A PhD in English isn’t for the faint of heart: You need limitless passion for your subject matter and the dedication and fortitude to see it through. Read the discussion below to prepare yourself for an English PhD.
Before Applying, Consider a Master’s Degree
Before researching doctoral programs, decide whether or not you need to spend two years pursuing a master’s degree. This decision will help you to narrow your list of programs right off the bat. Some schools allow you to start your PhD program with just a B.A. or a B.S., while others require a master’s degree first. Some programs, like Cornell University, for example, offer a joint, 5-year program in which you complete an MFA and a PhD by the end of it.
Completing a Master’s degree first will buy you two years to cut your scholarly teeth and get some co-authorships, research fellowships and teaching experiences under your belt. The experience will give you a better idea of what you actually want. (You’ll also be in a better position to gain admission into the PhD program of your choosing.)
At the end of an M.A. program, graduates can reevaluate their careers in a way that midstream PhD candidates can’t afford to:
- Do I want to change specialties? Or transfer to a new program?
- Should I take some time off, maybe work outside academia or apply for a year-long research grant or fellowship?
- Or, if you’ve realized that the monk-like existence of an academic isn’t really for you: should I quit now and try something new?
A master’s degree is the best option if you are at all uncertain about committing to a PhD program. Though this preliminary degree will add two years and around $50,000 to your educational investment, you’ll have far more to show for yourself after two years in an M.A. program than if you had dropped out of a PhD program after four semesters.
Next, Find the Right English PhD Program
Once you’ve committed to a PhD, researching the faculty, programs and placements of each school you apply to is critical. Start by narrowing your list of potential literary specialties and build lists of departments that offer PhD programs specializing in each. The U.S. News grad school rankings are a great place to start. Try to limit the number of schools you keep on your short list because applications can be rigorous, specific and expensive (there’s no “Common Application” for graduate school). A good rule of thumb is to choose three to four schools for each of your preferred specialties.
Here are a few helpful resources for researching different doctoral programs:
- The MLA website offers a searchable database of PhD programs.
- At PhDs.org you can narrow down your search based on funding options, program size and faculty.
- This blog has a helpful conversation about the pros and cons of starting with an M.A.
Prepare Yourself to Apply for Competitive PhD Programs
Be sure to take stock of your academic CV and be prepared to receive a couple of rejection letters. Competition is fierce, so don’t beat yourself up. (For example, the University of Denver receives an average of 150 applications a year and only admits around 10.) Just take the time to review the program’s admission statistics, candidate profiles and application requirements to get an idea of which schools might be a good match or more of a “reach” for you (there are no “safety schools” when it comes to graduate school admissions).
Once you’ve compiled your final program list, get your deadlines in order. Most applications are due around December or January for the following academic year, but you’ll need to be registering for tests and requesting transcripts at least three months before this. Build a list of everything you need to submit and create a calendar of deadlines for each step. Be sure to overestimate the amount of time it will take you to prepare the following:
- Official undergraduate and graduate transcripts from every university attended
- Letters of recommendation from two to three of professors (at least two of these should be English professors)
- GRE score reports – some schools will also require GRE English subject test scores as well
- Introductory letter of intent
- Critical writing samples
- Application fee
Expect to pay an application fee of somewhere around $50 for each school. If you’re applying to ten to twelve schools, you can expect to pay anywhere from $500-$700, so plan ahead. You don’t want to hold up your decision just because you forgot to squirrel away enough cash for the department’s review fee.
Understand the Costs of a PhD
Most PhD programs in English offer full funding for at least some of their students, if not all. In this way, it’s a lot like being hired for a job. Schools will typically offer a fellowship for incoming students that include tuition waivers and a stipend, at minimum. Some schools might offer additional research grants or even health insurance. In exchange for your tuition, you’ll typically be asked to teach a class or assist a professor. Not all schools are created equal in terms of how much benefit they offer students. If a lot of funding is top priority for you, be sure to factor that into your decision process. Choosing to enter a program without funding could mean a mountain of unexpected spending. You need to seriously add up the expenses of a non-funded lifestyle beforehand, bearing in mind that if you do sign on, you do so at your own risk.
Use these Tips to Succeed as an English PhD Candidate
Follow this advice to find academic success in your program:
- Start on your published profile now. You should always work towards producing publishable work. You are trying to be an authority in the field, after all. The more publishing accomplishments you have, the better your chance of securing a cushy faculty position in the future.
- Attend conferences and seminars. This is helpful not just as a CV booster; it offers invaluable opportunities to network and build relationships with other people in the discipline.
- Don’t stress over grades in graduate school. GPAs aren’t important in PhD programs; in fact, a lot of schools operate on a pass/fail basis. On the other hand, professionalism definitely is. It’s important to develop good relationships with your professors and to turn your work in on time; in short, be impeccable with your word.
Understand the Job Market for English PhD Graduates
The job market for English PhD’s is unfavorable. Most PhD candidates are hoping for a tenure-track faculty position, but the current numbers suggest that less than half of all graduates will achieve that. However, there are a lot of other things you can do with your degree. Many PhD students are able to find non-tenure track teaching positions at universities as adjunct faculty. Others still go on to work in the private sector or for non-profits. Finally, you might look into securing funding for post-doctoral research work.
The key to getting a great job in academia after graduating is to become a great academic while you’re still in school. Publish as many articles and essays as possible, make good relationships with your peers, and above all else, be determined and resilient throughout the job hunt. Keep in mind that it takes most professors six to ten years before landing a permanent, tenure track position.