Dr. Kip wheeler’s Advice on Graduate School

(Used with permission. The original is available at Dr. Wheeler’s site.)

 

The following advice comes originally from two letters. I wrote the first to a former student of mine at Gonzaga who was applying to graduate schools in late 2004. Some of the advice I offered was specific to her ambitions. She primarily loved Irish literature, and she faced a choice between (#1) studying Irish literature in the Celtic literature program at Aberdeen or (#2) getting involved in the Scottish literature program at a slightly more prestigious graduate program in Glasgow. She wanted to know what would be best for her professionally. In the course of writing the letter, however, I ended up giving her all kinds of advice about literary graduate studies generally, and it is applicable to anyone considering a career in academic life. In 2005, after being contacted by a second student at Carson-Newman who wanted the “inside scoop” on graduate school and practical tips, I wrote the second letter. I decided to post this advice online for other English students. Basically, I’ve created a composite of the two letters here for any student who wants such advice or who wants tips on graduate school from someone who has made it through the process.

The letter includes several sections:

Dear [xxx]:

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Elrond warns that advice is the most dangerous gift, for sometimes even the counsel of the wise is insufficient, and sometimes all choices may go awry. The opinions are mine alone, and you may hear conflicting advice from others. Take the fruit and leave the chaff.

The difficulty seems to be this: “Do I focus on what I enjoy most (Irish literature) in graduate program A? Or do I join more prestigious graduate program B, even though it doesn’t focus on the area I love most (but on Scottish literature instead?)” I’ll present the case for prestige first, and then move on to enjoyability, and then talk about the job of literary scholar and teacher generally.

Competitive Edge:
Why does the prestige of the program matter? Competitive edge. Many students do not realize the cutthroat nature of the professorial calling–particularly in American universities. From the 1980s through the late 1990s, there has been an unbelievably huge glut of wanna-be professors of literature and only a small number of available positions. This trend is due largely to three reasons.

(1) Since healthy people are generally living eight or twelve years longer than they did in the 40′s and 50′s, many professors aren’t retiring at age sixty because of bad health. They sometimes now continue teaching into their late eighties. (M. H. Abrams, the author of A Glossary of Literary Terms and The Mirror and the Lamp, for instance, was still spry and occasionally teaching at age 101 just a couple of years ago.) That means fewer jobs appear for young beginning scholars even as the number of applicants grows.

(2) Because many advanced faculty often don’t like teaching lower division classes like Freshman Composition, they often support the policy of using teaching assistants (TAs) graduate teaching assistants (GTA’s or GA’s) or graduate teaching fellows (GTF’s) to do this work. Many larger universities, for instance, employ a small army of such graduate students–who work on the cheap and receive most of their remuneration through tuition waivers. At the University of Oregon, for instance, the English Department regularly had as many as sixty to one-hundred GTFs and part-timers teaching classes–we far outnumbered the thirty or so full-time faculty there. The lure of not paying tuition encourages ever more GTFs to seek graduate degrees, but the number of GTFs far outweighs the available number of full-time jobs available when they earn their doctorates and go out on the job market. Many universities don’t make this gloomy fact clear to the would-be teachers, which is a bit unethical as far as I’m concerned. A few of the better universities make this very clear to their graduate students in English and do all they can to help them prepare for that stressful job search.

(3) Many administrators, seeking to cut costs, regret hiring any new full-time faculty at all. While never exactly rolling in money, full-time faculty in tenured positions often accrue contractual raises that add up over the years, they demand (and can get) from the faculty senate perks like more-expensive-than-average health insurance. Even worse in the eyes of employing institutes, most college faculty are smart enough to make full and effective use of such insurance, and they often have traditional privileges like tuition-free education for their spouses or children. Additionally, if a tenured faculty member or full-time faculty member becomes politically quarrelsome or troublesome, tenured faculty are a bit harder to get rid of than non-tenured faculty or part-timers. This means many schools are tempted to hire only part-timers and treat them as disposable slave labor rather than hire new teachers/scholars on the traditional tenure-track route.

These costly benefits contrast with the “part-time instructor.” Administrators are not obligated to provide part-time instructors with contractual raises over the years since each contract only lasts for a single semester. Administrators are not obligated to provide health insurance for part-timers. The part-timers are not typically able to claim tuition-free education for dependents, and they can be easily fired when they are no longer convenient without any legal hassle or hearings from a faculty senate. And, most importantly, they are cheap as dust–often teaching a class for only a few-hundred dollars each month. The fact is a department head might be able to hire three or four part-timers for the same price as hiring a single, full-time tenure-track faculty member. When facing a budget crunch, you can understand the temptation for colleges to take the cheap route, even if it erodes the professional status of instructors as a whole and sometimes even places less qualified scholars in the classroom.

The upshot of all this is that new, young professors becoming college teachers face serious challenges when it comes to finding a job commensurate with their talents if they seek employment exclusively in academia. The new college professor must compete against hundreds of qualified candidates seeking tenure-track jobs as well as many more only slightly less qualified (or equally qualified) candidates who are willing to work for peanuts.

Lousy Job Market

The job conditions were so bad in the late 1980s, that on the East Coast, an advertised position for one job specializing in 20th century American Literature received over 800 applicants for that job! (In the U.S., the glut of modernists, postmodernists, and American Lit scholars for 19th and 20th century was and is especially bad). The conditions have always a little better for English and Continental Literature specialists, and things have improved (somewhat) since then. One Irish Lit specialist who is a friend of mine said that at his job interview, he competed with 300 applicants, which I think is going to be a bit more typical of the years 2005-2010.

This news often depresses graduate students. I do not mean to discourage you–merely open your eyes to the challenge ahead, so you can make wise choices now to best position yourself for the odyssey. These statistics don’t mean that only one graduate student in 300 will ever get an academic job. Instead, the numbers mean that a small fraction will land a tenure-track job right after or during the final dissertation defense, about half of them will probably spend four or five years taking temporary teaching jobs or one-year “visiting professor” gigs and moving around a lot before finally landing a tenure-track job, and the remaining half will move on to non-academic work or linger in part-time limbo. For what it’s worth, according to surveys, doctoral students who take jobs outside of the academy rather than pursuing academic careers were paid on average a third more than their colleagues who took college jobs doing research or teaching–and they expressed equal satisfaction with their careers. Many snooty professors consider these students “failures” since they didn’t land university jobs, but that’s just silly. I also suspect that many graduate programs do not adequately make their students aware of other career options besides teaching. They tend to emphasize the tenure-track as the professional holy grail when it’s really one option among many.

If you do want to teach at the college level as a vocation, because of this cut-throat competition, I would advise you to consider the ranking and reputation of the school you will attend as being almost as important as what you want to study. Ivy League graduates at least theoretically have a slight edge over someone from a less prestigious school when it comes to the job market. In the same way, once you finish your M.A., if you attend a strong school with a good reputation, you stand a better chance of being accepted into a good Ph.D. program. Getting the Ph.D. from a good program in turns means you will have a slight advantage when the time for the first job interviews begins during your last year of dissertation work. If I were a graduate student considering my options, the reputation of the school would be one of the top priorities–even more important than financial aid/scholarships offered or what the town/weather was like in the area. The reason is that, if I dislike the weather or area, I would only be putting up with it for a couple of years or so, but the benefits of attending a top-level college will reverberate through the rest of my career. The only thing that might possibly be more relevant would be, does the school offer the career path you really want to follow?

Enjoyable Job? A Job In-Demand? Or A Good Job?
It sounds to me like the second issue here in your decision is “Irish literature” or “Scottish literature.” I get the impression you fear ending up deadlocked in a field of study you don’t like. If Irish Literature is what you really love, that per se is a fairly strong reason why you should pursue that. Graduate school–especially after the M.A.–isn’t for people who merely enjoy literature. It’s a place for people who are obsessed with some aspect of literature. If you are not yet obsessed with Scottish literature, but feel the seeds of obsession for Irish literature, maybe you should keep your options open by picking Aberdeen if it offers both Irish and Scottish literature even though the program isn’t as prestigious.

If Glasgow offers only Scottish emphasis, you could hedge your bets when studying at that more prestigious institution by focusing on some sort of comparative study that looks at an Irish author and a Scottish author in your Master’s Thesis, so that even if you decide Scottish stuff really isn’t your mug of whiskey, you will still get a good dose of the Irish stuff you love.

Finally, you may be surprised to discover how much you love Scottish literature. Later, you can always focus on Irish literature when it comes time for a Ph.D. program. After all, your odds of getting in a good Irish lit program at the future Ph.D. level will rise if you already have the M.A. from a prestigious place like Glasgow, or better yet, Trinity. So what if the M.A. is in Scottish Literature! You’ll merely be expanding your studies at the Ph.D. level to consider yet another aspect of Celtic literature–this time Irish rather than the Scottish stuff you studied in the M.A.

The tricky bit is balancing what you enjoy with what’s in-demand. For instance, a person might really be interested in Pee-Wee Herman, and want to spend years studying the puns found in Pee-Wee Herman’s Playhouse, but it’s unlikely that scholar will find many advertisements for jobs teaching this. The literary canon comes into play. I became a literature student because of a passion, because I absolutely frigging loved poetry and imaginative narratives. They made me feel like my brain was on fire. Within the whole realm of literature, I could have been happy teaching Auden, or Melville, or Hawthorne, or Shakespeare, or Marlow, or Bradbury, or Hemingway or any of thirty others. So I had to narrow it down.

The next factor in my choice was competition. I wanted to pick an area that was more demanding and more challenging: something that scared all the other English majors a bit. I knew whichever area was the hardest, whichever area was the most challenging, that area would be the one least studied by my peers, and hence it would be the area where there would be the least competition when it came time for the job market. That was medieval literature. Heck, anybody can apply literary theory or talk about characterization in a modern story, I thought. How hard is that? When it’s in Latin or Middle English or Old French, it’s much trickier. Thus, I decided that medieval literature would be the area for me to study more specifically.

That sounds rather cold and calculating doesn’t it? Anyway, once I had it narrowed down to medieval literature, I could have been happy researching (and teaching) the Pearl Poet, or Marie de France, or Welsh literature like The Mabinogion, or Langland, or Le Mort D’arthur. I choose Chaucer, however, out of another bit of cold calculation. When I looked through various job advertisements, he was the name most often mentioned: “WANTED: CHAUCERIAN TO TEACH . . . ” “TENURE-TRACK OPENING FOR MIDDLE-ENGLISH SCHOLAR: MUST TEACH CHAUCER . . .” You get the idea. I selected Chaucer specifically because of job demand, and then I picked The Canterbury Tales rather than The Book of the Duchess or Troilus and Criseyde because those tales were my favorite Chaucerian works. For me, the task was balancing what I loved with what was a realistic and challenging course of study.

These are the three criteria you should consider as you pick your studies:

#1: Do I love this author/poetry/material? Could I be happy teaching this and researching this for the rest of my life? (It doesn’t have to be the only thing you could be happy teaching and researching, it just has to be one of the things you would be happy working with.)

#2: Out of the materials that I love, what is the most challenging author/poetry/material–the bit that will push me intellectually and which will send weenie-scholars cringing away in terror?

#3: Out of the materials that I most love, and out of those which are most challenging or difficult, which name or field or century is the one most often mentioned in job applications?

MLA and JIL
If you want to know what’s in demand, see how many job-positions are advertised. For instance, I saw probably twice as many positions advertised for Irish lit specialists than for Scottish lit specialists when I was on the job-hunt in 2003. What literature students should do is join the MLA or Modern Language Association (if you not already a member) and subscribe to the JIL (The electronic Job Information List) at membership rates. About October or November, the job advertisements will start appearing by the hundreds on the JIL website. Get an idea of what the demand is for Irish literature and Scottish literature–especially for tenure-track positions. The job advertisements will continue through May typically. You can also follow the job advertisements in The Chronicle of Higher Education as well. This information will not help so much in selecting the M.A. program, but it may prove invaluable as you start planning for the Ph.D. program afterward if you want to go the route of the professional scholar.

Second, keep in mind that the M.A. is not the end-all be-all of your academic career. It is quite possible you could earn the M.A. in one area, and for the Ph.D. you might focus on another. In fact, it’s common. Ideally, you want to forge a clear connection between the two though. That way, your research can grow organically.

Finally, keep in mind that neither an “enjoyable” job nor an “in-demand” job is identical with a “good” job. What do I mean by this? Part of professional fulfillment and psychological health is being able to perceive that the work you do makes a difference to someone–that your work somehow helps make a community, the students, or the larger world a little better than otherwise would be the case. Just having a job that’s fun? A job that pays enough to get by? A job that’s in sufficient demand to give you a chance at being hired? That is never enough. You also have to feel you are giving something back to the world if you want scholarly and professional happiness.

For example, I enjoy teaching Chaucer and general literature surveys far more than I enjoy teaching freshman composition and rhetoric. That freshman comp class involves more drudgery, more grading, and more exhausting one-on-one teaching than any other course. But I know something deep in my little black heart-of-hearts; the freshman composition class I teach each semester is far more important, and has far more concrete effect on students’ lives, than any of my literature classes. I wouldn’t have guessed that when I started this career path, but it seems profoundly important to me now. As an English instructor, you might discover the same thing. Your literature courses will be treats! You will have fun! You will enjoy them! Unless you are hired by a major research university, however, you will earn the right to that enjoyment through your hard and often unrecognized work with freshmen students desperately needing to learn rhetoric, logic, grammar, and their own writing styles. I’m not sure what point I’m trying to make here–I just want you to think about this as a future professional and as you select courses in graduate school.

That’s why I’d advise you, once you have finished the M.A. and are looking at Ph.D. programs, to consider minoring in one of the following if it’s offered: composition theory, rhetoric, or computer-assisted composition. Nearly any job you apply for as a doctorate-holding literature teacher will want you to teach an occasional lower-division course–and often you will be teaching one or two freshman composition classes each semester if you are working in a state-university, a small private school, or any non-research-oriented institution. Those graduate courses on composition pedagogy and practical rhetoric will make you much more marketable when you hunt for a job regardless of your main specialization.

Making the Grade:
I’ve talked to many students in my office who have unrealistic or naive misconceptions about their GPAs. One student, who had a couple of D’s in her upper division English courses, confidently informed me she planned on attending graduate school in English. She was quite shocked when I suggested it was unlikely any would accept her unless her grades showed dramatic improvement. Let’s be realistic here. Even the worst M.A. programs as an absolute minimum require their students to have an overall undergraduate GPA of 2.5 and a more specific GPA of 3.0 in English courses. Even lackluster English Ph.D. programs as an absolute minimum require their students to have an overall GPA of 3.0 and a GPA of 3.5 in English courses. These requirements are usually listed in the course catalog for that graduate school.

In actual practice, however, individual departments can be much more choosey than this. For instance, in 1996 at the University of Oregon, the English Department had one-hundred-and-twenty applicants who met the minimum requirements for entrance into the English graduate program. The department picked only seventeen of these one-hundred-and-twenty. You can bet these seventeen were not from the bottom of the curve. Based on an anonymous informal survey amongst themselves, all but two of them had a 4.0 GPA in their undergraduate English classes, and all but four had at least a 3.5 undergraduate GPA overall.

A single “C” or two on a transcript will not knock you out of the running. That just shows you are human. However, three or four “C”s might, and a “D” in your major emphasis certainly will. A high GRE subject score can help counteract a low GPA, but let’s not kid ourselves, pilgrims. When a department separates a hundred goats from twenty or so sheep, the first applications tossed in the trash are the ones with the lowest GPAs. If you are interested in graduate school, keep this in mind. Perform well academically, or pick a different profession.

Stepping Stones:
You are looking at the M.A. program right now. That’s probably a good choice, rather than applying directly to a Ph.D. program. The percentage of students who “wash out” in the Ph.D. program is much higher for those students who didn’t get the M.A. somewhere else before entering the Ph.D. program. As one of my old mentors, Dr. Charmazel Dudt, once told me, “The M.A. is the degree that confers academic survival skills, ruthlessness, and a low animal cunning. The Ph.D. is the degree that confers wit, charm, and sophistication.”

What Dr. Dudt meant by this jest is that the Ph.D. provides the intellectual polishing touches on the scholar, the outward glaze of professionalism, and the etiquette of scholarly debate. The Ph.D. program is all about big departments having wine-and-cheese receptions, so to speak, while the M.A. program is about the initial dirty work of scholarship, the all-nighter in the library, the red-eyed student popping aspirin and reciting Latin declensions to get language requirements out of the way. Most of your specialization will appear at the Ph.D. level, but those M.A. courses are frequently what prepare you to teach general courses.

The M.A., however, provides most of the broad core, the basic building blocks needed to thrive in a Ph.D. program. After writing a Master’s thesis of 60-100 pages, writing a 100-200 page doctoral dissertation doesn’t seem so frightening. (That’s where an unfortunate number of Ph.D. students swallow their own spines–they get through four or five years of coursework, and then they can’t bring themselves to sit down and actually start writing a 100 or 200-page argument.) Don’t get me wrong! The Ph.D. work is harder and more demanding than M.A. work–at least it was for me. I was much more stressed during the Ph.D. program than during the M.A. My point is that the Ph.D. program doesn’t seem so demanding or insurmountable when a young scholar has already made it through the M.A. program successfully. You already know you can do it, because you’ve done something similar before. For your dissertation or thesis, just type one polished page a day and you’ll do fine.

The M.A. program, however, is your stepping stone to find a good Ph.D. program later. Just before your second M.A. year, you might want to go ahead and start looking critically at the available Ph.D. programs. Ideally, you want to go to a place even more prestigious than the one where you currently are. You want to use the M.A. as a means to even better things. This is where the connection game comes into play. You absolutely want to find the best scholar in your area of specialization who is firmly entrenched in one location (see comments about nomadic scholars and departmental stability below). At the Ph.D. level, you want her magic signature on the front of your dissertation sheet because (a) it’s not what you know, it’s often who you know; her famous name and prestige will rub off on you when hiring committees read through the job applications, and (b) she’s probably a genius who will really inspire you to do good work. Mentors matter in the professorial game. They know the names, they can create the connections, they unlatch the locks, and they pave the path to publications–provided that your own work is of suitable quality, of course. You learn who the best scholar is by looking at who’s published the most, who gets quoted the most, and who appears in all the footnotes in lesser scholars’ articles. (You can also ask your teachers who the top scholars are as a shortcut.)

Wise students should talk to their teachers in the M.A. program and find out who their teachers know in the field–sometimes they are on a first-name basis with that famous modern writer, or they even studied under the same famous scholar you want to work with. Don’t be bashful about this! Use a good M.A. program partly as a fishing hole to hook up with someone even bigger in the prestige pond whenever possible.

If you are interested in a specific school rather than a specific mentor, one really clever and easy trick is to get a list of the faculty from one of the college catalogs or college handbooks, or the department’s webpage. Then spend a weekend in the library seeing what books and articles they have published. Find a specific faculty member or two that has published things you like, get a sense of how that professor thinks and writes, and if you are impressed, deliberately seek out this scholar (or scholars) as a mentor. When you write your initial letter of application or your “statement of goals and objectives,” mention these faculty members by name and state what publications of theirs you have read, and why you would enjoy working with them. Nine of out ten applicants don’t think of doing this. You can give yourself a significant advantage if the admissions committee can see you have done your homework and spent some time in your selection. Often, department websites or a professor’s personal website will include several online curriculum vitae (a sort of scholar’s resumé) that list a professor’s dissertation topic, recent publications, frequently taught classes, and who was on that scholar’s dissertation committee. A particularly far-sighted graduate student might look at this last bit of information as a potential connection to a later Ph.D. program. Odds are that your M.A. mentor’s dissertation committee includes at least one potential contact for a future Ph.D. school.

Fields of Studies Are Not Set in Stone:
Remember that you are not tied down to a specific author or literary work during your first year of studies in the M.A. program (or even in the Ph.D. program for that matter). You may go in wanting to do work on author or poet X, only to discover that the teacher who specializes in author or poet X is actually something of an ass, or that the scholar you wanted initially to work under is so wrapped up in research he or she doesn’t have time to spend providing you with much help. If that’s the case, look for other professors you enjoy working with and talking to. If their work is neat enough, you might even want to change your emphasis to be aligned more closely with their publications and research–sometimes you will find somebody working on material that proves so fascinating it’s worth making the switch. If not, don’t sweat it. Just keep your mind open to that possibility.

However, waffling in an interview or an application letter will not impress the admittance committee. If you are not certain exactly what area you want to study within literature generally, don’t advertise that fact. Pick one of the things you like and use it as your focus. Speak confidently and assert to others why you want to study it in particular to show others you are goal-oriented in your research.

Nomadic Scholars and Departmental Stability:
It’s not so important for the M.A. level, but at the Ph.D. level, it’s very important! Before picking a school to apply to, you should try to determine how stable the English or Literature department is. To do this, go through old college catalogs containing information for that college. (For American colleges, these are often available on microfilm, organized by state, at larger college libraries. Ask your librarian for help if necessary.) Check out how long various faculty members have been at the college. If there is a high turnover rate, and faculty appear to stay only a year or two before leaving for more verdant pastures, that suggests the department isn’t very stable. Perhaps funding gets cut frequently, or perhaps the department members tends to quarrel with each other destructively. Perhaps nobody is very happy there. That instability will trickle down to the students one way or another, especially if funding gets cut for scholarships and grants or if the department is factionalized and quarrelsome. Too often, students can get used as unsuspecting pawns or scapegoats if the scholarly squabble is vindictive in nature. Nomadic scholars who pull up stakes and leave can be one symptom of an unhealthy or impoverished department.

You can also garner clues about what the faculty are like. If everyone listed has been there since the 1970s, they are all probably in their early seventies by now, and a sudden flood of unexpected retirements might hit the department at any moment, depriving you of the chance to work with a particular scholar. If all the faculty appear to have joined in the mid-2000s, they may not have established reputations, or the department may be re-fashioning itself after a wave of retirements. A stable department has a wide variety in ages, in academic ranks, and most members have taught there perhaps seven to twelve years (or sometimes more). You won’t be very happy if you want to work with super scholar X, only to discover that super scholar X plans to retire right when you want to start your thesis.

Surprising Sabbaticals and Their Hidden Dangers:
How frequently does the catalog list its faculty members as being “on leave” or “on sabbatical”? Traditionally, good universities offer faculty members a sabbatical every seventh year. (The term is from the same root as Sabbath.) Sometimes the sabbatical is a single term; sometimes it is for a full year. The faculty members on leave use this time to travel and focus on their own original research rather than teaching. The question here is timing. If you want to do the M.A. thesis or a Ph.D. dissertation, and you want a specific scholar to be on that committee or be the chair of that committee, an unexpected sabbatical can throw a huge monkey-wrench–nay, even a gorilla-wrench–into your plans. Just before the second year of M.A. studies, inquire very carefully into these details to make sure the appropriate faculty will be around at the right time. My own Ph.D. dissertation nearly snagged twice, first when one of the members of my committee suddenly left to follow a dream-job in Anglo-Saxon Studies in England, and second when the chair of my committee was leaving for France during the same summer I planned to defend the dissertation. The fault was entirely mine–I should have paid better attention to these details.

Talk to More Experienced Students:
Whichever program you enter, be sure to talk to the returning students who have been in the trenches at that specific institute, those advanced students who know the place. They will fill you in on all the important gossip about educational landmines–power struggles between the faculty, rivalries, idiosyncrasies about particular instructors, and so on. Make a list in advance and ask the graduate students your questions one at a time if you need to. Remember Chauntecleer and Reynard’s advice at the end of Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest Tale: keep the mouth shut and eyes open until you know what’s going on beyond the professional façade. Once you know where the cracks are, where the social or ideological fault-lines lay hidden, you can tiptoe around tectonically active areas.

Hurdles and Hoops:
You will face many hoops and hurdles to jump through in graduate school. Students who get overwhelmed by the process are those who (a) don’t keep their eye on which hoop is coming up next or who (b) see the sheer number of hoops ahead and give up in frustration early in the game. These hoops include specific coursework that must be done in a specific time, specific deadlines for fulfilling language requirements, specific deadlines for taking comprehensive exams, specific times for a thesis proposal, and specific dates to finish the thesis and defend it. As long as you don’t panic about them and do them on time, you will be fine. Keep jumping, even when you’re tired and frustrated, and you will eventually get to the end of the obstacle course. It’s as simple as that. That was probably some of the best advice ever given to me about graduate school by an old teacher. Brilliance and creativity get you off to a good start, but they only carry you so far. Persistence, focus, and discipline are what draw you over the finish line.

Believe me also–you may feel a bit intimidated by the other students. As an undergraduate, you might easily be within the top 10% of the class. As a graduate student, you may discover that you are no longer the cream of the crop. Everybody else around you was within the top 10% (or 1%) of his or her class. Suddenly, you may feel average rather than brilliant. Even worse, when the other student starts talking about “post-structural theories after De Saussure being the most relevant approach to aposiopesis in Joyce,” you may feel downright overwhelmed and inferior. Don’t give in to that perception! It’s a false one. Everybody else in the classroom feels exactly the same way you do, and some of them will throw around their knowledge to compensate. Knowledge is a big thing, and no one student (or any one teacher) will have a piece from all parts of it. The odds are, you’ll be able to speak Middle English and one of them won’t, or you’ll have read that particular Yeats poem that none of the others have encountered yet, or whatever. Be confident that, even if you don’t know something yet, you are an intelligent and capable person, and you will be able to learn it once you know more about it. If you feel overwhelmed by literary theory and terminology, purchase an old used copy of J. A. Cuddon’s Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory or M. H. Abrams’ A Glossary of Literary Terms. These works, along with Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, will serve as convenient cheat sheets that let you access all the right buzz-words and hot ideas that sometimes don’t get covered in class, but which teachers mistakenly assume everybody knows. You are capable of the work–otherwise the faculty wouldn’t have let you into the program in the first place. Never forget that.

Teaching Experience:
One of the most valuable aspects of the M.A. programs in America is the opportunity to teach. Most American college teachers get their first taste of teaching undergraduates while they are in M.A. programs. This is less common in Britain than in America, but keep your eyes open for such opportunities. (a) It’s a résumé builder, and (b) it will let you sample the career to find out if it’s really what you want to do. Far better to discover that one hates teaching during the M.A. program than to postpone that discovery until another four years of expensive schooling at the Ph.D. level. It’s also the first taste graduate students get of trying to balance their own research with the demands of intellectually needy students–a prominent part of the academic career.

Not Hired Here:
Most good universities, when they hire a new professor, do not want to hire one of their own graduates. They want to hire someone from someplace else to prevent academic nepotism and to ensure a steady influx of new outside scholarship and thinking. If a university or college hires its own graduates, they may be hiring “clones” of the previous generation of scholars. Looking beyond one’s own walls when hiring prevents that–it means a new mixture of scholarly discourse will occur with each new hiring.

That tradition means, if you attend one school for the M.A. program, you probably shouldn’t get a Ph.D. from the same place unless you really, really love it. That also means, if you get a degree from a good school, it’s unlikely that that good school would ever consider hiring you as a permanent, full-time staff member. (Though the administration might be very happy to hire you as a part-timer or for a one-year appointment.) Every choice is the death of a thousand opportunities, so keep in mind that, by picking one particular school for a degree plan, you are also marking it off a list of places to seek employment after college.

Paying For It All:
Most graduate programs offer teaching positions to their graduate students under a variety of names. These students might be called TAs (Teaching Assistants), GAs (Graduate Associates), GTFs (Graduate Teaching Fellows), or something else, depending upon the institution. Basically, these are all positions in which the graduate student will be given a tuition waiver (very valuable) and a small stipend (usually not quite enough to live on–think minimum wage). In exchange, the student will end up teaching classes none of the faculty want to teach–remedial or developmental writing, ESL sections of writing, freshman composition sections that meet at 7:00 in the morning, and so on. It is often stressful, since you will be taking your own full load of classes and doing at least the equivalent of 20 hours work each week if not more. At large universities, it is common for groups of a dozen or so GTFs to work as a lecturer’s assistant in large classes (300-500 students), each one doing part of the grading and being responsible for leading a smaller “discussion group” of forty or so students twice a week. The chance to teach freshman composition is fairly standard at both large and small colleges, but usually only large universities allow advanced graduate students to teach literature courses–and even those are usually freshman or sophomore surveys. At small colleges, part of your work might also involve tutoring at a writing lab. (Working in writing labs is also a good idea for undergraduate students who later want to apply to graduate schools, by the way.) At large colleges, a small percentage of GTFs might end up helping specific professors with research projects (photographing manuscripts, making folklore archives of taped interviews, typing or helping proofread books for publication, and so on).

The degree of preparation for teaching varies wildly. Some colleges (particularly cheap ones) unleash unprepared TAs on unsuspecting college freshmen in a “sink-or-swim manner.” Though I strongly disaprove of this, such a program does have an advantage in that it means first-year graduate students are immediately eligible for tuition waivers. Most graduate programs require eligible graduate students to enroll in a tailor-made course before teaching the first time. This course usually has a grandiose name like “Pedagogical Development and Initiative” or “Theory and Praxis of Language Acquisition.” These courses are really classes in “How-to-Teach-English-to-Freshman-Students-The-Way-We-Want-It-Done-At-This-University.” Take the course and take the teaching position. It will provide you with invaluable experience and later give you a professional leg up over those who didn’t.

Watch with interest for schools where the graduate students have organized into unions. These unions are often sore points with administrators and faculty, but they are gems for graduate students. Schools that have recognized unions usually provide better stipends for students, they have carefully limited the number of hours of work required of GTFs, and they often have collective bargaining power to purchase cheap health insurance–sometimes even dental and visual. Schools without such unions often exploit graduate students shamelessly.

The Temptations of Filthy Lucre:
Be prepared to be very, very, very poor. As a teaching assistant at West Texas A&M University between 1993-1995, my stipend was about $600 dollars a month for teaching two composition classes each term. The tuition waivers are worth a chunk, of course, but you can’t eat tuition waivers or use them to pay the rent. You may find it necessary to take out a student loan–especially if the program doesn’t allow first-year M.A. students to teach or it doesn’t offer something akin to GTFs or Assistantships. This leads to one of the times of hidden danger! The time between the M.A. and the Ph.D. degree is when young adults will be tempted by the lure of lucre. Often, just after finishing the M.A., a student will take a year off from school while deciding on a graduate school. This is a dangerous choice. During that year, the student will frequently be offered her first paying job. Suddenly, she’s being paid $35,000 (or $40,000, or more). Suddenly, she doesn’t have to eat canned corn and Ramen noodles each night. Suddenly, she can afford that car and the big apartment. Once that occurs, it’s extraordinarily hard to give up these goodies and return to the life of an impoverished college student for the next four (or more) years in graduate school. This is why I advise students who want to be college professors never to take too much time off after the M.A., but to move directly into their chosen Ph.D. program. After being poor and penniless for six years, they won’t mind being poor and penniless for another four or five–but a single year rolling in filthy money will sidetrack them from the long-term goal.

Foreign Language Requirements:
Milton, that blasted misogynist, once claimed, “One tongue is enough for any woman.” Graduate programs, however, are not the place for monolingualism. At the M.A. level, nearly every good English graduate program will require a student to demonstrate proficiency in one foreign language and often in two. (They usually give the student two years’ time in which to take undergraduate courses and achieve proficiency.) At the Ph.D. level, nearly every good graduate program in literature will require a student to show skill at two foreign languages and sometimes three. (They usually expect the student already to have one of those language requirements out of the way before beginning a field of study.) Note that for some scholarly areas (history and comparative literature pops to mind), the number can be as high as five.

In general, most English graduate programs prefer students to know one Romance language (Latin, Spanish, French, or Italian) and one Germanic language (German, Norwegian, Dutch, Old Norse, Icelandic, or Swedish, etc.). French and German are the two biggies, though a medievalist might substitute Latin and Anglo-Saxon. Russian is also popular for scholars who focus on 19th and 20th century literature, given the profound influence of Tolstoy and company, and Hebrew and Greek are pertinent if you want to make yourself hirable at Protestant religious colleges. Latin is also desirable for taking a position at Catholic-affiliated colleges, and Greek is always good for anyone who might end up teaching a survey course on ancient literature, mythology, Byzantine studies, and/or the ever-in-demand composition/rhetoric. If you are focusing on Celtic studies, either Old Irish or Scots Gaelic are probably pertinent substitutes, or French if you are studying Beckett (since he lived and taught some in France). Welsh is good for those studying Arthurian material, but less useful for other subjects. Find out what the requirements are, and see if any languages you currently know will fulfill their requirements. Language acquisition is another area that often sidetracks graduate students who aren’t paying attention; it nearly caught me off-guard. I had to get special permission to take a year’s worth of Latin in an intensive Latin course one summer to stay on track. Get as many language requirements out of the way as possible before starting graduate studies if you are still an undergraduate. If you don’t enjoy foreign languages, an academic career in literature is probably not for you.

Does Size Matter?
There’s a give-and-take in terms of a university’s size. Big universities often have a wider range of opportunities in terms of coursework. That presents a fantastic opportunity to learn Old Irish or Latin, or to take that course on The Tain, or that Thai Film class. There’s also a much larger number of faculty members interested in your specific work, and a much larger chance that one of them will be a mind-blowing scholar who is a stunning expert in the field. The drawback is that the larger universities often are more impersonal, and the class sizes may be larger, and you may get less one-on-one feedback and direct mentoring. Smaller colleges often provide much more caring, face-to-face mentoring. Bigger is often better, but not always. Consider your learning style. Do you need regular feedback? Do you need to feel a sense of personal concern from others? Do you need to have questions answered in discussion? Maybe a small graduate program is best. Are you self-motivated? Are you capable of taking responsibility for your own education? Do you want access to a wide variety of research resources to read through on your own time? Do you like access to a library with literally millions of books and journals? Do you like having multiple options on classes or the chance to tailor your studies to your own needs? A large program would provide this better. Frequently, British programs require the student to do much of the work on their own, and there’s one huge whopping test at the end of the year. That often catches American students off guard. (Cambridge’s tests are famous for this sort of open-ended approach. After a year of botany lectures, few papers, and no quizzes, with only a list of “suggested” readings and no study questions, it was time for the examination. The final question consisted of two words: “Trees. Discuss.” Be prepared for a different experience than that of American institutions–and be prepared to motivate yourself independently.)

Think about Multiple Angles to “Sell” Your Scholarship
Usually new professors are hired to teach the same material they wrote about in their dissertations, but that is not universally the case. Though my own interest is in Chaucer and Middle English, I ended up teaching Shakespeare for nearly five years as a graduate student and postdoc before I landed my first job teaching Chaucer at Gonzaga. Those years teaching Shakespeare were not wasted because I enjoyed them thoroughly (and even miss them occasionally, though they don’t hold a candle to teaching Chaucer). You may end up with a research focus on either Scottish or Irish literature, but end up teaching something a bit off kilter. For instance, often a prospective employer will select you for an interview not just because of your dissertation, but because you have taken a number of courses on a single topic, or because your century or genre is somehow indirectly connected to the job position (That’s how I ended up teaching undergraduate Shakespeare for so many years; I had taken something like four or five Shakespeare courses by the time I finished by Ph.D. and my dissertation work on medieval literature led up nicely to discussing the Renaissance.)

You can turn this quirkiness of the hiring process to your long-term advantage. For example, if you study W. B. Yeats, you can bill yourself either as a specialist in “Irish Literature” or as a specialist in “Modernist Poetry.” If you study an Irish author like Bram Stoker, you can sell yourself as a specialist in either “Irish Literature,” or “Victorian Novels” or “Neo-Gothic Horror.” If you choose to study Oscar Wilde, you could sell yourself as a specialist in “Irish Literature” or “Modern Drama” or even “Gender Studies/Queer Theory.” Thinking of your scholarship in this way will open up multiple job niches. (Gender Studies/Queer Theory in particular is popular on the West Coast right now in literary studies, for what it’s worth.)

A Movable Feast

Job opportunities and good graduate programs are not regional things–they may require packing up and moving to London for the summer, or Oregon, or California, or The Cloisters in New York, or wherever the manuscripts and scholars are that you need to interact with while doing your dissertation. Some of the best opportunities are four- or six-month fellowships at research libraries. Many of the first full-time, tenure-track job offerings will be in areas far away. A scholar who only looks for academic jobs in his or her home state is probably screwed. That scholar faces part-time or uncertain employment at community colleges without the security of a multi-year contract or retirement benefits. That might be fine for some, but many scholars would feel cheated by this.

There is a sort of not-so-secret snobbery in academic hiring–a descending pecking order of who is considered worthy to teach where depending upon the origin and type of a job candidate’s degree. I’m generalizing a bit unfairly here, but it looks something like this:

(A) Ivy League Ph.D. students occasionally get tenure-track jobs at other Ivy League schools, but they mostly can expect opportunities for tenure-track employment at major research universities or big state schools elsewhere. However, they are eligible and considered extremely desirable for work in the institutions listed below this “A” level of prestige.
(B) Ph.D. graduates of major research universities or big state schools occasionally get jobs at other major research universities or big state schools, but they mostly are employed by mid-size state schools and private schools of good-or-average quality. However, they are eligible and considered desirable for work in the institutions at the “B” level of prestige. Unfortunately, such graduates are unlikely to be considered at all for a position in the A level of prestige.
(C) M.A. graduates of Ivy League schools, and Ph.D. graduates of mid-size state schools and private schools of good-or-average quality occasionally get tenure-track jobs at similar mid-size state schools and private schools of average quality, but they typically get employed full-time at community and small private colleges. However, they are suitable for work in any in the institutions listed below the letter “C.” They will face serious challenges when seeking a position in the A or B levels of prestige.
(D) M.A. graduates of anywhere except an Ivy League School rarely get hired full-time or tenure-track at community colleges or small struggling private colleges; most are typically employed doing part-time or short-contract work at mid-size state schools, community colleges, and those small private schools of varying quality. Unfortunately, they are unlikely to be considered at all forgetting employment at the A, B, or C levels of prestige.
(F) It is terribly unlikely that anyone with only the B.A. degree, or even the M.A. degree from a small regional or private school with a poor reputation, will be hired at all for a college-level teaching position.

Many graduate students say, “I just want to teach freshman composition at a community college somewhere, and I’ll be happy. I don’t need or want the fancy job at some big hotshot college.” That is commendable. However, if you prepare yourself and groom your career for something higher on the hierarchy (such as teaching at a major research university or a big state school), not only do you open up extra options for your future career, you also increase the odds of successfully landing that more-humble position teaching freshman composition–at least as long as your teaching skills are up to par. Note also that, if you work at a small private college or a community college, your performance most likely will be judged on the quality of your teaching. You will get raises or promotions based primarily on your instructional skills. If you work at a big state school or a major research university, the quality of your teaching will be de-emphasized, and the important evaluations for tenure and re-hiring will probably be based on the quality and number of significant publications and scholarly discoveries you churn out each year.

This means, however, that mobility is essential. Being a scholar requires — at least for a few years — condemning yourself to life as an urban nomad, and traveling to the best opportunities far away rather than settling for the second-best choice nearby.

Sexual Entanglements

Most traditional graduate students will be in their mid-to-late twenties. Sociologically and statistically, this is the common age of a first marriage for educated professionals. Many of the student’s friends have gotten married, and the student’s parents are beginning to make pointed comments about absent grandchildren, and the student may be a bit lonely and homesick after moving out-of-state to a good M.A. program. Furthermore, he or she will be surrounded by intelligent, goal-oriented, and ambitious members of the opposite sex. The temptation is to fall in love, tie the knot, and marry some sweet young thing or some dashing young scholar who has memorized long passages of Elizabeth Browning’s Sonnets From the Portuguese.

Don’t do it. Date your love interest, certainly. But delay the actual marriage until you’ve graduated with your final degree. Or at least think twice about tying the marital knot before then. Why do I advise this?

Graduate school can be an enormous stress on a new marriage, and marriage can be an enormous stress on graduate studies. They both require significant commitment and laboror they don’t work–especially given the nomadic life of the young scholar. You will be spending an inordinate amount of time with books and papers and librarians. If your partner is also in graduate school, both of you will. It’s hard to maintain an appropriate level of emotional involvement with that person while finishing a dissertation. If you do spend enough time to keep the relationship healthy, it’s hard to maintain an appropriate amount of intellectual involvement with your work. Adding children to the mix, when you are both impoverished and stressed and uncertain about your future careers, is merely a recipe for ulcers. Graduate studies is a game for singles.

If you do date, beware of dating someone in your own program. A break-up here can become departmental gossip and an uneasy tension in your graduate classes. Even if you have no break-up, and seem to be made for each other, you might eventually find yourself competing for the same job–and one of you will face heartbreak that way. Likewise, beware of dating someone who also wants to work in academics–even if she isn’t in your specific field. If the partner is, for instance, a physicist and you are a philologist, it is quite probable that he may be hired in Florida and your job opening will appear in Alaska. Some couples can survive that sort of strain. Some couples can’t. You won’t know which one you are until it happens. If you can’t maintain a relationship over such a long distance, the only option to save the marriage will involve one of you giving up your career ambitions (and the seven years of graduate study that went into it). Traditionally, that has been the female partner in such a pairing, but assuming that one or the other is the one who “should” set aside dreams and ambitions is patently unfair.

I was very lucky. My wife, who has a Ph.D. in molecular biology, did not want to teach or do research. If she had wanted to teach or do research, we would have faced the circumstances above. Even more lucky for me, she was primarily interested in doing technical and scientific writing, which she can do pretty much anywhere in the U.S. where she can plug in her computer, so it was less of a problem for her to tag along as I headed out from one temporary job in Eugene, Oregon, to Spokane, Washington, before landing a tenure-track position in Tennessee. Finally, she was willing to indulge my paranoia, and she agreed to postpone marrying me until I had completed my degree. (We were married 48 hours after I defended my doctoral dissertation.)

Most academic couples are not that lucky. If you find yourself dating someone while you are in graduate school, you need to have a long serious talk with that person before the relationship progresses too far. I think you’ll have the best luck if you pick someone who is educated, who shares some of your interests, but who has no academic ambitions. Most of the people you will associate with in graduate school meet the first two requirements, but not the third. Keep this in mind.

Final Thoughts and Professional Rewards:

I’ve probably overwhelmed you with too much information. I’m just trying to tell you all the things I wish I’d known before starting graduate school. I’m sure that, whichever choice you pick, you will be able to find occupational and scholarly happiness. In general, graduate studies are a lot of work, but I’m convinced college teaching is the most rewarding job I could have ever chosen.

Basically, I’m paid to re-read my favorite books and poems each year, and then sit down with a group of young adults and explain to them why these books and poems are so cool and brilliant. Teaching college literature and college writing is always exciting and intellectually stimulating. If teachers get bored teaching one poem or story after a few years, we can always substitute another; the traditional canon is a pretty big field to play in. The emphasis on publication means the scholar is always reading and researching, encountering new literary art, discovering new ideas, and re-seeing the world through new interpretive angles. It’s like viewing the universe through new eyes every time the teacher makes a new syllabus. That is exciting.

When we teach English literature and composition, we get to talk about what really matters. We write and read and talk and argue about beauty. About passion and poetry. About tragedy and tears. About deep belly-laughs. About freedom and despair. About rage against injustice and evil. About those unseen ethereal dreams bulwarking the solid, immobile world. About ideas that make us feel like our brains are burning incandescently beneath our skulls. That is incredibly exciting.

We get to ask the meaningful questions, and encourage our students to explore them in their writing. What is beauty? Why do we make art? What do the stories we tell reveal about ourselves? How does the way we characterize others reveal hidden sides of our own psyches? Is there anything essential to all humanity, or does each culture present its own unique perspective, its own unique values? How does the act of putting any knowledge in narrative form alter, distort, or enhance that knowledge? How do the words we speak shape the way we think? Is rhetoric just verbal chicanery, or does the honest art of persuasion help democracies come closer to the truth as we argue about our different beliefs? What is the difference between “fiction” and “lies”? Can we reach a more meaningful truth through our fiction, like Christ telling parables to reveal the kingdom of heaven? Can we gain better knowledge of ourselves through our writing? Was Joseph Conrad correct, and the veneer of civilized discourse and culture merely a means of hiding the darkness within? Was Matthew Arnold correct? Could literature be a commonality, a social glue that helps unite a divided modern culture as we strive toward sweetness and light? These questions will be your daily bread in English classes.That is incredibly exciting and rewarding.

Best of all, you get to share this intellectual growth with eager young minds. Sure, a dud or two (or three) will lurk in the back row, unwilling to participate. You will have that student who doesn’t “get it” and doesn’t want to be there. Did not Plato argue that some students are unteachable by temperament and character? But, if you develop your teaching skills, for each thorn you will find a rose in the class. You will find the student who will work hard and produce miracles, the youngster who will turn into someone more thoughtful, more rational, and more passionate because of his or her first-hand dialogue with English literature.

By this, I don’t mean the brilliant “A” student. Straight-A students will thrive in spite of any attempts we professors make to sabotage their learning process. Teachers don’t make “A” students; they can only polish them. The type I refer to are those determined “D” students who shows up every week to work with you until they become “C” students, or the “C” student who discovers she really loves poetry, or Shakespeare, and grammar, and through sheer effort and enthusiasm pulls herself up to a “B.” That is the prize for a college teacher. Also, you will receive letters or e-mail ten years later from these students. They always begin the same way. They read something like this:

“Dear Dr. [xxx],

You won’t remember me. About ten years ago, I took an English course with you and barely passed the course. I sat on the back row, and I never said much in the class discussions. I am writing to tell you that I am in England this summer, and I’m so proud to be here. I’ve been re-reading some of what we read that semester. It reminded me of being in your class. I was thinking about all you taught me and thinking about what a difference it has made in my life. I just wanted you to know this.

Thank you so much,
[xxx]

Indeed, you won’t remember that specific student–not out of all the thousands you will have taught by then. Good heavens, you might not remember ever teaching that particular class. But secretly, beyond your direct observation, you will have changed someone’s life for the better. You will have sparked an intellect into bright flame, and that fire will not die out. That’s what makes the job worthwhile. That’s why I think graduate school and becoming a college teacher is worth the pain and sweat and tears and frustration and low pay. That’s why I encourage bright and dedicated students who are interested in graduate school to consider it in spite of the fact it brings no fortune, little fame, and sparse prestige. If your priorities are straight, the real rewards will await you.

–KW


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