Current Affairs Higher Education Uncategorized

going to graduate school in English

Probably the last in this series of posts surrounding the MLA silly season. While senior grad students, recent phds, and others prepare for their job interviews, another crop of potential graduate students are entering the pipeline. A recent post from The Little Professor  responding to some Facebook comments from Michael Berube, suggests that graduate programs should cover the expenses of their students’ job searches (e.g. going to MLA). It’s not really a practical suggestion, but I think her more general point was that doctoral programs should take more responsibility for the relationship between the size of their programs and the job market.

This raises a different question for me though: who has responsibility to whom and for what when it comes to graduate programs?

As many have quickly pointed out, departments do not typically set their own enrollment targets. Now if one wants to make the argument that it is unethical for there to be English majors or graduate programs because they do not lead to jobs, then I suppose we can make that argument. However this applies as equally to the BA or MA as it does to the Phd. It’s just that there is zero expectation of a specific career coming out of the BA or MA. If we want to make an ethical argument to defy institutional enrollment targets for doctoral programs and accept the consequences, then why are we ok with BA or MA programs? Maybe we should shut the whole thing down on ethical grounds. Of course we don’t because we believe that the study of English is good unto itself, even if it doesn’t lead to a particular job.

Why does that change when we get to the doctoral program? The answer is that it doesn’t, at least not at first. You get into graduate school on the basis of your success as an English BA, you submit your best undergrad essay, and you write about your interest in some literary topic. Typically you don’t write about your desire to do the job of a professor: working with students, sitting on committees, responding to student writing, etc. In other words, entering graduate school in English isn’t about pursuing a professional goal; it’s about pursuing an intellectual interest. And then the first two years of graduate school are just a super-charged version of undergraduate life (plus teaching if you’re a TA). One takes classes, reads books, sits in seminars, and writes seminar papers. There’s more reading and longer papers. There’s a higher quality expectation, probably, and also probably more theory. The content shifts a little, but the practices are much the same. How many graduate students pick a field based upon an analysis of the demands of the job market? How many pick courses based upon some understanding of the expertise valued on the job list? I would say the answer is not many.

My point is that typically there is little professional turn in the first two years of an English doctoral program. Students continue to pursue their intellectual interests without giving much thought to how those connect to a professional life, just as they did as undergraduates, and graduate programs and faculty facilitate this through the curriculum they offer. Then we get to the qualifying examinations where students really need to decide on an area of specialization. This is clearly a professionalizing decision as the exams should launch the dissertation project which will in turn define one’s job qualifications. Again though, how many students look at the market and select a specialization based on job trends? And do we even recommend that they do? I would say that we don’t. Instead, the commonplace wisdom is that one must select a field that one truly loves if one expects to complete the dissertation and do well.

It’s a strange piece of advice despite its common sense appeal. As this Chronicle piece from last summer reports, only 50% of entering graduate students complete their doctoral degrees (you can also look at this quantitative data from the PhD Completion Project). Furthermore, even looking at the long-term data, only 50% of those phds get tenure track jobs, and then one would have to ask what percentage of those get tenure. So, given the 7-10 years it takes to finish a dissertation and land a tenure-track job, and add to that the six years before coming up for tenure, we might say of the class of 2014 that somewhere by 2030 hopefully 1 in 5 will have tenure. That’s assuming the job market rights itself, undergrads keep majoring in English, tenure doesn’t disappear, etc., etc. Now those chances may not seem promising, but given that completion rates have never been much better than 50%, the chance of an entering grad student getting tenure at some point has probably never been much better than 1 in 3. So that’s the other part of the argument for pursing what you love, because if you’ll be spending 10-15 years on something that has a very good chance of leading nowhere professionally then you better love it.

It would be interesting to see a survey of incoming graduate students in English to see what they know about their chances on the job market. It’s hard to imagine that they don’t have some sense of the challenges of the job market, but maybe I’m wrong. My guess is that they aren’t making these kinds of economic, cost/benefit decisions. I know I didn’t. I was making a clearly anti-careerist move in going to grad school. I was consciously rejecting the idea of pursuing a corporate job. When I got married (to another grad student), neither of us ever thought we’d be able to buy a home. To that point, we’d both lived slacker, GenX lives as temp employees and students; we weren’t thinking about some other kind of life. Now of course we have that other life. (My wife never completed that program though she has had a successful academic career and is now in pursuit of a different phd, so I suppose the two of us reflect the statistics fairly well.)

On university/department end though, the decisions are all economic. Admissions decisions reflect the demand of applicants, the enrollment priorities of institutions, and the way universities are ranked. If you really wanted to change the way graduate school functioned, then you’d pressure the American Association of Universities to make retention, completion, and placement rates for graduate programs a significant criteria for membership. I know AAU and Middle States pressures for retention and time-to-degree at the undergrad level have made my university sit up and pay attention. What if instead of admitting 10, graduating 5, and placing 2 or 3 I said you have to take those 10, graduate 8 and place 5? You could try admitting fewer students, but only if you really knew which 2 or 3 to cut (which isn’t that easy). Would you change your tactics from pursuing what you love to something more strategic? Would you alter the curriculum to reduce the shock of moving from course-taking to dissertating?

My point is that if there were top-down pressures from the AAU or federal granting agencies to improve performance on the graduate level then this would eventually result in changes in graduate curriculum and the culminating activity we call the dissertation. I don’t know if such pressures will ever arise. And I’m not sure how they would affect incoming graduate students who would enter far more pragmatic programs than they do right now. Or even if such pressures would shape undergraduate programs at least for those who want to pursue graduate degrees.

I even wonder if this is what we really want (and by we I mean both graduate students and faculty). Would we want to create programs were 1 in 2 students ended up getting tenure someday (instead of 1:4 or 1:5) if it meant creating more lock-step programs, restricting the fields and methods students enter, requiring students develop skills demanded by the job market and so on? And if we don’t want to do what is necessary to get better results, then should be stop complaining about the results we do get?


5 replies on “going to graduate school in English”

Actually, I think that there is a difference between encouraging students to get bachelors and masters degrees in English (though I am more focused myself in getting them to do this in our program of Written Communication) than PhDs because the only thing you’re really prepared for/set up to do with a PhD in English is to be a college professor. The BA and the MA are much more general, and our MA actually has a professional writing track (along with a teaching of writing track).

I know there’s a lot of talk about changing the PhD so that it can have some sort of real world/non-academic applicability. But it seems to me that that’s always going to be a “plan B,” and the best thing one can do is to not get into a PhD program in the first place. I guess what I’m getting at here is I think the PhD is different in that it is a much more rarified program of study that is too specific to be as broadly applicable as either a BA or MA.


Thanks Steve. We clearly do feel differently about BAs and MAs. We feel no obligation for these degrees to lead toward particular kinds of jobs. Other BA/BS and MA/MS degrees across the university target specific industries and careers. This is even the case with some quite proximate to traditional English degrees such as professional-technical communication, journalism, or English education. The generic MA in English gives you very little career advantage on its own over the BA. It might get you permanent certification as a HS teacher (as it does in NY). It qualifies you to teach at community colleges. But we seem to be OK with that. The Phd has the same problem as the MA in terms of non-academic jobs. It doesn’t really add to your qualifications and certainly not in a way that would justify the decade spent getting one.

The justification of the BA/MA that qualifies one for nothing in particular (beyond the generic entry-level job that requires a degree, good communication skills, and a knowledge of MS-Office) seems to be 1) that you don’t spend a lot of time getting the degree (30-40 credits for either one) and most importantly that 2) humanities degrees shouldn’t be utilitarian. This switches when we get to the Phd because of the time involved and because we decide that the degree should have a use. My point here is that though we say that doctoral degrees should lead to jobs, there is almost nothing in the way the curriculum is delivered that convinces me that we are really focused on that purpose.


Our program is a little different in that at the undergraduate level, the major is “Written Communication” with a pretty clear career/industry oriented track called “Technical Communication,” a slightly less clear and similar track called “Professional Writing,” and a sort of generic track called “Writing Studies.” The whole thing needs to be revisited, but that’s another discussion. And at the MA level, the program is Written Communication with a track in “Teaching of Writing” and a track in “Professional Writing.”

Interestingly enough, even though the EMU English department has like 9 different majors and 6 different MA programs and none of them are a general “English” major. For better or worse.

Anyway, I think our programs are a little more targeted to professional/technical writing than say the BA or MA in literature, though as I always tell students, ours is not a field/profession where you have to be a “certified” technical writer or have some board qualification. It’s not like being a lawyer or a nurse or a CPA.

As far as the value of the MA goes: I’ve had a lot of students in our MA program tell me that they thought it helped them in the job market for even relatively entry-level tech writing/professional writing jobs because (they say) “everyone” has a BA; to make yourself stand out, you get an MA. I don’t know if that’s actually true and it doesn’t square with my own experiences when I had a “real job” back in the early 1990s, but it’s what they tell me now.


Putting a warning label on grad school is certainly one approach. I suppose the underlying question for me is whether or not we consider this state of affairs to be acceptable or not. If the only problem is making sure we have “informed consent” from incoming grad students then this is a great solution. If we think there is a deeper problem with the 1:4 ratio, as would seem to be the indication from the way we talk about the lack of tenure-track jobs, then the warning label isn’t much of a response.


That’s true. I never made it as a rock star or as a defensive midfielder. Perhaps the anxiety in our field is tied to the status of adjunct life, though a similar angst does not arise for the local musician playing for tips or the semi-pro weekend warrior athlete.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.