Thinking of Graduate Studies in English Literature

Getting a PhD in English
This guide will help you prepare for and apply to graduate school in English literature. Careful consideration of the topics below will make the process considerably easier. Any faculty member can answer questions you might have. 

Should You Go?
Graduate school is not like college. It is a full-time job that pays badly. Many people find it emotionally draining. And academic jobs are scarce. The people who do best in graduate school are there because they are deeply committed to the work—literary investigation and writing. Is that you? 

Keep in mind, though, that deciding to apply isn’t the same thing as deciding to go. There’s no harm in applying before you’re sure.

These sites might help you make up your mind:
•UC Berkeley has a few questions you might ask yourself before deciding to become a graduate student:

•The University of Washington has an excellent discussion of good and bad reasons for going to graduate school in English:

•Thomas Benton thinks that, no, you shouldn’t go:

•Take a look at what actual graduate students do on a day-to-day basis. This message board will give you a sense of what the life is like:

•And some thoughts on the long-term value, from GoodCall:


Getting Ready

There are many things you can do while at Knox to help you succeed, both in graduate school and in applying to graduate school:

•Talk to your advisor as soon as possible. By your junior year, you should let people know that you’re considering it. 

•Take a lot of survey courses. By the time you apply to graduate school, you should know whether you’re interested in American or British literature. Consider taking 231 and 232, or 251, 252, and 253.

•Take as many theory courses as possible. Theory courses include 200, 334, and most 300-level seminars. 

•Consider TA’ing for a class. Talk to your professors about whether they would be willing to work with you.

•Submit your work every chance you get. Apply for prizes. Try to publish what you’ve written. Submit papers to conferences. These things look good on an application and will give you valuable experience. 

•Think about what you can use for a writing sample. The best writing sample will probably be a seminar paper that reflects your broader intellectual interests. 

•Consider an Honors Project. Successfully completing an Honors Project will give you a preview of graduate work and it will communicate to schools that you’re serious. 

•Know that applying to graduate school is expensive. You will need to budget for exams, application fees, transcripts, and postage. 

And you might want to look at possible calendars for applying:

•UC Berkeley has a timeline, for your Junior and Senior years, that should get you started:

•And UC Santa Barbara has a timeline in case you’re beginning in your Senior year:


An Overview
If you want a quick look at what it takes to get into graduate school and to do well there, check these out: 

•Thomas Benton, the one who didn’t think you should go to graduate school, has some excellent advice in case you decide to go anyway:

•You can find Knox’s advice on whether and where to go to graduate school here:

•Peterson’s Graduate Planner walks you through all you need to know:

•The Modern Language Association—the mother ship of literary studies—has this advice on choosing programs and what to do once you’re there:

You should know that there are two types of graduate programs: those that offer terminal Masters degrees and those that offer PhDs. A PhD is necessary if you plan to teach literature at the college level. If you’re going to graduate school for other reasons—perhaps just to scout out the territory—you might consider getting a Masters. Know, though, that funding is likely to be better in a PhD program than in a terminal Masters program. You might also consider PhD programs that offer Masters degrees to students who choose to leave early. 

•This page, at Washington and Jefferson College, has an excellent discussion of whether to look at Masters or PhD programs in English and how to put together a strong application:

•This site, from the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, has a good discussion of Masters programs and PhD programs in English, and on the whether’s, where’s, and how’s of going to graduate school:


Where Should You Go?
Choosing a graduate school is a complicated thing. Several factors should affect your decision:

•How well does a specific program match your interests? Are there people there you want to work with? Is the program geared toward your strengths? 

•Where are you willing to live? Only on the coasts? Anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line? Near your family? You’re going to be there for a long time, so think about it.

•How much funding is available? Taking on massive amounts of debt is risky business, especially given that jobs are scarce. 

•How prestigious is the program? If you plan to teach at the college level, a highly ranked program may make it easier to find a job.

•How long does it take students to finish, and how well do they do on the job market? When you’ve narrowed it to a few schools, consider asking what their normative time is, what their average time to completion is, what their placement rates are, and how many of their graduates end up in tenure track jobs. 

•Are you sure you want to finish? If not, look at programs that will let you leave early with a Masters.

Start by checking out these sites:

•You can find a directory of English programs, organized by geography, here:

•You can find the 2013 rankings for the top 100 programs here:

•The University of Washington lists some questions you might ask yourself when choosing a program:

•Use the search tool here to figure out which programs fit your own personal criteria:

•And of course you should look at schools’ own sites to see what they have to say for themselves. 


The Application
A graduate school application typically consists of five things: 

•The application itself, including your transcripts. You should request applications from the schools you’re interested in. Follow directions to the letter

•GRE scores for the general exam and subject exam

•A statement of purpose

•A writing sample

•Letters of recommendation. (Your letters of recommendation are sometimes referred to as your dossier) 

Advice on specific parts of the application is below. But here are some general suggestions to get you started: 

•UC Davis has some general advice on putting together an application:

•The University of Washington breaks down the nuts and bolts of an application:


GRE Scores
The GRE is a nightmare. Take advantage of whatever test-prep is available to you. Knox usually offers a GRE preparatory program in the fall. Take it. Do your homework. You will probably need to take the test in October to ensure that your scores arrive on time. 

•Register for the GRE’s, and get some basic information, here:

•You can find lots of advice about doing well on the general exam here:


The subject test is another creature altogether: 

•Here are useful tips from someone who did pretty well:

•And more tips from someone else:

•And you might also download flashcards for the subject test (yes, it’s the kind of test where flashcards would really help):


A Statement of Purpose
Your statement of purpose is, perhaps, the most important part of your application. Please do not write about your profound love of literature, which is not only universal among applicants, but irrelevant to your success as a graduate student. And be sure to get help—the best statements go through many revisions.

In your statement, you want to communicate the following:

•What you’re interested in. The more specific you can be, the better. What field, genre, or topic are you working on? What critics and critical schools have influenced your work? What questions are you hoping to answer? 

•Why you are qualified to go to graduate school. Programs want to know that you will do well in graduate school, stick around to finish, and make them look good once you’re done. Have you won awards? Do you belong to societies? Have you presented your work somewhere? 

•Why you’re interested in a particular program. Is there someone there you want to work with? Does their library have holdings you need? Do they have a special program or project that’s right up your alley? How can they help you meet your goals?

•That you’re an excellent writer. Above all else, the statement is a writing sample. Make it a good one. 

Look for more suggestions here:

•UC Berkeley has some general advice about statements of purpose:

•You can find a good overview of what to do, and what not to do, in a statement from the University of Washington’s site:

•There is excellent advice, here, from people at UC Santa Barbara who read these things for a living:

•Look here for lots and lots of thoughts about what goes into a successful statement:

•Read about one student who writes a statement from the heart, and then revises like crazy:


A Writing Sample
Your writing sample shows what you can do. It will probably be a seminar paper or the beginnings of an Honors Project. 

•A writing sample is usually between 15 and 20 pages. It should be theoretically-minded, and it should rely on secondary sources.

•Ideally, your writing sample will relate to what you say your interests are. That is, it will be an example of what you’re working on. 

•Plan to revise your writing sample during the application process. It must be shiny and solid. 


Letters of Recommendation
Be sure to review the department’s guidelines for requesting letters before you need them. Keep the following in mind, too, when applying to graduate schools: 

•The best letters of recommendation come from professors who know you well. Develop relationships early, as you may need to request letters long before you graduate. 

•You want your statement of purpose, your writing sample, and your letters of recommendation to tell a coherent story. Thus, when you submit your requests for letters, you will need to have drafts of your personal statement and writing sample ready. 

Your best bet is to pay attention to the following: 

•Absolutely follow the department’s guidelines:

•UC Berkeley has some general guidelines for requesting letters:

•And you can find suggestions from Yale on how to get the best letters from your professors:

•If you plan to apply to more than a handful of schools, or if you’re requesting letters before you actually apply, consider setting up a credential file at Knox’s Center for Career and Pre-Professional Development:


And Again

Remember the following:

•The earlier you start preparing for graduate school, the more options you’ll have.

•You can decide to apply to graduate schools without being sure you want to go.

•Your professors are here to help you. Just ask.