Applying to Graduate School 

Brian Richardson, University of Maryland

[Our thanks to Professor Richardson, who conducted a workshop with our majors interested in graduate programs in English literature and prepared this handout for us.]

If you are keenly interested in literature, have high grades, and wish to study it further in a deeper manner, you should consider going to graduate school in English. You will learn more than you imagined you could, it will often be intellectually thrilling, and it will provide you with some of the best times and most intense friendships of your life.It usually takes two years to get a Masters degree; this typically involves three semesters of graduate course work and one semester writing your thesis (usually 30-75 pages). It takes another 3-4 years to complete a PhD; this requires another year of classes, completing the doctoral exams, and the writing of a dissertation, a 200-250 page contribution to the scholarship in your field.  Do wait until you are thoroughly motivated before going to grad school. If you not sure, go to Europe instead. No one will look askance at your application if the last year or two is left blank. If you do take some time off, make sure your professors know you plan to ask them for a letter of recommendation later on.  Remember, graduate school in English requires discipline and dedication; it is much more like going to law school than joining a sophisticated book club.

As soon as you know you are destined for graduate school, discuss you situation with your advisors. They will steer you toward the more advanced courses. Take a class in critical theory. Get to know the professors whose recommendations you want; let them know in a timely fashion that you will be asking them for a letter in the future. When asking for a letter of recommendation, give the professor a couple of months or at least several weeks to do it. Don’t be shy about politely checking on the status of your letter.

If you take some time off between undergraduate and graduate school, there are additional opportunities for study. Many universities allow B. A.’s to take a class or two from their graduate courses, especially during summer term. There are short, intense two-week summer schools devoted to Yeats in Sligo and Joyce in Zürich, as well as others closer to home. Your chances are best if you have a clear and defined field of interest, even if it’s a capacious one like the English novel or women writers since 1750. More compact areas would include topics like Renaissance drama, feminist theory, or theory of poetry. Find several English departments that have considerable strengths (that is, several publishing scholars) in the areas you are interested in.

Be sure to apply to some less exclusive schools as well, both for a backup and to help you negotiate funding. Apply to all those schools, indicating your interests and the professors you look forward to working with. Top schools to study modernist fiction include U Penn, Virginia, and Penn State. Other excellent schools for modernism include Cornell, Vanderbilt, Rutgers, Princeton, Maryland, and U Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The University of Maryland is also very strong in American literature, Postcolonial Studies, Asian and African American literature, Narrative and Critical Theory, and Feminist Studies.Remember, there are many schools with excellent MA programs but a minuscule or no PhD program (Georgetown, Boston College).

The materials for your application will consist of (in order of importance): your writing sample (especially if situated within existing criticism), letters of recommendation (ideally from nationally recognized scholars), grades (especially your most recent grades in literature and related courses), GRE scores, personal statement. In the latter, be focused, eg: “I am keenly interested in the work of Joyce and Woolf and wish to study modernism at Cornell with Daniel Schwarz, Molly Hite, and Douglas Mao”; don't go romantic: “At the age of 12 I fell in love with literature and vowed to devote my life to it.” Make sure your writing sample is thoroughly revised, has a complete bibliography, and represents the best work you are capable of, whatever its subject. Ideally, it will be situated within current critical accounts or debates “For the most part, there are two main ways of interpreting X”) and will be theoretically informed.

Some universities ask you to apply to the MA program or to the PhD. Those who apply to the PhD program are typically taken more seriously. I do not normally recommend attending a PhD program that does not give you full funding, either as a Teaching Assistant or as part of a fellowship. It is probably not in your interest to get a PhD from a university that is not ranked in the top 40 or 50 nationally. Do keep an eye on your future ability to get a good job.

Most important are your writing sample and GPA in your major. Next is the international reputation of your dissertation director and first reader. Another factors is the general prestige of the English Department at a particular university. All things being equal, you will be better off with a PhD from Princeton or Virginia than one from Bryn Mawr or Mississippi State. Remember, most PhD programs are designed to produce college professors. That is, people who love to read in the end apply for jobs that enable you to teach freshman composition and introductory literature courses to undergraduates, many of whom are nonmajors. The jobs are often allotted in large part on the basis of published critical articles. Don’t hesitate to visit different campuses. Inform the graduate director and he or she will almost always help you arrange a visit, attend some classes, and meet with graduate students.As soon as it is convenient and appropriate, introduce yourself to the professors you are planning to work with.Once in a program, you will find it very useful to master an area of literary theory, however small. E.g. closure, theory of the author, the female tradition, nationalism, etc.