Preparing Yourself for Graduate School in English Literature (pdf version)
Choosing MA/PhD / Finding the Right Program / Timeline for Preparing to Apply / The Application Portfolio / Some Grad Programs / Top Ranked Programs / Alumni / Careers for English Majors
Goals of Graduate Programs in English Literature
- In English literature graduate programs students learn to undertake academic, scholarly research and publication at advanced levels, and they develop experience teaching composition and literature at the college level.
- Students who do not love the readings and workloads in SEGL 483 Theories of Literary Criticism, and SEGL 490 Senior Seminar will not love the readings and workloads in graduate programs.
- See Phil Agre's "Advice for Undergraduates Considering Graduate School"
- Graduate school should not be seen as a guarantee of career placement.
- There is a much larger supply of job searchers than of job openings. The MLA report of "Placement Outcomes for Modern Language PhDs: Findings from the MLA's 2003-2004 Survey of PhD Placement" notes that in 2004, there were 933 Ph.D. recipients in English and 406 tenure-track placements (80). According to the "Report on the MLA's 2004 Survey of Hiring Departments," there were 452 job openings for tenure-track assistant professors at four-year colleges, and 87.2% of these openings were filled. Counting non-tenure-track positions, 618 positions were advertised at four-year colleges overall. There were 823 new Ph.D.s in American and English literature, according to the 2005 Survey of Earned Doctorates.
- The MLA's "Placement Outcomes for Modern Language PhDs" further reports that 44.6% of Ph.D. graduates in American, British, and Commonwealth Literature placed into a tenure-track position at a two-year, four-year, or research university in their first job (85). Many graduate programs are attempting to more closely match the number of new Ph.D.s with the number of new job openings, and they have been decreasing the size of their entering classes. Pursue a Ph.D. in English literature because you love it, not because you are looking for a quick way to earn money.
Choosing between an M.A. (Master's of Arts) and a Ph.D. (Doctorate)
- Master's programs generally take two years to complete and focus on research-based seminar work, culminating in a master's thesis and/or comprehensive written and oral examination of knowledge.
- For Ph.D. programs, the 2005 Survey of Earned Doctorates lists 9.7 years as the median time in graduate school from start to completion of the Ph.D. in literary fields. For English Language and Literature, 55.9 percent of Ph.D. graduates have definite employment plans at time of graduation.
- See the Washington & Jefferson College's Guide to Graduate Degrees in Englishfor a discussion of the difference between a M.A. and a Ph.D.
Finding the Right Graduate Program for You
Graduate programs are much more personalized and specialized than undergraduate degrees. Students must consider several factors in selecting a graduate program that will fit your particular needs:
- Consider job placement ratesto see which programs successfully prepare their students for college-level teaching and careers in other fields. Individual programs also track their placement rates, and you may want to ask program directors about placement rates as you research potential programs.
- With whom will you study? What genre, region, or period of literature will you study? Which scholars within the field of English literature do you admire? Graduate programs tend to specialize in certain areas of literary studies; a school that ranks highly in medieval literature may rank poorly in American literature. Check rankingsfor your individual field. Research the faculty in graduate programs, and select only those programs where you can find faculty who will serve as your mentors as well as instructors.
- Where would you like to study? There are over hundreds of M.A. and Ph.D. programs throughout the United States. If you limit yourself geographically, you may also limit your ability to gain acceptance into the program that is right for you.
- How will you pay for graduate school? In graduate school the cost of tuition is not the main factor in determining the cost of attending graduate school, and attempting to remain "in-state" is not necessarily the most cost effective choice. Research the available funding for graduate students as you research other qualities about the programs. Many programs offer teaching assistantships, research assistantships, or editorial assistantships that provide a stipend and/or tuition waiver. In other programs, students may receive fellowships, grants, or other financial support. An out-of-state program with guaranteed financial support may be less of a financial burden than an in-state program with fewer funding sources for students.
- Will you be accepted? Most graduate programs accept fewer than 20 students each year. Acceptance rates are often less than 10 percent. Students accepted into the most competitive programs have often been published in academic undergraduate journals, have presented at undergraduate conferences and/or have won national grants or fellowships even before they applied to graduate school. Consider the acceptance rates of graduate programs and ask questions of program directors to find programs that fit your level of experience and preparation. Acceptance rates for many programs are available at the U.S. News and World Report guide to "America's Best Graduate Schools."
Timeline for Preparing for and Applying to English Literature Graduate Programs
Applying to Graduate School means building up the academic experiences that will lead to a strong application.
In your first two years of college...
- Learn to be a good student
- Get involved in the school and community
- Establish good academic relationships with your professors.
- Complete SEGL courses that give you a wide base of background knowledge. You are strongly encouraged to complete SEGL 300 Introduction to the Study of Literature, SEGL 301 Mythical, Classical, and Biblical Backgrounds, and the 200-level British or American survey courses (SEGL 279/280 or SEGL 289/290) by the end of your sophomore year
In your junior year of college...
- Begin to identify your area of interest and your goals.
- Talk with your advisors about selecting courses that will prepare you for the graduate programs you wish to pursue. Take both American and British courses in a variety of time periods throughout your junior year. If possible, complete SEGL 483 Theories of Literary Criticism in the spring of your junior year or fall semester of senior year.
- Participate in on-campus or community-based literary clubs, English honor's society, tutoring programs, literary readings, or events. Get involved in the field to help you determine whether or not this career is right for you.
- Undergraduate researchhelps to prepare you for graduate work and can help make your application stand out. Consider submitting your academic work to an undergraduate journal or presenting that work at an undergraduate conference where you can get a taste of professional academic life.
- Establish good academic relationships with your professors, discussing how to improve your academic performance and to achieve your academic goals. These relationships will be necessary when you request letters of recommendation for your applications.
- Begin to research graduate admission tests, such as the GRE, scholarships, and financial aid.
In the summer after your junior year or the summer before you plan to apply for graduate school...
- Research the GRE, Take the GRE sample tests available online, and enroll in GRE preparation workshops if you are concerned about your performance. The general GRE is necessary to apply to most graduate schools. You may wish to take the GRE general test over the summer if you have taken all of your general education courses, particularly in math. The mean GRE scores from 2003-2006 were Verbal 566, Quantitative 551, and Writing 4.9 for English Language and Literature and Verbal 571, Quantitative 566, Writing 4.9 for American Language and Literature.
- If you are considering a Ph.D. program, or if the Master's programs you are considering require it, prepare for the GRE Subject Test of Literature in English.
- You should have taken courses in a range of historical periods from different national perspectives by this point in your college career. Identify any gaps in your coursework, and spend extra time reading important texts in those areas.
- Students are encouraged to review all areas of literature and literary theory in preparation for the GRE Subject Test. Reviewing the Norton Anthology or Heath Anthology collections of British and American literature would serve you well.
- Take the practice GRE Subject Test (available online) twice and study with friends to fill in knowledge in the areas you missed.
- Plan and register to take the test in late summer or early fall.
- Research graduate programs (See the Peterson's Guide, Graduate School Guide, and PhDs.orgto identify M.A. and/or Ph.D. programs), obtain applications materials, and start organizing application deadlines and requirements.
- Prepare a draft of your statement of purpose or application essay. See the University of California-Berkeley tips for preparing graduate school statements and the Washington University guide to "Writing the Statement of Purpose" for graduate school in English. Drew and Karen Appleby list several tips for avoiding application mistakes in "Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process," published in Teaching of Psychology 33.1 (2006): 19-24. Several online communitiesalso offer advice and serve as a sounding board for students applying to graduate school.
- Select and edit your writing sample. Include enough work to meet requirements for 5-page and 10-page samples, depending on school requirements
In fall of your senior year or one year before you plan to attend graduate school...
- Request letters of recommendation from your advisor and professors. Most schools require three letters. Plan to discuss your goals and accomplishments with your professors when you make these requests. Bring a resume/vita, the recommendation form, a stamped, addressed envelope, a copy of your statement of purpose, and copies of excellent work you produced in their courses (if not recent). Make these requests early to give your professors time to review your academic performance and write thoughtful letters. If your applications are due in December, try to make your requests in October.
- Take the GREgeneral test and subject test (if needed) by mid-October to ensure your scores will be available by application deadlines.
- Review and revise your graduate school application essays with the aid of your advisor, professors, and/or the Career Center.
- Review and revise your writing sample(s) with the aid of your advisor and/or professors.
- Contact graduate programs with questions about application or program details. Many universities allow, but do not require, an applicant to interview with faculty members. Interviewing often makes an impact on the faculty, and can be one method of showing your interest, knowledge, and ability to intelligently communicate with others. Some colleges encourage you to sit in on classes so that you can get the feel of the campus, teaching styles, and the level of academic proficiency necessary to excel in classes. Though this does not actually make you "stand out," it is helpful for both the applicant and admission committee. Graduate faculty expect to receive questions about their interests from potential applicants.
- Order your transcripts from the University.
- Complete and submit applications for graduate programs by the deadlines. Also submit any relevant financial aid forms by the deadlines. See the UC Davis "10 Tips on Successfully Applying to a Ph.D. Program, and 10 Definite Don'ts"for more advice.
- Many schools have application deadlines in December. Do not wait until winter break to fill out applications.
In spring of your senior year or the spring before you plan to attend graduate school...
- Wait for offers.
- Consider a back-up plan for additional financial support.
- If you have multiple acceptances, discuss your options with your advisor/professors and consider visiting campuses to help you make your decision.
- Notify schools of your decisions BY THE DECISION DEADLINE (often April 15).
- Start to build a good relationship with your program's department assistant to get connected with graduate student email lists, contact lists for apartments and other housing, and orientation/registration deadlines.
***Note: Many graduate schools are happy to consider applications from students who take off a year or more to work, travel or to gain additional experience after receiving a bachelor's degree. The steps above may be completed after graduation, but you may wish to ask your advisors for letters and assistance with the personal statement prior to graduation.
The Application Portfolio
- The application form for your chosen schools.
- Three letters of recommendationfrom professors who can discuss your potential for academic excellence.
- Writing samples that demonstrate an ability to communicate effectively and analyze texts with insight.
- A statement of purpose that describes why you want a graduate degree and what you plan to study. See Tips for writing the personal essay above.
- A copy of transcripts from every undergraduate institution you have attended.
Details of Some M.A. and Ph.D. English Programs
- Clemson University offers an M.A. in English
- Students must have at least a 3.0 undergraduate GPA.
- Students must earn a minimum score of 500 on the GRE verbal and quantitative sections and minimum of 4.5 on the writing section.
- Students must also submit two letters of recommendation, transcripts, and a statement of purpose along with the application materials.
- The University of South Carolina at Columbia offers an M.A. and a Ph.D.
- Students must have completed at least 24 credits in upper-division undergraduate literature courses with a GPA of at least 3.0 for the M.A. and at least 3.5 for the Ph.D.
- Students must earn "satisfactory scores" on the GRE general test and Subject Test of Literature in English. Students must earn verbal scores at or above the 75th percentile.
- Students must also submit at least two letters of recommendation, transcripts, an 8- to 10-page writing sample, and a statement of purpose along with the online application.
- The University of Georgia at Athens
- Students must have at least a 3.0 undergraduate GPA, with 3.65 or better in the major.
- Students must earn strong GRE scores, with a verbal score in the 90th percentile and at least 1200 in verbal and quantitative combined
- Students must also submit three letters of recommendation, transcripts, a 10- to 15-page writing sample, a statement of purpose, and a curriculum vitae, along with the application materials.
- The College of Charleston and The Citadel offer an M.A. program, particularly suited to K-12 teachers who would like to advance their knowledge of literature.
- Students must have a minimum GPA of 2.5 overall and 3.0 in the major.
- Students must earn a minimum score of 500 on the GRE verbal and quantitative sections and minimum of 4 on the writing section.
- Students must also submit two letters of recommendation, transcripts, a writing sample, and a statement of purpose, along with the application materials.
- Western Michigan University offers an M.A. in literature, an M.A. with an emphasis on teaching, and a Ph.D. in literature.
- Students must have 20 credits in undergraduate literature courses with a minimum GPA of 3.0.
- Students must take the GRE general test for the Master's program and both the GRE general and subject tests for the Ph.D. program.
- Students must also submit a 10-page writing sample, transcripts, statement of purpose, and three letters of recommendation.
Top Ranked English Ph.D. Programs Overall from the 2009 U. S. News and World Report (Rankings in specializations vary)
Ranking order is in parenthesis following the name of the University
- University of California-Berkeley (1)
- Stanford University (California) (2)
- Yale University (Connecticut) (2)
- Columbia University (New York) (4)
- Harvard University (Massachusetts) (4)
- University of Pennsylvania (4)
- Cornell University (New York) (7)
- Princeton University (New Jersey) (7)
- University of Chicago (Illinois) (7)
- Duke University (North Carolina) (10)
- University of California-Los Angeles (10)
- University of Virginia (10)
- Brown University (Rhode Island) (13)
- Johns Hopkins University (Maryland) (13)
- University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (13)
- University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (16)
- Rutgers State University-New Brunswick (New Jersey) (17)
- University of Texas-Austin (17)
- University of Wisconsin-Madison (17)
- New York University (20)
- Northwestern University (Illinois) (20)
- CUNY Graduate School and University Center (New York) (22)
- Indiana University-Bloomington (22)
- University of California-Irvine (22)
USC Upstate English Alumi Have Attended These Graduate Schools
- American University (M.A.)
- Clemson University (M.A.)
- Converse College (M.L.A., M.A.T.)
- University of Georgia-Athens (Ph.D.)
- University of Kentucky (M.A.)
- Tufts University (Ph.D.)
- Winthrop University (M.A.)
Compiled by Dr. Celena E. Kusch, with contributions by Nicole Manigo, Rachel McAllister and Candice McCuen