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Graduate Studies

Academics / Departments & Programs / English / Academics / Graduate Studies

Some veteran advice for English majors hoping to go to graduate school from faculty member Jennifer Hardy Williams.

Applying to Graduate School

I went to graduate school at the University of California, Irvine in 1995 and completed my Ph.D. in 2004. I was accepted into a class of twelve students. Half of my fellow students dropped out of the program by the end of the second year and only three of us ever finished our degrees. I then worked as a lecturer at UCI for one year and landed a tenure-track job at Calvin University in 2005.  What follows are my thoughts and suggestions for undergraduate students at Calvin who are also interested in getting a Ph.D.

Caveat: These suggestions are entirely shaped by my own training and experience as a graduate student at UCI. UCI is a Research I university that had a heavy emphasis on critical theory when I was there. Furthermore, we were trained with the expectation that we were preparing for jobs at other secular Research I universities. As such, the advice I have to offer may be different from the advice you might receive from another professor.

Career prospects in academia

One thing students should be very aware of is the sad state of the job market in academia today. For a variety of reasons, many related to decreasing funding for the Humanities and rising undergraduate enrollment, there are many more students who complete PhD programs than there are jobs. Rosemary G. Feal recently reported that according to MLA placement surveys, “approximately one-third of those who earn a PhD in English . . . will receive tenure at the institutions that originally hire them in tenure-track positions” and “sixty to sixty-five percent of all English and foreign language PhD recipients find employment in a tenure-track position within five years of receiving their degree.”1 What happened to the others, she wonders? Indeed, the Modern Language Association, in their “Committee on Professional Employment: Final Report” (2000), described the job market as in “crisis.” They reported:

To be sure, in the fields of language and literature professional tidings have been dismal for some time. Across the nation, graduate enrollments have grown, although the MLA's latest job-placement surveys suggest that if present employment patterns continue fewer than half the seven or eight thousand graduate students likely to earn PhDs in English and foreign languages between 1996 and 2000 can expect to obtain full-time tenure-track positions within a year of receiving their degrees. At the same time, the slow growth of permanent faculties in English and foreign language departments has been counter pointed by an increasing reliance on part-time lecturers—many of them "freeway flyers" who can only achieve a living wage by putting together jobs at different institutions—and on often equally under compensated cadres of graduate student teachers.2

The same report also indicates that 60% of those students who did not land a tenure-track job ended up taking a part-time or adjunct position at a university, four-year college, or two-year community college. This is grim news indeed. Especially when you consider that earning a PhD usually takes 7-10 years. It can become increasingly difficult to stay motivated to finish a degree program when your prospects for actually working in the field you have labored so long to train for are by no means assured. Does this mean that you should leave grad school well-enough alone? Yes and no. These statistics should be sobering, but they can also help you to clarify why you want to pursue graduate school and your goals. These statistics also emphasize that our primary resource for graduate school, as in all things, is God—the dismal market means that we have no choice but to rely on Him and His sovereignty.

Other considerations

The best advice I got when I was thinking of applying to grad school was from a professor who had watched the market with trepidation for years. I spoke with her recently, and she said that 10 years later, she stands by the same advice. She told me that if there was anything else I could imagine doing with my life other than academia, then I should do that instead. If, however, I found that there is nothing that could satisfy me like the academic life, then I needed to apply and let the chips fall where they may. Similarly, I think that as Christians we can trust that if God has called us to graduate school, then He will provide the means to get there. And if God has called us to a life of service in academia, then we can trust that He will provide us with the job He means for us to have. This is not to say that God might not call someone to graduate school but not to a career in academia. More on that below.

Think carefully and honestly about your motives. Are you applying for graduate school because your professors told you to? Because you are graduating soon, don’t know what you want to do with your life, and just staying in school seems as good a choice as any? Because you love school so much? Because you love books? I would suggest that these are not the best reasons to apply for grad school. Graduate school is professional training. Realizing this was the big adjustment of my first year in grad school. I had thought that grad school would be a lot like my senior year as an undergrad only more so: lots of seminars, people just talking about books, etc. But graduate school is about preparing you to land a job as a professor. As such, you are not just "an English major” anymore—you are on the path to professionalization.

If you’re not sure whether or not you’re called to graduate school and academia, consider applying for an MA program first. This is especially wise if you feel like there are areas of study that you have not had a chance to prepare well in—theory, for example—or if you’re not sure what area you want to specialize in as a graduate student. Many of the students in the applicant pool for PhD programs come from a MA program somewhere else. This is part of what makes just getting into grad school so competitive: students with MAs are often a great deal more polished and focused than students with BAs. Enrolling in an MA program, then, is a good opportunity to not only explore whether or not the academic life is for you but also to make yourself as competitive as you can be if and when you do apply for a PhD program.

God wants smart Christians in the academy at large. Although it is wise to be cognizant of the terrible state of the job market, and it is wise to think carefully about your own motives for applying to grad school, the bottom line is that God wants smart Christians to be out there, in the world, doing the transformationalist work of the Kingdom of God and bearing witness to God’s own brilliance. Too many secular universities believe that Christians are just stupid. Academic service, both in Christian schools and in the academic world at large, is an important part of our calling and one that is worth your careful consideration and contemplation.

There is a difference between understanding graduate school as a means to an end and as something valuable in and of itself. If you expect that receiving a PhD will automatically ensure you a job as a professor, then you are likely to find graduate school very frustrating and difficult. Attrition rates are quite high at most schools. But if you recognize that there is something valuable about the process or experience of graduate school in and of itself, then the dismal state of the job market may be less important to your overall decision making process. I believe that God could call someone to apply for and go to graduate school without intending that that person actually work as a professor. That is, one might be called to go to graduate school but not be called to the professorate. Is that something you need to have worked out before applying? No. If you believe God is calling you to apply, that’s all you need to know, and you can trust Him to take care of the rest.

Choosing the right school

Having just said that we can trust in God to take care of the details, we can still be as “crafty as serpents” in our approach to applying for graduate school. Given the lousy job market, you want to get into the highest ranked school you can. US News and World Reports puts out a survey every year in which they rank the top graduate programs across the country. The rankings are both general as well as broken down into specific concentrations. In general, if your goal is to be a tenured professor, you want to try to get into a school that is ranked in the top 20. Coming from a well-reputed program can maximize your chances on the job market later on.

Plan on applying to about 9-12 schools. These should include 3 "dream” schools, at least 3 schools in the “second tier” of the top 20 but still very good, and then a few schools you feel reasonably sure you can get into. This may seem like a lot but graduate programs tend to accept only 20-30 students per year. This is a far cry from the much larger numbers of freshmen who are accepted into undergraduate programs. It can also be expensive to apply to so many places, unfortunately.

Ask your professors for advice on where to apply. Just because a program is ranked #1 overall doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for you. There are a number of factors that go into determining what program will be best for you. So, for example, if you intend to specialize in modernism, the highest ranked programs for modernist studies might not be the same as the highest ranked schools over all. And if you want to specialize in medieval lit, those schools might not be the same as the highest ranked modernist schools. Your professors can help you determine what programs would be good for you and your interests. The MLA Web site also has a search-engine for finding schools with particular concentrations (listed below).

Research the schools that seem interesting to you. Once you’ve generated your list of places to apply, go to their Web sites and learn all you can about the program. Who teaches there? What professors specialize in the field you are interested in? Do they have the emails of current graduate students in the program? Emailing current graduate students is a great way to find out what a place is “really” like. Are they really a “terminal masters” program, or do they intend to grant PhDs to all students they accept into their PhD program?3

Try to find out the program’s placement rates. Do their students get tenure-line jobs? What resources do they offer to help their graduate students land a job? Be brave about asking questions about a program and learning what they have to offer. It’s easy to adopt a “beggars can’t be choosers” attitude, but you are choosing them as much as they are choosing you.

The GRE and your GPA

As for what gets a smart student into a good school, first is grades and GRE scores. Alas, there is often a threshold that, if not met, gets an application set aside right away. In most competitive places (top 20) it is a GPA of 3.75 and a GRE verbal score of around 700. In truth, however, many schools do take in a few students who fall just short of that criteria, but either they have something else going for them or get very very lucky (on which more below). This is a sad state of affairs, because often enough, a student with far lower GRE's—say 625—writes a brilliant paper that doesn't even get read. But there you go.

There is not a whole lot you can do to prepare for the GRE’s other than take a wide variety of classes and read a lot. One of my professors recommend reading through the Norton Anthology of British Literature and the Norton Anthology of American Literature. No joke.

If your GPA and GRE scores are not high enough, there ARE things you can do. Go to the websites of the program you really want to get into and see what the professors in your field are writing about. Contact that professor and express interest in the program and in her work (professors love that if it is genuine). Tell the professor something about your interest and asks if the professor would read your paper. If your letter is smart and somewhat tailored to the interests of the professor, she may tell the grad admissions chair that she would like to read your file and paper when they arrive. If she likes what she sees, she can usually keep you in the pool a bit longer than your scores and GPA might do. At the end of the day, support from a single faculty member can help. So even if your scores are high enough, it might be worth while to do a bit of research, see what faculty have written about at the schools to which you want to apply, and then contact one person at each school and see if that helps. Don’t forget the power of networking too. You never know if your professor here at Calvin is best friends with or the former student of the admissions advisor at another school.

The writing sample

Once you've made it into the competitive pool, the writing sample matters hugely, if not most importantly. Selection committees are looking for:

  • ability to sustain an argument about literature
  • research skills
  • a natural prose ability/fluency

I would say schools are really looking for some literary skill (close reading, argumentation) with some sense of literary history (big picture stuff). The paper needs to show some imagination—readers are pretty forgiving if the paper has some spark to it. If students come with MAs, then schools tend to expect more professional polish and more articulated sense of method.

Other considerations for your writing sample:

  1. The paper also needs to be accessible to general academic readers. This means you really need to plan on revising if you want to use something you wrote for a class. If you don’t revise a class paper, the paper will often presume stuff that was relevant to that class but won't wash in the cold light of day.
  2. You will need to demonstrate some theoretical awareness. This need not be a full-blown treatment of a particular theoretical position in relationship to the literary text you’re working on. But at minimum the paper needs to demonstrate that it understands its own assumptions and has some sense of method. No theory is better than theory badly developed or misapplied.
  3. Make sure that you get advice on which paper you should send. Don’t just assume it will be your senior thesis (although this is often a good choice because it will probably demonstrate the above skills and you’ve presumably revised it with your advisor’s help) or the one you got your highest grade on. Bring your advisor a choice of papers and figure out together which will do the job. A big problem is that if the paper is not in the field you think you to want to study. If you submit a writing sample that is not in the field you say you are interested in, then it is harder to get the attention of the faculty member in your field who might be in the best position to push for you. For example, if a student wants to study medieval literature but sends a paper on Charles Dickens, the paper will be read by the resident victorianist and not by the medieval professor. If the victorian professor likes the paper, fine, the student stays in the pool. But if the modernist professor feels she has better prospects in other candidates (remember, the professors are thinking about who they get to work with too!), she'll nix the student and he or she will have a very hard time getting a second read. There are few ways around this glitch, but it's best to send something from your chosen field. If you must send a paper not in your chosen field, you might want to also include a second piece of work that is in the field and explain why you are doing this. I have seen this work at UCI quite a few times, even though some grad admissions people are not happy to get more writing samples than they requested.
  4. It is true as a general rule that readers try to find papers with something in them that is a good fit for that program, so again, you need to research the programs where you are applying (e.g.: at UCI it is very hard to get beyond square one without some interest in theory however broadly conceived).

Your personal statement

Have lots of people read your personal statement. The statement is not very important in itself but it can kill an application to have a student who starts "Even as a kid I always liked to read." These personal statements are not like the ones you wrote to get into college. Students need to know that the personal statement is for entrance to a professional program and it needs to indicate some professional interests, even if they are invented. Other professors may disagree, but I don’t think that the personal statement for a graduate program is the place for an essay that begins with some quick and “clever” opening line—the whole “grab your reader’s attention” strategy. Don’t be cute or gimicky—be the intelligent, thoughtful, and articulate thinker that makes you “professor material.”

Indicate your intended field of specialization. Your statement does not have to single out a specific field, but you should keep it to 2 or 3 strong interests—in periods, genres, theoretical problems, etc. If there is just one field that interests you, great--be specific about interests in that one field. Even if you are really not sure of what you want to do, still do your best to flesh out two areas that interest you. This is part of what will help convince the admissions committee that their program is a great fit for you.

It's great if students have a sense of an intellectual project you want to pursue: areas you want to work on, along with methods or approaches you plan to use. But this is by no means necessary or required. Selection committees won’t really expect to see this, but it is nice to talk about your plans if you can.

Letters of recommendation

Your letters should come from faculty members who know you and your work. Detail is more important than the prestige of the letter writer. Ask for letters well in advance. Professors are busy. ‘Nuf said. When you ask for a letter, give each writer a packet of sorts. The packet should have a cover letter that contains the following:

  • A clear statement (one paragraph) about why you are applying to grad school.
  • A list of the schools to which you are applying and the due dates for each letter.
  • Indicate which schools you are most eager to get in to.
  • A copy of your writing sample.
  • A copy of your personal statement.

Ask your letter writers if they would like you to remind them of the deadlines. Do not remind them if they do not ask you to. There is nothing more annoying than having a student “check up” on you. If you have written papers for your letter writers in previous classes, ask them if they would like to see a copy of those papers (preferably with their comments on them!).

When to start applying

Ideally, your junior year is the best year to start preparing to apply for graduate school. This will give you time to assess what courses you need to take to fill in gaps in your preparation and time to think about applying to write a senior thesis that would work well as a writing sample. Talk to your advisor sometime at the beginning of the year about your graduate school plans. Applications for graduate school are usually due in December-January of your senior year. Starting to think about applying at the beginning of your senior year means you will have to be very intentional and work very hard to get all your materials together in time. It also doesn’t give you enough time to work up your best possible writing sample.

Delaying your entrance into grad school

You don’t need to go straight from college to a graduate program. Completing a PhD program takes a very long time. Taking a year off might allow you to pursue graduate school with more energy and a renewed sense of purpose. A year off might also allow you to pursue other wonderful programs—teaching English abroad or service-related programs or an internship, for example.

On the other hand, once you leave college, it can be difficult to get back into the academic routine once you take some time off from it. A year off can easily turn into two, or three, or four, or….. Time off can be great but it does take a certain amount of discipline and self-motivation on your part.


1 Rosemary G. Feal. “What Everyone from Graduate Students to University Presidents Can Learn from the Report by the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion.” Editorial. MLA Newsletter 39.1 (Spring 2007): 5-6.

2 prof_employment/prof_employment2 (updated link)

3 Programs with terminal masters can be quite odious and they are different from just applying to a master’s program. What you want to beware of is applying for a PhD program and then getting kicked out at the MA. This means that the school might intend to award a total of 12 PhDs to a given class. However, they will then admit 24 students and let those students fight-it out. When you get to your Masters review, usually around the end of your second year, those students who don’t make the cut get a master’s degree as a “parting gift” and are let go from the program. Thankfully, most schools have recognized that this is not exactly the most humane practice. Still, I strongly urge students to only apply for PhD programs that will support all students from day one to degree competition.

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