FAQ – Graduate Study Abroad

Why go to graduate school?

You love reading and writing, and the life of the mind is your passion. Perhaps you love debating the merits of post-Marxism over coffee and cigarettes. Or maybe you want to go to graduate school just because it seems like the logical next step.

People apply to graduate school for all kinds of reasons, because graduate school is many kinds of things to many kinds of people. It is work and play, business and leisure, a time of professionalization and exploration, and a labor of love. Yet if the ambiguity of graduate school is its virtue, it is also the source of much uncertainty and anxiety. After all, a labor of love is still labor, and graduate school is a long march toward a goal that you may not eventually want, and even if you do, may not exist.

This is why you should think very hard before investing your time and perhaps money in a graduate school career. Above all, we would strongly urge you not to apply to graduate school because you are unsure of what you want to do with your life. For some, graduate school can be a wonderful experience, no matter what career path it leads to. For others, it is a source of bitterness and disappointment.

Nevertheless, if long, lonely hours of reading and writing and habituating yourself into the ins and outs of the academic profession seem like highly satisfying and worthwhile experiences, you should go to graduate school.

What can I do with a graduate degree?

The short answer is: a lot! Now to be sure, the traditional point of graduate school was to train future university professors. However, you may have heard about the academic job market. Its outlook is very dire and has been for almost forty years. Official statistics report that less than half of graduate students in English will get a tenure-track job in the academia, but those statistics don’t account for attrition in academic programs (students who leave their programs before obtaining their PhD). This situation is not going to improve and may very likely get worse in the next decade.

As a result, graduate programs have increasingly turned their attention to making the degree work for alternative career paths–from editors and journalists, to entrepreneurs and curators of material and digital archives. This process is still ongoing, but academics now agree that alternative careers are not second-best, but are oftentimes more fulfilling than a life in academia.

Before you apply to graduate school, you must be prepared for the possibility that you will never be a college professor. The earlier you look into the many career paths open to humanities PhDs, the more likely graduate school will be a fruitful and worthwhile phase of your life.

What kind of work will I do in graduate school?

For the first 2-3 years of a typical PhD program, students do coursework. These courses, roughly three per semester, involve a great deal of reading, and usually require one major writing project–typically, a ~20 page research paper. So in each semester of graduate school, you should expect to write at least 60 pages.

Once coursework is completed, students take their qualifying exams. These exams, which usually have written and oral components, are drawn from reading lists (usually around 150 books), which students study independently for 6-9 months.

Once students “qualify” (that is, pass their exams), they become “ABD,” which means they have completed “all but [their] dissertation.” At this stage, they begin working on a proposal for their dissertation and, eventually, the dissertation itself, a book-length research project.

As you can see, as students advance through each stage they are expected to become more independent and self-motivated.

Should I apply to a MA Program or a PhD Program?

Generally, students apply to MA Programs when they have a particular intellectual interest but they are unsure as to whether this interest will lead them to a longer-term commitment to academic research or whether they will want to use their MA as a springboard for a career outside of academia. Conversely, PhD applicants are generally students who wish to pursue careers as academics. However, the decision to apply to a MA or a PhD is often also a financial one, as MA programs in Euro-American universities generally provide very little financial aid, especially to non-citizens. PhD studies tend to be fully funded, although this can often depend on the particularities of a given program (see below).

What is a recommendation?

A recommendation is a confidential letter written by a professor or mentor in support of a student’s graduate school application. The goal of the recommendation is to allow professors to introduce their students in a way that enriches the otherwise dull presentation of a transcript or GRE scores. Professors can use the recommendation to provide graduate schools with a sense of the student’s in-class presence as well as their academic performance, commenting on issues like their participation in team work, their leadership abilities or the general relationship that they have built with their professor (as well as their classmates) throughout their undergraduate career.

Given the goal and purpose of recommendation letters, it is important that they should be written by professors who have a sense of your academic abilities and writing skills, (ideally) how you have grown and changed over the course of your coursework with them and your intellectual interests and research agenda. In other words, recommendations fulfill their purpose best when a professor really knows the student for whom they are writing a recommendation. Additionally, it is equally important to pursue recommendations from professors who have taught you in advanced courses where they have had an opportunity to witness your academic writing in depth, and watched you grapple with complex questions.

What is a statement of purpose?

A statement of purpose, like so much in academia, is a performance. In this case, it is a performance that convinces the application committee that a prospective student will be successful in graduate school–that is, they will develop a compelling dissertation project and complete that project. Let’s unpack what that means.

First, eliminate all romantic musings about your love of literature and ardent desire to be a teacher and a scholar. Rather, begin by simply stating who you are, where you’ve studied, and where you are applying.

Second, be as clear and concise as possible about your specific intellectual interests, desired field of study, and the research project you wish to pursue in graduate school. This is, of course, a very difficult task: you don’t really know where your interests will lie five years from now. But no one expects you to be able to write a fully-formed dissertation proposal right now. Faculty members want to know whether you’re serious enough at this point to have a topic of intellectual interest, a grasp of its theoretical and historical stakes, and an understanding of the scholarly state of play around it. Your research into your senior thesis is the best place to begin the work of articulating this topic. Remember, however, that you aren’t bound for life to it: faculty members expect that as you grow intellectually, your interests will change.

Third, summarize how your work as an undergraduate has brought you to this topic. Shape your undergraduate experience into a narrative, a kind of intellectual autobiography that illustrates how this topic has grown from your broader intellectual trajectory. Explain, for instance, how your essay in a class on 18th century fiction grapples with the same theoretical problems of narrative and subaltern politics that motivate your current thinking on the contemporary anglophone novel. Have you participated in conferences or given presentations? Explain them briefly and show their relation to your broader project. No doubt this narrative will be a creative or fictional reconstruction of your life, but it does the important work of contextualizing your interest in your topic and demonstrating that you are well-rounded.

Finally, explain how the particular program you are applying to is suited to helping you develop this particular project. Specify professors whom you’d love to work with (ideally, you are applying to the program because you’ve read their work and want to learn more from them). Identify institutions at the university that will facilitate your research (i.e., special programs, library collections, interdisciplinary initiatives). This shows the faculty that you’ve done your homework.

And remember: proofread your work! Show your letter to your adviser!

What are my financial aid options?

Many graduate schools are funded by their MA programs, so the MA is typically more expensive than the PhD. PhD programs, by contrast, typically offer tuition waivers and stipends for students (in exchange for work). The amount of work (teaching, editing journals, assisting the research projects of professors) you will have to do in exchange for your stipend will depend on the program. Typically, “better” (i.e., more highly ranked) programs offer more generous financial aid.

We would strongly recommend that you never go into debt for a PhD program, and apply only to those programs that offer full tuition waivers and stipends that will allow you to enjoy a decent quality of life. Be sure to look into the cost of living in places where you are applying so you can properly judge how far a school’s stipend will go.

How many schools should I apply to?

There is more than one way to approach this question. Applying to graduate school is expensive, so the number of schools you can apply to may depend on your budget. That said, a common approach is to apply to at least 10 schools, spreading your applications out over a number of tiers according to school rankings and the financial packages they offer.

An alternative approach is to choose a handful of schools based on the interests of particular scholars whose research matches your own. Engage those scholars in email correspondence concerning that field. See whether they would be willing to work with you on questions of common interest. If so, highlight that personal contact in your particularized statement of purpose. This approach emphasizes the development of relationships to increase the strength of your application.

What should I do if I want to pursue graduate studies in another field?

It is very common for students to finish undergraduate studies in a particular field and then decide to pursue graduate study in a related (or even unrelated) area. The key here is to begin your research into graduate programs early on and get as much information as possible as to the basic “formation” that any specific graduate program demands of its applicants. Generally speaking, if you are a student of English Literature but applying to (for example) a Political Science MA program, it will be very important for you to show your target department that you have experience in that area (i.e. that you have taken political science courses, received good grades and even perhaps obtained a recommendation from a professor in that field). Additionally, your statement of purpose will become an important place for you to show why your degree in English Literature has led you to Political Science programs and how your training positions you as a good candidate.