Getting a Ph.D. in English

Don't rely on this document alone: ask many professors for advice. Check out recent books such as The Real Guide to Grad School. Watch this video: it isn't really joking!

Why get a Ph.D.?

A PhD certifies you for a career as a professional in college teaching. A few non-academic careers here and there require, or value PhDs, but you simply should not undertake graduate study without a vocation for teaching. If you can be happy doing something else, do that instead. Please do not get deep in debt to earn a Ph.D.

But let's say you're one of the best of the students your teachers have taught in a decade, one of the top 75 college seniors in your discipline, you have top-notch grades, high scores on the GRE (especially in your subject area), you already have solid reading ability in a second language, and you can't live unless you become a college teacher. In that case, read on.

Go to a top program, or don't go

Why does going to one of the "top" programs matter, when there are great graduate students and faculties elsewhere? Quite simply, because the job market is increasingly brutal. If you come out at the top of one of the best programs, you have a fighting chance of staying in the profession. Read this account of an economist's take on the English job market over a 35 year period; this study shows that top-ten program graduates not only get more jobs (54% placement) but get tenure-track jobs at better places. Still, in the humanities, 40% of the job placements are in adjunct positions--non tenure-track jobs, often ill-paid, often in the least rewarding courses, often with no benefits. In literary studies, according to our professional organization, about 50% of newly minted PhDs get jobs eventually, sometimes after 3-4 years of searching. Ask your professors (not just one person) to recommend programs. They will know where the best programs are, and they may have an idea about places where W&L has a good reputation, thanks to the performance of one of our recent alums. If you choose to go a program not highly ranked, be prepared to transfer after the Master's degree, or to be the very best student in that program.

Application process

You should apply to at least five or six programs. Many applicants apply to more. To do so you ready your:

  • languages. Most programs require 2. Find out which languages count before you start a new one. The actual exams in grad school tend to be pretty easy-translation tests, taken with a dictionary. You should be able to learn and pass one language during your first two years of grad school. But almost all programs will expect you to pass at least one exam during the first year of study. For the application, it is important to be able to claim preparation in languages. A person who looks weak in languages might be eliminated from the applicant pool on those grounds. So, if you can claim proficiency in one language and reading knowledge in another, that's great.
  • personal statement. Write an intellectual statement of purpose, not an autobiography or starry-eyed hymn of praise to the glories of your discipline, a famous professor, or institution X. An argumentative personal essay is fine, so long as it doesn't insult or disparage certain approaches. Use your natural writing style. You may weave in remarks about a special collection at the library of Institution X, or about particular professors (especially if you have corresponded with them or based your thesis on their work), but avoid the law-school-application-essay style of "I first read Wordsworth in the eighth grade, and from then on I knew it was my destiny to. . ." Even if it's true! Imagine your essay as the one opportunity for you to lay out your plan, your big questions, and the way in which your academic experiences-research, writing, publishing-have altered your ideas. Write about your senior thesis, if you are writing one, and comment on where you see yourself going from there. It's ok to indicate a change of direction. Be specific. And don't worry, no one will hold you to anything you write in your application. You can change your mind once you're there. Many people do--that's one of the reasons for required course work and broad general examinations. The personal statement can:
    • address and explain weaknesses in your record;
    • explain factors such as your socio-economic background;
    • illuminate what sets you apart from other candidates;
    • explore how your personal life and academic interests coalesce, in specific and concrete ways (say what field you intend to work in; don't say you love books, because we all do; leave your childhood out of it unless it's really central to who you will be as a scholar)
  • dossier of letters from the best known scholars and from the professors who know you best. Again, it's unfair, but fame counts, unless the famous person says "I taught Joe as a freshman and he earned a B+." Do get a letter from your thesis advisor. This is especially important if the thesis isn't done yet, and can't be part of the writing sample. Find out where professors studied or taught earlier in their careers. A letter from a "known quantity" means something to an admission committee. Please do not ask a recommender for a letter due in under a month. If you want a good letter, you should give the professor some time to compose it. Give neatly paper-clipped forms, stamped addressed envelopes and instructions to your recommenders as early as possible. (Recommended: sign the waiver.) Many programs now conduct their whole application online, and when that includes recommendations, you should warn your letter-writers. The cumbersome process of electronic reference submission takes longer than the old way, and there's a risk that the automated emails asking for submissions may get caught in professors' spam filters. Let your recommenders know what they should expect. For your part, write down the deadlines for completed applications. Some programs will send an email about incomplete applications, but assume that you are on your own. Two weeks before the earliest deadline, politely ask your recommenders if they've had a chance to send the letter in. Most busy professors will appreciate the reminder. Then remember to write a thank you note, even if your applications don't work out.
  • GRE. Take it early--October is best. Or, take it in the spring of your junior year, and again in the fall. High verbals and high subject test scores matter the most. Prepare using the materials from ETS (in English, reviewing anthologies and notes from survey courses helps). Don't waste money and time on Stanley Kaplan. The best prep for the GRE is reading widely.
  • writing sample. There is no one recipe here, only general guidelines. This can be the most important part of an application. Make sure your essay, no matter how historical or theoretical, refers to a literary text! Choose your very best recent paper and rewrite it. Respond to criticism, and take it back to the professor to see if you've succeeded. Make sure your argument is clearly stated on the first page. Proofread obsessively. Spell check. If your middle names are not "Strunk" and "White," get a person with a perfect grasp of grammar and syntax to read your essay. Revise for clarity and elegance. Use proper MLA citations, not just any old format. Do not use a bad printer, a micro-font, or an arty font. Your readers will be sitting down to read sixty files in a weekend, during the school year. You mustn't give them an excuse to cast your work aside with an oath.

How the Committee Decides about Applications

The first stage of the admissions process weeds out students who don't have the test scores, grades, and language preparation to make the cut. Out of 300-600 applications, around 100 survive this cut. Letters of recommendation come into play most at this juncture: one doesn't particularly benefit by having more than three letters. The personal statement is also key.

The second stage of the admissions process really focuses on the writing sample because it's relatively unmediated––no spin here, just your actual work. It doesn't have to be perfect and publishable, and it can be a fragment of a longer piece (the length is 20 pages). However, it should be in your proposed field and it should show a real spark, constituting lively and interesting evidence of how your mind works. The committee brings the list down to around 30. Usually graduate classes are not larger than 12. Look online for blogs sharing information about the graduate school application process, if you can stand to know how others are doing.

Choosing Where to Apply and Where to Go

Check out all available information about the programs that have been recommended to you by your professors or by the ranked lists of Ph.D.-granting English departments. Use the ratings of universities on the Web (search by program or discipline), and ask the reference librarian for help with print resources. If you have an idea what field you want to work in, be sure that the programs have recognizable "names" in senior (tenured) positions teaching that field (or fields). See below, under "the professors."

OK. It's early April and the Fates have smiled upon you. You've gotten into three or four "top" graduate programs. Then what? Deciding among the best programs requires specific knowledge about:

  • financial support. Assume that financial support is merit based, even when the institution requires parents' information. Don't be wooed by a huge stipend to a lesser program if that program has poor job placement. Maybe you will be lucky and reside in a state that has a great English graduate program at a public university: California, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin. . . A good package from a top-ten program will guarantee free tuition and around $20,000, sometimes more, depending on ranking and region. This is for 9 months; they assume you will work in the summers. Is it for one year only? Is health insurance included in your package? Is the offer for four years at the same rate? What happens when you begin teaching? Does tuition get "reduced" after course-work years are over? Don't pay tuition to an MA program on the hopes of making it into a PhD at the same institution. Some programs support their smaller number of PhD candidates by collecting cash from a larger number of MA candidates. This can create an unpleasant and alienating atmosphere, even if you are one of the few destined to make it through.
  • the library: main collection and special collections. In most humanities fields, a puny library means a big hassle for you, even with newly accessible materials online. The kind of work you can do in your courses and in your dissertation will be shaped by the availability of texts. Ask if ILL (interlibrary loan) use is free and unlimited. Check what electronic resources are available through the university library's subscription. For instance, does the library subscribe to EEBO and ECCO? If your interests will most likely take you abroad to foreign archives, ask if summer funding for research trips is available to graduate students.
  • the professors. Do your homework. Who are they? Do they really teach courses? (Look at the graduate course catalog.) Do they teach grad students? (Some famous professors at places with superb undergrads teach grad students reluctantly.) How old are they? (Library of Congress provides this info for any published author.) Add six or seven years to that age: will that person still be vigorously supporting your candidacy for jobs in 2022? Look up every professor on the departmental list on Hollis or WorldCat. What has the professor published recently? Check the faculty webpages at the graduate departments or look people up in the MLA bibliography. Look at the dates of publication. Is the famous professor you admire still active in her field? Are all the fields you hope to study represented by distinguished senior professors and up-and-coming younger professors? The latter can be as important as the former, since younger professors still building their followings may devote more time and energy to you.
  • the structure of the program. All programs require course work (usually 2 years, 10-14 courses), qualifying examinations, and languages (usually 2 in addition to English). Is the program's examination structure and/or distribution requirement devised to foster generalists, or to allow immediate specialization? (While the latter may seem appealing, preparation as a generalist can be a help in the job market, and not just for small college jobs.) Ask: how many years to degree? how much teaching and how soon? teaching guaranteed or not? what kind of teaching-sections, comp classes, your own courses, tutoring? (a variety is desirable); dissertation year fellowship or not? kick you out after five years, or let you linger if the job market is bad? [it is, and has gotten markedly worse since the economic downturn.]
  • the visit. If you can afford to visit campus before you decide, do it. Ask to be housed with a grad student, and go to classes. Talk to the Director of Graduate Study (DGS) and professors in office hours. Do the grad students seem happy? Do they seem to have a community? Dissertation-writing groups? Colloquia or reading groups based on common interests? Real lives? Are they working second jobs in addition to their teaching or research assistantships? Are they divided into "camps" about some issue that doesn't matter a whole lot to you? Or, conversely, are they passionately upset about something that matters a lot to you, and might be a source of unhappiness if things don't go your way? (Real life examples: unionization, queer theory.)
  • the place. Attractive? Dangerous? Bucolic? In an exciting city? It will be tempting to weight this last item more heavily than the others. Resist. Be brave. The reputation of the program matters more.

Questions You Must Ask

Ask about recent job placements: ask the DGS how large each entering class is, and how many complete the PhD. Then ask how many people have been placed in tenure-track positions for each of the last three years. Ask where grads have taken jobs. Then ask a 5th or 6th year grad student the same questions. Note any discrepancies.

Beware Composition Slavery!

It is a national disgrace, but many graduate programs exist solely to provide cheap labor for universities. Bad signs:

  • The program wants you to begin teaching in your first semester of study.
  • All the composition courses and many of the lower-level undergraduate courses are taught by graduate students, not by professors.
  • The program expects you to teach the same course (composition) over and over throughout your years of study.
  • Very few students in the program complete the PhD and fewer get tenure-track jobs.

There are always exceptions, but you should be aware that teaching experience, a vital component of your graduate training, should never overwhelm the other parts: course taking, independent work, doing conferences and trying to publish articles, and dissertation-writing.

Good Luck!