How difficult would it be to get into a Ph.D program in English literature at a top tier school?

Prepwise AnswersCategory: General CareerHow difficult would it be to get into a Ph.D program in English literature at a top tier school?
Career Dev Staff Staff asked 5 years ago

How difficult would it be to get accepted into a Ph.D program in English literature at a school like Northwestern or CUNY having done my undergrad at a bottom tier school (CSU East Bay)?

1 Answers
Kate McKeon Staff answered 5 years ago

I would need to know a few more things before firming up my answer:

  • Have you published anything yet?

That would help. It would help A LOT if you have published with a well respected person in the field. If not, do that first. You’ll have to convince someone to let you work with him/her and that will be your first litmus test of viability as a candidate.

  • Do you know what area with Eng Lit you will master? And how many people are already in the field before you (struggling to publish, begging for tenure positions and teaching for peanuts)?

We have no shortage of Eng Lit PhDs. So you need to have a specific area of expertise – pref demonstrated before you apply! – in order to get anyone’s attention.

  • What can you do to move scholarly research forward in the field? In other words, how will you make your PhD program look great for having accepted you?


  • Can you pay for it?

If you’re hoping for support . . . good luck. That is getting more rare by the day. If you can afford to pay for the MA, you have a fighting chance to get support for your dissertation.

  • How many butts have you kissed already?

Flattery is effective. You want to go to those 2 programs, go meet the faculty who can get you in. It’s a chummy little world. Go to the conferences May/June for your area within Lit. Smartly flatter people. Read their stuff. Rave about it. Repeat.

For example Kalamazoo, MI hosts the Medieval Lit folks every year. If that’s your bag, you should be there. Everyone who is anyone in Medieval scholarly stuff is there (do not however dress like Guinevere or Joan).

Parting wisdom:
CRUSH the GRE. You don’t have a choice. Play your cards right and people will forgive your undergrad experience.

Good luck!