What Do I Need to Pursue a PhD in English Literature?

For avid readers and aspiring teachers, pursuing a PhD in English Literature is often the first step toward a career in academia. Applying to PhD programs, however, can be an overwhelming process of essay-writing, research, and networking. This article outlines the most commonly required components of a PhD program application.

Write a Thoughtful Personal Statement

A thoughtful personal statement is the cornerstone of any PhD program application, and this essay should speak to your existing experience as well as your future aspirations. Each department or school will maintain specific requirements regarding length and content of personal statements, so you should always read the application instructions carefully. Most personal statements should identify your proposed specialization; while your research focus is subject to change, it is customary to propose a specific historical period and geographical location. Your personal statement should also identify specific faculty members at each institution who would make suitable mentors for your dissertation research. It may be helpful for you to contact prospective advisors before assembling your application materials. Finally, be sure to have a trusted friend or mentor review your personal statement for feedback and proofreading before submission.

Choose a Polished and Relevant Writing Sample

When applying to a PhD in English Literature, the writing sample is second in importance only to the personal statement. While the specific requirements will vary for each program, most writing samples should be between fifteen and thirty pages. Your writing sample should generally be a piece of academic writing in your proposed field of study. Undergraduate theses or seminar papers make excellent writing samples, as do graduate-level seminar papers or academic articles. Ultimately, your writing sample should demonstrate your ability to generate academic analysis at the graduate level. As with the personal statement, you should consult with a trusted mentor or colleague for feedback on your proposed writing sample.

Procure Letters of Recommendation

Most English PhD programs require three letters of recommendation from past professors, advisors, or employers. If possible, your letters of recommendation should come from academics in your proposed field of study. However, it also important that your recommenders be able to offer specific, personal information about your skills and abilities. If you have worked closely with professors on upper-level writing projects, or if you have worked as a research assistant to a leading scholar, consider asking for letters of recommendation from these sources first. Request letters well in advance of application deadlines, and be sure to provide each recommender with the relevant submission information for each school. Your recommenders may also request copies of your resume/CV and personal statement, so be prepared to provide these materials. Finally, if you have any doubts about the quality of recommendation you will receive from any source, it is best to find an alternative recommender; a lukewarm or half-hearted recommendation may do more harm than good.

Complete Any Testing or Educational Requirements

In preparation for a PhD in English Literature, you may need to complete certain educational requirements. At a minimum, you should have a bachelor’s degree; if your undergraduate degree is in a subject other than English, be prepared to explain your shift in focus. Some schools may prefer students to complete a master’s degree prior to beginning a PhD. You should research each school’s educational requirements, as well as any required test scores. While most programs require applicants to submit general GRE scores, many programs also require students to take the GRE Literature in English Test. While general GRE preparation is fairly straightforward, the Literature in English Test is notoriously difficult and may require more intense exam preparation.

Related Resource: 10 Best Deals: Online Masters in English Literature

Pursuing a PhD is both challenging and rewarding, and preparing for this degree requires careful work. By assembling these materials in advance of any upcoming deadlines, you can minimize much of the stress associated with graduate school applications. Work carefully and slowly, and be sure to consult with trusted colleagues regarding your specific application materials. Assembling a polished portfolio is the first step toward your PhD in English Literature.