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Who Gets into Prestigious English PhD Programs?

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I am looking to apply for English PhD programs in the New England area (or around there) which are fully funded with professors studying 19th century British literature and feminist/gender theory. However, I am worried about my chances of getting into a fully funded program because I didn't go to a prestigious undergrad or master's program. What kind of students apply to these programs? Does someone with this kind of background even stand a chance?

  • University of Arizona BA in Creative Writing & Anthropology (Double Major) - 3.74
  • University of Southern Maine Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA - Pass (out of pass/fail)
  • 4 academic paper presentations at conferences
  • Study abroad for 6 months
  • Work abroad (TEFL) for 6 months
  • Master's academic work focuses on studying fairy tales and modern fantasy literature
  • PhD prospective project to focus on the representation of women in 19th century fantastical literature
    • Writing sample in relation is from a paper presented at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts and WorldCon Science Fiction Convention

From what I've seen about the job market, you have to attend a prestigious university to have career prospects as a professor. I want to be a tenured professor studying and teaching and writing in this field more than anything in the world. Would just like to know whether that is a longshot. 

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I initially didn't want to respond cause I thought "well I don't know", but I do want to say: if you're interested in prestigious programmes, whatever you do, please don't not apply for fear of not getting in anyway. Chances are you're really good, so please go for it (as well as for anyone else reading this). Apart from that, I honestly don't know (and will be following haha), but 4 academic paper presentations seems quite impressive! Good luck!

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On 8/12/2021 at 1:11 AM, drgnlov said:

I want to be a tenured professor studying and teaching and writing in this field more than anything in the world. Would just like to know whether that is a longshot. 

Yes, it's a longshot, but not because of any particular facts about your background or CV, but because it's a longshot for everyone. Getting into a good PhD program is tough. Getting hired in a tenure track position after that is even tougher. Those jobs are evaporating. The odds will always be slim.

On 8/12/2021 at 1:11 AM, drgnlov said:

From what I've seen about the job market, you have to attend a prestigious university to have career prospects as a professor.

There's some truth in this, but it's a little more complicated than that. A handful of programs account for the majority of tenure track hires. Attending a program outside of that realm puts you at a disadvantage in an already unlikely prospect. This is not always perfectly correlated to common perceptions of prestige however. To get hired at Harvard, you're probably going to need a degree from an Ivy/Chicago/Stanford/Berkeley. However, not all of the most prestigious schools do a good job of consistently placing their students. Furthermore, there are some schools that do a better job of placing students at teaching oriented state schools than the Ivies et al do. Subfield also matters. Some schools are very good in particular subfields and do a good job of placing students in that particular subfield. But if you're at that school and not in that subfield....

Long story short, take a good long look at placement records. Also take a look at who was the advisor for successful students and what subfield they were in. If a school doesn't clearly articulate their placement record, that's usually not a good sign (and do note that many programs will only list their successful placements.... People who didn't get academic jobs, or left before graduating may not appear). Don't assume you will be the exception to a mediocre placement record.

At the end of the day though, placement records are loose corollaries for what you need to succeed, namely attentive supportive advisors whose recommendations will carry weight and sufficient funding that you won't have to worry about money and can instead focus on producing the best work you can. That's not going to guarantee success, but without it you don't stand much of a chance.

On 8/12/2021 at 1:11 AM, drgnlov said:

hat kind of students apply to these programs?

Lots of programs have grad student bios on their websites. If you do some research, you can start to get an idea of what sort of people are typically admitted.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Who gets into prestigious PhD programs? Well, I don't meant to sound flip here, but if I'm going to be completely frank ... those who get into prestigious PhD programs are, most of the time, people who went to prestigious undergrad institutions. Yes, there's a pipeline. There is nepotism. There is an attitude of "these people have what it takes to make it because they already made it--they were able to get into a prestigious school in the first place." 

Branding is powerful. Familiarity is powerful. The "benefit of the doubt" is powerful. Confirmation bias is EXTREMELY powerful. A person with a BA from University of Scranton is a bit of an unknown quantity; a person with a BA from Amherst with a connected adviser already has the bona fides and doesn't have to prove that they'll be able to pull their weight in a seminar room at Columbia. People look at the Amherst BA's writing sample with a different attitude from the one they take with the Scranton BA's. That's just basic human psychology, and no one's immune. 

I read this book a while ago, and it explains the thought process of a lot adcom members of prestigious PhD programs (and it can be rather shocking to read, tbh): https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/01/06/new-book-reveals-how-elite-phd-admissions-committees-review-candidates

In academia, prestige breeds prestige breeds prestige, and what you do--as either an undergrad or a grad student--is looked at through the lens of which schools you went to. That's why the faculty pipeline has remained closed to many who don't fit the elite mold. When asked why faculty continue to remain so homogenous, a professor from Penn spoke frankly: "We don't want [diverse candidates]. We don't want them": https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/09/26/an-ivy-league-professor-on-why-colleges-dont-hire-more-faculty-of-color-we-dont-want-them/

Does that mean that no one from less-elite institutions can get into a prestigious school? No, of course not. We see exceptions every year. Hell, I've met many. But to be quite honest with you, they were often very, very exceptional. Just to give a rundown (and it goes without saying that this is all based on my personal anecdotal experience):

- I knew one guy who went to an unknown state school and ended up in the PhD program an at Ivy. He was extremely brilliant and hardworking and managed to publish a peer-reviewed article in a major journal by the time he was a senior in college. He also had excellent mentoring at his state school--something that is very rare in most off-the-beaten-path places where professors are less likely to be "in the research loop" (i.e. know what makes for compelling, cutting-edge research that is going to get the attention of Ivy League adcoms). 

-I knew a couple other people who managed to "trade up" from the state school where we got our master's. Neither had gone to very good undergrad institutions, but both had sky-high test scores. More importantly, both had faculty mentors who contacted faculty members at the schools to which they were applying and lobbied for them very strongly. (To give you an indication--one guy applied only to three schools, which I thought was a suicide mission at the time. But he was absolutely CERTAIN of his chances ... and sure enough, he got in to the most prestigious university in the country. Later it came out that his adviser had really pulled some strings.) 

-I know someone who started off at a community college but managed to transfer those credits to a very prestigious public university in their state. Again, they made connections at this university. Working with somewhat famous faculty, they published a paper and won a major undergrad research fellowship. They ended up getting into three Ivies. Also had sky-high (nearly perfect) test scores.


By contrast, most of the people I've known who went from prestigious undergrad institution to prestigious PhD institution rarely had to show the same kind of "evidence" of their brilliance. Not that they weren't brilliant--but they certainly weren't published or winning research fellowships by the time they were seniors in college. But it was accepted that they could hack it at Penn because they were already at Swarthmore, etc. 

So my main takeaway is that it's possible for people from more modest backgrounds to get into elite programs, sure. But many of those people often had to work much, much harder, score higher on those stupid tests, and make valuable connections along the way. In sum, their application package had to be near-flawless to merit serious consideration at the nation's top schools. 

Some other reading on the topic:


Edited by Bumblebea
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OP, you're an excellent candidate, and at another time in the history of higher ed you may have been able to pursue your dream job with confidence, but now is not that time. I'm sure you've seen all the doom-and-gloom essays on the job market, and maybe you've seen some statistics, but those things don't capture your chances in a truly accessible way. Here's a good way to measure your odds of being competitive for your dream job:

Look up the wiki page for 19th century Brit Lit jobs from last year: https://academicjobs.wikia.org/wiki/Romanticism_/_Victorian_/_19th_Century_British_2020-2021

There were 3 tenure-track jobs in the United States, one of which (Hamilton College) was an ad for a specialist in the 18th and *early* 19th c. (Anything with "visiting" in the title isn't a t-t job.) Now, these are jobs that have (presumably) filled since the new academic year has started at most schools. Google the English department faculty page for each of those 3 institutions. Both St. Norbert College and Hamilton College have faculty profiles for 18th/19th c. Brit Lit Assistant Professors. The odds are high that these were the people hired for those ads from the last cycle since Assistant Professor is the lowest rank on the tenure-track. If you look up their names on Google/the Department Faculty page, you'll see their interests match each ad to a T. 

The faculty member who took the Norbert College job has a PhD from the University of Michigan from 2018, and the one who took the Hamilton College job has a PhD from the University of Chicago in 2017. The Michigan PhD grad served as an assistant professor at another SLAC prior to taking the job at Norbert (their CV is available online).

There are 150+ English doctoral programs in the US. Many of those programs (100+?) will admit 19 c. specialists. Say there are 30-40 19th c. specialists entering the market with PhDs every year. (Very conservative estimate, as are all my estimates here.)There were 3 jobs last year, 1 of which went to a person moving from another tenure-track job (which may or may not be replaced at that institution).  The remaining 27-37, who understandably do not want to give up on their dream, roll over onto the next cohort of applicants in next year's cycle. That's why PhDs from 2017 and 2018 are entering tenure-track jobs in the 2020 cycle. Now, this process has repeated for over a decade. Some candidates might give up and seek other types of jobs after a few years. Even with that attrition, you are conservatively looking at 150+ highly qualified 19th c. specialists, all of whom will have amazing CVs, publications, etc. (given that they persevered in grad school for 5+ years knowing the brutal market) for a pool of 3 jobs (one of which went to an 18th c. specialist!) I know it's easy to equate this to the competition for grad school admissions, but it's really an apples to oranges comparison. All candidates on the market are high achieving with stellar CVs. Many have great dissertations. The kinds of distinctions search committees make to narrow down finalists can be pretty random with such a pool of candidates.

What happens to all the 19th c. specialists from Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Virginia, Brown, etc.? If any of those programs produced a 19th c. specialist last year, that 19th c. specialist probably didn't get a tenure-track job (I admit, the College of New Jersey, the third t-t job last year, has not updated its Faculty page). In fact, some of those programs are likely to have produced *multiple* 19th c. specialists in the last few years who haven't landed tenure-track jobs.

What you want to do with this information is your call, but I hope this answers your question of "what are my odds of getting into a prestigious PhD program" which as you say is a proxy for the question "what are my odds of landing a tenure-track job."

Edited by nocaphere
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@nocapheremakes excellent points. If your goal is to go to graduate school to go to graduate school (a perfectly valid choice, btw!), then find a funded program and go. If your goal is to become a professor ... well, it's true that you may have a better chance coming from an elite school, but that "better chance" is largely meaningless when there are only two jobs in your field. 

I think that English graduate studies is suffering a bit from "boy who cried wolf" syndrome. I mean, everyone has been saying for years--no, decades--that there are no jobs. It's true that the academic job market has been terrible for decades, but saying "there are no jobs!" when there were, in fact some jobs, now makes the cry of "there are no jobs! no, seriously, no jobs!" feel hyperbolic. It's not hyperbolic. There are literally next-to no jobs. To give some perspective: the first year I went on the market, I think there were ~25 TT jobs in my area, and that was considered a bad year (the profession obviously produces more than 25 PhDs in this area each year). 

Last year, there were two TT jobs in North America in my area. And it's not an obscure field. And one of those jobs was cross-listed with another area. (That's happening more and more--the Hamilton job, for instance, was advertised as an 18th-19th c. position of either British or American. I can't imagine how many applications they received.)

This disconnect between perception and reality was driven home last week when I had a conversation with an old friend whose significant other is completing a PhD at an Ivy and preparing to go on the market. Significant other is freaked out about his chances. My friend said, "But it'll be better for him than it was for you, right? He's coming out of [very prestigious program], and that'll make a difference. He can write his own ticket." And I was like, "Um, right now, no. There are literally no jobs and therefore no ticket to write." And friend said, "But they've been saying 'there are no jobs' for years. Are you telling me it's not just an exaggeration? That there are really no jobs?"  

People were saying there were no jobs when there were 25 jobs. But now there are almost no jobs, and many people are still behaving as though "no jobs" is a bit of an exaggeration. It's not. And yes, of course Covid has played a major role in the tanking of the job market, and I suppose the market could come back. But all indications point in the other direction, as the pandemic has been extremely good for certain universities. Other universities are using it to justify all kinds of austerity measures, which always hurt tenure-track prospects in A&S the most. I saw the same thing happen with the Great Recession. At the time, everyone said, "the job market will bounce back once the economy does." It didn't. Instead, it showed universities that they could get away with consolidating TT lines, replacing retiring faculty with adjuncts and contingents, paying junior faculty less, and, in some cases, doing away with TT hires altogether. (A department where I taught previously hasn't made a TT hire in more than ten years despite multiple retirements; they just hire a series of "visiting" professors for a few years at a time, kicking them out after three years. When I went to our new faculty orientation, 90% of the new faculty were NTT.)

These things didn't stop happening when the Recession ended. They got worse because they benefited universities. I won't be surprised if Covid has a similar impact in the long-run, where universities end up prospering while job prospects get even worse for PhDs. I'd look to Arizona State as a bellwether--they're actually thriving due to the pandemic by combining faculty downsizing with online courses: https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-colleges-that-prospered-during-the-pandemic 

Edited by Bumblebea
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The above posters are indeed correct about the academic job situation. And it will in fact get worse due to the under-reported demographic trends now occurring of declining birthrates in this and other countries plus serious economic issues.

Best to say to yourself as suggested previously that you are looking to get into a Phd program because you want to be there and want to be in that environment for 5-8 years rather than because you expect a certain outcome following those grad years.

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On 9/1/2021 at 11:53 AM, Bumblebea said:

These things didn't stop happening when the Recession ended. They got worse because they benefited universities. I won't be surprised if Covid has a similar impact in the long-run, where universities end up prospering while job prospects get even worse for PhDs. I'd look to Arizona State as a bellwether--they're actually thriving due to the pandemic by combining faculty downsizing with online courses: https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-colleges-that-prospered-during-the-pandemic 

It's worth mentioning that ASU's English department has hired 7 tenure track English faculty in 2021 alone. Of course the job market is still prohibitively competitive etc. etc. but in a number of institutions the pandemic $ means tenure track hires. I still broadly think you're right--let's face it, people who go to state schools will either adjunct or leave the profession in 99% of cases, and admitting there is still a small chance enables people to delude themselves into thinking that a TT position is probable. But the institutional humanities are not quite yet a completely lost cause, as the fatalists on this and other websites might insist.

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Huh, I did not know that ASU's English department hired seven TT professors--I was under the impression that they hired three on the tenure track and two visiting/contingent. (And three is actually a lot, considering the massive cuts to higher ed last year.) I was also basing my assessment on an article I read in the Chronicle this summer: https://www.chronicle.com/article/arizona-states-success-story-model-or-mirage

Then there’s the fact that three-quarters of ASU’s online instructors are off the tenure track. If they are like other non-tenure-track instructors at ASU, they teach many more classes and at much lower pay than do their tenured colleagues, contributing to the cheapness of the operation. Still, remarkably, the nearly 40 percent of ASU students who learn exclusively online pay the same tuition as students on the physical campuses.


Technology is substituted for labor wherever possible, including in advising (through the “eAdvisor” system), in introductory mathematics (where much instruction is self-paced and machine-based), and elsewhere in the online program. Labor is also highly differentiated, including legions of non-tenure-track faculty members, some of whom teach more courses than are typical at public research universities. ASU’s budget allocations are made with market incentives in mind. The goal for 2025 is to produce 60 percent of all the “high-demand” degrees (STEM, health, and business) awarded in the entire state. That emphasis on moving away from the humanities again looks more like an accentuation of a long-term nationwide trend than a prototype.

This article is pre-pandemic, but it discusses how the business model runs at ASU: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/12/16/arizona-state-tells-non-tenure-track-writing-instructors-teach-extra-course-each

Hopefully additional students will indeed translate into more tenure-track hires, that would be great. But as education keeps going online, I'm not optimistic. Also, cynically, I wonder if ASU could reasonably justify hiring many MORE TT faculty for their 120,000 undergrads, but has decided to save money by consigning most of the labor to adjunct and contingent faculty. 

Edited by Bumblebea
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