Advice for Those Interested in English Graduate School


Linda Troost

Washington & Jefferson College


1. The Master's Degree
2. The Doctoral Degree
3. How to Improve Your Chances of Getting In and Flourishing

    • Course Work and Summer Reading 
    • The Application
    • The GRE General and Subject Tests

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:

U of Chicago Program in the Humanities

Carnegie Mellon’s MA in Professional Writing

Penn State’s MA program in English

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).

Some serious advice: if you have to take out loans to pay for grad school in English/American literature or creative writing, you are unlikely to make back the investment. Don't go unless you have independent resources or receive tuition remission/ some kind of fellowship or stipend.

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. Also, a master's degree in literature (and increasingly in creative writing) is rarely a sufficient terminal degree for full-time employment at the college or university level.


 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 (and her father taught for decades at W&J).

The job market for college professors has been bad for decades and is likely to remain so for several more. You will definitely want to study the Modern Language Association's career resources (the MLA is the professional association for scholars of literature and language and college/university faculty). Only a handful of Ph.D.s will get full-time jobs in teaching/research. Many (we're talking 50%) remain part-time teachers for years. Others go into college/university administration, publishing (especially at university presses), the government (agencies such as the NEH or NEA), or they go 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 doctoral degrees from the top 25% graduate schools have a better (but still not great) chance of 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.

Some serious advice: if you have to take out loans to pay for grad school in English/American literature or creative writing, you are unlikely to make back the investment. Don't go unless you have independent resources or receive tuition remission/some kind of fellowship or stipend.

In addition, you cannot be certain that you'll get an academic post in a specific geographic region--if you have to stay in Pittsburgh or Boston, for example, your odds of getting a job diminish dramatically. You have to be mobile.

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 extremely competitive (the top 30 schools admit about 5-10% of their applicants) and some programs admit only one person per field each year. 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 in the top 25%; the top 10 or 20 schools will want a verbal score in the top 10% as well as strong showings on the afternoon subject test.

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):

·         U of Delaware

·         U of Buffalo

·         University of Pennsylvania

 3. How to Improve Your Chances of Getting In and Flourishing

 Course Work and Summer Reading

  • Let your advisor know as soon as possible that you are considering graduate school. You need to plan a suitable course of study. 
  • Take courses that cover as many literary periods as you can. You will want to take more than the minimum 10 courses we require for the major. Coverage is especially important for those planning to take the GRE subject test. 
  • Take a course in literary theory (most likely ENG 345), a subject that will be central in graduate school. 
  • Take English 400 earlier rather than later—the seminar paper will make an appropriate writing sample to send to schools. If possible, take two seminars. 
  • Think seriously about writing an honors thesis. It is up to you to propose this idea to a faculty member; no one will suggest it to you.  If you want to do this, start the process in April of your junior year.
  • Take a language in college through 208, minimum. Ph.D. applicants may need two languages (one should probably be French), ideally with one of them at the 300-level. Those interested in medieval or Renaissance literature will need to take a summer crash course in Latin to be viable candidates.
  • Spend your free time reading novels, plays, and poems and remember what you read. Any department member will be happy to make suggestions for enjoyable summer reading. Those applying to MFA programs should be reading widely in contemporary literature, both in the major literary magazine and in books.
  • Get some background in history and philosophy—as well as music, art history, or theater—either by taking courses or by working on your own. The most successful candidates have more to offer than just a knowledge of literature written in English—they know about biology, or ecology, or economics, or history, or philosophy or music. You don’t need a double major, but a minor or a cluster of courses would be good. Follow your passions.

 The Application

  • Be sure you show your personal statement and writing sample to someone in the department early enough to allow time for revising (four weeks before you plan to mail your application). The personal statement should emphasize your scholarly/academic interests of the past and for the future. Don't go on about how much you love to read--that is assumed--tell the graduate school what you want to study. Your essay must conform to standard grammar, spelling, and punctuation! Required reading:
    1. "Advice for Applicants (for the U of Buffalo in particular but helpful for everyone)
    2. If you have access to JSTOR, read Professor Graff’s essay “Hiding it from the Kids" (if not, go here--many thanks, Prof. Graff, for making this essay available).
  • Give each faculty member four weeks of lead time for a letter of recommendation. First ask (in person) if he or she will consent to write you a favorable letter of recommendation. Then give all the professors an up-to-date copy of your transcript, your personal statement, a few essays you have written for their classes (with the comments/grade included), and a list of the schools and degree programs for which you will be using this letter. Be sure to give them a deadline for mailing the letters, too.
  • Send your applications in quickly. Most schools begin screening candidates and, in the case of Ph.D. programs, awarding fellowships several weeks before the deadline. There may be neither space nor financial support left for those whose applications arrive the day before the deadline. It is best to get them in the mail before you leave campus for the Winter Break, if not before Thanksgiving.

 The GRE revised General Test: verbal, quantitative, analytical writing skills

  • Take a "practice" GRE test in your junior year to see how much you will need to work on test-taking techniques, verbal skills, or analytical writing skills. A good showing on the verbal portion of this test is crucial, but the analytical writing section is also important. You can download free materials from the GRE's general-test website. It's not worth spending $185 for the real test unless you've practiced a good deal first.
  • You will need to take this test by mid-December at the latest. Any later, and your scores will not arrive in time.It's probably best to take it in September or October.
  • The GRE revised general test is offered as a "computer-based test," so you need to become comfortable with that format. Practice, practice, practice. I cannot stress the importance of this--the essays, in particular, are not the sort you have been writing in college classes.

The GRE Subject Test: knowledge of literature

  • If you are taking the subject test ("Literature in English"), which you need to do in November or December of your senior year, study, study, study. The GRE subject-test website has much useful information and practice tests. Do them.
  • Go carefully over your British Lit and American Lit anthologies, reading the historical/biographical material, review works you have read for your classes and on your own, and study the informational material the GRE people offer. If you sold your textbooks, you made a serious mistake.
  • You should start reviewing the summer before you take the test, but you also have to have read widely long before you got to this stage. You cannot make up for not having been a diligent reader for the past several years. In fact, if you have not been happily reading for years, you might not be a good candidate for graduate school.

The test has the following historical spread:

    • Continental, Classical, and Comparative Literature through 1925: 5-10% 
    • British Literature to 1660 (including Milton): 25-30% 
    • British Literature 1660-1925: 20-35% 
    • American Literature through 1925: 15-25% 
    • American, British, and World Literatures after 1925: 20-30% 

The test also has the following distribution of skills:

    • Literary analysis (40-55%) Interpretation of passages of prose and poetry. Such questions may involve recognition of conventions and genres, allusions and references, meaning and tone, grammatical structures and rhetorical strategies, and literary techniques.
    • Identification (15-20%) Recognition of date, author or work by style and/or content (for literary theory identifications see below).
    • Cultural and Historical Contexts (20-25%) Knowledge of literary, cultural and intellectual history as well as identification of author or work through a critical statement or biographical information. Also identification of details of character, plot or setting of a work.
    • History and theory of literary criticism(5-10%) Identification and analysis of the characteristics and methods of various critical and theoretical approaches.