Old Bill

Tips for Applying to English Ph.D. Programs

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·       
A few weeks ago, I was asked to talk to first-year M.A. students about the Ph.D. application process. I prepared a list of what I figure to be key elements, and I figure it might be useful to many on GC who are preparing to go down this path as well. I'm quite certain that some of these points are purely subjective and open to discussion / debate, but having gone through the process a couple of times now, these items ring true based on my experiences and observations.

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Others have surely told you about the state of the industry, so I’m just going to assume that you already know the “there are no jobs” spiel.

·        Others have also surely told you about how relatively difficult it is to get into a Ph.D. program—I have yet to hear of a program that admits over 10% of applicants.

o   Because of this, if you are committed to applying to Ph.D. programs, I strongly recommend considering applying to at least ten. Even though merit is a critical part of determining who gets in, there is a very real element of “luck of the draw” which pure numbers will help to mitigate.

·        With that in mind, NOW is a good time to get started on your program research

·        Your first consideration when entering the process should be to determine what era you would like to study, and ideally a general sense of methodologies you want to employ. These elements will be reflected in the two most important components of your application: the Statement of Purpose (or SoP), and your Writing Sample (WS).

·        Some basics:
 

o   The SoP and WS should ideally work together

o   When thinking about potential areas of study, avoid proposing transatlantic or transhistorical concepts: admissions committees are still very much set up by period, and your application should be easily sorted into a field group (i.e. you’re clearly a Romanticist, or you’re clearly a 20th century Americanist).

o   GRE scores, GPA, and other elements are important, but remember that the things you can control the most at this stage are the WS and SoP.

o   Given the importance of these two documents, you will want to get as many eyes on them as possible as soon as possible.

§  My SoP and WS were read and commented on by at least five professors and several fellow students, and ultimately went through at least six rounds of revision each—several of them top-to-bottom revisions.

·        There are multiple factors to consider when looking at programs. Some of the most important include:
 

o   Are there multiple professors actively working in your chosen field

§  I personally used a “rule of three”—if a program had three professors with significant research overlap with my interests, I would consider it.

§  By “active” I mean that you should be able to find publication credits from within the past five years—they need to be in touch with current scholarship.

o   What level of financial support do they offer—not just the annual funding, but whether they fund in summer, and how many years of funding are guaranteed

o   What courses have they offered in the past? What courses are they offering in the fall?

o   What is the teaching load like, and how do they prepare you for that load?

o   So-called rankings matter to a certain extent, but remember that those rankings are almost completely arbitrary. USNews rankings are helpful as a list of all programs offering Ph.D.s in English…and a very, very general sense of the strong programs vs. the less strong. But FIT with your interests trumps all.

§  (E.g. the Strode program at U of A is highly regarded, even though U of A itself is somewhat less so)

o   Location and cost of living. A 20k stipend will get you a lot further in Lincoln, Nebraska than in New York. And elements like small town vs. large city, cold vs. warm climate etc. are all perfectly valid factors when looking at programs. You’ll have to live in this place for 4-6 years, after all!

·        A few quick and random tips:
 

o   It can be helpful to contact professors ahead of time to determine research fit etc., but it can also be quite valuable to contact current grad students to get a sense of the program and the environment.

o   Remember that an important part of professionalization in a Ph.D. program is publication. More than anything, this means that before you go down the road toward application, give some serious thought to whether or not your writing and research inclinations have that kind of potential. And whether or not that’s something you really want to deal with at all.

o  Also remember that teaching is a huge part of your job, and always will be. If you don’t enjoy teaching (or the prospect of teaching), you’d better really love the other components of your position, because there’s not going to be any getting away from it for many, many years.

o   It might go without saying, but be very courteous in all of your communications with professors and other graduate students. And that courtesy should be sincere!

o   Consider the total cost of applications: application fees average about $75, sending GRE scores is $27 (more if you need the subject test), and if you have multiple transcripts, that can tack on another $10. In other words, each application will likely be upward of $100. Given that I recommend applying to at least ten programs, you’re looking at a commitment of over $1000. There ARE fee waivers you can find, however.

o   Forums like GradCafe are a good way to socialize with fellow applicants, and commiserate with people in the same situation. Just remember to take all advice you see on those forums with a grain of salt.

o   Finally, there are NO SAFETY SCHOOLS. Just to reiterate, rankings are arbitrary, and almost every program gets ten times as many applicants as they can admit (let alone fund). As a result, you want to look at the best overall fit for you.

 

 

Edited by Old Bill

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Great post Bill, especially about finding spots that fit with our interests and research. I am entering UA's Ph.D. lit program this fall. UA only admits a few outside the Strode Program, but they have a good number of Americanists among their faculty and a couple of Southern lit professors, both of which drew me. My area is contemporary American lit with a sub-genre of Southern lit and my thesis was titled "The Disillusionment of Cormac McCarthy." That will give you an idea where my scholarship interests lie. I'm very interested in the ways in which McCarthy challenges American ideologies, which then leads to study within early American writings, as well, to look at the beginnings of those ideologies. So I'm really all over the canon with my research and readings. I needed a school that had a more generalist feeling of the American text, which I believe I got.

I will add to your idea about when to begin thinking about getting a Ph.D. Undergrad is not too soon to begin to think about getting a Ph.D. for an English major. Unless one is preparing to work in publishing or something similar (non-teaching), an English major should not stop at the master's level. One can only teach lower levels of English, with a master's, including rhet/comp or introductory classes of literature. That, in and of itself, is not going to satisfy the literature concentration person's thirst to discuss texts. As such, designing the BA to be geared toward an eventual Ph.D. in literature makes sense. Intense preparation in a single foreign language is also necessary. Many universities have gone to a requirement of a single language (although there are still two-language requirements around). UA just removed the two-language requirement so I no longer have to figure out how to get two additional semesters of intermediate Spanish ( I have six semesters of French and two of Spanish). If one knows they are going to apply to Ph.D. schools, the entire MA can also be geared toward it, as well. It's good to figure out what your thesis will be on and work on a chapter that will suffice as a WS for the Ph.D. apps and provide a chapter for the thesis. Make sure that you discuss in the SOP how the WS is a chapter of your thesis and fits within your research goals. I think that committees like to know a student can write a thesis and will then be able to write a dissertation. During the writing of the dissertation is when most students abandon the quest for a Ph.D. Knowing that you can put a thesis together is important for consideration of the overall greater picture of getting admitted to a Ph.D. program. Don't know what you really want to focus on for a thesis as you begin your M.A.? Most of us don't have a clue, but gain a perspective in that first year and start reading. If the focus is too large, then you have to find a way to narrow it to a manageable one. Save the big picture for the dissertation. You can't begin to discuss something like the origin of the American text in a 100 page document (like I imagined I could :wacko:). However, you can discuss one tiny corner through an author like McCarthy, becoming fascinated with the author in the process and decide that author deserves some serious scholarship.

 

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I'm brand new to this process and so grateful to be finding this thread right now. Thank you both for sharing your knowledge.

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On 5/18/2017 at 3:18 AM, Old Bill said:

I personally used a “rule of three”—if a program had three professors with significant research overlap with my interests, I would consider it.

Hi thanks for all of the information! I applied this year, and maybe this was my downfall, but I was lucky to find one or two professors at each program with research interests that overlapped significantly with mine. How specific should our research interests match?

For instance, I am (speaking generally) interested in urban space, cities, time/space in American lit (20/21 c). The writing sample I will be sending is interested in architecture in American modernism. I fear that I will be hard pressed to find people doing exactly that. Should I just be looking for professors who are interested in space/place and American lit? Because that feels too generic! I am prepared to really get into doing intensive research to find active professors that match what I'm doing (I've only got one so far) but I did this type of research last year, and I still only found about one or two in any given department. There were no places with three or more. Do these departments exist?! What am I missing here? Thanks again :)

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Your advisors don't need to be directly in your area of study (after all, you will probably have an outside reader for the diss!). What is important is finding faculty in field that you feel would support your own research--this is a different question than having the same particular interests. Your advisors are not there to direct your research so much as ensure that your research responds to and recognizably fits in with your area of study in general. I.e., if there are more than a few faculty working in the time period that you've chosen, and their methodologies are not directly opposed to what you want to do, you shouldn't worry about having no one to guide you. 

Edited by echo449

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This is great advice! Just to add on:

1. Get organized! I had a spreadsheet for all of my programs, color-coded by how good of a fit they seemed to be. This spreadsheet had my list of faculty of interest, special program notes (for my own interest and for mentioning in my SOP), journal articles by faculty of interest that I wanted to read, and then deadlines, app fees, special requirements, etc. You should design a system that works best for you. 

2. Develop a plan for your recommendations as early as possible. Ideally, you should reach out to recommenders when you start researching programs. Update them on your progress and on your list of schools. Check in after the summer is over to make sure that everything is on the up-and-up. Remember that many online application systems do not send requests to your recommenders until -after- you've submitted your application, meaning that you should submit your materials in advance of the deadline so that your recommender can get their letter in on time. 

3. (This is based on my experience as an undergraduate admission counselor). When reaching out to graduate students, which I 100% encourage you to do -- always ask open-ended, non-leading questions. So if you want a really collaborative culture, don't ask "is the culture really collaborative?" Instead, just ask how the student would describe the culture -- if they say "collaborative" unprompted, then it's much more likely that that is a defining feature of the program, rather than someone telling you what you want to hear. 

Also, just to add to @Old Bill's last point. The corollary to there being no safety schools is that some brilliant and energetic people get shut out. This whole thing can be a crapshoot. It's very easy to read a deny letter as a personal attack on your ability as a scholar, but for all you know, they only had space for one person in your subfield this year and they just happened to pick someone else. Don't go into the cycle assuming that you're going to come out of it with an admit letter -- you might not -- and so you should prepare for the worst without letting it destroy you emotionally. Which is of course easier said than done... 

Good luck :)

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1 hour ago, FeetInTheSky said:

This is great advice! Just to add on:

1. Get organized! I had a spreadsheet for all of my programs, color-coded by how good of a fit they seemed to be. This spreadsheet had my list of faculty of interest, special program notes (for my own interest and for mentioning in my SOP), journal articles by faculty of interest that I wanted to read, and then deadlines, app fees, special requirements, etc. You should design a system that works best for you. 

I heartily agree with being organized. Although I started out with a general spreadsheet, it quickly became onerous and once I realized that the programs I liked best were in the South, I changed focus. I looked for programs that were more generalized across the canon, American programs, that had some focus on Southern Lit. As I discovered those programs, I created a word doc and put information about the program (requirements, etc.) into them, ordering them by due date. I also elaborated on special things the program was looking for, with regard to SOP's, WS's, or even special documents. Several programs wanted a list of all of my English classes and grades (both undergrad and M.A.).

Look at programs that you can adapt to fit your needs. You're unique and your research is unique. Advisors are there to keep you on track with your reading and research, but you are the expert on your topic. My M.A. thesis advisor told me this on several occasions, until I began to own it.

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On ‎5‎/‎23‎/‎2017 at 10:26 PM, clinamen said:

For instance, I am (speaking generally) interested in urban space, cities, time/space in American lit (20/21 c). The writing sample I will be sending is interested in architecture in American modernism. I fear that I will be hard pressed to find people doing exactly that. Should I just be looking for professors who are interested in space/place and American lit?

Spaces exist throughout literature and some writers use them more. I would think that most Americanists have some sort of working knowledge about spaces and have written paper(s) on them because there are huge amounts of research on spaces. As an undergrad, I was in the discussion class of a Ph.D. student at UMass, whose dissertation was on spaces in 19th century Brit Lit. As I had taken classes where the 19th century authors had used spaces, she and I talked about that on several occasions. Just remember you are becoming a scholar on this idea and will be the expert.

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I'm not sure if this an appropriate place to make this post, please forgive me if not.

So I got into a PhD program a couple months ago - yay! Now why am I here? I'm unsure that it's a viable/sensible option for me, especially based on what I've learnt from this forum, particularly from the earlier posts on this thread. Two main reasons:

1. Financial support TBD. I've been back and forth with the DGS and I still don't know if I'm getting an assistantship or what. It seems that funding their students is an issue, and that concerns me a great deal. 

2. Most professors aren't active in their fields. I suppose I noticed this when applying but never thought it to be all that important. I probably shouldn't blame it on being an international student, but I'll go ahead and do it anyway. 

Now I've been trying to formulate a plan B. 

I got accepted with a BA (graduated last year) but I know I could be a more competitive applicant to programs that have better resources and opportunities for professionalization if I go for the MA first. I would like to enlist the help of experienced applicants on how best to proceed. Does it matter if the MA is from the U.S. or my own country? For some context, the MA in my home country would be from the premier university in the region and lasts for 1 year. My concerns with this are the lack of teaching opportunities and unlikely prospects for conference presentations. Master's degrees in the U.S. would provide more time for scholarly development, and perhaps give the advantage of networks among scholars from different institutions. What I'm getting at is, do the pros of an MA from the U.S. outweigh the convenience of staying in my country? Would I be at a significant disadvantage? Realistically does a MA from a different country read similarly to one from the country I (eventually) wish to (re)apply for the PhD? I want to position myself well.

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On 5/30/2017 at 0:45 AM, Narrative Nancy said:

I'm not sure if this an appropriate place to make this post, please forgive me if not.

So I got into a PhD program a couple months ago - yay! Now why am I here? I'm unsure that it's a viable/sensible option for me, especially based on what I've learnt from this forum, particularly from the earlier posts on this thread. Two main reasons:

1. Financial support TBD. I've been back and forth with the DGS and I still don't know if I'm getting an assistantship or what. It seems that funding their students is an issue, and that concerns me a great deal. 

2. Most professors aren't active in their fields. I suppose I noticed this when applying but never thought it to be all that important. I probably shouldn't blame it on being an international student, but I'll go ahead and do it anyway. 

 

Both of those are massive red flags for me, TBH. The lack of financial support is especially troubling as we're into May and they still don't have an answer for you. I would strongly urge you to not accept this offer. 

 

On 5/30/2017 at 0:45 AM, Narrative Nancy said:

Does it matter if the MA is from the U.S. or my own country? For some context, the MA in my home country would be from the premier university in the region and lasts for 1 year. My concerns with this are the lack of teaching opportunities and unlikely prospects for conference presentations.

International MAs are not something I'm familiar with, so you should probably ask someone who has done an MA from another country and then gone to the US for PhD study. I do know a few people who got into strong PhD programs in the US after having gotten MAs from non-UK/Canadian programs (Peking University comes to mind), so I don't think it's a big deal. As far as teaching or presenting--no one is going to care about these things when you're applying. 

My general feeling is that where you do your MA isn't going to matter much. But you'll still want to check that US programs recognize this university's degree program and are okay accepting people from this particular school. 

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On 5/30/2017 at 0:45 AM, Narrative Nancy said:

I'm not sure if this an appropriate place to make this post, please forgive me if not.

So I got into a PhD program a couple months ago - yay! Now why am I here? I'm unsure that it's a viable/sensible option for me, especially based on what I've learnt from this forum, particularly from the earlier posts on this thread. Two main reasons:

1. Financial support TBD. I've been back and forth with the DGS and I still don't know if I'm getting an assistantship or what. It seems that funding their students is an issue, and that concerns me a great deal. 

2. Most professors aren't active in their fields. I suppose I noticed this when applying but never thought it to be all that important. I probably shouldn't blame it on being an international student, but I'll go ahead and do it anyway. 

Now I've been trying to formulate a plan B. 

I got accepted with a BA (graduated last year) but I know I could be a more competitive applicant to programs that have better resources and opportunities for professionalization if I go for the MA first. I would like to enlist the help of experienced applicants on how best to proceed. Does it matter if the MA is from the U.S. or my own country? For some context, the MA in my home country would be from the premier university in the region and lasts for 1 year. My concerns with this are the lack of teaching opportunities and unlikely prospects for conference presentations. Master's degrees in the U.S. would provide more time for scholarly development, and perhaps give the advantage of networks among scholars from different institutions. What I'm getting at is, do the pros of an MA from the U.S. outweigh the convenience of staying in my country? Would I be at a significant disadvantage? Realistically does a MA from a different country read similarly to one from the country I (eventually) wish to (re)apply for the PhD? I want to position myself well.

I would not accept an offer of admission from this program based on the factors you've mentioned. 

As to your question about the MA: if you can, I would definitely do it in the US if you plan to pursue the PhD in the US. For your situation, I suggest finding an MA/PhD program, where one leads directly into the other.

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In general, an MA can be a good way to fill gaps in your CV.  

While it would be nice to get into one now that leads directly to a good PhD, you might do just as well finding a program that lets you improve your record and get yourself in line for a better PhD -- assuming you still want to do that when it is all over.

Just make sure that the place you're going (a) isn't totally unknown or despised, and (b) will give you a chance to earn some good recommendations, and maybe even a research project that shows what you're capable of.

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