On Graduate School Applications (English PhD Edition)

New reader Teddi writes:

I am currently a Senior in college majoring in Literature and Sociology and my ultimate goal is to get my PHD (probably in literature). If you have a chance, I would love to hear more about your experience. What university are you at and why did you choose it? I am going to begin applying in the fall so I could use all the help I can get.

To apply or not to apply … Ah, the mysterious world of graduate school applications. A land filled with mystery and excitement, hope and opportunity. I’m glad you asked this question, because it’s a Big One. But before reading on, I must caution you that any advice you read is based on my own personal experience and yours might be different.

A quick Google search of grad school applications is likely to turn up any number of articles describing in graphic detail the Horror and Despair of English PhD studies, the Death of the University, the Death of Tenure, the Death of the Job Market …  I think you get my point. I would be lying if I said that all of these articles were exaggerating and that everything is really sunshine and roses and if you love to read you will succeed and be happy and free. Damn the man, save the Empire! and all that. The truth is, there’s something to these reports. The job market is abysmal. Graduate programs do pump out more students than the market can handle. The 8th-year (or 9th, or 10th) student is not a myth. Still, the first lesson we learn as grad students is to Critique Everything, and thus you cannot believe everything you read on the Internet.

I’m not sure if you wanted to know all about the Bad Parts of grad school applications. If you’re going to commit the next 5-10 years of your life to getting a PhD, it does help to understand what you’re getting yourself into. If you really want to apply to graduate school, I suggest reading the English Literature Jobs wiki, select articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and articles in the PMLA, which will probably be in your local school library. If you can handle what you read, you’re now ready to move onto the next step.

Decide for yourself WHY you want to get your PhD in English. There is no one right answer, and your answer will likely be comprised of multiple parts. Is it because you want to answer a burning question about a particular period, theory, or author? Do you like to write or teach and see yourself performing this function in an academic setting? Only you can answer this for yourself. Now comes the second part: can you still do [insert answer] with a different degree, such as an MA or MFA? I personally never stopped to ask myself this second question. For me, it was PhD or bust. I applied during my senior year of undergrad, and it wasn’t until the rejections started rolling in that I realized that I had a lot more work to do and a lot more soul-searching to perform.

Yes, you read that correctly. I was rejected several times on my path to the Ivory Tower. I still get told No on a monthly if not weekly basis. A PhD is about pushing yourself to your limits, and then going a bit further. It’s not for nothing that the degree gets compared to a marathon. It’s Hard. Real Hard. It’s not always fun. You have to decide how far emotionally, intellectually (and yes, physically–many of my friends now have eye/back problems from reading too much) you want to go to reach your goals.

It may seem like I’ve spent a lot of space writing about all the “extra” stuff and not getting down to the specifics. I would argue that this pre-application moment is an excellent time to answer the Hard Questions, because you may not have time or energy to ask them when you are neck-high in Derrida and want to jump off the library spires. If you have the answers to the earlier questions before you start, it will make the process easier. Or at least bearable.

If you still want to get your PhD in English (and by all means, I encourage you to apply if you still want to. I’m a card-carrying member of the Disney generation, and I firmly believe you should Follow Your Heart), then study carefully the application pages of your ideal schools. For universities in the US, you will need to take the GRE and maybe also the GRE subject exam. You will need good grades on your undergrad transcript and a kick-a** writing sample and personal statement. You will also need letters of recommendation from professors you had during your undergrad. Typically, professors will only write letters if you received an A in their course. This is a great time to ask them for their advice for applications. Their advice trumps mine. Listen to them. You will also need to pay an application fee, which back in the day ranged from $70-$120 for each school to which I applied.

I recommend making a spreadsheet with various information regarding schools. Do they require a foreign language? Do they require an MA before the PhD? Is it a public or private school? What are the requirements to reach candidacy? What stipend support do they provide? Again, don’t be an idiot like me and assume that all PhD programs are roughly equivalent. They’re not. If you’re a Romanticist or Victorianist, choosing a school like Indiana is great because they have a strong faculty in these departments. Just know that every other Romanticist or Victorianist will also be applying to that school for the very same reason and the applicant pool will be more competitive.

And speaking of competition, do you like it? Even a little bit? Cause, baby, you got it. Michigan accepted less than 1% of its applicants the year I applied. Other schools might be up to 5%. Yeah, it’s a scary, scary world out there. In answer to your question about how I chose Rice: I got in. That’s about it.

But the crazy, wonderful (dare I say, serendipitous) thing about Rice is that it is the perfect fit for me. My parents live nearby, Husband was able to find a job in Houston, and I love my advisers. You can’t be more lucky than that in my book.

If you’re skimming this post, here’s the TL;DR message: Research, research, research. And work on that skin. You’re going to want it to be leather by the time you get here.

Here’s a video of a sneezing panda:


4 thoughts on “On Graduate School Applications (English PhD Edition)

  1. Neurotic Workaholic says:

    This is an excellent post, and your advice is 100% accurate. When I was an undergrad, I had a very different picture of what grad school and academia in general would be like. I thought it would just be about teaching and literature; I didn't think about all the other factors, like the financial issues of supporting myself while in grad school, the high standards for publication and conference presentations, and the competitiveness in grad school, etc., etc. I think that all undergrads who are considering pursuing a Ph.D. in English should read this post.

  2. Libby says:

    That is extremely thorough. Less than 1% accepted. I applied to a few playwriting programs with the same rate. I did not get in…

  3. Amateur Reader says:

    Is the other possibility ("probably") sociology? The guidelines are a little different in the social sciences.1. Apply to some large subset of the top 25 schools.2. If you do not get a full ride, it means the school doesn't want you that badly.3. Go to the best school that gives you a full ride.4. Work with the best people at whatever school you end up at, regardless of their specialty. A great combination is a young hotshot as primary advisor, and an eminence grise as backup.A PhD is about pushing yourself to your limits, and then going a bit furtherThis is the same in the social sciences, exactly the same. The PhD changes you. You come out of the whole process different – professionalized, for example. It's a strange thing.

  4. Laura M. Campbell says:

    Perfect timing with the graduate school post! I've been tossing the idea of MFA or not. I want to specialized education and the ability to connect with a mentor, but deciding where and what exactly I want to pursue has been difficult. Seton Hill has a Popular Fiction MFA program. The majority of it is completed online, with visits to campus twice a year for a week long. I'm not super intellectual, I write mystery and I can't afford to move. So far Seton Hill looks good. I know two graduates of the program and, as you said, need to do more research. Thanks for the advice!

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