end, they should demonstrate that you have a firm understanding of the kinds of questions currently under discussion in literary research. For this reason, it makes good sense to ask you advisor to review your statement. Most applicants now specify a specific area of interest (e. g. Renaissance literature). Note also that everyone who wants to study literature loves to read, so you will not impress admissions committees with anecdotes about how you came to love reading at an early age.
  • Graduate Record Examination scores, including, for many schools, the English literature subject test. Most admissions committees focus on the verbal score, but the combined score may also play a role so prepare to do you best on all sections.
  • Undergraduate transcript(s). This item is fairly straightforward. The admissions committee will assess both your grades and your choice of English (and related) courses. By your second or third semester as an English major you should be getting all A's or A-'s.
  • Letters of recommendation. Programs generally require a minimum of three, but they will accept more than that, so if you believe you have a fourth or fifth individual who can write a strong letter for you do not hesitate to ask him or her. As the admissions committee will only be interested in your potential for study of literature letters should generally all come from faculty, mostly in English, who have taught you or worked with you on an academic project.
  • A writing sample. You should choose a piece of writing that exhibits your best, most mature work as a student of English literature. This is not necessarily your longest essay; in fact, a senior thesis may be too long for this purpose. If you have specified an area of interest such as Renaissance it makes sense to supply a writing sample dealing with literature from that period.

How Graduate Admissions Works

Most programs have a deadline near the end of the Fall semester, but do not begin the admissions process until January. Admissions committees consisting of faculty of the department to which you are applying will read the files and then meet to rank the applicants. Because there are so few students admitted (programs typically admit 8-12 students a year) and programs want their strongest applicants to accept their offer of admission, they generally contact admitted students directly by phone and/or email. For the same reason, they generally have a waiting list. Generally, the first offers are made in February and those on the waiting list may hear about admission any time right up to the April 15 deadline by which applicants must report their decisions.