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New to English PhD apps-need help!


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Hello all!

I've been lurking here for quite some time, and have finally decided I need some targeted advice. Apologies in advance for the wall of text.

Here is my situation: I have a BA from a state school (not great) with a 3.4 GPA, graduated 2011. This year, I received my MA from the same school with a 4.0 GPA and one year of teaching comp under my belt, plus one year of tutoring multilingual students. I have written a highly regarded thesis. On the advice of my advisor, I will  be sending out a chapter of my paper to various journals this year in the hopes of getting published. I will also be applying to about 12 PhD programs this year, a mix of top 20's and lower and mid tier.

Obviously, I am a little concerned about the large gap between my undergrad and graduate degrees. I was in a situation after graduating college where I needed to support myself pretty quickly and therefore took about 7 years off to work. I have been working in social services that whole time, and have also been running a dog walking business, and more recently, tutoring in a program for multilingual students. I was working full time all through grad school, and received grants and scholarships to cover tuition. It was challenging, but the experience illuminated my passion for academic research, essaying, etc. I believe I am applying to these programs for the right reasons: because I truly love researching and writing, and have a strongly defined area of interest that I am very interested in investigating (African American lit, particularly lit pertaining to the diaspora and black religious representations and how those inform the Magical Negro trope). I am eager for the opportunity to have time and funding to fully focus on this work without the added burden of working several jobs at the same time. I have very strong writing skills and several fiction pieces published in national magazines (not that those are relevant). 

My questions are:

1) Should I be concerned about my long gap between undergrad and grad?

2) Assuming I have strong LoR's, SoP and decent GRE's, should I be concerned that my lack of a scholarly publication will exclude me from most programs?

3) Considering my situation, how can I make my applications as strong as they can be? Should I address the gap in my SoP? Mention that I am multiracial? Mention fiction publications? I will be applying to literature programs only. 

4) I am having a bit of a hard time finding any kind of definitive list of top African American lit programs. So far, I have on my list to apply to: UC Davis, Reno, Northwestern, U Chicago, Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, Rutgers, Vanderbilt, Cornell, LSU, Penn State, UT Austin. I have really tried to look for programs geared towards my research area, but am having some difficulties. 

I feel like I am in a bit of a different situation than most applicants, who are diving right into PhD apps straight from a BA, or with no educational gap. Unfortunately, my economic status got in the way of my progress and I was forced to not only take time off, but work long hours through grad school. Sorry for the wall of text, just looking for some advice here! Thanks in advance. 


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