Applying to Ph. D. Programs

Think it through.

  • Why are you applying to Ph.D. programs?
  • What are your gains or losses?

Choose programs to which you want to apply.

  • Survey English, Comparative Literature, and Literature Departments
  • Where do you want to live for the next five or more years?
  • With whom do you want to work? In what kind of setting will you be most productive?

Get your ducks in a row!

  • Do your research
    • Find out the placement rate of the PhD programs you are interested in: how many and where do graduates get jobs, and what kinds of employment? If there are no records, or if the Director of Graduate Studies can't give you a good sense of graduate students' horizons, you should be concerned.
    • What are baseline respectable GRE's for most strong programs?
  • Deadlines for the GREs
    • General Test (computer-based and given throughout the year)
    • Subject Test (registration dates are well before actual test dates)
  • Deadlines for applications
  • Asking for letters of recommendation
  • Working up your writing sample
  • Working up your personal statement or statement of purpose

Letters of Recommendation

Professor Maureen McLane shares her advice regarding letters of recommendation, requests for support, and so forth:


  • If you want to ask someone for a recommendation, you should approach him/her at least a month before any deadlines. Any later than that is gauche. Two to three months in advance is best.
  • When/if you approach someone for a recommendation, you should ask, would you feel able to write me a strong letter? Don’t just ask, will you write me a letter? A generic letter does you no good. If a faculty member or supervisor hesitates, move on to another possible recommender. You are wasting your and their time if they cannot write strongly and specifically for you.
  • Do your homework in advance: have reasons for the schools/programs/jobs you will apply to.
  • Simplify things for your recommenders: establish an interfolio account for them to send letters to, which you will then send to institutions (not always allowed, but if so, DO IT this way). If schools require individual letters, provide signed and stamped envelopes for the professor well in advance and all forms they might need to fill out.
  • Give your recommenders all supporting materials early: your C.V., personal statement, writing sample, etc. If you haven’t finished with your writing sample, STILL give them a draft. It will allow them to write a better letter for you, with actual traction.
  • WAIVE YOUR RIGHT TO SEE ALL LETTERS. Letters which are not confidential count for nothing. Your application is damaged by non-confidential letters.
  • If you have interviews (for schools or jobs), be sure to follow up with the committee with a thank you note.
  • Be sure to follow up with all recommenders with a thank you note for their efforts—whatever the outcome of your applications.
  • If anyone has done anything for you in an official or professional capacity (written a letter, dashed off an email, inquired into programs), you should make a point of thanking them, and doing so in a timely fashion.
  • It is an extra for anyone to write for you or to advise you; it is in fact an imposition on his/her time, even if he/she is a strong fan of you and your work. Remember this. ALWAYS ERR ON THE SIDE OF FORMALITY.

Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose

Professor Martin Harries, the former Director of Ph.D. Admissions for the Department of English at NYU, offers some suggestions for applications to Ph.D. programs with some emphasis on personal statements or statements of purpose:

  1. Do not write about your reading as a child or adolescent.
  2. Make sure your writing sample and statement of purpose (some institutions ask for a statement of purpose, some ask for a personal statement. But it is best to proceed on the understanding that when institutions ask for “personal” statements, they have statements of purpose in mind. Or, to put it differently, the common assumption is that the writer is a person with a professional interest in the study of literature) support each other. If, say, your statement of purpose describes your intention to pursue scholarly work in early modern literature, your writing sample should not be about Hemingway. If there must be some disjunction of this kind—if, for instance, you have written your best paper on a Victorian novel but want to focus on modernism at the graduate level—you should acknowledge this and describe how what looks like a discrepancy is actually a sign of your intellectual strength and range.
  3. Do not do a five-minute survey of a department’s website and proclaim how passionately you want to study with the five faculty members whose interests, as sketched in what are very often antiquated online biographies, overlap with yours. It is always a good idea to mention particular faculty members in a statement of purpose, but only if you can demonstrate that you have had some real exposure to their work (be careful to keep statement of purpose apart. It’s not a good idea to tell the admissions committee at the University of X that you are overwhelmed by the strength of the faculty at Y University and that Y is therefore your first choice).
  4. Seek frank advice about which programs suit your interests. The most prestigious programs will not necessarily have the best faculty in your area. There are very fine departments in a great many places.
  5. On the whole it’s a bad idea to decide you can live only in one place. Five or six or seven years is a long-ish time, but it’s not forever, and the competition is such that some flexibility is advisable.
  6. Once accepted, visit. Talk to faculty members. Perhaps more importantly, talk to graduate students when faculty members aren’t around.

Choosing your Writing Sample (Examples)

  • Seminar paper
  • Excerpt from your honors thesis

What did we leave out?

Below are some helpful reading material: