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Grad School FAQ's

Graduate School FAQs

Should I get an M.A., an M.F.A., or a Ph.D.?

An M.A. will qualify you to teach in the community college system. It is also popular as a professional development supplement to a K-12 teaching credential.

An M.F.A. is a terminal degree in literary arts. In combination with publications and/or training in teaching, it qualifies you to teach writing at the college and university level.

The Ph.D. is a terminal degree in literary studies and qualifies you to teach literature at the college and university level.

Some students consider applying for M.A. programs as a way to test the waters of grad school before deciding whether to pursue a Ph.D. This is usually inadvisable, since the vast majority of financial aid dollars are awarded to candidates who state that they plan to complete a doctorate and then seek a position as a professor.

People who hold graduate degrees in English find careers in many fields beyond higher education they work in publishing, public relations, government, law, and more. Critical thinking, research, and communications skills are highly valued in a wide range of settings.

How hard is it to get a job as a professor?

Acceptance into graduate school can be very competitive; some schools accept fewer than ten percent of their applicants. The competition is also intense when applying for teaching positions after graduation. Many tenure-track positions in higher education attract applicant pools of 200 or more. Especially at the university level, job candidates must be willing to relocate to secure a job. Nevertheless, with dedication and careful planning, many graduate students will find career opportunities teaching in their field of choice, while others may choose to pursue non-academic options.

When should I start preparing to apply for grad school?

Now. Ideally, you should start your research and planning at least a year and a half before you hope to start your program. The application process is complex, includes multiple stages, and will require a significant amount of original writing.

Where can I get advice about applying to grad school?

The English Department holds an annual brown bag seminar for prospective applicants. If you think you may be interested in grad school, attend this seminar and/or set up an informational meeting with one or more of our faculty members. If you choose to move forward, you should ask a faculty member to act as your mentor through the application process. Some applicants also set up peer mentoring groups in which they study together for exams, critique each others’ application essays and writing samples, and share information and moral support.

How important are the GREs? How high do I have to score?

Programs vary in the degree of importance they give to the GREs. Most programs in English and related fields do not look at quantitative scores. Many do look closely at verbal and writing scores, as well as subject test scores. Take the GREs early and don’t stress too much about the numbers. Your application essay and writing sample are much more important.

How many reference letters do I need?

Most schools ask for three letters of reference, but it is a good idea to provide four. Identify your four referees very early in the process. At least two months before your first deadline, prepare a complete packet for each referee that includes a draft of your application essay and writing sample. You may also want to include a resume and any additional information that might help them recommend you as strongly as possible. You should also provide information on each of the programs you are applying to, including any specific instructions about how to submit the letter. Don’t forget to sign the statement on the reference forms waiving your right to read the letter. Admissions committees will only trust letters that are confidential.

How many schools should I apply to?

The application process is extremely unpredictable and most schools receive far more applications than they can accept. To ensure that you receive at least one acceptance with financial support, apply to a minimum of eight programs. Application fees can be expensive, but most schools will waive the fee in cases of demonstrable financial need. Also, it is a good idea to apply to a range of schools, some with programs that are highly rated and some that have less distinguished rankings but strong offerings in your field. You can find information on programs at the Modern Language Association and Associated Writing Programs websites.

What should I say in my statement of purpose or application essay?

Keep autobiographical information to a minimum. Admissions committees are much less interested in your life story than in your ideas about literature. On the other hand, many programs actively seek candidates who have overcome special hardships, such as physical or learning disabilities, being the first in family to go to college, or growing up in a single-parent household. They also often seek to recruit members of traditionally underrepresented groups according to race, gender, or class. Mainly, you should focus on demonstrating your literary knowledge, as well as your skills as a scholar and writer. Your goal in this document is to outline the program of research or creative activity that you will pursue during your graduate career. You should also identify and define in clear terms the professional specialization that you plan to develop in preparation for the job market. Keeping in mind the number of applications each program receives, try to make your statement stand out from the pile in a positive, meaningful way.

What kind of writing sample should I use?

Each program has different requirements with respect to length and content, but you should submit your best scholarly or creative work and you should plan to take your sample through several revisions in consultation with your faculty mentor.