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Preparing Yourself for Graduate School in English Literature (pdf version)

Choosing M.A. or Ph.D. / Finding the Right Program / Timeline for Preparing to Apply / The Application Portfolio / Some Grad Programs / Top Ranked Programs / Alumni / Careers for English Majors

Goals of Graduate Programs in English Literature

  • Students in English literature graduate programs learn to undertake academic, scholarly research and publications at advanced levels while developing experience teaching composition and literature at the college level.
  • Students who do not love the readings and workloads in SEGL 483:  Theories of Literary Criticism and SEGL 490:  Senior Seminar will not love the readings and workloads in graduate programs.
  • See Phil Agre's "Advice for Undergraduates Considering Graduate School"
  • Graduate school should not be seen as a guarantee of career placement.
    • There is a much larger supply of job searchers than of job openings. The MLA report of "Placement Outcomes for Modern Language Ph.D.s: Findings from the MLA's 2003-2004 Survey of PhD Placement" notes that in 2004, there were 933 Ph.D. recipients in English and 406 tenure-track placements (80). According to the "Report on the MLA's 2004 Survey of Hiring Departments," there were 452 job openings for tenure-track assistant professors at four-year colleges. Of these openings, 87.2 percent were filled. Counting non-tenure-track positions, 618 positions were advertised at four-year colleges overall. There were 823 new Ph.D.s in American and English literature, according to the 2005 Survey of Earned Doctorates.
    • The MLA's "Placement Outcomes for Modern Language Ph.D.s" further reports that 44.6 percent of Ph.D. graduates in American, British and Commonwealth Literature placed into a tenure-track position at a two-year, four-year or research university in their first job (85). Many graduate programs are attempting to more closely match the number of new Ph.D.s with the number of new job openings, and they have been decreasing the size of their entering classes. Pursue a Ph.D. in English literature because you love it, not because you are looking for a quick way to earn money.

Choosing between an M.A. (Master's of Arts) and a Ph.D. (Doctorate)

  • Master's programs generally take two years to complete and focus on research-based seminar work, culminating in a master's thesis and/or comprehensive written and oral examination of knowledge.
  • For Ph.D. programs, the 2005 Survey of Earned Doctorates lists 9.7 years as the median time in graduate school from start to completion of the Ph.D. in literary fields. For English Language and Literature, 55.9 percent of Ph.D. graduates have definite employment plans at time of graduation.
  • See the Washington & Jefferson College's Guide to Graduate Degrees in English for a discussion of the difference between a M.A. and a Ph.D.

Finding the Right Graduate Program for You

Graduate programs are much more personalized and specialized than undergraduate degrees. Students must consider several factors in selecting a graduate program that will fit your particular needs:

  • Consider job placement rates to see which programs successfully prepare their students for college-level teaching and careers in other fields. Individual programs also track their placement rates. You may want to ask program directors about placement rates as you research potential programs.
  • With whom will you study? What genre, region or period of literature will you study? Which scholars within the field of English literature do you admire? Graduate programs tend to specialize in certain areas of literary studies. A school that ranks highly in medieval literature may rank poorly in American literature. Check rankings for your individual field. Research the faculty in graduate programs and select only those programs where you can find faculty who will serve as your mentors as well as instructors.
  • Where would you like to study? There are hundreds of M.A. and Ph.D. programs throughout the United States. If you limit yourself geographically, you may also limit your ability to gain acceptance into the program that is right for you.
  • How will you pay for graduate school? The cost of tuition is not the main factor in determining the cost of attending graduate school, and attempting to remain "in-state" is not necessarily the most cost effective choice. Research the available funding for graduate students as you research other qualities about the programs. Many programs offer teaching assistantships, research assistantships or editorial assistantships that provide a stipend and/or tuition waiver. In other programs, students may receive fellowships, grants or other financial support. An out-of-state program with guaranteed financial support may be less of a financial burden than an in-state program with fewer funding sources for students.
  • Will you be accepted? Most graduate programs accept fewer than 20 students each year. Acceptance rates are often less than 10 percent. Students accepted into the most competitive programs have often been published in academic undergraduate journals, have presented at undergraduate conferences and/or have won national grants or fellowships even before they applied to graduate school. Consider the acceptance rates of graduate programs and ask questions of program directors to find programs that fit your level of experience and preparation. Acceptance rates for many programs are available at the U.S. News and World Report guide to "America's Best Graduate Schools."

Click for a Timeline for Preparing for and Applying to English Literature Graduate Programs

The Application Portfolio

  • The application form for your chosen schools.
  • Three letters of recommendation from professors who can discuss your potential for academic excellence.
  • Writing samples that demonstrate an ability to communicate effectively and analyze texts with insight.
  • A statement of purpose that describes why you want a graduate degree and what you plan to study. See Tips for writing the personal essayin the Timeline for Preparing and Applying.
  • A copy of transcripts from every undergraduate institution you have attended.

Details of Some M.A. and Ph.D. English Programs

  • Clemson University offers an M.A. in English
    • Students must have at least a 3.0 undergraduate GPA.
    • Students must earn a minimum score of 500 on the GRE verbal and quantitative sections and minimum of 4.5 on the writing section.
    • Students must also submit two letters of recommendation, transcripts and a statement of purpose along with the application materials.
  • The University of South Carolina at Columbia offers an M.A. and a Ph.D.
    • Students must have completed at least 24 credits in upper-division undergraduate literature courses with a GPA of at least 3.0 for the M.A. and at least 3.5 for the Ph.D.
    • Students must earn "satisfactory scores" on the GRE general test and Subject Test of Literature in English. Students must earn verbal scores at or above the 75th percentile.
    • Students must also submit at least two letters of recommendation, transcripts, an 8-10 page writing sample and a statement of purpose along with the online application.
  • The University of Georgia at Athens
    • Students must have at least a 3.0 undergraduate GPA with 3.65 or better in the major.
    • Students must earn strong GRE scores, with a verbal score in the 90th percentile and at least 1200 in verbal and quantitative combined
    • Students must also submit three letters of recommendation, transcripts, a 10-15 page writing sample, a statement of purpose and a curriculum vitae, along with the application materials.
  • The College of Charleston and The Citadel offer an M.A. program, particularly suited to K-12 teachers who would like to advance their knowledge of literature.
    • Students must have a minimum GPA of 2.5 overall and 3.0 in the major.
    • Students must earn a minimum score of 500 on the GRE verbal and quantitative sections and minimum of 4 on the writing section.
    • Students must also submit two letters of recommendation, transcripts, a writing sample and a statement of purpose, along with the application materials.
  • Western Michigan University offers an M.A. in literature, an M.A. with an emphasis on teaching and a Ph.D. in literature.
    • Students must have 20 credits in undergraduate literature courses with a minimum GPA of 3.0.
    • Students must take the GRE general test for the Master's program and both the GRE general and subject tests for the Ph.D. program.
    • Students must also submit a 10 page writing sample, transcripts, statement of purpose and three letters of recommendation.

Top Ranked English Ph.D. Programs Overall from the 2009 U.S. News and World Report (Rankings in specializations vary)
Ranking order is in parenthesis following the name of the University

  • University of California-Berkeley (1)
  • Stanford University (California) (2)
  • Yale University (Connecticut) (2)
  • Columbia University (New York) (4)
  • Harvard University (Massachusetts) (4)
  • University of Pennsylvania (4)
  • Cornell University (New York) (7)
  • Princeton University (New Jersey) (7)
  • University of Chicago (Illinois) (7)
  • Duke University (North Carolina) (10)
  • University of California-Los Angeles (10)
  • University of Virginia (10)
  • Brown University (Rhode Island) (13)
  • Johns Hopkins University (Maryland) (13)
  • University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (13)
  • University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (16)
  • Rutgers State University-New Brunswick (New Jersey) (17)
  • University of Texas-Austin (17)
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison (17)
  • New York University (20)
  • Northwestern University (Illinois) (20)
  • CUNY Graduate School and University Center (New York) (22)
  • Indiana University-Bloomington (22)
  • University of California-Irvine (22)

Compiled by Dr. Celena E. Kusch with contributions by Nicole Manigo, Rachel McAllister and Candice McCuen

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