Yet another grad school advice question
July 22, 2008 10:26 AM   Subscribe

How does an aspiring graduate student in English traverse the confusion of the graduate school application process?

I am four years removed from my undergraduate career (University of Washington, English, 3.39 overall GPA, closer to 3.6 major GPA) with a bit of a complicated history. I was an all-college honors student, one of the only humanities recipients of an undergraduate research grant from the Mary Gates Foundation and 3.85 overall GPA holder until near the end of my junior year when, according to the un-funniest Hollywood script, things fell apart. I dropped out of the extra honors workload both at the all-college level and within the English Department and barely managed to squeak through my senior year with poor grades to make it to commencement, knowing I had to complete one class within my major the summer after commencement in order to finish the requirements for my degree. As you may guess, I never finished the last class and instead silently drifted away from the University with horrible guilt and disappointment.

Fast-forward 3 years later, after having worked one-too-many restaurant jobs and flitting about with little true responsibility, I woke up and began to rediscover my first true love for academics. I was finally ready to confront my old undergraduate demons and just finish once and for all. Despite having moved to CA, I discovered that I need only take any transferable English course at my local community college in order to satisfy the last remining requirement for my degree. Last semester I did just that, and now I finally have my piece of paper! In addition, my preparation for the graduate school application process has included:

- Refreshing my 7 years of Spanish
- Beginning French (if I am able to start grad school in the Fall of '09 I will have completed two full years of college French)
- Studying for the GRE
- Studying for the GRE Subject Test in Literature (Norton Anthologies, reading some of the Big Names)
- Taking two undergraduate level English courses at UCLA starting in a few weeks, in hopes of showing promising and current university-level work, plus two letters of recommendation

When I originally went to college I wanted to teach. The longer I was in school (before the break-down), the more I realized that I wanted to mold college-aged minds. Truthfully I would like to teach literature at a small, liberal arts university, but since the process of that coming to be is potentially very far off, at this point I am happy with the idea of getting my masters and then considering the possibility of teaching at a community college first.

Ideally I would like to go somewhere that will allow for teaching experience and offer as much funding as possible. From what I can tell, the Cal State system which is local and convenient to me does not fit that mold. However what are the chances that I would be competitive (depending on test scores and recommendations, I realize) as an applicant to higher programs, either masters or doctorate level? The maze of offerings is positively dizzying. Some offer only terminal masters, with or without funding, some offer only doctoral level programs straight from a BA with or without funding, some are big names and others are not, but I need to find ones that are appropriate for me. I am afraid to be so clueless as to apply to schools that are either way out of my league, or overlook the smaller name hidden gem that would have been perfect for me, had I only known about it.

My question is, how do I know where I need to go considering my experience and aspirations? Given my academic record and current status, where should I be concentrating my attentions? Short of manually looking at the website of every degree-granting institution, how do I find the right fit?

If it helps, my interest lies in 19th and 20th century American Literature and Culture, Gender Studies, Transnational Studies and Cinema Studies (my undergraduate research combined women silent film stars, transnational dialogues within literature, popular culture and advertisements with 19th and early 20th century feminist literature).

Personal experiences are also very welcome:
posted by fictionalcara to Education (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Find out where the people who write the important, exciting, interesting papers in your field of interest (can't help you there, mine is completely different) teach (their credentials are often either listed on their papers, or are easily Googleable). Check out their departments online. Find out how they are regarded (traditional stuff, like US News and World Report, Barron's, all that), but that's not the most important thing, the faculty is. Then apply there.

AND/OR: Find out where your undergrad profs think you should go -- they aren't going to know or remember the particulars of your undergrad nightmare, and will likely just be glad you are applying to grad school and happy to give you whatever help they can.

(When you get into the paperwork aspect, my #1 tip is this: Make a big chart on some posterboard of all the things you have to get to each school -- transcripts, LORs, etc. -- with the name of each school AND the address AND your contact person WRITTEN ON THE CHART. X them off as you get them done. This was totally invaluable to me. There is so much crap you have to do, it's unbelievable.)
posted by fiercecupcake at 11:28 AM on July 22, 2008

Repost this over at the Chronicle for Higher Education forums.

Are you aware of the job market for English PhDs? It is abysmal. Most will never find a tenure track job, let alone one at a small liberal arts college in a nice part of the country. You can end up ten years older, with with a ton of debt, some esoteric knowledge that interests no one but you and ten other people, and no job. Think hard about this.
posted by LarryC at 11:30 AM on July 22, 2008

LJ applying to grad group is where you want to be. Off the top of my head: you need to get WAY more specific in what you want to study and find some scholars to follow.
posted by k8t at 11:49 AM on July 22, 2008

The MLA has a page devoted to choosing a graduate program and doing well in it. About a decade ago, the MLA also did a report on the state of the profession. It is sobering reading. Things have not gotten better since then.

In most humanities fields, the job market for tenure-track positions at four-year institutions is national. The community college market is local or regional, though even there, I know Ph.D. students who have applied for CC jobs across the country from where they live. The odds of success in the job hunt are not great, especially since many colleges and universities are increasingly relying on graduate student and adjunct labor to staff required composition courses, reducing the number of tenure-system faculty. It's not unusual to have over 100 applications for a tenure-track humanities job. Marc Bousquet's book How the University Works gives an overview of some current trends, though he emphasizes the worst cases.

The point of two paragraphs of pessimism is that you'd better be very sure that this is the path for you before devoting the next 2-10 years of your life (closer to 10 if you go the Ph.D. route, if not more than 10) to the relative poverty of a humanities graduate student. If you really can't imagine doing anything else with your life, here are some practical tips:

First, once your fall courses start at UCLA, visit your professors in their office hours and explain your situation. Ask them for advice on programs. There's no substitute for expertise in the field. If you are still in contact with your professors from Washington, ask them too.

Next, look at the community college English faculty in your area and finding out how many recent hires have Ph.D.s. That will let you know whether it's realistic to expect to find employment with an MA but no Ph.D. Consider only tenure-system faculty (assistant professors, if the CC uses academic ranks): adjunct pay is execrable, not much better than minimum wage when prep and grading time is figured in.

Then look at the kinds of places you imagine working in, and see where their recent faculty got their graduate degrees. That will give you some sense of the pecking order of graduate programs in your discipline, and what kind of school you should aim for to achieve your goals.

Then look for young and mid-career faculty publishing in your area, find out where they teach, and look at their graduate programs. That can help you identify programs that would be a good intellectual fit. Once you have a sense of departments that would meet your intellectual needs, look at the structure of their program, the typical time to degree of their students, and their placement record (number of graduates who get positions and the kinds of positions they get). A program might look great on paper, but if its graduates don't get jobs, there's something wrong.

Finally, consider funding seriously. My advice is simple: never enroll in a Ph.D. program unless you get a waiver of tuition and fees and some kind of assistantship or fellowship to support you. I'd think long and hard about enrolling in an MA program that didn't provide funding, but at least that would involve only a year or two of additional student debt.

As I review what I just wrote, I wonder whether I should have just given the advice that a friend of mine who teaches French literature gives to undergrads who are considering grad school: don't go. He figures that the only ones who should go are the ones who are so committed to the idea that they would disregard his advice. I think it's a pretty good approach. So don't go!
posted by brianogilvie at 11:51 AM on July 22, 2008

Joining the posters above: English right now is a very, very tough field. Undergrad majors are dwindling, departmental funding is tight, tenure-track jobs are in ridiculously short supply, and the profession as a whole has been struggling to define its goals and make the case for its continuing relevance in the 21st-century academy. Definitely think twice, then three times, about this choice.

That said, if you really want to make a life for yourself as a lit professor, then you should make every effort to gather as much hard data as you can about employment prospects, salaries, and schools' placement rates. I mention this only because it's been my experience that English professors and grad programs tend to shy away from giving incoming students the grim facts about what may await them on the other end of that PhD. Don't take anybody's word for it that you'll float through grad school to an idyllic position at what my advisor used to call "that little liberal arts college in the sky". Check out the salary averages and career pages in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Browse the MLA's job list and see how many lit positions are open per year, and in what sub-specialties. If you do go ahead with this, you'll want to make all your decisions with an eye towards making yourself as marketable as possible in the long run.

In answer to your specific question-- although I'd take the details of individual rankings with a huge grain of salt, the U.S. News list of best English grad schools is a decent place to start if you'd like to figure out what's out there. Do not consider any program, MA or PhD, which does not offer you full funding (i.e., tuition + living stipend); in lit, at least, the degrees one has to pay for tend not to to be worth having anyway. Be aware that schools tend to hire 1-2 levels up in the hierarchy-- so, for instance, if you're looking to get a job at a third-tier school, you'd have to graduate from a top-tier program, and so forth. (If you're in doubt, pick a few schools where you could envision yourself teaching and browse their websites to see where their current professors got their degrees.)

Since you're interested in teaching and don't have a 100% stellar record, you might want to start by looking at the big state schools, most of which will offer fairly solid academics with plenty of teaching experience. You can narrow things a bit further based on specific faculty at each school, the presence/absence of specialized gender/women's-studies programs, and so forth. Some sort of program in rhetoric or composition is also a plus, since many small liberal-arts schools will want you to teach writing in addition to literature.

But first of all, do your homework to make sure this path is really what you want. In my experience, English grad school is not over-full of happy, hopeful people who're delighted with their life choices.
posted by Bardolph at 12:13 PM on July 22, 2008

From my experience, it sounds like you've done a ton of work to prepare yourself for grad school. Even though the job market is tough, I wouldn't let that stop you if this is really what you want to do. But, yes, be aware that it's difficult out there. There are other jobs - editing, literary agenting, teaching at private schools, etc that are more open if you have an advanced degree, so it's not completely hopeless, although a PhD for these fields might be overkill. I have as many friends with tenure track jobs at small liberal arts colleges as don't, so it's not hopeless. But tough, yes. Research other programs, too, like Rhet/Comp or Film Studies, if they interest you, that may have better job prospects.

I'm in a PhD program in lit now, although my interest is in creative writing, so that helped narrow the choices of places to apply. Because of my specialization, too, the best programs are not where you would expect. This might be true for you too, but I think you're going to need to do some research - read some journals, look for new books of crit and see where the authors teach, talk to your profs at UCLA (maybe your best resource for advice and information on where and how to apply) and see what they say, or where they might recommend you apply. Talk to a wide variety of profs, if you can, as older professors might have out-of-date opinions on where you might apply. Reading criticism will also help you decide if this is really a field you want to enter.

So, I have a feeling this will be said a bunch of times - you probably don't want to go anywhere unless you're fully funded. The competition for funded spots will be tough. Despite the poor job market, the applicant pools are pretty large considering the number of funded spots (maybe a little better for lit than lit/creative writing, but I have a feeling they're similar.) What I did was apply to as many schools as I could afford to apply to. The number ended up being around 15, but this included a lot of MFA programs as well as a few 'safety' schools with poor funding that, in retrospect, I probably couldn't have afforded to go to or wanted to go to. Anyway, for you, I would include a few top schools in lit - you should research this, but places like Harvard/Yale/Stanford etc. This is where I'm no help, but research departments at big state schools, etc. to find the bright spots in your area of interest. There will be many state schools (the bigger ones) with fantastic, accomplished English departments and teaching opportunities. One advantage to getting an MA somewhere (vs BA to PhD) is that if your MA is from a school with a good reputation that isn't one of the best, it may give a leg up in applying to a better program for your PhD.

As for how to prepare - In addition to what you have listed, I would focus on your statement of purpose and see if you can get somebody (a prof?) to look at it and help you with it. It is time consuming, but it will also help to cater your SOP to the school to which you are sending it. It helps to at least indicate that you have some interest in working within the range of the faculty at that particular school. You might also read up on some basic lit theory, too, at least to get the vocabulary right in your statement, and at least show that if you're interested in lit theory, you've already dipped your toes into it. For my SOP I mentioned a few theorists I was interested in, and not that I know that it helped, it didn't hurt. If you're not interested in theory, per se, you might show some knowledge of the critics who are working in your field. I think it may also help to show how you might be different than the pile of 3.8+ GPA applicants. If you've been working, it might help to talk briefly about what your real-life experience will bring to the program. For me, I'm interested in new media, so it helped to talk about that interest coupled with the skills I have from working in that world. I didn't dwell on it, but it probably helped me get in.

I would look at MA programs as well as a few BA->PhD. programs, if they offer solid funding for your whole time there. The way BA to PhD programs work (in my limited exposure to them) is that the first year you take regular coursework, then at the end of the first year are given a reading list for an exam - if you pass the exam, you're awarded your MA and allowed to continue on. SO it can be a time saver, but a ton of work. It's worth applying to some if they are at schools that interest you.

The French probably can't hurt, but not sure it's going to help you, although my experience is that there is still some value placed on some proficiency in German and/or French in lit departments, but might be time better spent taking more undergrad classes, or taking or sitting in on a grad class if you can at UCLA.
posted by drobot at 12:28 PM on July 22, 2008

Oh, yeah, and check out some gender studies departments, as well - not that you necessarily will have better job prospects, but from my brief experience it seems like fields like film, gender studies, area studies, visual studies, etc are a little hotter than straight up lit both from a job standpoint, but also in that these areas seem to be doing some interesting thinking and writing in their fields compared to what is (or isn't) happening in literature studies.
posted by drobot at 12:42 PM on July 22, 2008

Following up on what drobot wrote, a short addition about statements of purpose: these are sometimes called a "personal statement," but the admissions committee does not want the story of your life, nor are they especially interested in your love for the discipline. Rather, they want to know three things: (1) the area in which you intend to pursue research and the kinds of questions that interest you, (2) the background you have that has prepared you for graduate study in that area & those questions, and (3) why you are applying to their program to pursue your studies.

I've been on the graduate admissions committee for my program (in history) for three years now, and I nearly weep for joy when I read a statement that does all three of those things. Why? Because I presume that everyone who applies to a grad program in history has an interest in history, but that doesn't tell me whether they have a clue about what the academic study of history entails and why our department is a good fit for them.

The statement is also the place where you address any negative aspects of your record and allay the committee's concerns. But not until you have done #1-3 above.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:47 PM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Taking two undergraduate level English courses at UCLA starting in a few weeks, in hopes of showing promising and current university-level work"

Why not graduate-level English classes?
posted by Jahaza at 3:42 PM on July 22, 2008

Why not graduate-level English classes?

Course Numbering

For a complete guide to course numbering, please visit the Registrar's site. As a general rule, lower-division classes (numbered 1- 99) are meant for first-year and sophomore students. Upper-division courses (100-199) are designed for juniors and seniors. Graduate courses are those numbered 200-299 and 500-599 (those from 500-599 are open only to UCLA graduate students). Finally, professional courses are numbered 300-499.

I'd love to, but as a visiting summer student and not a regular matriculating UCLA graduate student, I cannot. I have looked into taking graduate level courses at the university most convenient for me (Cal State Fullerton) but have been met with similar difficulties. In fact I've read similar advice for people in similar situations as myself, but have never encountered the opportunity to do so. Perhaps I simply live in the wrong area?
posted by fictionalcara at 3:57 PM on July 22, 2008

That seems right to me - I think most schools (maybe this is a big assumption?) don't allow non-admitted students into grad classes, otherwise there'd be no way to regulate the quality of the classes.
posted by drobot at 4:00 PM on July 22, 2008

Thank you all for the sage advice. It has been both harrowing (though I am familiar with the statistics of the job market, it never hurts to have it hammered into your head further) and yet strangely fortifying...

I loved the emphatic "Don't go!" mixed with a healthy dose of, well, if you're already crazy enough, then, you can't say we didn't warn you medicine. To me, at least, it's pretty clear that I am hell-bent on finding out for myself if all of the toil and pain will in fact be worth it. If I start a masters/doctoral program somewhere and the toil outweighs the potential benefit, I will have my answer. Until then it's all a matter of speculation, a hearty helping of harrowing statistics and a strong counter-drive to make my way despite.
posted by fictionalcara at 4:08 PM on July 22, 2008

I think it helps to go into the program with a realistic perspective on your post-phd job prospects, but I think you have the right attitude - you have to assume, that despite the odds, you'll succeed.
posted by drobot at 4:12 PM on July 22, 2008

I don't think it's been said yet (but I skimmed some of the answers, so please forgive if this is a repeat): in addition to researching graduate schools and the job market, it would also be worth your while to research the job. I think a lot of people who have only experienced academia from the student side of things have a romanticized notion of what life is like as a professor. I think for many profs, it does work out to be a good situation, and more satisfying than any other career they could have chosen, but if you hang around academics long enough, you will also pick up on a good deal of discontent. Teaching, especially in writing-intensive courses (as English courses tend to be), is demanding. The tenure process can be nightmarish, especially if you go through it for five or six years and end up without tenure. The psychological strains of competition and of "impostor syndrome" can take a toll, not to mention the interpersonal nastiness that can arise when people with incompatible personalities or agendas get tenured in the same small department and have to deal with each other for thirty or forty years. Switching jobs and escaping to another institution is not impossible, but much harder in this "industry" than in others. Unless you are an absolute superstar in your field, or content with CC teaching for the long run (and perhaps not even then), you are not likely to have a lot of choice about where in the country you will live.

In other words: don't go. You risk ending up as a late-stage graduate student posting gloomy things about academia on AskMetafilter!
posted by Orinda at 5:19 PM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm another idiot with an MA and a PhD (in, uh, French) and I got no substantial job action whatsoever from this (if you discount a few research contracts I picked up along the way). I can't say I regret it, but employment-wise what I am doing now is almost completely unrelated.

I did this because I wanted to and because my temperament is somewhat Micawberish.
posted by Wolof at 7:49 PM on July 22, 2008

One more point: my department will often accept non-degree students in graduate courses, if the instructor approves it. It's a way for students who aren't sure whether they want to commit to a graduate program to test the waters, and also a way for those with uneven undergraduate records to prove they have what it takes to do well in the program. I teach at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a flagship state university; I wouldn't be surprised if other state research universities also took non-degree students who wanted to make sure grad school was for them before applying. In-state tuition and fees for one graduate course might not be that expensive.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:11 PM on July 22, 2008


I hate to say this, but here's the thing... unless you have a really good story for what happened in jr. year, you are going to have trouble getting into the top programs.

And you MUST go to a top program, with a great advisor. Or the job market is going to FUCK you. That's just the way it is in the humanities...
posted by paultopia at 12:06 AM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

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