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I've spent a couple of days browsing here and am aware of the stigma associated with the 'what are my chances?' postings so I really am aiming here to avoid doing that. With that said, I'm gearing up to start the research process for a possible English PhD program come 2016 and would like to be pointed in the right direction. 


I have a basic understanding of the process and am aware of the immense weight that is put on fit, statement of purpose, your writing sample, and being the right candidate at the right time. 


With that said, I'll provide some basic insight to my academic and professional record:


Undergrad - Top 25, private, small liberal arts (I feel like I should just say what it is, but everyone seems to hide this?)


BA, English 2009 (3.4)

BS, Electrical Engineering 2010 (3.0)


*I was one of two students in the last ten years at my college to take advantage of a weird state law that allows students seeking a professional degree (in my case, engineering) to receive a second bachelors with an additional two years study (I took enough additional classes throughout to do it in one additional year). I guess it's some initiative to help create more well rounded STEM graduates. Anyway, it was a cool program and I got to walk twice even if it did hurt my GPA.


Graduate - Flagship program of fairly non-competitive large private school. Entire program done abroad over 18 months living in five countries and traveling to 55+ while studying in a 14 person cohort. 


Global MBA (3.4) 


Professional -


I am currently an Active Duty Army Infantry Officer. At the time of application I will be a Captain with just over 4 years experience. My goal is to get into a PhD program and transition from active duty to the National Guard of whichever state the program I matriculate into is in. This would mean one weekend a month and two weeks out of the summer service, but I would also reach the rank of Major during the course of the program. Ultimately, I'd hope to teach at a small college while maintaining this small role in the service. 


Assumptions (I know these are garbage) -


GRE - somewhere in the 95+ percentile based on SAT and GMAT performance

LOR - 1 undergrad professor, 1 graduate professor, and 1 Colonel or above in my chain of command

SOP and writing sample - Should be fairly stellar considering the timeframe I have to complete them


Questions - 


With this profile, what weight should I put on pursuing top, mid, and lower tier schools? What ranges might my reach, fit, and safeties be? After running the gambit with schools thus far in my life I have a pretty sound understanding of what makes a top, mid, and lower and I'm confident I know which is which. Am I crazy to even be looking at websites and programs for Brown, Duke, Hopkins, Chicago etc? Am I a better candidate in mids such as BU? Are the mid tiers actually my reach? I'm in the Army after all so I'm used to hearing things pretty straight forward so certainly don't be afraid to tell me how it is as this is clearly more valuable anyway. 


Any advice in this area or just tips for starting out in general is greatly appreciated and if there is missing information here please let me know and I'll reply as quickly as possible (though I'm heading into the woods tomorrow until the 22nd so there might be some delay on my part).






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Do you have any research experience? Conference presentations, publications, honors thesis, MA thesis, work as a research assistant, etc.? Also, do you have well-defined research interests?


As you mentioned yourself, a large part of grad school admissions is fit. I know nothing in particular about English PhDs but in general you'll have a hard time getting accepted into top programs without any kind of experience because it's then difficult for schools to determine whether or not you have strong research abilities. It also makes it difficult to determine just how well thought out your research interests are, and whether you understand what you're getting into by applying for a PhD. I think it's difficult to give you good advice without knowing more about these factors. 


As for the other parts of your application, assuming you GRE scores are high and you have a good writing sample and strong LORs, if you have some research experience then it sounds like you should have a good chance at decent-to-good schools, assuming that they fit your research interests. In general, my advice is to choose where to apply based on what best fits you interests, not based on rankings. But if you still need to hang onto that notion, my guess is that with some research experience and a strong and focused SOP, you could choose some top schools and some somewhat lower ranked schools and do ok (disclaimer: I know nothing about you in particular, etc). One thought that came to mind is that for an English PhD it's not clear how much a letter from a commanding officer will help you. I understand that this is someone who knows you well, but they can't speak to your research abilities or potential as a researcher and teacher, so maybe you should look into having a fourth supporting letter from this person. I think that a letter from a second grad school professor will probably help more, since we're talking about an application to an academic program, not a professional one.

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As fuzzy mentioned, it'll be easier for people to give advice if we know your subfield(s) and interest(s). The top schools for, say, medieval poetry will be different from postcolonial lit (though the tippy-top schools tend to have well-regarded scholars across a variety of subfields). 


I don't really know how much your other experience (MBA, military service, etc) will really help you; if anything, it might raise some eyebrows and you'll have do a good job in your SOP contextualizing why you want to make the switch to a PhD program. 


Furthermore, a 3.4 GPA in your English major might worry some admissions committees. Also problematic are your LOR writers. I'm assuming the grad professor from your MBA program won't be speaking to your literary abilities, and I would be concerned with only one letter coming from a literary scholar. To kill two birds with one stone (so to speak), would it be possible for you to register as a continuing student at a local university and take a few upper-level classes, preferably in your subfield? This would help demonstrate that you're capable of succeeding in upper-division English classes and hopefully get you another letter from an English professor. 


Another option is to look into MA programs, though this would, of course, add another 2 years onto your academic career. As a non-traditional student following a non-traditional path, you may find that MA programs will best help you transition back into the academic world.


That said, research fit, a strong writing sample and SOP are really the most important parts of the PhD application package. If you feel that you already have stellar application materials, you may not need more experience before applying directly to PhD programs.


Hope this helps -- good luck!

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I am from a different field completely but I think you have really interesting/different experience then the average candidate and I think that this could really help you if you find a way to spin it right in your SOP and tie everything together.


You don't mention research at all which is the purpose of a phd. Like others mentioned, a big part of the application process comes down to how well your research matches with a school and how knowedgeable you are about your reserach area.


If you can nail down your research interests then I think that you will be in the same position as most others on here.. I would apply for a few top 15ish programs, a few 15-30, and a few 30-50. With that being said, research does override rank. Basically every single one of the programs I am applying for will be ranked around 30 in my field because thats where all of the research in my subfield is done.


Goodluck. As long as you have nailed down your reserach interests or can do so by application time then I definitely think you have a shot!

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Alright folks, back from the woods. Thanks for the responses! A lot of good input right off the bat.

To address the research\conference concerns: This may be a weak area as I am only 27 and went directly to my MBA following undergrad and received my commission to the army shortly after.

During undergrad, a thesis was required for electrical engineering which was a two year process, but only required in English for honors. It would have been simply too much to do both at the same time, so I only have completed a fairly intense electrical engineering thesis. As for the MBA, it culminated with a 'capstone' project which I would hardly put on par with a graduate level thesis. I guess conferences weren't really on my mind back in undergrad, and the transient\international nature of the MBA didn't exactly facilitate it either.

Thanks for the input in the LORs. My thought process was to span the complete course of my experience. I know I could get a strong rec from my undergraduate professor who I knew for 4 years. I suppose my hope with someone from the army was to speak towards my work ethic and dedication, but I certainly see your point. My concern with adding a second grad professor is that first he\she would be an international business professor, and that secondly I never spent more than one term at any given campus so they would have only known me for a short time. Perhaps I should consider two undergrad, one grad, and one from work?

As for my research area, this I am hesitant to discuss in too much detail here (in PM, yes), but I will say it's in the field of American lit and certain aspects of literary theory. I absolutely need to work though it with those in the know, however, before I start putting it on paper.

As too my non traditional path, I find studying English a gateway into understanding people and the world. This is really what I'm after. My travels and my experiences in the army are all about trying to understand people and cultures and all the elements that make up living. You can explore a lot of these ideas in literature, which is why I'd like to explore it further as a career. If you think about it in this sense, I think my path isn't all that odd.

Again, Thanks for the input so far folks.

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For your letters of recommendation, I think you would be best off with professors who can speak to your abilities as a literary scholar; perhaps the work supervisor can be a fourth supplemental letter if the school allows four letters. Sad to say that your extra-academic accomplishments are usually inconsequential in gaining admission. You'll need to gather LOR writers who will explicitly talk about your ability to succeed in the academy, which means that the English undergrad professor may be a better bet than the MBA grad professor.


I wouldn't worry too much about your lack of conference presentations and explicit "research experience," as this is much less important in the humanities. You will definitely need to develop a strong set of research interest(s) and perhaps even a potential dissertation topic. Your writing sample should be closely related to your stated research interests as well.


I still maintain that your major-level GPA of 3.4 will be viewed as problematic by admissions committees at the tippy-top schools, though perhaps less severely so because you are many years away from undergrad. That said, there are no "safety" schools for English programs (I was accepted to schools in the "top 10" and rejected from a school in the 30s), and I would simply apply to all the schools that have a good fit with your research interest regardless of rank. 


Good luck! 

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Thanks again for your continued feedback - I understand it takes time and effort to follow these threads and support people like myself. It's also nice to gain some input from someone whose already fought the good fight and found their slot. 


It's sounds to me like your general assessment is that I have some pitfalls in my limited portfolio to overcome and I think that's certainly my reality. Would it be fair to say that you don't feel these setbacks are insurmountable? Maybe I need to let the situation develop a bit more and see how some of my assumptions pan out such as GRE, SOP, and LORs?


Anyway, I suppose it could be worse as I'll be applying to these programs while holding a pretty stable and prestigious job (as opposed to sitting in purgatory after graduating undergrad). At this stage in the game my angle is probably going to be finding the best fit schools (I have a list...and a couple I'd be really excited with) and a campus I'd love to spend 5-6 years at and giving it 1-2 application seasons at my top choices. I don't think I'll be the type of candidate to just settle on a given program to reach an end. So maybe my story will catch an eye and maybe it won't, but it sounds like the general assessment is that I'm not COMPLETELY crazy for giving this thing a go with my resume/background...

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Certainly not insurmountable, though I highly encourage you to look at taking a few grad-level English classes as a non-matriculated student, particularly if you have the financial wherewithal to do so. I think that'll do a lot to demonstrate that you are seriously committed, help you narrow your research interests and allow you to work on creating a strong writing sample (I'm assuming that the work you did as an undergrad will be dated). And definitely don't sell yourself short. This is 100% anecdotal, but my dad has a long career both teaching and working in the military (he's currently a professor at one of the military academies) and when it comes to getting a job, I think you'll find that a number of places will value your diverse experiences. So it's definitely possible to balance a military career and an academic career, if you so choose. 

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After some thought and a little more research I think you're dead on and I agree I need to take some courses at the graduate level that relate to my planned study and furthermore I need to do darn well in them. I've posted a question in the English forum asking for some help in finding some programs that meet my needs (online/reputable). I'd like to knock out 3-4 courses over the next two years to help illustrate my commitment and aptitude. Hopefully I can also use them to help create a writing sample and further shape my SOP ideas. So for now its using the research of cool programs as a motivator, prepping for the GRE, and knocking out a few graduate level classes...


I'm curious about your father now - is he teaching as part of his career progression... or did he leave the service for an advanced degree to then teach? My current commander taught for 3 years at West Point as a Major. Is he Active Duty or part of the reserve force? That would be pretty crazy if he has taken a path similar to what I hope to do of academy with part time service... 

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He worked on his PhD while he was in the reserves, worked active duty for a number of years, then left the service to take a tenure-track job at a non-military affiliated university. He eventually accepted a professorship at a military academy and ended up leaving university #1. He's also in engineering, where I think this kind of movement (between the academy and the "real world") is much more common. 


Hmm... If you're looking for online, your best bets are probably going to be places like Harvard Extension, and, to a lesser extent the UC Extension programs (Berkeley, UCSD, etc). I also know people who've used SUNY online (http://open.suny.edu/) as well. You could also look into upper-level undergrad classes, as I think that'll probably help you accomplish more or less the same thing as grad-level classes.


Good luck! And happy memorial day! :)

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  • 5 months later...

I've a thought a lot about some of the feedback I've received here so far, and after a recent 2 week trip to Oxford to visit a friend in a Masters program, I've decided to take a shot at the Oxbridge circuit. I think it would be a great way to determine if I actually want to study English at the doctoral level and also be an amazing experience. If successful there, it would certainly bridge the gap many of you have discussed, and put me in a much better place to apply to US programs afterward. The only real downside is it would set me back a year on my transition into the Army Reserves as I obviously couldn't participate there while abroad. 


I'm currently applying to two programs and Oxford and two at Cambridge. I'm gathered all my LORs and transcripts, completed my CV, SOP, the online apps, and am working towards finishing up my writing sample. Tonight I was glancing through the FAQ on the Oxford site when I noticed this:


What grade point average (GPA) score do I need to be considered?

For applicants with a degree from the USA, the minimum overall GPA we seek is 3.75 with at least 3.85 in the Major.


Well as you can see from above, I don't have this...


Is this a deal breaker? Does it mean they will simply throw my application in the trash or is it something they put up in hopes of receiving mostly a certain tier applicant? I was pretty bummed out when I saw it, and was sort of thinking from before that they'd take a more whole candidate approach. Cambridge seems to have a more relaxed stance from their website:


"The Faculty is willing in principle to accept candidates with strong 2.1s, or mature students who have not pursued an orthodox pattern of higher education, provided that such applicants have strong backing from their referees, have a feasible topic, and are well qualified for their proposed course of research. We recognise both that things sometimes do not go candidates’ way in examinations and that a sparkling examination style is not always the best qualification for graduate work."


I'm fairly set on applying anyway, but I don't want to be shredding money either...


The person I was visiting with was my graduate school roommate who had similar graduate grades, and worse undergraduate ones. So he was able to pass this barrier, though he wasn't in the English department.


Does anyone have any experience or insight on this?





On an unrelated note, I'm also looking for people to bounce my CV/SOP off so let me know if you're interested in helping out

Edited by rgwen
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