CONSIDERING FURTHER GRADUATE STUDIES IN ENGLISH?
First, think about your reasons for further education. Naturally, you may wish to continue taking courses for sheer pleasure and self-improvement. If you are a lifelong learner, such classes provide the structure that your extracurricular reading may not have and the professorial expertise and guidance that only a university can.
If you are interested in pursuing a higher degree, however, you may consider applying to either a PhD program or, in the case of creative writers, an MFA or PhD program. These are professional programs, which require both great talent and great application. Do not consider them unless you have honestly assessed your abilities, your commitment to the profession, and your realistic chances for finding a position in a highly competitive field.
Your decision about, first, whether to pursue such an enterprise, and, second, what sort of program to apply to if you do must take into account several variables:
- What are your areas of academic or creative interest?
- What are your professional ambitions? Do you aspire, for example, to teach college English?
- In what area of the country (or world) would you like to go to school?
- What financial resources do you have for further education?
WHAT ARE YOUR ACADEMIC OR CREATIVE INTERESTS?
If you’re certain that you want to pursue a terminal degree in this discipline and already have a pretty clear idea of what academic or creative interests you would like to pursue in further graduate schooling, choose a school appropriately. Certain PhD- and MFA-granting institutions are traditionally renowned for various specialties: UC-Berkeley for critical theory, the University of Virginia for 18th-century studies, Duke University for American literature, the University of Wisconsin for 17th-century studies, the University of Iowa and the University of Houston for creative writing. These are but a few examples, and, as you can imagine, all such schools are highly competitive institutions.
How do you find out which graduate programs will suit your academic interests best? You can begin by polling members of the graduate English faculty. Most of them know something not only about the reputation of PhD institutions but also about the academic atmospheres at these schools and can give advice about which ones would be best for your own focuses and temperament.
You might go next to an online or print guide to graduate programs. As a way of beginning to research programs—and to get a better sense of the realities of the profession—have a look, for example, at the site provided by the ever-helpful people at Cliffs Notes, “Selecting a Graduate School or Program.”
As you look into various potential schools, consider the following about each:
- What degrees does the institution offer?
- What specific steps does one take toward those degrees?
- What specific sequence of classes must one follow?
- What sorts of exams does the candidate have to take? Generalist? Specialist? Orals?
- What are the expectations for the dissertation?
- How many years does a degree typically take?
- What kinds of funding does the program offer?
- How does the program prepare its graduates for the job search?
WHAT ARE YOUR PROFESSIONAL AMBITIONS?
If you aspire to teach college English—certainly a noble goal—you should know that almost without exception these days, a full-time tenure-track teaching position in a four-year institution requires a PhD in a specialty field. You should also know that the job market for English PhDs has been gloomy for many years and continues to be so: These tenure-track positions are difficult to come by.
So if you decide to pursue a PhD or an MFA in English with the intention of applying for academic jobs, here are some modest suggestions:
- Be realistic: You may spend several more years hard at work and find it difficult to get the sort of academic position that you’ve idealized. So don’t idealize.
- Be resilient: You may spend several more years hard at work and find it difficult to get the sort of academic position that you’ve idealized. So be prepared to overcome disappointments, assess your situation honestly and realistically, and persist. As Blake says, “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”
- Be honest with yourself: The competition both for getting into a good PhD or MFA program and then for landing a tenure-track position is such that you cannot be mediocre. Assess your own abilities honestly: If you don’t have the intellectual goods, don’t pursue a terminal degree in this discipline.
- Be disciplined and be self-sacrificing: Pursuing a PhD or MFA requires Mishima-like self-discipline that can come only if you are absolutely, virtually unselfconsciously devoted to the subject and the profession. It requires the self-sacrifice of an anchorite: For several years you will not sleep. You will live in a small boarding house room overlooking a used AMC lot. Your primary diet will be cans of tuna fish, Top Ramen noodles, and frozen bagels thawed in a toaster oven.
- Be productive: See #4. Most prospective employers expect great scholarly and pedagogical promise in those whom they consider hiring. If you can walk out of graduate school with good publications in hand and evidence that you will sustain your research or creative pursuits through many years, you will make yourself more competitive. Take on hard and ambitious scholarly and creative tasks and accomplish them.
- Be strategic: Given the keen competition for tenure-track positions, consider which school and what sort of academic specialty will give you the best chances for such employment. While you should certainly pursue an academic specialty that answers your heart’s desires, keep a practical eye on hiring trends for colleges and universities, to see what sorts of specialties may offer the best job opportunities. One way to do so is to subscribe to the Modern Language Association Job Information List (JIL), published four times annually, beginning in October.
Looking through job listings, you may see trends in hiring: What sorts of academic specialties do schools seem to be looking for continually? You may find, for example, that linguists or early American literature specialists are hard to come by; you may find that universities are increasingly looking for scholars and teachers with cross-disciplinary interests like a literature specialty and experience in computer-aided instruction; you may find that colleges are looking for individuals who can serve not only in the classroom but also in administrative positions.
Bearing in mind that hiring trends change over time, consider which academic specialty or specialties may serve you best in a search for a position in three to five years. Given state budget constraints, consider also making yourself more marketable by picking up a second or third field. If your interests lie in 19th-century American literature, for example, you might pursue such a specialty but perhaps take some courses in secondary teaching methods or other field that seems to provide good job opportunities.
- Continue to pick up valuable teaching and other professional experience that you can adapt to various potential positions.
Be flexible: Be willing to think beyond your horizons. Consider opportunities and future employment in places beyond your expectations, and consider how you can adapt your training and your interests to potential employers’ needs. But be reasonable: Hiring committees get downright angry when they see an application for a medieval literature position from an individual who wrote his dissertation on Don DeLillo.
WHERE WOULD YOU LIKE TO STUDY?
Take any imperatives of place into consideration as you plan further graduate studies. If, for example, you are constrained by family duties or financial resources, you may have to go to a school nearby. The best of these is the University of Texas at Austin. But there are also Texas A&M University, the University of Houston, Texas Tech, and Rice University, all of which offer PhDs in literature, language, and writing disciplines.
WHAT FINANCIAL RESOURCES ARE AVAILABLE FOR FURTHER ACADEMIC STUDY?
As you make your decision, consider what financial resources you have. At an in-state school, of course, your tuition will be cheaper than at an institution in another state or country. But many schools offer graduate assistantships as teachers or research fellows, and you may find a good opportunity for supporting your further education with such an assistantship. Keep in mind that some schools, especially the better-known research institutions, will not offer aid the first year. Again, have a look at the various schools’ web sites for further information.
For more specific advice on funding, see the FinAid site “Smart Student Guide to Financial Aid.”