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Old Bill

Tips for Applying to English Ph.D. Programs

5 posts in this topic

Posted (edited)

A few weeks ago, I was asked to talk to first-year M.A. students about the Ph.D. application process. I prepared a list of what I figure to be key elements, and I figure it might be useful to many on GC who are preparing to go down this path as well. I'm quite certain that some of these points are purely subjective and open to discussion / debate, but having gone through the process a couple of times now, these items ring true based on my experiences and observations.


Others have surely told you about the state of the industry, so I’m just going to assume that you already know the “there are no jobs” spiel.

·        Others have also surely told you about how relatively difficult it is to get into a Ph.D. program—I have yet to hear of a program that admits over 10% of applicants.

o   Because of this, if you are committed to applying to Ph.D. programs, I strongly recommend considering applying to at least ten. Even though merit is a critical part of determining who gets in, there is a very real element of “luck of the draw” which pure numbers will help to mitigate.

·        With that in mind, NOW is a good time to get started on your program research

·        Your first consideration when entering the process should be to determine what era you would like to study, and ideally a general sense of methodologies you want to employ. These elements will be reflected in the two most important components of your application: the Statement of Purpose (or SoP), and your Writing Sample (WS).

·        Some basics:

o   The SoP and WS should ideally work together

o   When thinking about potential areas of study, avoid proposing transatlantic or transhistorical concepts: admissions committees are still very much set up by period, and your application should be easily sorted into a field group (i.e. you’re clearly a Romanticist, or you’re clearly a 20th century Americanist).

o   GRE scores, GPA, and other elements are important, but remember that the things you can control the most at this stage are the WS and SoP.

o   Given the importance of these two documents, you will want to get as many eyes on them as possible as soon as possible.

§  My SoP and WS were read and commented on by at least five professors and several fellow students, and ultimately went through at least six rounds of revision each—several of them top-to-bottom revisions.

·        There are multiple factors to consider when looking at programs. Some of the most important include:

o   Are there multiple professors actively working in your chosen field

§  I personally used a “rule of three”—if a program had three professors with significant research overlap with my interests, I would consider it.

§  By “active” I mean that you should be able to find publication credits from within the past five years—they need to be in touch with current scholarship.

o   What level of financial support do they offer—not just the annual funding, but whether they fund in summer, and how many years of funding are guaranteed

o   What courses have they offered in the past? What courses are they offering in the fall?

o   What is the teaching load like, and how do they prepare you for that load?

o   So-called rankings matter to a certain extent, but remember that those rankings are almost completely arbitrary. USNews rankings are helpful as a list of all programs offering Ph.D.s in English…and a very, very general sense of the strong programs vs. the less strong. But FIT with your interests trumps all.

§  (E.g. the Strode program at U of A is highly regarded, even though U of A itself is somewhat less so)

o   Location and cost of living. A 20k stipend will get you a lot further in Lincoln, Nebraska than in New York. And elements like small town vs. large city, cold vs. warm climate etc. are all perfectly valid factors when looking at programs. You’ll have to live in this place for 4-6 years, after all!

·        A few quick and random tips:

o   It can be helpful to contact professors ahead of time to determine research fit etc., but it can also be quite valuable to contact current grad students to get a sense of the program and the environment.

o   Remember that an important part of professionalization in a Ph.D. program is publication. More than anything, this means that before you go down the road toward application, give some serious thought to whether or not your writing and research inclinations have that kind of potential. And whether or not that’s something you really want to deal with at all.

o  Also remember that teaching is a huge part of your job, and always will be. If you don’t enjoy teaching (or the prospect of teaching), you’d better really love the other components of your position, because there’s not going to be any getting away from it for many, many years.

o   It might go without saying, but be very courteous in all of your communications with professors and other graduate students. And that courtesy should be sincere!

o   Consider the total cost of applications: application fees average about $75, sending GRE scores is $27 (more if you need the subject test), and if you have multiple transcripts, that can tack on another $10. In other words, each application will likely be upward of $100. Given that I recommend applying to at least ten programs, you’re looking at a commitment of over $1000. There ARE fee waivers you can find, however.

o   Forums like GradCafe are a good way to socialize with fellow applicants, and commiserate with people in the same situation. Just remember to take all advice you see on those forums with a grain of salt.

o   Finally, there are NO SAFETY SCHOOLS. Just to reiterate, rankings are arbitrary, and almost every program gets ten times as many applicants as they can admit (let alone fund). As a result, you want to look at the best overall fit for you.



Edited by Old Bill

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Great post Bill, especially about finding spots that fit with our interests and research. I am entering UA's Ph.D. lit program this fall. UA only admits a few outside the Strode Program, but they have a good number of Americanists among their faculty and a couple of Southern lit professors, both of which drew me. My area is contemporary American lit with a sub-genre of Southern lit and my thesis was titled "The Disillusionment of Cormac McCarthy." That will give you an idea where my scholarship interests lie. I'm very interested in the ways in which McCarthy challenges American ideologies, which then leads to study within early American writings, as well, to look at the beginnings of those ideologies. So I'm really all over the canon with my research and readings. I needed a school that had a more generalist feeling of the American text, which I believe I got.

I will add to your idea about when to begin thinking about getting a Ph.D. Undergrad is not too soon to begin to think about getting a Ph.D. for an English major. Unless one is preparing to work in publishing or something similar (non-teaching), an English major should not stop at the master's level. One can only teach lower levels of English, with a master's, including rhet/comp or introductory classes of literature. That, in and of itself, is not going to satisfy the literature concentration person's thirst to discuss texts. As such, designing the BA to be geared toward an eventual Ph.D. in literature makes sense. Intense preparation in a single foreign language is also necessary. Many universities have gone to a requirement of a single language (although there are still two-language requirements around). UA just removed the two-language requirement so I no longer have to figure out how to get two additional semesters of intermediate Spanish ( I have six semesters of French and two of Spanish). If one knows they are going to apply to Ph.D. schools, the entire MA can also be geared toward it, as well. It's good to figure out what your thesis will be on and work on a chapter that will suffice as a WS for the Ph.D. apps and provide a chapter for the thesis. Make sure that you discuss in the SOP how the WS is a chapter of your thesis and fits within your research goals. I think that committees like to know a student can write a thesis and will then be able to write a dissertation. During the writing of the dissertation is when most students abandon the quest for a Ph.D. Knowing that you can put a thesis together is important for consideration of the overall greater picture of getting admitted to a Ph.D. program. Don't know what you really want to focus on for a thesis as you begin your M.A.? Most of us don't have a clue, but gain a perspective in that first year and start reading. If the focus is too large, then you have to find a way to narrow it to a manageable one. Save the big picture for the dissertation. You can't begin to discuss something like the origin of the American text in a 100 page document (like I imagined I could :wacko:). However, you can discuss one tiny corner through an author like McCarthy, becoming fascinated with the author in the process and decide that author deserves some serious scholarship.


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I'm brand new to this process and so grateful to be finding this thread right now. Thank you both for sharing your knowledge.

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On 5/18/2017 at 3:18 AM, Old Bill said:

I personally used a “rule of three”—if a program had three professors with significant research overlap with my interests, I would consider it.

Hi thanks for all of the information! I applied this year, and maybe this was my downfall, but I was lucky to find one or two professors at each program with research interests that overlapped significantly with mine. How specific should our research interests match?

For instance, I am (speaking generally) interested in urban space, cities, time/space in American lit (20/21 c). The writing sample I will be sending is interested in architecture in American modernism. I fear that I will be hard pressed to find people doing exactly that. Should I just be looking for professors who are interested in space/place and American lit? Because that feels too generic! I am prepared to really get into doing intensive research to find active professors that match what I'm doing (I've only got one so far) but I did this type of research last year, and I still only found about one or two in any given department. There were no places with three or more. Do these departments exist?! What am I missing here? Thanks again :)

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Your advisors don't need to be directly in your area of study (after all, you will probably have an outside reader for the diss!). What is important is finding faculty in field that you feel would support your own research--this is a different question than having the same particular interests. Your advisors are not there to direct your research so much as ensure that your research responds to and recognizably fits in with your area of study in general. I.e., if there are more than a few faculty working in the time period that you've chosen, and their methodologies are not directly opposed to what you want to do, you shouldn't worry about having no one to guide you. 

Edited by echo449

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