What is it like studying English in grad school?

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What is it like studying English in grad school?

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Jun 13, 2009, 10:42pm

I'm in the process of applying for graduate school. I have been going to a few "how to prepare for graduate school" seminars offered at my school. Lucky for me, several of these were taught by people with Ph.D's in English. I was shocked at how negative these sessions where. I felt like I was being told I shouldn't go to graduate school for English because the money isn't there. Also, for a lot of people, grad school destroys their passion for literature and writing.

So, I'm wondering...what is grad school really like? How much more difficult is it than undergraduate work? Would anyone be willing to privately chat with me about this?

I want to teach at the local community college. I truly love literature but I don't know if just having a passion for literature is enough for me to succeed in grad school? I am a double major in English and African American Studies. I have completed the Honor's English Program. My GPA is decent (about 3.8).

Any response would be greatly appreciated.

Jun 14, 2009, 12:38am

I am in history, not English, but I would say that those seminars were right on the money. In humanities fields (which includes English and History), it is extremely difficult to get a job (and nearly impossible in the current economic state). I know people who've gone to 8 or 10 interviews and not gotten one, and 8 or 10 interviews is A LOT. This may sound strange to non-academics--what's the big deal with having 8 or 10 interviews?--but most people in academic don't get more than 3 or 4 per hiring season (if that). It isn't like other jobs where jobs open up all year round. The academic job search season has a very specific start date: applications and portfolios due in October or November, additional interviews in the holiday season, and if you get far enough, on-campus interviews in the spring. A few things might trickle in after that, but most everyone applies in Oct. and works through the many months long process to finally hear back the next spring or summer. It is a truly grueling procedure.

As for what you can do with just an M.A., I don't know about English. In history you could work in a museum or do something like that with only an M.A. Most everyone who teaches at community college has a Ph.D. (or is in the process of getting one), simply because so many Ph.D.'s are out there, and what school is going to overlook 10 qualified Ph.D.'s to hire someone with only an M.A.?

I tell my history undergrads that if they want to work in a museum, get a gov. job, etc., they should certainly go for an M.A. It is much harder than undergrad, but for many people is doable. I strongly discourage them from thinking about a Ph.D. or teaching AT THIS POINT. They can change their mind later, but Ph.D. programs eat people up and spit them back out.

So, in short, it sounds like totally dire news. That's because it is. I really wish that someone had prepared me better for this process, so I am not saying this because I like handing out bad news; I'm saying it so you can fully understand what it entails before you take the leap. Try it for a couple of years maybe, get your M.A., and then see from there. There is a real need for qualified high school teachers, so if you like teenagers that would be a great option.

If you have more questions, I suggest you find a grad student in English that can give you advice. I can answer some questions, but there is still a difference between our disciplines. Again, this is not the kind of news you wanted to hear, but its better to hear it now, rather than five years into school when all of a sudden you realize that you most likely won't be able to teach at a college.

Jun 14, 2009, 12:48am

Hi, calidynama:

I finished my M.A. in English about six years ago and I teach at a community college now. I teach English Composition, Ethnic American Literature, and anything else I need to make my teaching load.

One of the primary differences between undergrad and graduate school was how much more the profs expect you, as a graduate student, to contribute to the course. Be ready to "teach" anything they assign for reading.

You can expect to read well beyond the primary sources--the novels, the plays, the poetry. You'll read lots of secondary sources, what other scholars and researchers have had to say about the best that's been written and said.

Then, there's the theory stuff. Sartre, Foucault, Lacan, de Man, etc.

You should expect to take at least one course on how to do research at this level, too.

I think students lose the love of literature because they have no time to give the literature the time and attention it deserves. Instead, you're trying to keep up with the required reading of secondary sources. My profs seemed to be more concerned that I was knowledgeable about what the scholars had said about the primary works than the primary works themselves.

And you'll be writing a lot more.

At my community college (this is true of most community colleges), literature courses are considered "boutique" courses. You shouldn't expect to get very many of them in your load.

The bread-and-butter courses are the first-year writing courses, English Composition and Research Writing 101. I've had years where I never taught a single literature course. All Composition, all the time.

If you really want to teach literature, get your PhD and leave the community colleges alone.

Jun 14, 2009, 1:56am

Graduate school is a tough world.

First of all, if you're fresh out of college, I would recommend taking a year or two off school to get a full-time job. There are two advantages to this: first, time out of school serves as a good reminder of why you love school (or if it doesn't, maybe it's a good indication that you aren't grad school material). I don't think I know anyone who went to grad school straight out of college who actually finished their degree. They got burnt out really fast, and they just didn't have the attention span for graduate school. In undergrad, your classes rarely meet for more than an hour, and you take a lot of classes. In grad school, you just take 2-4 classes, and they meet for 2-3 hours - it's a very different experience. Working a 40-hour a week job gives you a longer attention span, and that's very helpful in grad school.

The academic job market is pretty abysmal. If you really want a job as a professor, you have to be willing to move to wherever the job is, no matter what you think of the location. But even if you are willing to move, there just aren't many jobs out there, and they're hard to come by. So don't think of graduate school as a guarantee of a job.

You have to want to go to graduate school for the joy of learning and the challenge of intellectual discipline. You have to go in knowing that you might not get a teaching job: you might end up working in a library, or doing something completely unrelated to your degree. You have to be willing to accept from the beginning that you might spend 10 years in school and never hold a job related to your degree. If the degree is worth it even if it won't lead to a job, then go for it.

As far as community colleges go, I know some PhDs who teach at community colleges and love it and find it very rewarding and wouldn't want to teach at a university, so opinions vary widely there.

I hope that doesn't all sound too dire! If you love what you're learning, it's worth every second (and every penny of student loans).

Jun 15, 2009, 6:42pm

Read Flyover States and Eye to Eye. Jobs are out there. Sometimes you have to start as an adjunct or part-time person. My community college prefers the MA to the PhD because like NappyHeadedGirl said below, you'll be teaching a lot of basic writing. I'm lucky, because I'm a medievalist, I do get to teach English Lit I (from 510-1760) and World Lit I (from Assyrian and Babylonian poets to Shakespeare) because there are so many modern and contemporary Americanists in our school. But the load is heavy -- 4/5/3 or 5/5/2 or some combination of the above if you are on the semester system. I'm in the dissertation stage of my PhD right now and the school for which I teach is paying for every penny of it. Hoorah!

What kristenkim03 says about the degrees below is not true for my school. About a third of our instructors in the humanities have PhDs and hiring committees look very skeptically at PhD job candidates. We want people who want to teach and get excited about students and most candidates with PhDs talk mostly or only about their research.

Read Rob Jenkins' column in the Chronicle of Higher Education. You can get to it without a subscription if you go in through the job listings. Rob gives great advice.

Jun 16, 2009, 4:59pm

kristenkim03, NappyHeadedGirl, Gwendydd, and medievalmama...thank you so much for your responses! Each have been VERY helpful.

Jun 23, 2009, 11:34pm

I'm glad I could be of help.

Also, if you want some other perspectives, head on over to http://www.insidehighered.com. They have a lot of useful articles for humanities disciplines, so you can get a good sense of what professors and current grad students think about the profession, how the economic crisis is affecting academia, etc....

Out 29, 2009, 9:16am

Gewndydd is spot on. Don't go without several of the excellent grad-school books under your arm. Ms. Mentor is your friend, too.

Be prepared for lots of whining (from you and from others) the first year or two about woefully unprepared high school grads. If you teach, you'll likely be in the remediation business. Understand, though, that constant complaining about undergrads will wear down both you and your colleagues. It is what it is. Work with it (and them) and don't worry about doing "Stand and Deliver" in 16 weeks' time.

You're pretty much on your own for everything, including advisement. For some reason, that bothers a lot of grad students. Just do it the old-fashioned way: study the requirements for your program/specialty, look at the course catalog, figure out how often required courses are offered, plan ahead, and pace yourself. You don't want to have to wait around two extra years for that one required class you missed!

Avoid outside obligations like the plague. You can serve the world when you graduate. Don't worry. Your department will find all manner of extra duties and meetings to occupy your free time.

Don't choose a program based on Big Names. Go where they offer you full funding and where you can get what you came for.

That's the limit of my good advice early this morning with only half a cuppa joe gone. :)

Nov 2, 2009, 11:12am

An MA is going to keep you teaching composition classes, but if that's what you want to do then it'll be perfect. There are a couple girls in my program who absolutely love their Comp classes!

I love grad school! I can honestly say my grad program is easier than my undergrad. My professors are so happy to have grad students because we write well and don't complain about the assignments given like the undergrads! And if nothing else it has made me more passionate about literature!

As long as you're organized you shouldn't have any problems with your program - although you will get stressed because that's unavoidable - and if you can befriend a professor in your area then you'll have the best mentor you could ever ask for!

There isn't really much money to be made in academia, but I guess if you want to teach and live in academia you should already know that. I guess I've already figured out that as long as I love what I do then it doesn't really matter how much money I make.

Nov 19, 2009, 9:49am

I echo many of the voices up there. First I suggest taking a bit of time to work first. Grad school will always be waiting for you when you're ready, and a few years in the workplace may renew your commitment and interest and passion for further studies. These will definitely help you succeed and help you avoid or at least minimise the risk of burn-out part-way through your programme.

Once you've decided to pursue graduate studies, I suggest taking a course on research methodology. We all learned how to research and write papers in undergrad, and it's essential to refresh and hone those skills for longer papers and more sustained research. If your programme doesn't offer such a course check out what the university libraries have on offer or pick up a few research guides (I found Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Research Papers and Booth's The Craft of Research comprehensive and precise.) These will be particularly helpful if you decide to write a dissertation, thesis or independent research paper for your degree.

It sounds like you'll have no problem succeeding.. it just depends on how you want to work the grad studies into your overall career plan.