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Too eclectic and too late?


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First of all, this is a great forum. I am completely unfamiliar with the graduate application process as few of my family or friends have ever gone beyond undergrad for their education. This forum is reassuring and useful.

I am worried that eclectic background might hurt my chances of getting into a good English PhD program. I graduated with a BA in Film and English Literature from NYU and have been working as a freelance media designer and copywriter since then. I am worried that my relative lack of English courses (it was a secondary major) and relationships with English professors will limit me.

My current credentials:

  • I graduated with honors in both my majors, with a 3.89 GPA overall and a 4.0 GPA in my English major.
  • I took the bare minimum number of English classes because the film departments production classes were so demanding.
  • I was admitted into the honors program in the English department and received high marks on the required thesis
  • I only have one professor, my thesis advisor, within the English department who would know me enough to write a good recommendation letter
  • In the film department I have several highly respected professors who know my work very well
  • For the past year and a half, I have interned and worked in the film/tv/media industry. I teach tech classes to children in the summer.
  • I haven't taken the General or Literature GREs yet, but I have scored very high on practice tests
  • I have no awards for past essays, but received some recognition of my film work
  • Some of my freelance writing work has been published in small consumer magazines
  • I'm looking at programs that feature a dual PhD in English and Film Studies or an option for a Film Studies concentration

I have two main questions: Do I stand a chance at a high-ranking English PhD program despite my previous concentration on film? And what can I do between now and this year's admissions period to strengthen my application? I'm considering taking a few master classes at UMass or another local state school in MA, but I'm not sure it's worth it.

Thanks in advance for any advice!

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First of all, this is a great forum. I am completely unfamiliar with the graduate application process as few of my family or friends have ever gone beyond undergrad for their education. This forum is reassuring and useful.

I am worried that eclectic background might hurt my chances of getting into a good English PhD program. I graduated with a BA in Film and English Literature from NYU and have been working as a freelance media designer and copywriter since then. I am worried that my relative lack of English courses (it was a secondary major) and relationships with English professors will limit me.

My current credentials:

  • I graduated with honors in both my majors, with a 3.89 GPA overall and a 4.0 GPA in my English major.
  • I took the bare minimum number of English classes because the film departments production classes were so demanding.
  • I was admitted into the honors program in the English department and received high marks on the required thesis
  • I only have one professor, my thesis advisor, within the English department who would know me enough to write a good recommendation letter
  • In the film department I have several highly respected professors who know my work very well
  • For the past year and a half, I have interned and worked in the film/tv/media industry. I teach tech classes to children in the summer.
  • I haven't taken the General or Literature GREs yet, but I have scored very high on practice tests
  • I have no awards for past essays, but received some recognition of my film work
  • Some of my freelance writing work has been published in small consumer magazines
  • I'm looking at programs that feature a dual PhD in English and Film Studies or an option for a Film Studies concentration

I have two main questions: Do I stand a chance at a high-ranking English PhD program despite my previous concentration on film? And what can I do between now and this year's admissions period to strengthen my application? I'm considering taking a few master classes at UMass or another local state school in MA, but I'm not sure it's worth it.

Thanks in advance for any advice!

I think you "have a chance" in that you are perfectly qualified and would probably do well at a PhD program (from what very little information I have about you). But it's extremely competitive (some programs can get from 400-700 applications) and at those numbers it's somewhat random and subjective what gets one in. You should do what I think a lot of us with only BAs are doing, apply to the PhD programs that you really like/are a good fit for, but also apply for maybe some terminal MA programs to get a better background in English/figure out a specific and original focus and then reapply to PhD programs with the MA. That is my plan, since my scores and gpa are probably not competitive enough for the PhD programs I want, and I'm expecting to get rejected from all PhD programs. Honestly I really have no idea what to expect as far as acceptances, and you should take my opinion with a grain of salt. I tend to set my expectations low as to be surprised when I succeed, which might not be the best advice :). The common wisdom on this forum is that there are no safety schools, which I agree with, but I do think there are schools and programs that you have a better chance of getting into than others, just by the numbers alone. So my advice is to cast a wide net, but also to make sure you are good fit for the schools that you do chose.

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Woolfie's given some great advice above! I just wanted to throw in another point, one which you'll find repeated again and again on this forum: it's all about fit. Your chances will vary a great deal depending on the program, and it sounds like you've already given some thought to finding schools that support your interests and allow you to do interdisciplinary work. As is true of every applicant, no matter how conventional his/her background or interests, not every "top" program will be a good program for you.

Your GPA is great, and the honors thesis is a good asset. As long as your test scores are decent, you'll get past the first round at most programs, which means that committees will have a chance to focus on your SOP and writing sample. In those, you'll have to make sure to highlight how conversant you are in the language of literary criticism--show that your understanding of the discipline goes beyond the close reading skills that undergraduate classes emphasize. You can also use your background in film to explain how you're uniquely positioned to engage critically with the subject.

As for doing additional coursework, I don't think it's necessary for its own sake. The summer before applying, though, I took a couple classes that gave me an opportunity to produce a writing sample that was better in line with my current interests and more polished--and that convinced me that I really wanted to go to grad school. The classes were helpful for me, but tuition was expensive. It's worth taking classes, I think, if they'll help you produce a great writing sample, but you could do that without a class as well.

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I think you "have a chance" in that you are perfectly qualified and would probably do well at a PhD program (from what very little information I have about you). But it's extremely competitive (some programs can get from 400-700 applications) and at those numbers it's somewhat random and subjective what gets one in. You should do what I think a lot of us with only BAs are doing, apply to the PhD programs that you really like/are a good fit for, but also apply for maybe some terminal MA programs to get a better background in English/figure out a specific and original focus and then reapply to PhD programs with the MA. That is my plan, since my scores and gpa are probably not competitive enough for the PhD programs I want, and I'm expecting to get rejected from all PhD programs. Honestly I really have no idea what to expect as far as acceptances, and you should take my opinion with a grain of salt. I tend to set my expectations low as to be surprised when I succeed, which might not be the best advice :). The common wisdom on this forum is that there are no safety schools, which I agree with, but I do think there are schools and programs that you have a better chance of getting into than others, just by the numbers alone. So my advice is to cast a wide net, but also to make sure you are good fit for the schools that you do chose.

Thanks, woolfie. I understand the competition, but I wanted to make sure I was qualified/didn't necessarily need further study. Financing the applications is going to be the limiting factor in how wide a net I cast, unfortunately. I will definitely look into funded MA programs, though!

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Woolfie's given some great advice above! I just wanted to throw in another point, one which you'll find repeated again and again on this forum: it's all about fit. Your chances will vary a great deal depending on the program, and it sounds like you've already given some thought to finding schools that support your interests and allow you to do interdisciplinary work. As is true of every applicant, no matter how conventional his/her background or interests, not every "top" program will be a good program for you.

Your GPA is great, and the honors thesis is a good asset. As long as your test scores are decent, you'll get past the first round at most programs, which means that committees will have a chance to focus on your SOP and writing sample. In those, you'll have to make sure to highlight how conversant you are in the language of literary criticism--show that your understanding of the discipline goes beyond the close reading skills that undergraduate classes emphasize. You can also use your background in film to explain how you're uniquely positioned to engage critically with the subject.

As for doing additional coursework, I don't think it's necessary for its own sake. The summer before applying, though, I took a couple classes that gave me an opportunity to produce a writing sample that was better in line with my current interests and more polished--and that convinced me that I really wanted to go to grad school. The classes were helpful for me, but tuition was expensive. It's worth taking classes, I think, if they'll help you produce a great writing sample, but you could do that without a class as well.

Wow, you all have such thoughtful advice! I definitely will take your comments into consideration, especially when it comes to creating an SOP and writing sample that shows I can engage with literature on a critical level.

I am now thinking of taking only one class to work on a fresher writing sample. I can get in-state tuition at UMass Amherst, so I if I took a class there it wouldn't be too expensive. Otherwise, I have a portion of my thesis that showcases my interdisciplinary interests, but it feels a bit outdated and at the very least needs a good rewrite.

Thanks again for the words of wisdom!

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