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Writing Sample for English Ph.D. - Master’s Work in Diff/Related Field or Undergrad Work in Lit?


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I’m currently applying to Ph.D. programs and I’m seeking advice regarding writing samples. 

For context: About half of the programs to which I’ll be applying are Philosophy Ph.D. programs and the remainder of which are either English Ph.D. programs or some combination of the two (e.g., Ph.D. in Cultural Studies at Ohio State Uni). My background is a Bachelor’s in English Literature with a minor in Philosophy and a Master’s degree in Critical and Cultural Theory. 

My question is: for literature program applications, if my Master’s work focused predominantly on media studies and involved virtually no material from a specific literary epoch or period but rather focused on philosophical and theoretical works, would it be better to submit as my writing sample an undergraduate essay focused primarily on literature (to display my abilities in this field), a Master's level essay that hints toward the literary application but does not engage in close readings, or a Master's level work that better represents my intended areas of study at the Ph.D. level but does not emphasize my abilities in traditional literary study? (Another issue is that my best literary works composed during my undergraduate career were independent research projects or for graduate courses and are much longer than max. writing sample lengths and may perhaps be the most difficult to reduce to any succinct excerpt.) 

I’m struggling to decide if my best Master’s essay on Critical Theory, which is also my starting point for my intended Ph.D. dissertation topic, would be overlooked by English programs due to the lack of traditional literary engagement even though the English programs to which I am applying are fairly open-minded regarding the definition of “literature.” 

Thank you in advance for any advice you can provide! :)

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As a newly accepted English PhD student for this fall, I can tell you of my experience and those of my friends. Wherever your heart lies in English and you find yourself wanting to pursue, that is the type of paper I would submit. You don't have to submit a paper that focuses specifically on a piece of literature, if you aren't truly interested in pursuing a PhD in some form of literature, and I would completely take those off the table.  While I'm contemporary American literature, I would say I like 20th C best. My WS was on Suttree, a book by Cormac McCarthy published in 1979, and a chapter of my master's thesis. McCarthy is very contemporary and post-modernism at its height, but he also reaches into the past to use other's ideas. That said, I find myself digging around in early American through 19th C works a lot. I chose programs that represent the whole range of the American experience. I think most programs today look at literature as encompassing many different things including different forms of media, although I do believe committees still want a written submission as a WS, rather than some combination of written and other media. For PhD programs, most of the programs I looked at want WS in the 15-20 pg length (excluding Works Cited). If you let your WS hover around 19-20 pages, programs that have 20-25 pg lengths can be included without much work.

It really sounds as though you are more interested in literary theory or in some form of cultural interdisciplinary program, rather than literature itself. Submit a paper in the field you wish to pursue. Pursuing a lit PhD could be really boring if your interests lie in theoretical ideas. It's not just the classes you have to take, you have to focus on a particular area of literature in order to become superior in that area. Think about comps and the 100 or so primary texts you must read in order to take the test.

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