Advice for Those Interested in English Graduate School
Washington & Jefferson College
1. The Master's Degree
1. The Master’s Degree
This degree is appropriate for those who would like to study more literature for their own delectation, to teach in secondary schools, or to fill in gaps before applying to a Ph.D. program. Unlike your experience with applying to college, you will apply directly to a department and will do almost all of your course work in that department.
There are several types of master’s degrees:
· M.A. (Magister Artium): for those interested in analyzing literature, either because they want to take more courses in a field they love or because they are thinking of applying to a Ph.D. program and wish to get their feet wet. Also good for the public secondary-school English teacher who wants a higher salary and more knowledge. It is also possible to get a "professional" degree at the master's level: library science, professional writing, publishing, and so on. A number of colleges are creating MA programs in the humanities, which can serve as stepping-stones for those interested in a Ph.D. later down the line.
M.A.T. (Master of Arts for Teachers): for those interested in teaching English in high schools, either private or public. You do not need to have taken any education courses in college or have been certified to teach.
M.F.A. (Master of Fine Arts): for practicing writers of poetry and fiction. This used to be the standard degree for those who also wanted to teach poetry-, fiction-, and play-writing at the college level, but a PhD in Creative Writing seems to be evolving as the new standard. This is the degree that lets you hone your craft under the guidance of other writers in your genre.
The programs generally take 1-2 years to complete, with the course work requiring several researched essays (or creative works, in the MFA track) and a thesis or final project. If you dislike writing papers, researching in the library, or reading books, graduate school is not the place for you. It is rare to find fellowship or scholarship support for master’s programs.
Graduate schools will expect candidates for the master’s degree to have good grades (3.5 average minimum in English courses) and submit strong scores on the verbal part of the GRE (generally over 550); some may ask you to submit scores for the afternoon subject test ("Literature in English"), but that is unlikely. MFA programs will expect you to submit a portfolio of work with your application. Because there is often a language requirement for the M.A. degree, good grades in a language also matter.
As an example of what to expect, follow these links to see the degree requirements and minimum admission standards for some master’s programs:
There are many fine master’s programs. Choose one that seems to match your interests and working style. Those going for MFA programs should be choosing programs by the writers who teach in them (you are looking for mentor, after all). You can find others by consulting:
2. The Doctoral Degree
The Ph.D. (Philosophiae Doctor) is a degree intended for those who plan careers in academia and college/university teaching, which will include doing fair amounts of scholarly research and publishing. Often, deans, college presidents, and editors at university presses will have a PhD in a traditional academic subject, too.
The programs generally run about 5 to 7 years beyond the master’s degree, with the course work requiring several researched essays, oral and written examinations, and a book-length scholarly dissertation. Unlike the master’s program, a doctoral program will expect you to develop an expertise in a historical period, in a genre, or in composition theory, so be sure you choose a program that has several faculty members who work in the fields that interest you. A PhD in creative writing will combine course work in both literature and writing. Your dissertation will be consist of a book-length creative work and accompanied by a long, analytic essay.
You often receive a modest stipend and tuition remission for several years by teaching composition courses part-time at your graduate school (beware of grad schools that require you to teach two courses a semester--they are exploiting you). If you cannot work independently—that is, without someone else giving you deadlines and reading lists—a doctoral program is not the place for you. Those who thrive in Ph.D. programs are those who have initiative, persistence, and endurance in addition to a strong foundation in literature and theory and a genuine, overwhelming passion for literature and research. You really have to love what you do.
You will also find Professor Suzanne Keen's website on graduate school extremely instructive (her father taught for decades at W&J).
The job market for college professors is very bad. You might want to look at the findings published by the Modern Language Association, the professional association for teachers and scholars of literature and language. Because of the restricted job market, about 50% of Ph.D.s remain part-time teachers for years. The others go into college/university administration, publishing (especially at university presses), the government (agencies such as the NEH or NEA), or work for non-profit organizations and for-profit businesses. A Ph.D. can serve as evidence of strong writing and research skills, qualities in great demand everywhere. Nevertheless, those scholars with completed degrees from the top 25% graduate schools (there are over 160 Ph.D. programs in English) have a much better chance of quickly finding a tenure-track position at a good college or university than those with degrees from schools with lower ranks. Therefore, go to the best school you can get into if you are aiming at a career in college/university teaching.
For listings and rankings of doctoral programs in English, see the following sites:
Despite the tightness of the job market, the demand for slots in graduate programs is very high. Doctoral program admissions are highly competitive (the top 30 schools admit about 5-10% of their applicants). There is little point in applying for a Ph.D. program if you do not have at least a 3.7 average in your English courses. Mid-rank institutions also will be looking for GRE verbal scores above 600; the top 10 or 20 schools will want a verbal score over 700 as well as strong showings on the afternoon subject test (over 600, that is). In addition, you cannot be certain that you'll get a job in a specific geographic region--if you have to stay in Pittsburgh or Boston, for example, your odds of getting a reasonably good job diminish dramatically. You have to be mobile.
As an example of what to expect, follow these links to see the degree requirements for three sample Ph.D. programs, a traditional one (Delaware), an innovative one (Buffalo), and a tier-one one (Penn):
3. How to Improve Your Chances of Getting In and Flourishing
Course Work and Summer Reading
The GRE General Test: verbal, quantitative, analytical writing skills
The GRE Subject Test: knowledge of literature
The test has the following historical spread:
The test also has the following distribution of skills: