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Current English PhD students - Q&A

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I know we are in the thick of admissions results here on the literature forum. I feel like when I was here at this time last year, I was working hard to imagine and plan out what life could be like in the coming year, and trying to get as much information as I could out of these forums and other sources. I also think that sometimes it can feel a bit isolating in graduate school, and perhaps the struggles can be somewhat hard  to discuss. For that reason, I wanted to open up a discussion with the current students who still visit the forum to see how graduate school is going for you, and give a space for applicants/prospective students to ask any questions that may be lingering. Here are some initial prompting questions, but anyone else, feel free to chime in!

Has your PhD so far been what you expected it to be?
What are you impressions of your program?
Has anything about your program surprised you?
How are you feeling in general about your experience?
Have you found your research interests changing?
Are there any hardships you've faced that you want to share?
How about any successes you'd like to celebrate?

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I think my big question for current students is: what do you wish you had asked about or known when making your decision? Anything undergrads wouldn’t have the foresight to consider about PhD life when applying? 

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27 minutes ago, swarthmawr said:

I think my big question for current students is: what do you wish you had asked about or known when making your decision? Anything undergrads wouldn’t have the foresight to consider about PhD life when applying? 

This.

I’m also very curious about the feel of various departments. My undergrad dept felt like family, almost immediately. How do you gage feel though from the outside?

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9 hours ago, FiguresIII said:

@swarthmawr and @kendalldinnienegreat questions! I'm sure many of us have this on our minds as we prepare for visits. My first one is in 9 days !!

You’re going have such a good time!!! Let us know how it goes :)

Edited by kendalldinniene

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As a current student, and someone who has a lot of friends in many different kinds/feels of programs, let me try to answer as best as I can, re: what to think about when visiting:

You MIGHT click immediately with the campus/faculty/students. Or you might not. Neither one is (necessarily) an indicator of anything. You might not click immediately because you're nervous, or the students you'll get along with best weren't around when you were visiting, or because some people take a while to get to know. Or you may click, and then it turns out that that faculty member is actually fairly hands-off when it comes to advising, or that student goes on leave, or the one conversation you had turns out not to be indicative of any further connection. 

I have a friend who is super close with their cohort and faculty members. I have a friend who gets along with some of the people in their program, but not all of them, and isn't close with any of them. They're both very happy in their situations. I'm somewhere in the middle, and also happy. 

Remember, this is a professional situation: as long as you feel like you can get along with people, and won't mind shooting the shit for a few minutes before talks/class/etc... that's the main thing! The friend who isn't close with anyone in her program has a huge friend circle totally outside of the school, and thinks of being in her program as going to work (note: this is, of course, easier to do in a big city. If you're in a small college town, maybe care much more about potential friends). While I know not all of you are coming right out of undergrad, if you are, remember that grad school isn't necessarily an all-encompassing social situation like college is. 

A few things I'd recommend thinking about, during visits:

1. Do you think the conditions here will allow you to work as best as you can? Will the stipend REALLY work, or might you have to get some loans/work an evening job? Does there seem to be a lot of structure? Is there a grad student union? What's expected of you over summers? Ask current students about one thing that they wish they could change about the program. 

2. Rates of burnout and depression are really, really high among grad students. Maybe you're the sort of person who likes to put your head down and do nothing but work... but if not, what other resources are available to you, to help you avoid that? CAN you find friends outside of the university if you want to? Is going to live music important? Do you like being able to go hiking? Are you really into, say, yoga-- and is there a yoga studio around that you think you'd like? Don't forget that you have to be a person, too! 

3. What's the insurance like? Do you have any specialized medical issues that might be affected? For instance, I know two students in my program who had to switch off of the school insurance plan because medications they needed weren't covered/weren't covered well enough.

4. Think about not just "can I survive?" on the stipend, but what it will get you. What I mean by that is: will you have to live with roommates? Are you REALLY ok with not living by yourself for the next six years? Will you have money to go out to eat every now and then? Do you like flying to see your family often? Yes-- you're probably going to have to live tightly and compromise no matter what, but genuinely examine what things in your life that cost money add significantly to your happiness, and decide if they can stay there on the stipend you're being offered. 

5. If you're a woman (and this probably applies to PoC and queer folk, too!), ask other female (PoC/queer/etc) students about their experiences there. Is there some institutional sexism? Are there other students (or faculty) that they complain about? 

 

 

Anyways, just a few things to consider! Good luck to all of you in visits!

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Current 2nd year PhD student at a flagship Midwest school here. This time a couple years ago, I was deciding between 4 fully funded PhD program offers and even though each of them would have been great places to attend, I basically have never regretted my decision to choose the school I'm at now. To be honest, one of the main reasons I ended up choosing the school i I did and I think a really important factor to take into consideration (if your programs are all pretty much ranked the same, which mine were — ranked around 20 on the US News Report, whatever that's worth and all generally strong in 20th/21st century American which is what I do) is money. By that I mean, of course, how much your yearly stipend would be and how much that actually is when you factor in cost of living. I chose a stipend where I don't really have to watch every single penny and dime I spend. I am actually managing to save money for retirement, which I would have never been able to do with another offer I received from a more urban school with a much higher cost of living. A lot of the grad students I spoke to at the more urban school had to take out second jobs and live with roommates to make their stipend stretch further. Of course, there is nothing wrong with living with roommates for some people and I actually do right but I think the crucial thing is that I have the financial option to live alone if I ever wanted to. I love the flexibility that my more livable stipend affords me — I can go out for drinks and dinner with cohort mates and not stress if it's going to ruin my budget; I can pay for a flight for a conference and still pay rent while I wait for the reimbursement to come through.

And that brings me to another reason why I think money is so important — I think it's important to suss out how much money departments have for things like conference funding, fellowships, summer support, etc. Again, at the more urban school I was considering, I spoke to grad students who told me the max funding they got for conferences was $300. At my current school, you get a minimum of $300 for domestic conference travel. Most students there also began teaching their first year; while this might be unavoidable depending on the offers you have, if you have any offers that allow you to be on fellowship your first year, I would seriously consider those. Everyone in my program is on fellowship their first year, which gives you some time to get adjusted to grad school without teaching responsibilities and also allows you to knock a lot of coursework out in your first year. While I do enjoy teaching now, having that first year to just focus on adjusting to grad seminars and life in a new city was immensely valuable. I don't want to harp too much on the money because obviously we're not in this field to get rich but not having to stress so much about money has been great for my mental health and quality of living. 

One last thing (this probably applies more to people coming straight out of undergrad, like I was, but may apply to those with an MA too): your research interests might change and it's good to suss out if there's several people in the department you might work well with. For example, I applied to the school I'm currently at to work with one superstar professor in my specific field. But my research interests have shifted as I've taken more coursework and while I'm still interested in my initial field, my theoretical investments have shifted so that the professor I applied to work with probably won't even end up on my prelims committee. Of course, you can't predict how your interests might shift but when I was visiting programs, my undergrad advisors told me to make sure there were several people I could see myself working with, just in case a professor leaves or your interests do shift. I was quite sure that I would stay a 20th/21st century Americanist throughout (and still am!) but I made a point during visit days to connect with several other Americanists in the department besides my POI. I'm glad I did because that meant I didn't freak out when my interests began to change and was confident that there were enough Americanists in the department that I could form a solid prelims committee. 

Relatedly, when thinking about advisors, someone's specific research interests matter less than you might think. Obviously you want someone who is well versed in what you're working on, but many of my peers have found that it's more important that an advisor's personality and mentoring style line up with what you want, rather than making sure your committee is interested in exactly what you're interested in. Ask questions about a potential advisor's mentoring style (especially helpful to ask dissertators/people farther along if you can) — do they answer email promptly? Are they often on research leave and difficult to get a hold of? Do they let you know of relevant conferences and fellowships to apply for? 

 

This is a lot of information and I know the decision process can be overwhelming. Feel free to PM if you have any specific questions about the process and good luck to you all! 

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I'm in the second year of an MA/PhD program.

Has your PhD so far been what you expected it to be?

The first and most important difference is that the universe is much smaller than it was during undergrad -- I don't interact much with anyone outside my concentration, much less the English department. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the weird, freewheeling years of knowing everybody on campus are definitely behind me. 

Other than this, honestly, I don't remember what I thought grad school would be like. 
What are you impressions of your program?

Uh

I think that everyone in my program is a genuinely good person who is doing the work that we do because they think the world is better for it. 

I also think that they care deeply about the success of other people in the program. I don't know if I answered this question right.
Has anything about your program surprised you?

The amount of free time that I've had to schedule myself has been pretty massive. I know this is to be expected, but when you look at it and you're only on campus ten hours a week, after having a real person job and sitting at a desk for four times that long... well, it's strange.

The other thing is that, even though everyone in my program is really smart, nobody's, like, quoting Foucault at each other. We complain about overly opaque writing and heavy reading loads. There's no real need to present yourself as incredibly smart. We're all already here so we might as well be real with each other. At least, this is the vibe at my school.
How are you feeling in general about your experience?

pretty good.
Have you found your research interests changing?

Radically. Basically, when I came to grad school, I knew what I liked. Now, I know what the field needs and what I can do to help.
Are there any hardships you've faced that you want to share?

uhhhhh

it is sometimes harder than you'd think to find classes where you can write about the stuff you want to write about. this is probably because I'm still pretty early in the program. but because my concentration is small, there aren't a lot of classes. which sometimes means ending up in places you wouldn't expect. this is a good time to try new things, and new things can be good, but it can be a bummer when you don't have the chance to, you know, do the stuff you're trying to build a career around.

also (I keep editing this response as I think of new stuff, sorry). It is necessary, not just ok, but necessary, to build a life outside of your program. This doesn't necessarily mean a community if that's not your thing. But interests. Don't spend all your free time listening to podcasts about your area, or doing extra research. Do something else. Be a person in the world. You'll be much happier. 
How about any successes you'd like to celebrate?

going to my first conference in a few weeks!

I think my big question for current students is: what do you wish you had asked about or known when making your decision? Anything undergrads wouldn’t have the foresight to consider about PhD life when applying? 

When you visit, you want to know how people treat each other. There are SO MANY horror stories in grad school of students who double-cross each other, or advisors who give up, and stuff like that. I'd pay attention to how people treat each other, not just how they treat you. They know they're supposed to be nice to you. But if you pick up on really good communal vibes, that makes it seem like these people really care about each other, then maybe it won't be so bad spending seven years with them.

All of the stuff for finding faculty you vibe with and all that stuff... that stuff obviously matters. But in the day-to-day, you need your people. 

---

I'm writing here because I remember how I felt two years ago when I got that first offer. There was a snow storm and my workplace was shut down, so I was just sitting at home, refreshing my email. When the notification came in, I cried so much. I went straight to my friends' apartment and we ordered pizza and celebrated. It was such a great day. 

The thing about that day that I'm starting to realize was that it was exciting because I was going on a new adventure, and new adventures are exciting. And the validation of getting a yes meant so much. But now I look at that moment and think about how excited I was and, knowing what I know now, I think that I was justified in feeling that way.

Edited by NoodleKidoodle

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I'm a fourth-year PhD at Ohio State.

Has your PhD so far been what you expected it to be?

The first two years were about what I was expecting and looking for. The seminars I took were, with a couple exceptions, fabulous and interesting. Reading for comps was even better -- I felt like I could finally do what I'd come to do, namely, sit and read wonderfully intricate, complex literature. The last couple of years, after I reached ABD, have been more difficult. I had a major "fuck this pointless shit" moment after my comps, and didn't do anything for a solid six weeks afterward. Morale has improved somewhat since then, and I've enjoyed working on my dissertation when I give myself the time to sit down and work on it. But the isolation and lack of motivation can be difficult. When you're in coursework or studying for comps, those things come from outside: you are around other smart people, and in order to keep pace, you push yourself to keep up with or exceed others. When ABD, in the absence of those things, you just have to train yourself to work regardless of motivation and the nagging suspicion that what you're doing doesn't matter. Overcoming that anxiety is half of the battle. And, to be frank, I wasn't prepared for the shift toward a structureless work life. It took me the better part of a year to write my first chapter, and far more time was spent on those process issues than the actual ideas of my chapter. 

What are you impressions of your program?

It's okay, though not fantastic. The size of the program makes it very easy for a painfully introverted person like me to be more or less anonymous. The department is so large that you will know a fraction of the people in it. If you come in with an MA, there's a good chance that you might get lost in the mire, because you're out of coursework so quickly that you don't have the time to build connections with faculty and other grad students. 

Has anything about your program surprised you?

The general lack of active interest people have in you or your project. They're willing to help you if you seek it out, but no one is concerned enough about you to "touch base." It can be easy to fall through the cracks. 


How are you feeling in general about your experience?

Not great, though I think that has less to do with my experience at OSU than my general sense that graduate education in the humanities is kind of a shit show. It's unconscionable how many admits programs make, knowing full well that a small fraction of them will get the jobs that they're all working toward. That's not right, and the pollyanna-ism that supports it ("You have got what it takes to make it! Your project is especially great!") is both pervasive and unbelievable, given how otherwise intelligent and aware of structural/systematic problems faculty are. 


Have you found your research interests changing?

Yes, of course. Your interests should change, because when you enter grad school, you really don't know much about what professional literary study involves. Personally, I found myself moving from the study of rhetoric and logic to premodern ecocriticism, the subject of my dissertation.  


Are there any hardships you've faced that you want to share?

I've already mentioned the isolation and motivation issues above, and to that I'll add crappy interactions with others. Don't get me wrong, there are a number of great, super cool people in grad school—other grad students, faculty, and staff. But there are also a lot of assholes in grad school, especially professors, who can be aloof, callous, and simply rude. Because I had such personable professors in undergrad, I wasn't quite prepared for the lack of "humanness" coming from some faculty. And, of course, this isn't meant to be an absolute statement. But the bad interactions seem to stick out more memorably than the good ones, unfortunately. 

How about any successes you'd like to celebrate?

Institutional fellowships, well-paid internships, well-received papers delivered at national conferences. It's not all bad! 

I think my big question for current students is: what do you wish you had asked about or known when making your decision? Anything undergrads wouldn’t have the foresight to consider about PhD life when applying? 

I would have asked more pointed questions about money and the longer arc of the program and how it imagines its advisors to operate. For the first, I would ask more about the actual conditions enabled by the funding you receive. Does it allow you to do the things you enjoy outside of school? (To stay sane, you must have a life apart from school, some thing or things that have nothing to do with textual criticism or departmental politics or the eccentricities of this or that professor.) Are vacations out of the question with the money you earn? (Probably, but still worth asking.) What kind of apartment can you get with the stipend? Can you go out and do things socially with the money? Etc. etc. etc. In short, you just need to think about your priorities beyond your education, and try to get a sense of how the material realities of grad school will allow you to stick to those priorities. 

Regarding the second, I would ask current students about how things have changed over the course of their tenure. How is life different in the coursework period from the exam reading period or the dissertation period? How has your dissertation advisor's role changed in that time? Has s/he continued to offer the same level of commitment or guidance, or has their interest in you or your project waned over time? If you already have a solid sense of the literary period you're going to be working in, you might start asking about how individual advisors work with their mentees. Which are the people who can never find time to meet with you? Which are the kind who will go out of their way to oversee and develop your work? Who will be honest with you about your shortcomings? (This is really important -- you ideally want to find someone who is both kind and honest. Many can be brutally honest, and many—most, even—will be too chickenshit to tell you when something sucks and why.) 

---

Edited by Ramus

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Question! Have any of you been able to negotiate your funding offers? If so, how did you go about doing this?

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5 minutes ago, Englishtea1 said:

Question! Have any of you been able to negotiate your funding offers? If so, how did you go about doing this?

Yes, I did. It's really as simple as emailing the DGS and saying, "Look, I have this other, better offer, but I really would like to join your program. Can you match X's offer?" The answer to that question might be 'no,' but they'll at least let you know if there is some wiggle room. 

ETA: Obviously, you want to massage the language of that a bit—something less blunt than "better"—but you get the idea. 

Edited by Ramus

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When making a decision: money or “ranking”? I know ranks are stupid and meaningless, but do they pay off for potential job searches, or perhaps in other ways? At what point does school reputation stop mattering, and money become more important? 

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@Englishtea1 to add onto what @Ramus said-- it's pretty much that, but I would recommend only doing this once you're pretty sure where you want to go (i.e. maybe try to negotiate with your top two, but don't try to get like five programs to all outbid each other or something). 

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3 minutes ago, trytostay said:

When making a decision: money or “ranking”? I know ranks are stupid and meaningless, but do they pay off for potential job searches, or perhaps in other ways? At what point does school reputation stop mattering, and money become more important? 

Great question, and I can't stress this enough: go with rank! Yes, there are all the caveats about the rankings and the methodology that informs them. But they're essentially a loose measure of prestige, and *that* is what drives departmental hiring decisions above all else. Prestige is the name of the game, and if you're in higher ed, that's the game you're playing. (Even if, as some on this forum claim, they're not considering it.)

When I was fielding PhD offers during my MA, I got a swanky fellowship from UConn on the order of $35K per year. I nearly fainted. But my advisor at the time was quick (and right) to talk me down. That money would have been nice while in grad school, but it would have only bought me short-term happiness. The comparatively higher prestige of an OSU degree will be with me for much, much longer. 

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1 minute ago, trytostay said:

When making a decision: money or “ranking”? I know ranks are stupid and meaningless, but do they pay off for potential job searches, or perhaps in other ways? At what point does school reputation stop mattering, and money become more important? 

If you're looking at NYU, UVA, and Columbia-- I'd say that ranking is probably negligible. If there's a clear definition in terms of which school is better (i.e. UVA vs Virginia State or something), go with rank. But outside of something glaringly obvious, here's two pieces of advice:

1. Absolutely try to avoid student loans, if that's possible. Many years ago when I was first contemplating applying, an advisor cautioned me against Columbia, saying that even though their stipends might look good, NYC is so expensive, it's not actually very livable. I have no idea what their stipends are now, or what the cost of living is, but that's just a sort of general guideline.

2. Rather than ranking (in your case), I'd look at the recent placement lists for each of your schools. Then, if you can, track down the CVs of those who have placed (just google them!). What do they study? How much have they published? That'll give you a good idea of whether or not they're placing people from your field, and what is expected of them to place. 

3. If School A is placing a lot in your field, but the stipend is lower (but still livable!)-- that's a better choice than just going for the higher stipend. 

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9 minutes ago, urbanfarmer said:

If you're looking at NYU, UVA, and Columbia-- I'd say that ranking is probably negligible. If there's a clear definition in terms of which school is better (i.e. UVA vs Virginia State or something), go with rank. But outside of something glaringly obvious, here's two pieces of advice:

1. Absolutely try to avoid student loans, if that's possible. Many years ago when I was first contemplating applying, an advisor cautioned me against Columbia, saying that even though their stipends might look good, NYC is so expensive, it's not actually very livable. I have no idea what their stipends are now, or what the cost of living is, but that's just a sort of general guideline.

2. Rather than ranking (in your case), I'd look at the recent placement lists for each of your schools. Then, if you can, track down the CVs of those who have placed (just google them!). What do they study? How much have they published? That'll give you a good idea of whether or not they're placing people from your field, and what is expected of them to place. 

3. If School A is placing a lot in your field, but the stipend is lower (but still livable!)-- that's a better choice than just going for the higher stipend. 

A better and more nuanced approach than mine. @urbanfarmer is right that when the schools you're comparing are 2, 3, and 5, or whatever, the exact ranking matters less. 

My comment was primarily intended for those applicants seriously considering a 40ish school over a top-ten on the grounds that the former is a better "fit" (whatever that useless, nebulous term means). This happens every single application cycle, and it pains me that so many do not understand what actually matters to the hiring committees you will eventually be trying to impress. A perfect example is a student that was part of my cohort at OSU. They had a full ride to UMich and turned it down for OSU because the professors at UMich didn't voice immediate enthusiasm for their undergraduate thesis (and thus, their feeling that OSU was a better fit). That was a poor decision indeed, and one that I can only pray those of you reading won't emulate. 

Edited by Ramus

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9 minutes ago, Ramus said:

A better and more nuanced approach than mine. @urbanfarmer is right that when the schools you're comparing are 2, 3, and 5, or whatever, the exact ranking matters less. 

My comment was primarily intended for those applicants seriously considering a 40ish school over a top-ten on the grounds that the former is a better "fit" (whatever that useless, nebulous term means). This happens every single application cycle, and it pains me that so many do not understand what actually matters to the hiring committees you will eventually be trying to impress. A perfect example is a student that was part of my cohort at OSU. They had a full ride to UMich and turned it down for OSU because the professors at UMich didn't voice immediate enthusiasm for their undergraduate thesis (and thus, their feeling that OSU was a better fit). That was a poor decision indeed, and one that I can only pray those of you reading won't emulate. 

Wondering if you think it’s even worth bothering to go to a program that isn’t top 40s? Or would going through another cycle with an eye toward acceptance at a higher ranking program be a wiser decision, in your opinion? Thanks!

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8 minutes ago, kendalldinniene said:

Wondering if you think it’s even worth bothering to go to a program that isn’t top 40s? Or would going through another cycle with an eye toward acceptance at a higher ranking program be a wiser decision, in your opinion? Thanks!

Personally, I wouldn't attend a program outside the 30s. Others will, of course, feel differently. But once you get out of the 30s, you're looking at places like Iowa or Ohio University or LSU, and those places, while having great faculty, won't place you at the kind of job you deserve. 

The caveat here is that I'm speaking of lit/literary history tracks. Rhet/comp tracks are a different ballgame, and the prestige of those programs doesn't square with the prestige of traditional literature programs. (E.g. Purdue = good for rhet/comp, not great for literature)

Edited by Ramus

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27 minutes ago, kendalldinniene said:

Wondering if you think it’s even worth bothering to go to a program that isn’t top 40s? Or would going through another cycle with an eye toward acceptance at a higher ranking program be a wiser decision, in your opinion? Thanks!

I'm personally psyched to have been accepted at a 40s school, even after doing my MA at a higher ranked institution. It's a good fit for me and the support package is equal to many I've seen for higher ranked programs that have a higher cost of living in their location. 

There are a lot of factors -- for one it's a good fit, my SO also got in, and I think they are a great program for what I do specifically, so their ranking isn't too off-putting for me. I would be terrified to go through this process again after getting accepted somewhere that I am genuinely interested in, especially because I don't think I would ever get into a top 10 program for a couple of different reasons. That's just my opinion though -- most of my advisors really pushed for me to apply to top ten programs only, in both my undergrad and master's, simply because of the job market and the commitment. 

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I'm a fourth year in an MA/PHD program.

Has your PhD so far been what you expected it to be?
Everyone is on fellowship during their first two years; it’s a great time to learn the ins and outs of everything the university has to offer. There have been some seminars which I’ve enjoyed greatly and others which I’ve enjoyed the material less but I learned a great deal from. The professors here are the best I’ve had and they really do want you to succeed. The style is a fair mix of lecture and conversation.

 Reading for comps was mixed. The department gives you a lot of control over the process. You’re responsible for asking people to serve on your committee. You’re responsible for choosing which books go on your list. I know that there are other schools that have pre-sorted reading comp lists and I think it is something that you should consider how much flexibility you want. I think there are perks to both cases.

What are you impressions of your program?
If you come with an MA, you can get up to 6 credits to be applied towards the Ph.D. degree. As a result, you really get to know people very well from your year and the year below and above you. 

Has anything about your program surprised you?
People here are very friendly and your cohort really does become an extended family at times. But because it is a such a small cohort; you’ll get to know people very well. If your goal is to remain anonymous, I think it becomes really hard to do that especially with individuals that share similar interests.

There are monthly meetings where people can share updates and concerns. And the department really does listen and does the best to implement change as best as they can if they have the ability to do so. It can be difficult at times because of how complex the Washington University system can be.

How are you feeling in general about your experience?
I’m feeling mixed here. My cohort was 6 people. The new incoming cohort will be 5 people. Traditionally, they've done a wonderful job of placing people and generally has more requests from universities than they could possibly place. At times, I wish more people within my cohort were interested in a tenure-track position because I want to talk to open up that dialogue of not knowing where we’d be in a few years. A lot of people see it as a place to settle down and raise a family so they refuse to look outside of this city when they’re looking for jobs despite being absolutely brilliant and being capable of having multiple offers if they expanded their search. WashU does try to have a balance of people interested in tenure-track jobs and those who say they are interested in Alt-AC jobs. People in my cohort and the year below me have expressed an interest in obtaining an MFA degree, getting a law degree, teaching at liberal arts colleges, teaching at research universities, teaching at community colleges, teaching at independent schools, become a lobbyist, doing research for a university, and being a course advisor. It’s a wide range of interests and it’s interesting to know that not everyone is competing for a tenure-track position.


Have you found your research interests changing?

There is a lot of collaboration going on within the university. As a result, students have a lot of certificate options they can choose from. My original interests were focused on the 20th and 21st century. It’s a time period I’m still very much interested in but they’ve grown to also include a certificate in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. I’ve also managed to have taken classes in Sociology, Digital Humanities, Film and African-American Studies. I think the combination of classes really allowed me to gain a better understanding of things which I may not have known I was interested in otherwise and I think it contributes in a very big way to my final dissertation because it allows me to draw from multiple areas.

Are there any hardships you've faced that you want to share?

People here care a lot about you and will help you if you seek them out for advice on whatever you’d like help with. Coming from a smaller school I was used to professors being a lot more involved in your advising and professors just being assigned to you. It’s your responsibility here to choose who your adviser is so it puts a lot of pressure to you to get to know how each professor functions and how that vibes with you. Each professor likely has something that they’re really big on so I can see how each project can be shaped and influenced differently depending on who you choose. I don’t imagine this would be very different at most universities though.


How about any successes you'd like to celebrate?

I’ve been published at 2 very well-known academic journals, have won a few institutional awards and have presented at 3 conferences. I think the university cares very much about student success and supports both your critical and creative pursuits even if those interests are outside of the English office.

I think my big question for current students is: what do you wish you had asked about or known when making your decision? Anything undergrads wouldn’t have the foresight to consider about PhD life when applying? 

I wish I didn’t bother retaking the GRE for a 2 point increase on the Verbal and a 3 point increase on the Math section. Everyone I spoke with at multiple universities told me that it wouldn’t have impacted my results either. I think that I knew this earlier 

I was fortunate enough to be accepted by various schools: Michigan, Brown, Harvard, WashU, and Tufts. I was rejected by Illinois, Colorado, Duke, Brandeis, Chicago and Nebraska. Cycles are a really interesting thing because they’re never quite what you expect.

I had a lot of conversations with my mentors regarding stipends and experiences. I was concerned about placements because I wanted to teach at the university level. They assured me that their belief was that schools aren’t good because of their programs but because some people overbelieve in the rankings and so top programs have a wider selection of students to choose from. They mentioned that they believed that ranking programs didn’t matter and shouldn’t play a role when selecting a university because they don’t play a role when jobs are listed. What leaves to the misconception most often is likely due to the fact that universities that are “better-ranked” have traditionally had more Graduate Students and have been around longer than those which were ranked lower. Publications during Grad School (as a commitment to the field) and what your dissertation paper is on and how it fits what field the School is looking to hire at will always be the most important.  A big name might get your CV a second glance but the name won’t matter at all if you have nothing extra to show from it. My undergrad college even mentioned that they won’t bother to look at someone who graduated from Harvard/Yale/Princeton because their experience has been that they don’t have the quality of teaching they’re looking for and they tend to leave as soon as an opportunity comes at a “better-known” school. As a result, I think good work is rewarded and that university prestige for admissions is unimportant. It might be easier to gain admission to a PHD program if you come from a more well-known school because they have more resources to help but I think the diversity of ideas is allowing the playing field to be more even. A great SOP with a great fit at a college will always beat out a bad SOP from an Ivy League college.

I think it is very important to think about the city you'll be in and how you feel about living there. If the environment isn't right, you won't succeed, you'll be depressed and fail. Depression is a really real thing that impacts a lot of students and each student will have different things that make them depressed. Is the stipend enough to survive? Do you work better in a rural, suburban or city environment? How big of a city would you prefer? Would you be upset if you went to a large city but was unable to really explore the city? Would you be upset if there was nothing to do in the town? Location is really important and a big part of your overall health. If you're depressed, you won't do as well as you could have and I think that shows when it comes to the Job Market.

 

 Have any of you been able to negotiate your funding offers? 

I never tried to negotiate any offers. And I don’t know anyone in my cohort or in any cohort above mines that tried. The university is extremely generous with their funding package and the city is extremely affordable to live on with the stipend they provide. In the past year,  they increased their stipend by an additional $2,000. There are also additional funding opportunities through various grants and summer programs available. 

I do know that some of my friends who did apply elsewhere did try to negotiate certain parts of their packages. Some of my friends managed to get a course-release at colleges which typically require you to teach 2 courses per semester. Others were more curious about the feasibility of living on their stipends and were connected to current students of the universities they were considering.  Some wanted to know if they could match the offers from other schools; some universities did but requested letters from other schools they were admitted into so they could bring that back to the committee. Sometimes, schools were able to scrounge up additional funds; sometimes they weren’t.

 

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1 hour ago, kendalldinniene said:

Wondering if you think it’s even worth bothering to go to a program that isn’t top 40s? Or would going through another cycle with an eye toward acceptance at a higher ranking program be a wiser decision, in your opinion? Thanks!

My two cents would be that, outside of the obvious "top schools," to look at placement. The only real ranking list is the US News one (or at least, the only relatively up-to-date one I know), and there's a lot of reasons why that might not be the best list to go off of. If a school has a placement record that you think looks promising, that probably is a better indicator than a simple ranking. 

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1 hour ago, kendalldinniene said:

Wondering if you think it’s even worth bothering to go to a program that isn’t top 40s? Or would going through another cycle with an eye toward acceptance at a higher ranking program be a wiser decision, in your opinion? Thanks!

I think it’s also important to realize that perception of programs change over time. Chicago used to be number 10 and is now considered the top school. It’s made a lot of strides to improve its standing amongst the 12 percent of so that participate in those surveys. On the opposite end, Iowa used to be ranked 36 or so and new business moves have caused the university to suffer a bit. I think it’s also important to take a look at who its peers are around the same ranking and how well their placements have been recently. There is a huge drop from 40 to 50 in terms of recent placement. (Part of it might be where priorities lie though. Georgia and Nebraska are both great for creative writing and pour a lot of their resources into them. Both have great literary magazines. The University of Houston also has a great lit mag but I think placements for Lit majors suffer as a result. If your interests are interdisciplinary, I think it could even be advantageous to attend a school not only in the top 50 but one that has a strong undergrad ranking as well because you’ll never know who you might be interested in working with as well. It’s possible that there is overlap between an admissons and hiring commitee and as such, I think, it’s important to be regarded well in both categories. It’s possible that some professors could connect you with different people within the field.

I’d carefully examine all schools and see how where their grads are going. I looked up SMU quickly and struggled to find a placement rate but learned that the program was started in 2007. After some fumbling, I found that one of their students were placed at Strayer University which is an online for profit university. I found a few others that had instructor positions and a few interested in design research. A number of them had nothing listed which is concerning given the short history of the school’s program. 

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Thanks for the advice y’all. I have sort of a follow up- do you think the rankings matter at all for non academic jobs post PhD?

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3 minutes ago, kendalldinniene said:

Thanks for the advice y’all. I have sort of a follow up- do you think the rankings matter at all for non academic jobs post PhD?

I think that depends. And I think in this case, they might rely on the overall reputation of a school, rather than their PhD rankings. If there’s a specific region you’re interested in being in, I’d recommend going to a school that is highly regarded within the area and one that supports life outside the academy. There are a number of schools that will see non-ac jobs as lesser than and will not give you the support you need because they fear it will tarnish their reputation. There are also some schools that have awful relationships with the town they reside in and I think that’s another important thing to consider. We won’t ever know how many people are interested in a specific type of job but it’s a lack of placement which is especially concerning at any school or when a school considers a “scanning specialist” to be a successful placement.  There are many jobs which would benefit from a PHD but there are many who a BA Or MA would suffice. I think that’s the difference between good and bad placements.

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