Applying to a Ph.D. Program

Researching Programs

Begin by reading the catalog thoroughly. Then, if at all possible, make an appointment for a campus visit with the director of graduate admissions in the English Department. You're going to be spending 2-7 years of your life, depending on which degree you pursue, and thousands of dollars doing graduate work and you need to be sure you like the university and the faculty. When you visit campus, ask the following questions:

  1. How many applications for graduate work do you receive and how many do you accept?
  2. What is the profile of a student who is accepted? Accepted and given a teaching assistantship? Accepted and given a non-working fellowship?
  3. What are the requirements for finishing the degree, in detail.
  4. How many courses that are listed in the catalog are actually taught on a regular basis? How often is "regular"? (Ask to see the last two or three year's worth of time schedules and compare for yourself.)
  5. Ask to meet with the professors who will teach in your major area. Then ask them if they plan on being on campus while you are studying there or if they anticipate taking leave time. If so, when?
  6. How many of this department's graduates students were placed in tenure-track jobs and at which colleges? What did these students specialize in? (The person you talk with will probably hate this last question, but you need to know. The job placement rate nationwide is abysmal and getting worse. You are likely to discover that less than twenty percent of a typical university's Ph.D grads were placed in tenure-track jobs their first year out. Remember this sad bit of reality: universities must admit far more graduate students than they can actually place in jobs because they need these students to teach basic writing and introduction to literature courses. Many students who begin graduate work, especially at the Ph.D level, will never have tenure-track jobs.)

Read Successful Applications

You probably won't be able to do this, but it never hurts to ask and you'll learn a great deal about what struck last year's admissions committee as important. These committees often change from year to year, but each university looks for a certain type of student. The more you can find out about this type of student, the more you can tailor your application to those qualities. (You'll find a sample application to the Ph.D program at the University of Iowa, along with an essay by the Director of Graduate Admissions at this website under "Sample Graduate School Application.")

Meet with Current Graduate Students

Find out what's good about this university and what's not so good. Try to attend some classes, if you are allowed. Spend as much time as possible talking with current grad students since they will tell you what the professors and administrators don't want you to know. Ask about teaching loads, comprehensive exams, dissertation practices, everything you can think of, including: "What should I know about doing graduate work here?"

Keep a Calendar of Deadlines

Late and incomplete applications are irritating. Remember, the admissions committee is overworked, stressed, impatient, and generally tired. Don't annoy them. Double-check to be certain your transcripts and test scores have been sent. Keep a list, with dates, of everything you send out and where you send it, particularly if you're applying to several different universities.

If the universities to which you are applying do not include a self-addressed, stamped postcard to notify you that your application has been received, make one and include it.

Writing the Application

Ask at least two other people to proofread for you. If you can't, read each sentence backwards, one word at a time. Read it out loud. Read it word-by-word with a pencil underneath each word.

Your writing sample should be targeted to the degree you seek.

For example, a Ph.D is a research degree; it is not a creative degree such as an MFA. Therefore, a Ph.D admissions committee will look at your writing sample to judge your aptitude for scholarly research, not your reactions to a text, or your poetry, or your ability to write a creative non-fiction prose essay. An MFA program will want to see your creative writing, not necessarily your critical analysis paper on Emily Dickinson. Length is less important than quality. Once again, proofread extremely carefully.

Your personal statement may be creative.

Imagine that your application essay describing why you want to do a graduate degree is going to be read by a tired, bored, impatient committee member at 2:00 a.m. You won't be far wrong. Write accordingly. The primary requirement is that you capture your reader's attention and keep it while you describe why you want to do graduate work. A strong, interesting opening helps.

You do not need to outline a program of study, but it does help your application if you have a plan of what subjects you'd like to study and why. Be aware that for the Ph.D, for example, single-author studies are no longer generally looked upon with favor because students writing dissertations on single authors may not be as successful on the job market. Cultural studies, genre studies, studies in the history of an idea or a subject, and cross-departmental studies will attract much more interest. When in doubt, read the last few year's worth of essays in the scholarly journals in your subject to see what's being published.

If possible, submit your application essay or creative piece to a journal prior to applying for a graduate program.

This will accomplish several things. You can put it on your vita as "being juried at . . ." which looks impressive, and you might actually get it published. You may also get a juried reading of your work, which might help you to revise your work before you submit it with your application and to another journal. Keep revising and resubmitting until you get published, no matter how long it takes.

Attend and Present at Conventions

Learn about graduate student conventions, such as the Midwestern MLA, and submit your essay as a proposal for a presentation.

You'll be doing conference presentations for the rest of your life, so you might as well get a head start. You'll also get reactions to your work, and you'll meet graduate students from other universities. If you don't tell the conference organizers you're not a graduate student, they probably won't ask. If they do ask, don't lie. If your work is good enough, you'll probably be accepted anyway.

Getting Accepted

First, if you are not accepted at your university of choice, make an appointment to call the chair of the admissions committee to find out why.

This can be extremely valuable information if you choose to reapply another year. Most admissions committees will gladly talk with you, provided you call immediately after you are rejected. If you wait a few weeks or months, they will have forgotten why they rejected you and have to go hunt up your application (providing it still exists), and reread it. If you call while their admissions decisions are still fresh in memory, you may get valuable advice.


Follow this link to read an essay by an admissions committee director to get a closer look at how they make decisions on candidates.

Read a sample application to a Ph.D. in literature program.

This link provides guidelines written by Dr. Rachel Anderson regarding applying to a Ph.D. program.

Page last modified February 3, 2014