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This guide for prospective graduate students was written expressly for SIUE undergraduates and English graduate students.

Why pursue an advanced degree in English?

People pursuing the PhD are almost always planning to teach at the college or university level. For teaching at the community college level, the MA degree is more appropriate. For teaching creative writing, the MA or MFA (Master of Fine Arts) is usually the appropriate terminal degree, although a number of universities now offer doctorates in creative writing. Some programs admit undergraduates to work straight through the PhD process; these students usually earn their PhD in 6-8 years. Students who first pursue an MA should plan on 2 years followed by 4-5 years earning the PhD (these numbers assume you’re going to school full-time).

Be aware right up front that the job market for humanities PhDs is quite challenging — currently there are far more PhD graduates than there are teaching positions, and this ratio is not likely to improve in the near future. It's certainly not our intent to discourage anyone from pursuing English graduate studies, but it's important that those who do make this decision do so with a clear understanding of the pragmatic aspects of that choice.

In recent years, all SIUE English MA graduates who have applied to PhD programs have been successful in gaining admittance. Students specializing in literature, rhetoric and composition, and Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) have been accepted into doctoral programs at Purdue University, Columbia University, New Mexico State University, the University of Arizona, the University of Colorado, the University of North Carolina, Indiana University, Clemson University, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, the U of Louisville, the U of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Washington, St. Louis University, and Washington University.

If you wish to be successful in applying for a PhD program, you must begin preparation as soon as you enter the MA program. You cannot wait until the year of your graduation to begin the process.

If you’re an undergraduate interested in starting a PhD or MA program, much the same is true. Begin thinking about possible mentors, letter of recommendation writers, foreign languages, and even specializations before you walk across that stage to pick up your bachelor's degree.

Finally, by way of a "reality check" or a soul-searching of your dedication to graduate studies, you may wish to read Thomas H. Benton's "Graduate School: Just Don't Go" from the Chronicle of Higher Education.


Graduate Record Exam: Almost all PhD programs require, as part of your application, scores from the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). There are two different GRE tests that a PhD program might require for admittance: The general exam tests verbal, mathematical, and writing skills; the subject exam tests knowledge of your field. Some programs require applicants to take both exams; some require only the general exam. It is much less common for MA programs to require the GRE; the English graduate program at SIUE does not.

Information about the GRE is available from SIUE Testing Services, housed in the Student Success Center (Room 1246); begin thinking and learning about the GRE before the beginning of your final year, if not sooner, to determine registration dates and fees (which are high: if you have to take both sections you'll spend at least $335, as of early 2013). You may also learn more about the test at the GRE website, which provides detailed information on taking the test, the location of test centers, registering, and even sample test questions. (Courses and books to prepare for the GRE are readily available and can boost scores, as can repeating the test. And it is now possible for you to select which scores to send, should you retake the test.) Keep in mind, when considering when to take the test, that most PhD programs require application materials to be submitted by January, sometimes even in December, so plan accordingly and allow yourself enough time to learn your options and the deadlines that can affect you and the timely reporting of your scores.

Languages: Most doctoral programs expect proficiency in at least one foreign language; requiring competence in two or more languages is not uncommon. Talk with a professor about which language(s) best suit(s) your intended area of PhD specialization.

Theory: In recent decades, scholarship has become increasingly theoretical, and admissions committees of PhD programs expect students to enter with some course work in criticism and theory on their record. At SIUE, ENG 200: Introduction to Literary Study and ENG 301: Introduction to Literary Theory and Criticism provide a beginning for undergraduates; the following courses serve directly to introduce MA candidates to theory: ENG 501: Modern Literary Studies, ENG 502: Modern Literary Theory, ENG 400: Principles of Linguistics, and ENG 556: Theory of Composition and Rhetoric.

Looking for a fun introduction to theory? I know, I know, that sounds oxymoronic — but David Gauntlett's theory.org.uk is the real (fun) deal. Be sure to check out the Theorist Action Figures.

Conference Presentations: Many SIUE English MA students present papers at national conferences. Some of these conferences are designed specifically for graduate students; others include scholars from throughout the profession. Increasingly, PhD program admissions committees expect to see at least a few presentations on your vita (the academic version of a resumé). The SIUE English Department's Graduate Advisors can keep you informed with respect to conference opportunities; the email listservs operated for each of the graduate specializations usually feature announcements of relevant conferences. You can also find links to Calls for Papers on the Resources page of this Web site.

ENG 501: Modern Literary Studies will give students in the American and English Literature specialization practice in writing abstracts for submission to conference organizers; ENG 552: Academic Writing and Research Methods in Composition Studies will do the same for students in the Teaching of Writing specializations. The TESL advisors will provide sample abstracts and guidance for TESL students.

If you do have a conference paper accepted, keep in mind that SIUE graduate students are eligible for travel and conference registration fee reimbursement. The amount of money varies, and usually graduate students are supported for only one conference per academic year, but this financial support can reduce or eliminate any financial burden that attending a conference may create. If you have a paper accepted, visit the Department office (PH 3206) and ask for information about financial support for a conference presentation. For more info on travel support, visit the Office of Research and Projects Graduate Student Travel Support Program page, where you can get the details and the application form.


Many factors, both personal and professional, come into play when deciding where to study for the PhD. One of the most common is school reputation: many feel that a degree from a well-known university enhances career opportunities. While this may be true, try to make sure that the reputation of the department is as solid as that of the university. And don't overlook the question of specialization: if you specialize in Renaissance studies at a department known primarily for its Americanists, you might not benefit from the reputation of the department as much as you might think. And while some people choose a PhD program because of the presence of a particular scholar, be aware that big-name scholars may not prove as accessible as you had hoped. Finally, find out whether graduates of the PhD program you are interested in are finding satisfactory positions, or are finding positions at all; call the program's graduate advisor and ask about the program's job placement success. Some SIUE MA candidates have visited prospective universities to talk with the graduate advisor and assess the campus and community.

Other Considerations:

Other elements to consider are location and financial aid. While location is a personal preference, keep in mind that your graduate career offers an ideal opportunity to experience different places and lifestyles; such diversity can be an important part of your marketability and maturity.

Financial aid is a complex issue, depending as it does on a large number of variables. Some PhD programs guarantee assistantships for all their graduate students; while the money will not be much, working as a teaching assistant provides valuable, even necessary, experience. Other programs make no such promises, and graduate students might have to wait a year or more to get support, and even then they may have to compete for positions as teaching or research assistants. There is equal variation in the grants and fellowships available to graduate students; information on support is usually part of the information you'll receive from universities when you inquire about their program. It is not a good idea to accept admittance to a graduate program that does not offer you some form of assistance throughout the duration of the program.

SIUE's Career Development Center (CDC) has materials you may wish to examine: a small collection of brochures from various graduate programs, as well as the comprehensive Peterson's Guide to Graduate Programs. While CDC serves primarily those seeking nonacademic employment, you may wish to consult with them at the start of your application process (Student Success Center, Room 0281).

You may also wish to do a web search for "graduate program rankings," and you'll get fairly predictable results; keep in mind that this is using a fairly blunt instrument for what is really a nuanced choice. And while there are useful sites out there — the selection tools and advice at PhDs.org might be worth a look, for example — keep very much in mind that web-based resources (which often have their own agendas) should be only part of a more thorough and deliberative school-selection process.


Begin working on your applications to PhD programs before the beginning of your final year. The first step is to gather information: contact the universities you are interested in and ask for a graduate school application packet and catalogue (Peterson's Guide has addresses and phone numbers; you can also find them at sites listed on the Grad Student Links page.) Be aware that most PhD programs accept students only in the Fall term and usually have deadlines in the preceding January, or even earlier. Most universities charge application fees, typically ranging from $50 to $100, and filling out applications, which usually require brief personal essays or statements of intent, and perhaps a writing sample, can take a fair amount of time.

Letters of Recommendation

This aspect of your preparation for PhD applications begins, ideally, before your final year in the MA program. All PhD programs require recommendation letters (usually three) as part of your application. Common sense is the best guide here: ask for letters from professors with whom you have a good working relationship, from whom you've received good grades, and who have indicated on your papers and in person that they respect your writing and thinking. You'll get the strongest letters from professors with whom you've taken more than one class. Be alert for signs of hesitation or indifference. Don't ask for letters at the last minute; try to line up your recommenders before Thanksgiving so they'll have time to write, or at least think about, your letter well before the deadline. You may wish to give your recommenders an information sheet highlighting your accomplishments. Sometimes it's possible to "orchestrate" your letters — to have each letter writer emphasize different points; MA students with teaching experience should be sure at least one letter addresses their teaching skills.

Universities will supply any forms to be used; if there are no forms (or even if there are), your recommenders will use letterhead. Now, many schools require recommenders to submit their letters through online services. A few programs still require mailed letters; in this case, be sure to provide your recommenders with the appropriate address. Recommenders almost always send letters directly to the graduate admissions committee, so be sure to provide your recommenders with the appropriate address. Most application packets will include a "waiver of access" form (or some other means) by which you can waive the right of access to your letters. You should always do this; otherwise, it looks as though you're asking for recommendations from people you don't really trust to say nice things about you. Rest assured, no academic professional who agrees to write a letter for you is going to do anything but his or her best to help you achieve your goals. (And don't ask your recommenders for copies of their letters to be used later; such letters are, in the first place, dated, and an old letter of recommendation has little value; and these letters are also written for the very specific purpose of getting you into graduate school, and won't be of use when you're trying to do something other than get into graduate school. Letters of recommendation should always be recent. That's the only way they can reflect your most recent accomplishments and be focused on the immediate goal.)

Be sure to be extremely neat in your preparation of any forms. Carefully edit and proofread all correspondence, and use high-quality paper in a properly functioning printer. Details matter.

If you are applying to several schools, e-mail your recommenders a list with the names of each school, their deadline, whether the letter must be submitted via mail or electronically, and any necessary addresses.

The Role of Mentors

Don't be reluctant about approaching professors (especially those from whom you plan to seek letters) to talk about PhD programs and the job market. They will offer varied points of view that can be instrumental in shaping your decision. Also, the Department's Director of Graduate Studies and the various graduate specialization advisors often receive information from PhD programs — much of this may be found on the bulletin board outside the Graduate Director's office — and they will be happy to talk with you.

URL: http://www.siue.edu/ENGLISH/Grad/grad_career.html
Published by: Department of English Language and Literature
Last Update: 27 July 2010 by English Web Manager