Didn't get into grad school - now what do I do?
April 16, 2010 8:39 AM   Subscribe

Didn't get into grad school - now what do I do?

I applied for PhD in English programs this year and was waitlisted a couple places but didn't ultimately get in anywhere. I'm disappointed, and I think I may apply again next year, but I don't know what to do (job-wise) in the meantime.

I'm a couple years out of college and I've been working the same boring office job since I graduated. I know I'm lucky to have even a boring job, but I'd like to do something that would be either relevant to my future academic career or interesting on my application. I would love to live abroad, for example, but I know that's something easier said than done, and I don't know the best ways to go about doing that. A year of service would also really interest me. Jobs somehow related to literature would be ideal, but other than teaching, those are in short supply! I know that's not very specific, but that's kind of my problem - I just don't know what I want to do.

A few relevant points:

1. I'm female in my mid-20s with a bachelor's degree.
2. I'm in the U.S., but not tied down to any particular place.
3. I'm not independently wealthy and need to be able to support myself, but otherwise don't need a fancy lifestyle.

I'm feeling a little lost, hivemind. Any advice you could give on what I could do next, or what you would do in my shoes, would be really appreciated.

I'm anonymous because some coworkers know my mefi name, but I set up a throw-away: whatwouldyoudo516@gmail.com.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (18 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Since you're looking to go to grad school in English, I'm assuming that you're interested in teaching in the long term. These may be a little obvious, but have you thought about Teach for America or JET?
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:49 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

...those are in short supply!

Not abroad they're not.
posted by griphus at 8:52 AM on April 16, 2010

There's always the Peace Corps. They'll delay your loan repayment during, and you get some money toward school debt at the end, I think.
posted by Menthol at 8:56 AM on April 16, 2010

The JET induction process begins in October, interviews are scheduled in February, and contracts actually begin by July 1st. So you would have more than a year before you would even start the position.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:56 AM on April 16, 2010

I know many people have found TFA or JET immensely fulfilling (and really hard work). In addition, there's City Year and Americorps. Those experiences could help you decide where you want to focus in the future.

Also, a mentor can be extremely valuable at this point in your career. Are there people in your life (teachers, professors, a supervisor or colleague, etc) who you could interview about their academic or career paths? Even if you're not sure that you want to be a professor or writer or ?, finding one who is willing to assist you with your search for your passion or career could be just what you need.
posted by annaramma at 8:58 AM on April 16, 2010

You say you have a bachelor's, and were applying for Ph.D. programs. If you don't have a master's degree, I would be applying for that next year. You are competing for a Ph.D. slot against people who have master's degrees. Most graduate schools want to see a master's first in English. (There are some programs that don't have a master's level, and go straight to doctorate, but English isn't one of them.) I used to work in a graduate admissions office, so I do have some knowledge about this.

As for what to do this year... can you find work in a library, perhaps? If not, I'd definitely look at Teach for America, or maybe teaching English as a foreign language in any country, including this one.
posted by wwartorff at 9:00 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I work for a PhD Program in English in the US and about 3/4 of our accepted students have an MA. It is particularly hard for students a few years out of a BA to get admitted because in most cases their letters of recommendation and writing samples are stale and/or weak. It would be a good idea to go for an MA for these reasons, plus many PhD Programs (including the one I work for) will transfer in a significant number of MA credits in the relevant subject so you'll be that far ahead.
posted by Pineapplicious at 9:11 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Despite what people are recommending, TFA is not an option for you, not for this year, anyway -- the positions for 10-11 were already chosen. You could apply for next year, but that's not really what you want. I suspect that many of the other programs people are recommending (Americorps, JET, etc) are also well past the deadline for applying.

I don't have any other suggestions... but I just wanted to make sure you and other people know that these are not actually options as an answer to your question.
posted by brainmouse at 9:11 AM on April 16, 2010

First, read the article "Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go", to make yourself feel a little better. Keep in mind, also, that thanks to the economy this was one of the roughest years to apply to graduate school--and there's no indication that next year will be any better. We're talking about application rates up by as much as

Second, I want to whole-heartedly nth JET and other teach-abroad programs. I know quite a few people who went through them and had a really great time.

If I hadn't gotten into grad school in 2006 (graduated with my master's, now work an office job; keep in mind that you might be back to square one no matter what happens), I would have put together a list of interesting, vibrant, and affordable cities, applied to jobs in one, and moved there. It sounds like a change of job/pace might really be all you need. Literature will always be there for you, believe it or not, regardless of whether you have the advanced degree to "prove" it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:12 AM on April 16, 2010 [8 favorites]

You want to teach, you're in your 20s, and you're not tied down.

This seems like an ideal set of conditions for teaching overseas.



Korea also seems like a popular, and perhaps more remunerative, option.
posted by darth_tedious at 9:16 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

wwartoff's information is a bit off. I'm a PhD student in English now and had to apply a couple of different years before I got into the program I'm in now. Actually, there are fewer and fewer English programs that offer terminal masters. None of the top schools do. I got my masters degree first because I wasn't sure about grad school, but I think it ended up being detrimental to me when I applied to PhD programs that didn't have master's programs. They don't want to "retrain" you to the specifics of their program.

As far as for your year off, you might check with local community colleges. I taught some classes in the Adult Basic Education department for a while and I also worked in the writing lab/tutoring center. You can also research teaching ESL overseas. www.eslcafe.com is a good place to start. I did it fresh out of undergrad in the late 90's in Spain and was able to find work quite easily, though technically illegally. I also substitute taught.

If you are near a University with a grad program you might consider auditing a grad class--particularly if they have some version of an intro to the profession class. It will help you learn the lingo and can help you network. Also, most places care more about your research than your teaching experience.

Good luck. Also if it's any solace this a tough year for higher ed. I'm sure a lot of programs had to cut back on admissions numbers. My program isn't even taking an incoming class.
posted by Dr. Lurker at 9:23 AM on April 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

My backup plan for if I ended up in your situation was as follows:

1. Quit my current job.
2. Find a job that allows me to participate in some way, even just administratively, in the field that really interests me or something closely related. I was planning to apply to administrative assistant jobs at local universities.
3. Take night classes in my field (bonus: with a job at a university, classes are often free or steeply discounted). There are a few very well-respected universities near me that offer part-time MA degrees with classes at convenient times; if this is the case near you, that's not a bad option.
4. If I still want to do a PhD in a year, apply again. If not, at least I've taken tangible steps toward getting into a career I like.

Best of luck!
posted by oinopaponton at 9:24 AM on April 16, 2010

FWIW my aunt owns a used bookstore and she highly values people with degrees in english and literature. You might have some luck with that for temporary employment. Just putting it out there because I've come across a lot of english majors who didn't think of that possibility.
posted by lizbunny at 10:17 AM on April 16, 2010

Regarding PhoBWan's post you can check out a response from a number of faculty in the humanities. Benton responds in the comments. I'm a math guy and my field is so different that I can't begin to have an opinion on the two articles, but they're still worth reading.
posted by monkeymadness at 10:17 AM on April 16, 2010

Okay, I'm answering in this thread partly because this is basically my situation (and because my friends keep thinking it's me anyways). I applied to really tough PhD programs in English and was rejected, it sucked horribly and felt like getting broken up with over and over again, March 2010 was a shitty time in my life. But now it's April: I got offered MAs at two different programs and opted against accepting them because I've resolved to not go into debt for school any more than necessary. I really don't think an MA is your best bet unless you're independently wealthy and can finance it yourself. Also, if you have a partner to take into consideration, as I do, it starts to feel irresponsible to rope someone else into your tar pit of debt.

PhoB's advice is great, and something you should consider. The one benefit of a terrible job is that you can have one of those anywhere! I have a great job for my needs at the moment, and it allows me to live comfortably in Brooklyn. I was, in a some ways, relieved when I got rejected from 5 Ivy Leagues and realized that I just bought another year of fun and adventure. But if I were in, say, BFE Idaho, I would have had a nervous breakdown. I know it's not easy to just pack up and move, but it's never going to get any easier than now, when you don't have a family or a mortgage to worry about. And if you decide to keep pursuing the PhD route, realize that you'll probably never get to pick where you live again, so take advantage of your rootlessness. Move to NYC or Montreal or Japan. Do JET, or WWOOF.

And really, don't feel bad about this year. I've spoken to professors who were left aghast at how many great applicants they turned down. I got calls from people on the ad comms expressing condolences. This year was nuts. But keeping that aberration in mind: maybe not getting into a program is the event that pushes you to move beyond your comfort zone (and trust me as a fellow English major, a PhD in Lit is square within our comfort zone) and do something phenomenal and life-changing, like working on a farm in Estonia or teaching English in Tokyo. Maybe!

Good luck.
posted by zoomorphic at 11:25 AM on April 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

I can't tell from your post if you're actually considering doing a lit MA or not, but since most of the advice in here falls either in the "you absolutely NEED one" camp, or in the "it'll hurt your chances" camp, let me chime in to say that it can be really helpful, but it's certainly not the case that everyone gets one first.

After four years out of academia, I started my grad school application process by getting roundly rejected from quite a few English PhD programs, and getting a few MA offers. I accepted one offer, for a one-year MA in the Humanities at a top school, completed that degree, spent a year working at that school, sitting in on more classes, and applying again, and will be starting my PhD this fall at another top school (that doesn't offer a terminal MA, and that will let me transfer some credit). Out of my PhD cohort, I think about half of us will be entering with master's degrees of some kind. Out of my MA cohort, the vast majority of the people I know who applied for PhD programs this year have at least one acceptance, and most were in your situation last time.

I don't think I would have been accepted this time if I had just done another round of applications-- my MA year not only helped by giving me another degree, a better writing sample, and a more current round of recommendation letters from professors at a more famous school, but it also helped me to figure out exactly what I wanted to do in my doctoral work. I'll be starting with a much more specific focus and clearer objectives than I would have two years ago, and I think I'll be able to get more out of the process.

As far as thinking about jobs: talk to your mentors. Libraries, bookstores, publishing and teaching are perhaps the most common paths for English majors, but your mentors may have more creative ideas, or they may know someone who needs a research assistant. Additionally, if you're planning to apply again, staying in close contact with them while you work hard on making yourself a stronger candidate may impress them enough that they write you an even better letter next time.

Good luck! And as zoomorphic says, don't kick yourself over this year. It was a terrible year all around, thanks to the unfortunate confluence of departmental budget cuts and record numbers of applications.
posted by dizziest at 1:17 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I didn't get into the Masters programs I applied for 3 years ago and what I did was pick up and move to a big city with a friend, and "just live" for a while. Maybe that will sound a bit hokey, but why not take the opportunity to relax, explore different things, and develop your interests a bit? See how you feel in 5 years. You may not even want to go back to school.

What I did: I figured out a way to weasel my way into a new and mostly better office job (after working an entry-level office job for 2 years) and learned about things I never even knew existed when I was in school. I saved up $20 K and read a bazillion books. It can be fun.

And in the immortal words of Avenue Q, "Don't stress, relax, let life roll off your back! Except for death and paying taxes, everything in life is only for now."
posted by cranberrymonger at 1:55 PM on April 16, 2010

For what it's worth, a lot of people think grad school is going to solve all their life problems, give them focus, get them a better job, a better life, make them smarter, whatever. Well, just so you know, I was one of the peeps who went to G school for those reasons and quit because I did not like it. It was really hard to quit but I'm glad pushed through my mid-twenties-and like big Recession (not that it's over yet, but it felt scarier 2 years ago) w/out it because now I feel like I kinda know what I wanna do, and 2 years ago I really didn't yet. I guess what I'm saying is, you might be in a better position if you try out a few more things over the next couple years, whether it's work or travel or both- you might get more in touch with what you really want to do. Then apply to grad school if you still want it.
posted by Rocket26 at 2:52 PM on April 16, 2010

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