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Graduate School

MSA_Graduation_CapAre You Thinking about Applying to PhD programs in Literature?

If you are thinking of applying to a PhD program in literature, or within the broader humanities, here are some resources to help you decide which doctoral programs might be right for you. Below, you will also find information, resources, and tips on organizing the application process.

Is a PhD program right for me?

We can’t tell you whether a PhD program is right for you (Only you can know, maybe, and if so, only on your deathbed); however, we can help you understand what getting a graduate education entails. You will inevitably encounter critics and enthusiasts of graduate education. Here are two editorials from the The Chronicle of Higher Education (an invaluable resource), one more cynical, the other more optimistic. Also, we encourage you to schedule a meeting with a professor to discuss graduate school. Professor Barnes would be happy to discuss graduate school with students interested in entering a PhD program. You can email him at

The Graduate Record Exam (GRE)

Most graduate programs require students to take the GRE in order to apply. Click here to learn more about this standardized test. However, departments and schools differ dramatically in how they treat these scores. For example, many students are accepted into top-ranked literature programs with abysmal scores in the quantitative reasoning section. However, similar programs might value this score highly. Talk to current or past students of a program in order to find out how their department values these scores. The GRE is expensive, and it’s only offered on certain days in a given region, so be sure to schedule your exam early.

GRE Subject Test:

Many PhD programs, especially those housed within “English Departments,” require students to take the GRE Subject Test in English Literature. Click here for more information about this test. The test has four sections organized around the following: literary analysis, passage identification, cultural and historical context, and history and theory of literary criticism. This test is notoriously difficult, but taking the right classes at Ramapo (particularly, LITR 240 and LITR 306) and mastering the minutiae of your Norton Anthologies will help. We also recommend purchasing one of the many guides published by one of the companies commonly associated with the ETS testing regime. Again, the GRE is expensive, and it’s only offered on certain days in a given region, so be sure to schedule your exam early.

“English,” “Literature,” “Comparative Literature” and Interdisciplinary Programs:

Many graduate and PhD programs in literature do not require the GRE “subject test.” Programs specializing in “English Literature” are still likely to require the test, but programs that specialize in other kinds of world literature (comparative literature programs or interdisciplinary programs that mix a study of literature with language study, politics, culture, performance or film) are less likely to require the test. Make sure to check if the programs you’re interested in require the subject test.

money-183x300Tuition & Debt:

Thomas H. Benton’s advice on graduate tuition seems sound, especially when it comes to PhD programs: “Do not pay for graduate school.” Most PhD programs will waive tuition if you agree to teach. Many departments also offer fellowships. If you are accepted into more than one program, you can often negotiate for a better aid package. You should think about your graduate career as just that—a “career” in which you teach and perform research. Even though a department offers fellowships and teaching, you should still consider how this budget compares to the average cost of living in a particular city. Graduate students may not pay their tuition, but a majority of students do take out student loans to cover other costs associated with being a graduate student. Federal loans often have lower interest rates and more flexible repayment plans when compared with private loans.

Choosing a Program: Factors to Consider:

Students too often let geography limit the scope of their graduate school search. Graduate school is a major, long-term commitment, and pursuing graduate study frequently involves relocating to a new region. While there are a number of excellent humanities graduate programs in the NJ/NYC area, in order to be strategic (remember, graduate schools are extremely selective), you might want to broaden your scope—nationally or internationally. One of the best parts about graduate school is forming a new network of colleagues and friends from around the world. Most graduate programs offer a 5 to 6-year program, but you should know that this time varies both by department and by student. A recent report showed that a majority of students finish the humanities PhD anywhere between five and ten years. Because you will spend such a significant amount of time invested in a program of study, you will need to make sure you pick the right program. The MLA has published a (now slightly outdated) Guide to Doctoral Programs in English and Other Modern Languages. Please see or email Professor Barnes if you would like to schedule an appointment to discuss which graduate program might be right for you.

Choosing a Mentor:

As an undergraduate, you most likely followed an academic program or curriculum. Many courses were required in order to give you the breadth that the literature faculty felt you’d need in order to get a comprehensive understanding of the field. Graduate school, on the other hand, does not focus on breadth. Graduate school focuses on specialization. Because of this, many programs become recognized for their specialization. For example, according to a recent set of rankings, UPenn has an excellent program in renaissance and medieval literature, whereas UC Berkeley is especially strong in gender and literature. While many students at Ramapo often work continuously with faculty, graduate school requires significantly less coursework (coursework itself is largely composed of intimate seminars which students take only during the first two years of study). As a result, graduate school often feels more like a an apprenticeship or a mentorship, so choosing the right program often involves choosing a few scholars with whom you’d like to work. Do your research. Find out who teaches where, and what kind of research those professors do. If you find a group of exciting and sympathetic academics housed in one department, you should certainly add that program to the list. On the other hand, if your major criteria for choosing a program include a school’s proximity to New Jersey, the social and recreational opportunities offered by its cosmopolitan location, or its year-round Mediterranean climate (and these factors are, of course, important), you might end up being disappointed later.

The Statement of Purpose vs. The Personal Statement

The “statement of purpose” is very different from the “personal statement” you wrote in high school. Whereas the “personal statement” was largely autobiographical and retrospective, the “statement of purpose” is also prospective—it looks forward to what you would like to study. It’s also, generally, less “personal” and more “professional.” You will need to describe the skills and work you have done to prepare yourself for graduate study. You will also need to articulate your specialized interests—what you would like to spend the next six to ten years studying. Of course, it’s difficult to know now what you will actually end up researching; however, you should try to frame your interests as specifically as possible. Although it isn’t always necessary, students should try to narrow their interests to a specific medium (e.g. the novel, drama, film, poetry, etc.), region (regions range in specificity, e.g. the UK, or Wales, the US, or the American South, the Middle East, or Egypt), historical period (e.g. medieval, early modern, Victorian, postmodern), and/or methodological approach (e.g. Marxist, feminist, or ecocritical approaches). Mel Wensel, Director of Academic Services at the University of Washington, has created a great resource on the statement of purpose. Students should also feel free to make an appointment with Professor Barnes to discuss their statements of purpose.

Letters of Recommendation

Students will also need letters of recommendation when applying to graduate school. You should request these letters as soon as possible in order to give your letter writers ample time to compose the best letter they can. Letters requested early on are generally stronger than those requested mere weeks or days before the deadline. Some schools ask that the letters address different aspects of the student’s past and potential. Some require that two letters be from professors and that that third be from someone who knows the candidate in a different capacity. Other schools do not specify. Try to form relationships with professors as soon as you can. Visit them in office hours. Joint research collaboration, for which there is funding in HGS, is another great way to forge a relationship with a professor.
Requesting letters and ensuring that they arrive on time can be daunting and tedious. Letters are confidential and therefore should not be sent by you. Many schools even require that the envelope be signed across the seal. If you are going to apply to a number of programs, you may want to pay for a letter service. Interfolio is probably the most popular. These services archive and distribute the letters you have on file. The letters can then be signed, sealed, and delivered to a number of institutions with a few clicks of the keyboard.

The Writing Sample

The writing sample is one of the most important pieces of your application. It’s in the writing sample that admissions committees are given an opportunity to see you at your best. Required writing samples vary in length, with some programs requiring as few as ten pages and others requiring twenty. Work with a faculty advisor to choose and revise the right writing sample. Most students significantly revise and adapt a piece of writing they have already submitted as coursework. Students enrolled in the Senior Seminar (LITR 414) should consider using this course as a vehicle for composing a potential writing sample. Talk to your LITR 414 professor about transforming your research into a viable writing sample. Writing samples are not always closely related to the areas of interest you have identified in your statement of purpose; however, a strong connection can be to your advantage. Click here for UC Berkeley’s advice on writing samples.

The C.V.

Some schools require that you submit a Curriculum Vitae, or C.V. A C.V. is like a résumé in many ways, but there are significant ways in which it differs. See the University of Washington’s guide on composing a professional C.V.

Helpful Websites:

The University of Washington has an excellent guide on gather materials to accompany your graduate school application: