--- layout: post status: publish published: true title: Britain or America for the PhD in English? author: ali_chetwynd wordpress_id: 1286 wordpress_url: https://www.martineve.com/?p=1286 date: !binary |- MjAxMS0wNy0wOCAxMTo0MzoxOCArMDIwMA== date_gmt: !binary |- MjAxMS0wNy0wOCAxMTo0MzoxOCArMDIwMA== categories: - Literature - Academia - Teaching tags: - academia - PhD - PhDchat comments:  ---
I recently reached the halfway point in my 6-year PhD program at the University of Michigan, allowing me to ponder the consequences of my having chosen to do the doctorate in America rather than Britain. If I’d started my PhD in 2008 in Britain, I’d be expected to have pretty much finished my dissertation by now, to be on the verge of the abysmal job market. Instead, having finally cleared all the non-dissertation preliminaries of the American PhD (a triumph with its own acronym that sounds pleasantly/deceptively like a qualification: ABD, or ‘all but dissertation’), I find myself in the shoes of any first-year PhD student in Britain, for whom the process is Nothing But Dissertation.
I’m surer now than ever that doing my degree in the American rather than the British system has worked out well for me. That it has turned out this way is something of a fluke, however, since there were vast swathes of distinction between the two systems of which I had no idea whatsoever when I chose where to apply.
The following information is meant to make people better prepared than I was to give proper consideration to doing an American PhD in English or related subjects.1 This is part one of two: an adumbration of America’s major points of departure. Part two, coming soon, is a guide to the process of choosing where to apply, applying there, and then being uninconvenienced by your legal foreignness once embarked.
Basically, A PhD in English from a British university has a schedule based on a 3-year completion, one from America has a schedule based on 6 years. The British PhD almost always requires completion of a masters beforehand for admittance, US PhDs will/may accept you straight from undergrad, as they tend to have an embedded masters component.2
The major differences that justify the double duration, then, are:
Coursework. Before getting to the dissertation-writing stage you need to have taken a substantial number of graduate-level courses, usually about 2 years of full-time study’s worth. Standard is to take 3/4 courses per term if not teaching, less one course taken per course taught per term. Courses usually meet for 3 hours a week, have a weekly reading load around the total length of a novel, or 3/4 journal articles, and require a final paper anywhere from conference-paper (3500 words) to journal-article (5-8000 words) length. The bigger the department you apply to, the wider the range of courses you can choose from in any given term. I discuss the range of courses and departments’ expectations of coverage below.
Qualifying exams. To reach the dissertation stage you have to pass some form of comprehensive exam around your 3rd year. In most places, this is a combination of written and oral examination based on at least 2 ‘field-lists’. These lists are a set of sources, generally around 100-150 each, that you need to have read well enough to be able to answer pointed questions about and identify broad relationships among come the exam. My two fields for example were ‘American literature Melville-present’ (around 160 novels and 40 poets) and ‘literary-applicable stuff on the choice-doubt relationship’ (about 120 philosophers, literary critics, landmark popular works). You can’t always get away with a list-topic as vague as the latter, you may be able to get away with a list-topic narrower than the former. Some places will let you assemble the list pretty much by yourself, others will hand it down to you with zero room for modification.
Proposals: Generally when you apply to a British PhD you apply by making a research proposal: you’re likely to be accepted as much on the strength of your proposed idea as your existing CV. For American PhDs, the proposal comes after you’ve passed your qualifying exams: it’s meant to emerge from what you’ve observed in the course of that reading and assessment. Some places may do a few rounds of proposal: I am finishing up my Prospectus having already done a Pre-Prospectus (half the length, less pedantic about citation). Proposals are normally done at some point between the exams in 3rd year and the start of dissertation work in 4th year, when coursework is finished. They’re usually judged by, and go through rounds of revision in response to, the committee of professors with whom you’re going to do the project. Some places have a little more full-department supervision of the process, but this is not standard.
So, with these 3 things out of the way, you are ABD, you are in the shoes of the starting British PhD. Of course, none of this means that the American PhD is a fuller qualification than the British. They have the same title, they represent the same certification: ‘this person can carry out a full original research project under supervision, let them forth into the world’.
There is, however, as you can observe by reading around the relevant bits of the internet, occasionally some scepticism from Americans about the preparation afforded by the British PhD. My committee made clear that one of the certifying roles of the qualifying exam process was to brand onto me some sign that says ‘barring some horrible failure of oversight on our part, Ali is now qualified to TEACH classes of his own invention that fall within the fields covered by his exams’. Similarly, a rule of thumb that seems to operate in the American system is that once you’ve taken a graduate course on a particular topic, you should be able to teach a course on that topic to undergraduates. Americans thus sometimes seem leery that a British PhD, having no graduate coursework as they understand it and having passed no comprehensive qualifying exams, may be less broadly prepared to teach a range of classes, or to vary the syllabus of a given class from instance to instance (this also affects the nature of the dissertations written in both systems, as I’ll explain later). I’ve not seen any corresponding attitude from British academics: no widespread belief in Britain that an American PhD would be a great bet due to all the extra stuff they’ve covered. So an American PhD probably gives British students a boost if they’re looking to teach in America, but none if they’re coming back home.3
Those, then, are the fundamental differences between the systems. The basic principles of the final research process are the same: the major distinction between the systems is in what comes beforehand.4
So, you now know about the differences in structure, but what kind of work will you need to do to succeed within the American elements? What can you do to maximise your benefit from them, and what will you department expect you to achieve along the way?
The purpose of coursework is to give you solid background in a variety of topics. Since each course is graded, mainly on the basis o a final paper of project, you need to come up to a certain standard of work in each, but the grading is usually only on a system of A = satisfactory progress, A- = specific issues you need to work on for future classes, B+ = substantial problems. Programs that have some sort of periodic assessment of performance across classes usually want some specific evidence that you’ve addressed the issues raised by any grades in the B range before they’ll pass you on to their next stage.5
On the matter of coverage, some programs are happy for you to take many classes on related subjects, others will want you to delve widely. Since the British undergrad degree tends to involve more compulsory coverage than an American equivalent, people with undergrad degrees from Britain may have a more solid basis for emulating my classmate who took a total of four classes out of the required fourteen with the same professor. She had a separate masters beforehand, which is another way to legitimate a narrow approach to coursework. Myself, I took a pretty broad, nay scattershot, approach, and got some of the more useful ideas for my dissertation project on 60s American experimental fiction by writing papers on Middlemarch, Thomas Wyatt and Mathilde Blind.6 Taking a wide variety of classes is good intellectual exercise if you’re reasonably confident in your magpie sophist’s ability to build a personal methodology out of disparate insights and encounters with other approaches. On the other hand, if you’re like my colleague who says ‘I’m a –ist –ist. I do –ist –ist readings of literary and non-literary texts’ then variety may seem dilatory, and demands for it irritating. It’s also more hassle when you come to prepare for qualifying exams and have to read twice as much independently to catch up with colleagues who got half their lists covered by taking very on-topic classes.
Most places, meanwhile, require you to take at least a couple of graduate courses outside your discipline, usually within the first two years. These are referred to as ‘cognate courses’, and are a cool thing: people usually take them in fields whose methods English has already tried to thieve: history, cultural studies, philosophy and so on, but most places would let you take a course in biology or economics if you could make a case for its relevance. The occasional problem is scheduling: woe befalls people who leave their cognates to the last minute and then have to take two in the semester their own department chooses to serve up a platter of glorious courses. So from the beginning, be on the lookout for slow terms in your own department, and pounce on them as cognating time.
The major question with coursework is what you expect it to contribute to your final project. The chance to take courses on various topics with a wide variety of professors is very pleasant, but you do want it to have, and provide, direction. Among my colleagues there’s a major split between people who’ve found coursework crucial in providing new ideas towards the dissertation, people who’ve found it a boring hurdle to be jumped before they can start off on a project they’ve long been set on, and people who find coursework more confounding than helpful for locating the germ of a doable self-contained dissertation idea. Planning from the start how each course you take might relate to the others could stop you from falling into the latter two camps.
It’s also worth thinking while you’re taking courses about which of them might give rise to articles or conference papers that you can do something with outside of the dissertation goal. I think a sane and doable thing to aim for after the 2/3 years of coursework is to have one course-paper worth working on as a standalone article and one course-paper that will be the basis of a dissertation chapter. Other than that, coursework is a fine place to rehearse ideas, indulge a few anomalous interests, cover lots of reading ahead of qualifying exams, and test your madder ideas out in an environment where their revelation as madness won’t kill your career.
One difference in expectation that I’ve never seen officially stated but which seems very clear from discussions with PhDing friends in Britain regards the scope of the dissertation project itself. The majority of British dissertations seem to be on one or two authors, whereas in America it’s constantly drilled into us that we will be unemployable unless the dissertation convincingly makes an argument across a number of authors, no one of whom ought to be the centre of more than one chapter (narrowness or otherwise of theoretical base doesn’t seem to vary anywhere near so much – you’re as likely to get a ‘in which I make the case for applying a particular theory to primary sources’ under each system). My sense is that this has to do with the presumed effect of coursework and qualifying exams: the job-earning American dissertation is meant, as well as to demonstrate the ‘ability to complete a substantial supervised research project’ that earns the doctorate, to demonstrate a range of mastery, either of different things you could competently teach, or to suggest that your research career will be more than a series of readings of the same book.7 Shakespeareans and Joyceans seem to get a bit more leeway, but this magic pass is theirs alone.
As such, if you envisage your dissertation following the fairly common British model of ‘the career of author X, one chapter per book of their career’ this is unlikely to fly in America. If you want to be able to apply for jobs at American universities straight out of a British PhD, meanwhile, then a wider-scoped dissertation is likely to help.8
A difference that again I’ve not seen explicitly acknowledged, but that is clear from the research profiles of people with jobs, revolves around what kind of publications you’re expected to have by the time you graduate. To be regularly presenting your work at conferences is expected in each system, but in America students are not generally encouraged to publish in conference proceedings or edited collections: the sole coin of the career-aiding-publication realm is the peer-reviewed journal. By contrast, a look at the faculties of English in a lot of top British universities shows CVs that are, at the stage before the PhD is granted and in the career as a professor, more than half composed of chapters in edited book collections (where the review system is likely to be by a set of known editors, rather than by the double-blind system). This might factor into your decision as to where to study only in that the book-collection world allows you to more readily publish in venues that people who share your exact preoccupations will read, whereas being expected to place everything in peer-reviewed journals means being expected to work for a slightly broader audience from the off.9
Essentially the British system’s wider acceptance of chapters in narrowly focused books means an earlier expectation that you will identify yourself among, and interact sustainedly with, a very focused external group of researchers. This neatly demonstrates how different expectations for coverage within the PhD manifest themselves in the way PhDs from each system are expected to go about their early interactions with the discipline outside their program.
There’s more to say on this in the section on funding coming up in part 2, but basically, while in the British system it might be expected that you have some teaching experience by the time you graduate, and the money you will get for such teaching as you successfully apply for is a nice bonus but not expected to be a full living wage, in America teaching is the justification for your departmental funding, you will do it alongside the majority of your degree, and by the time your graduate you’ll be expected to have taught a number of classes for which you had sole instructional responsibility: syllabus, classroom, grading, office hours. For all that it’s the same research degree, teaching is a fundamental element of the PhD process in America in a way that it’s not in Britain.10
How teaching time interacts with research time (and the extent to which they’re to be viewed as zero-sum) depends on how much teaching your department requires you to do, and of what kind. Furthermore, as I’ll explain below, there are many more jobs in American universities for which you could be hired primarily on teaching criteria than there are in Britain. While you usually start by leading discussion sections for literary lecture courses under the aegis of the lecturing professor, you’ll move on swiftly to teaching courses all your own.
Usually, the majority of the sole-responsibility teaching you do will not be on literature, but of first-year writing (which plenty of people do through literary readings: different departments have different strictures that make this more or less plausible). Chances to teach sole-responsibility literature courses do come up in the vast majority of departments: in some they may be an automatic part of the later years, in others (as at Michigan) you may have to apply and compete against your peers for the chance to teach one. Doing so is almost always a wise idea, as even though the majority of hours taught in English departments in America are now in writing courses rather than literature courses, having taught a variety of sole-responsibility classes still gives you more breadth of experience and more job-market clout than having taught the same first-year writing class 600 times, however well.
Much of what I’ve said above regards expectations of teaching experience from the point of view of the job market: within your department, expectations for teaching are likely to come down to a hope that you do it well and a demand that you don’t let it stop you finishing your dissertation on time.
Relevant both to departmental and post-graduation perspectives is the fact that every class you teach involves being assessed yourself. Every student is able to fill out an evaluation at the end of the class, and this is compiled and sent to you and the teaching head of your department. Evaluations vary in format: they may be purely numerical, they may be purely written, 90% of the time they’re a combination of the two. There’s a lot of scepticism about the validity of these evaluations, especially the numbers they generate, and various bits of research have shown all the non-quality related things that make scores higher or lower (physical attractiveness and how often you feed your students, for example). They’re a useful thing to have, though, especially the written comments, which can range from libellous (various lawsuits have been brought either based on evaluations or relying on them as evidence) to incredibly helpful and constructive. Your department will expect you to take comments that come up repeatedly on board, in the same way they’d expect you to act on criticisms that repeatedly arise of your coursework.
Given the debates about the validity of student evaluations, it’s a good idea to seek feedback from other sources too: it can be a bit intimidating to ask a professor to come and watch you profess, but doing so tends to yield very useful feedback. Most large universities, meanwhile, employ people specifically to give feedback on classroom teaching, usually through an institution with a name like ‘teaching and learning centre’. While departments rarely mandate that you find these external observers for your teaching in the same way that the university mandates that you receive student evaluations, it’s a good idea to do so, and to get them to write up what they have to say so that you can file it alongside feedback from students, as ratification or as counterweight.
As in Britain, the job-market for PhDs in English who want to be professors of English is fierce. America does have a much wider range of higher-education insitutions, though, and so in some respects it’s a different job-hunting world. Before coming to the types of job you can apply for, it’s worth noting that America’s tenure system, wherein after years of probation (usually 6 in English departments) a junior professor is promoted to a rank where they have the most solid job protection possible for the rest of their careers, has a darker side. Since tenure is so stable and tenured professors tend to have choice over what they teach, many departments increasingly teach their lower-division courses with adjuncts.
An adjunct position is a single-term contract where you teach one class for a set fee. No benefits, no long-term tie to the institution: you can be dropped post-contract with no need for a reason to be given. Terrifyingly, about half of all undergraduate classes in America are now taught by adjuncts. Few universities will hire a single adjunct to teach more than 3 courses per term, and the pay (for adjuncts in English certainly) is terrible, so to make a living wage they need to teach at multiple universities. So if you’re not on the tenure-track after graduating, there is always the possibility of adjuncting, making around/under minimum wage, with no duration of contract, no health insurance, often no campus space and no provision for doing research. Technically this is academic employment.11 All of the types of university below offer it, in addition to the slightly more appealing work you could do there should you be among the dwindling proportion of English PhDs to get a tenure-track job.
In such a case, your particular competences have a much greater influence on where you end up than they do in current Britain, with its single definition of university (again, by the time you finish an American PhD, the incentives to privatise higher education in Britain may well have spawned a greater array of institutions looking to hire from a greater variety of applicant-profiles). There are at least four broad types of institution in America, each of which hire people with different profiles emerging out of the PhD.
Research Behemoths: The universities referred to as ‘R1’ or ‘RU-VH ’ are the closest thing to British universities, in that they officially exist in order to produce research. These will hire you based primarily on what and where you’ve published, and whether your dissertation gives them reason to suspect you will be someone whose name catches eyes on a conference program. They’ll probably be a bit sad if you don’t end up as the kind of person who gets invited to give keynotes at conferences. They almost all have graduate programs, so you would get to teach graduate coursework and, after tenure, supervise dissertations. At such a place, you would teach two or three classes per term and be expected to publish at least an article a year in peer reviewed journals, plus a book within a few years of being hired.
Masters-level universities tend to balance research requirements with a main focus on teaching: they tend to be publically funded and, if so, have the mission of providing affordable education to students from their state. To be competitive for such a job, you should have published during your graduate career, but also to have demonstrated teaching experience and competence, as well as both desire and ability to teach students less academically inclined than yourself. The Masters programs at these schools mean that you would get to teach graduate students, often (for English) high-school teachers looking to become more qualified in their subject, or younger students looking to do well and apply to PhDs elsewhere. You would generally teach 3 or 4 classes per term, and be expected to produce peer-reviewed research alongside teaching duties, though less research than at an R1.
Liberal Arts Colleges don’t really exist in Britain, though they may come to as private tertiary education takes off. They are teaching-focused institutions, designed to give students much more contact with teachers. Lots of them are small campuses in beautiful isolated places. If you have read Donna Tartt you will know that pretentious classicists kill each other at them. Teaching is in smaller classes (no 300-student lectures), and professors are expected to be much more of a part of students’ lives than at research universities. You would get this kind of a job by demonstrating not just a range of teaching experience but very good teaching evaluations and an enthusiasm for pedagogy in general. Since they’re usually private, there’s a vast range in the level of the students they serve and the extent to which you still need to have displayed some research potential during your PhD. Places like Williams or Macalester are as selective of undergraduates as Harvard, and have faculty who outpublish their R1 equivalents. Other places may have no research requirements at all. All tend to look favourably on research agendas that get undergrads involved in some way, as assistants or as collaborators. They don’t teach graduate students, but some of them are factories for undergrads who go on to do PhDs, which may be the same lure or preferable.
Community Colleges offer 2-year Associates degrees. They rarely have research requirements, and can see you teaching up to 5 courses a term, often at remedial levels. They exist mainly to provide affordable education, and serve a vast variety of students, from vocational trade-learners, to qualified immigrants seeking recertification, to people taking a one-off course in their spare time, to traditional-age students who are aiming to get good grades and transfer to a 4-year university (2 of the best students I taught when I was an assistant for an upper-level course had just transferred into 3rd-year here from one of the state’s many community colleges). They’re almost always part of the publically funded state system. Again there is, sadly, no British equivalent at present (comparisons to the old polytechnic system sort of make sense, but are not exact). It is rare to have a majority-literary focus to teaching in a community college: their course-listings seem to be split equally between broad survey courses in literature, composition, and specific writing-types (journalism, technical etc). You get these kinds of jobs by demonstrating teaching ability, particularly an ability to teach a variety of levels of student and types of class, and to keep on top of a huge and varied teaching load.
In all of these cases, having a PhD from America will almost certainly leave you more fully prepared in the teaching-experience category than would one from the UK. Should you wish to go back to Britain, this might be a minor bonus, but I’ve been told by recently employed British PhDs in English that teaching is more something you’re expected to learn on the job than something in which you’re expected to arrive fully trained.
One final crucial thing to remember is that since research places in both systems hire on research potential, British universities in particular are more willing to hire a product of the British PhD with one published article than an American PhD with same: the former is comparatively younger and has had comparatively less postgraduate time to get their work out there. The fact that the coursework stage adds 3 years to the American process doesn’t logically imply that you should have any more dissertation-level work produced by the time you graduate, but this seems to be the expectation. On this basis, it’s even more important for a student in the American system than in the British to be thinking from the minute they start their program about what work they’re doing, be it for classes, in their spare time or towards a prospectus, is work that might have a viable academic audience in addition to its personal educational value. Aiming to return from an American PhD to teach in Britain means that you need to aim from day one to have, by graduation, a stronger research profile than anyone emerging from a 3-year PhD could reasonably assemble.
The coursework, the qualifying exams, and especially the extra teaching experience will be super-useful experience and training, but are not among the official achieved criteria for which British universities can hire. They’re absolutely essential, on the other hand, for being able to apply to some of the most attractive jobs in America.
So if what I’ve said about the American PhD system here appeals, look forward to part 2, my guide to applying to the relevant programs…
Featured image by INDelight Photography under a CC-BY-NC-ND license.