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Freaking Out: MFA to PhD and Language Requriements


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Hi, new here. Gearing up to apply for PhDs (both in Lit and Creative Writing) this year--maybe. The more I read and re-read about the various programs I'm interested, the more I freak out about stuff. Today's freak out: language requirements.

My undergraduate college required only a semester of language... which I fulfilled when I went abroad to India. The last time I took an "academically accepted Language" was in high school... which was thirteen years ago. Some of the schools I'm interested in applying to (Yale, Penn) require proficiency in TWO languages.

Now I get, proficiency is a loosely used term, but this, as far as I can tell, means I'll have to take some sort of summer immersion course BEFORE attending (we're assuming I apply and am granted access to one of these fine institutions hallowed halls) and then work my tail off learning to, at the very least, READ a second language.

What the heck? Is this par for the course, or just one of those things that "prestigious" institutions make you do? And am I crazy to apply to these programs, or should I just focus on the programs that require only one language?

Second freak out of the day: applying for PhDs in Literature when I have an MFA.

Is this done? Is it done successfully? Additionally, my MFA focused on writing (I believe I took a total of 4 literature classes), not literary studies. As such, most of my potential recommendations are going to come from my writing mentors... is that going to harm me?

Right now, about the only thing I think I have going for me is dedication to teaching (I've been doing it for a little over 4 years now)... and I'm not even certain that's really going to "work" for me.

*sigh*

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When you say "PhD in Literature," do you mean English lit or Comparative Literature? For the latter, not having at *minimum* a second language will disqualify you almost everywhere. (What literature are you going to compare, American and Canadian?) English lit, it likely depends on your era--if you're a medievalist, not having Latin (and of course either Old or Middle English) is harmful.

As for recommendations, my general impression is that it's best to get three profs who will say you are the best thing since the peanut butter sandwich. Also, the more recent the better. For what it's worth, I definitely had profs from outside my current field. Actually, all of them. (Hehe, I just picked the profs for whom I wrote my three best papers. I put soooo much thought process into this, can you tell?)

English is not my field, but from what I gather, your writing sample will be the most important part of your application by far. In comp lit, the statement of purpose is probably critical, too (not that it's unimportant in English!), because you usually have to sell the university on your proposed course of study, as it tends to be fairly specific to each student. At least, that's how the Lit PhD works at my school.

Be sure you apply to some non-top 10 schools as well. Admissions last year were really rough, and I'll be decently surprised if they're not as bad/worse this year.

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On the language side of your question: That's a worry I'm going to deal with if and when I get in. As you said, language requirements vary widely from program to program, so I wouldn't worry about it until the spring. You generally have 2-3 years to get the languages under your belt, and, while that's on top of your other requirements, that's what you do in PhD programs.

As far as the MFA/PhD transition: It is quite common. In fact, it's all but required if you want to teach creative writing. But if your letter writers can only speak to your creative writing ability and not your academic ability, that could be problematic.

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Re: languages. If you are a literary scholar, the ability to read in other languages is critical. As much as it might seem like it now, the requirements aren't just some meaningless hoop that "prestigious" programs will make you jump through for the hell of it. Even if you work *exclusively* in Anglophone literatures (which is rarer than you'd think---you're frequently going to be researching writers who at least reacted in some capacity to writers in other languages) you will almost certainly at some point need to be able to read what a scholar writing in another language said about your primary texts. Take your language acquisition seriously, because it's important!

That said, the actual emphasis placed on proficiency exams will depend on the program, as will the emphasis placed on multiple-language proficiency at the time of application. Some programs (I think, for example, like Stanford---someone correct me if I'm wrong) will be much more likely to toss your app if you are seriously lacking in languages. Some are cool with you making it up later on. Some programs' language exams are super easy and a semester's worth of a language will get you a pass. Some are really damn hard. If this is a sticking point for you, ask around the departments that interest you about emphasis placed on language proficiency at the time of application and the exam(s). But if I were you (actually, I was you last year) I'd show my commitment and do myself a favor by studying up on a language this year, before even you've applied or been accepted. It might comfort the department, and again, it will be very helpful and important for your own research.

As far as programs with one or two proficiency exams, I would ask around in the department before making a judgment call. It seemed to me when I was applying that most programs require two languages for the PhD, but not all of those with two have really stringent requirements. My program, meanwhile, only requires one, but it's supposed to be rather difficult, with a high-ish failure rate (though there aren't significant consequences if you fail even a couple times, so long as you pass by the appointed time). Just ask around the places you're interested! They can give you a much better sense of department expectations before and after admission.

Re: MFA to PhD, I agree with Alette.

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That said, the actual emphasis placed on proficiency exams will depend on the program, as will the emphasis placed on multiple-language proficiency at the time of application. Some programs (I think, for example, like Stanford---someone correct me if I'm wrong) will be much more likely to toss your app if you are seriously lacking in languages. Some are cool with you making it up later on. Some programs' language exams are super easy and a semester's worth of a language will get you a pass. Some are really damn hard. If this is a sticking point for you, ask around the departments that interest you about emphasis placed on language proficiency at the time of application and the exam(s). But if I were you (actually, I was you last year) I'd show my commitment and do myself a favor by studying up on a language this year, before even you've applied or been accepted. It might comfort the department, and again, it will be very helpful and important for your own research.

Exactly. These exams really vary based on program. I can tell you that while Penn does require you to be proficient in two languages and though it would be easier on you personally if you already knew two languages, you can fail these exams an unlimited amount of times and only have to pass the two by the end of your fourth year. Plus, you can take these tests in a classroom, in the library or at your house with a dictionary or (I suppose) the internet in front of you. You really should check with the programs before you freak out about that. I'll let everyone else weigh in on the MFA side of your question.

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I'm with you re: worries. As I tested into the highest required language class for undergrad, that's the only class that's on my transcript. While I'm a lot more concerned with having a stellar SoP and writing sample, there's that part of me that wants to add a P.S. letting schools know that I had 10+ years of Spanish *before* college, hence the one course, but I'm not sure how to go about that.

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I'm applying to Ph.D programs in English this fall too, and my proposed field of study is 18th/19th century american with a strong focus on the transatlantic. I took french in high school, got a 98 on the nys regents, and the a few years later in college, i took beginning II and Intermediate I (got A's in both). Do you think that it will make any difference to the dept. if I am currently enrolled in an Intermediate II at a local language center? The course starts in november, so I would be enrolled by the time I sent my apps out.

Also, I studied abroad for about 1 month in Guatemala in 2005. For two weeks I took intensive spanish lessons (1 on 1), but had no prior experience. It was five years ago, so can I state that I'm beginner's level?

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I'm with you re: worries. As I tested into the highest required language class for undergrad, that's the only class that's on my transcript. While I'm a lot more concerned with having a stellar SoP and writing sample, there's that part of me that wants to add a P.S. letting schools know that I had 10+ years of Spanish *before* college, hence the one course, but I'm not sure how to go about that.

Why not make a "Languages" section in your C.V.?

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Why not make a "Languages" section in your C.V.?

Alette is right; it's standard for an academic CV in the humanities to list languages and the degree of proficiency achieved in each. So, if you speak a language and/or studied it prior to university, but it's not on your transcript, the CV can list it - you just have to be prepared to back up your claims if they decide to check up on you by having you use those skills in some aspect (e.g. written test, interview, etc.) An example of this would be:

Languages

Arabic - fluent, first language in home

Spanish - fluent, near-native proficiency

French - intermediate proficiency

Latin - reading ability

And so forth. HTH!

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Alette is right; it's standard for an academic CV in the humanities to list languages and the degree of proficiency achieved in each. So, if you speak a language and/or studied it prior to university, but it's not on your transcript, the CV can list it - you just have to be prepared to back up your claims if they decide to check up on you by having you use those skills in some aspect (e.g. written test, interview, etc.) An example of this would be:

Languages

Arabic - fluent, first language in home

Spanish - fluent, near-native proficiency

French - intermediate proficiency

Latin - reading ability

And so forth. HTH!

Thank you both for the advice - much appreciated!

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