--- layout: post status: publish published: true title: Britain or America for the PhD in English? Part 2 author: ali_chetwynd wordpress_id: 1340 wordpress_url: https://www.martineve.com/?p=1340 date: !binary |- MjAxMS0wOC0wMiAxNDoyMzoxNCArMDIwMA== date_gmt: !binary |- MjAxMS0wOC0wMiAxNDoyMzoxNCArMDIwMA== categories: - Literature - Academia - Teaching tags: - academia - PhD - PhDchat comments:  ---
Having set out in part 1 some of the differences between the British and American PhDs in English, this here part 2 is a guide to applying to America, should its system seem preferable. Below, I examine:* How to choose which departments to apply to, * Ranking * Placement * Smaller considerations * Visiting * Funding, and why the largest stipend may not be the best offer, * The application process itself, * GRE * Recommendations * Transcripts * Writing Sample * Statement of Purpose * CV
Choosing to do a PhD at a particular British university tends, since you start the dissertation process almost immediately with none of the coursework etc of the American process, to mean choosing to work with a particular advisor. Acceptance also therefore usually means having been personally accepted by the prospective advisor in question. At the same time, the fact that Britain’s PhD granting universities are, as of 2011, centrally regulated means that applications to multiple departments are held to a standard that’s, if not unified, at least cohesive. External funding bodies meanwhile, can play a part in telling you at what university or with which advisor they’re willing to pay you to study.
In America, this is not the case: where you apply and where you’re accepted are 100% up, respectively, to you and to the university and department in question. Departments will have a different admissions committee every year, drawn from their faculty. The lack of a central application system and national admissions standards puts a lot of emphasis on your own ability to work out where is best for you and hence where you’re most likely to be accepted, a set of considerations usually referred to under the heading of ‘fit’. Since applying to each department’s PhD comes with a processing fee in the $60-$100 range, you can’t be too scattershot unless you have money to burn. Below are some of the considerations on which you might decide among American departments.1
There are about 125 universities in America that grant PhDs in English. If you look around the English departments of the roughly 2600 universities in America, you’ll find that almost all of their tenured faculty come from about 50 of those, and once you narrow this down to research-focused universities whose English departments have graduate programs in literature (ie universities comparable to those in Britain), that pool is reduced to at most 30. This is still a wider array than Britain offers, but the number of places at which it makes sense to get a PhD should you harbour even the vaguest openness to returning to Britain as an academic is close to a quarter the size of the overall pool.
There are two major rankings of American PhD programs, each of which has a specific ranking for English Literature departments. One is run by a newspaper, US News and Report, the other by the National Research Council,2 a publicly funded body mainly composed of working academics. When people describe their programs as top-10 or top-30, they may be talking about either of these, or about some kind of nebulous reputational idea that exists only in their head.3
There is scepticism about the validity of both official rankings, generally about whether they grant too much or too little weight to judgements of quality made by external faculty as opposed to more quantifiable but arguably non-academic criteria like funding or gender-balance. Whatever the validity issues, most of the programs in the top 50 of either listing are worth investigating further: they’ll tend to fall into one of the following categories: ‘research-elite places where you’ll emerge qualified mainly/exclusively for a researchy job’, ‘researchy places where you are an outsider for jobs at your rank or above, but well-placed to teach somewhere with research/teaching dual-emphasis’, ‘places that give you a 50/50 shot of getting employed at a university or college’, and ‘departments that place a decent number of their students’. Given the fact that many of the jobs got by people from the last 3 categories are at types of university that don’t exist in Britain, only the former 2 are likely to be much use if you remain open to teaching in Britain upon graduation.
Given the fairly unreliable nature of the ranking systems available, then, what is likely to be more helpful is checking out some factual data from the departments themselves. Use the rankings merely to discover well-rated departments you hadn’t heard of beforehand, and then research them yourself.4
The single most important thing to investigate is what proportion of a program’s recent graduates have found academic jobs, and what jobs those have been. This info should usually be somewhere conspicuous on the department website. What you’re looking for is a page like this (from my department at Michigan): http://www.lsa.umich.edu/english/grad/alumni/placement/placement.asp.5 Departments that don’t give this information should make you pretty suspicious: you can send an e-mail to their Director of Graduate Studies, but if they’re reluctant to respond with employment rates and graduate destinations, be wary: a department that’s getting tenure-track academic jobs for more than half of its graduating students ought to be happy to say so.
Once you’ve located such a page, look up some of the universities that the recent graduates are working at. Can you imagine spending your entire working life teaching at them? If the answer is no for a majority of the destinations, that’s probably a bad sign (whether about you or the department, the conclusion is much the same: don’t apply there).
Once you know that the department in question is producing employable graduates, and that their employment is of a sort that you yourself could live with, start looking through the faculty by area of research (again, most department websites are nice enough to make this readily searchable). You can thus get a decent idea of the departmental strength in depth in areas you’re interested in, and start scoping out potential committee members or people you’d like to at least take a class with.6 At this stage, any department that’s getting jobs for more than half its students and has more than 2 or 3 people in your field whose work actively intrigues you is somewhere you ought to start seriously considering.
Funding, the other consideration of equivalent importance to placement records and faculty, I leave for its own section below, since it’s so distinct from the British system. After this, though, the considerations start to become markedly less make-or-break, though taken all together they may still lend substantial weight to or against a particular department.
Public/Private - One issue to bear in mind that’s not (yet) a factor in Britain is that just under half the PhD-granting universities in America, and a majority at the very top of the rankings, are private. Generally, this just makes it harder to find out beforehand what local idiosyncrasies in employment protection, teaching assessment, degree structure and so on you would be working with. You will probably be beholden to less compliance-type paperwork than at a public university, but might equally have to jump through a million local hoops. Public places, meanwhile, are subject to all sorts of regulations that may or may not impinge on your daily life. One recent example of the implications of being taxpayer funded7 is politicians putting in freedom of information requests to read all e-mail correspondence sent from university accounts by particular professors in relation to particular political events: your e-mail account is public property and hence readable by anyone inclined to put in the paperwork. The counterpart of such ‘accountability’-tentacles is that public universities are more likely to have graduate employee unions and thus rigid contracts: you’ll have more transparent lines of recourse should you wind up on the receiving end of departmental lunacy or persecution.
They also tend to have larger student bodies at both graduate and undergrad levels, and a different student population, since they offer fewer scholarships but heavy tuition discounts to students from in-state.
Masterses - As I mentioned in part 1, different departments treat the getting of a masters along the path to the PhD differently: some embed, some do it probationally, some include separate exams. As a foreigner, you really want the minimum of paperwork and the minimum opportunity to get deported for not updating the arcanities of your visa, so there’s a significant convenience/security premium to the embedded masters. Meanwhile, some departments will let you transfer in graduate credits from other universities, others will not: if you have a lot of prior graduate education, you might want to seek out somewhere that would credit that on their transcript and allow you to move on to the dissertation sooner.
Semesters/Quarters - American universities mainly run on a 2-semester calendar rather than the 3-term one you may be used to from undergrad in Britain. Those that run as in Britain call it the ‘quarter’ system. This has most effect on the way you experience coursework: reading lists per class may shrink slightly, but in most cases you just do a similar amount of work in a compressed timeline. I’ve quite enjoyed how semesters allow you to range widely over a subject and do a lot of off-syllabus reading; friends who’ve worked under the quarter system say that this enjoyable/productive dallying isn’t always possible for them due to hecticness, but that it’s made up for by the sheer variety of stuff covered per year. This should be a minor consideration, but in certain circumstances might affect your choice: if you have disabilities that limit how fast you can write papers, for example, then the semester system is likely to help.
Departmental Culture – some places are hyper-friendly, some are hyper-competitive. In either case it’s likely to be because the department as a whole thinks that this benefits their students in the long run. Such a concerted vibe can affect various things, from funding to the dynamic of seminars to the nature of extracurricular socialising to the purpose of inviting external scholars to give talks. This of all the considerations is hardest to gauge from the information available to a prospective student, but getting in touch with current students in a given department is one way to find out.8
Department/Cohort Size - It’s worth thinking too about the size of the department into which you would be going. Larger departments have more faculty, offer a wider variety of classes, and tend to admit larger cohorts of students. The major result of this is usually specialisation: you can fulfil your coursework requirements without having to be general, you may never meet half the faculty, and you will probably end up with a cohort that is reasonably compartmentalised: particularly after dissertations start, you may see some of your peers as rarely as you see faculty from outside your field. In a smaller place, meanwhile, you could end up taking classes with more than half the faculty, and most of those classes will contain the majority of your peers: furthermore, due to the limited number of classes on offer, you may have to take some that are well outside your area of expertise (which can be a boon).
Location – The US is a giant place, and its PhD-granting universities are spread across a vast range of climates and local cultures. If you can’t live with or without snow, or if the idea of churches outnumbering restaurants appeals to or appals you, then it would be foolish not to let this influence your decision. In practice, the cultural element is surprisingly effectual: Ann Arbor has been judged too small-town and too smugly metropolitan by different abandoners of our program in recent years, while people have arrived here after leaving other places deemed too cornfieldy and too mean-streets. So avoid such ‘I can’t face living in X for another semester, let alone another 6 years’ angst by making sure you can live where you intend to study.
All this said, you need to bear in mind that the job-market on graduation will be sufficiently tight that you may be lucky to get a single offer in an evil-weathered, culturally oppressive place. If geographical concerns are particularly important to you, then academia is not a particularly forgiving career-path.
Finally, once you’ve sent off your applications and, with luck, have a couple of offers, it’s important to actually visit the departments in question before you choose, even if by ranking, reputation and relevant-faculty there seems to be an obvious standout. Actually getting to talk to faculty and current students, to observe the atmosphere of a department and to sit in on classes, is the best way to get a sense of what the next 6+ years might involve. Most departments set aside a specific weekend about 2 weeks before decisions are due to invite all accepted students to visit the campus.
It’s as important to visit whether you have a definite preference or a balanced dilemma. While it might seem like a transatlantic flight (often at pretty short notice) is a lot of money to spend on confirming a strong hunch, almost all departments will reimburse you for at least some of the travel costs of attending an accepted students weekend or even visiting at a random time. These reimbursements tend to be based on cost-expectations for travelling there from within America, so no single university will offer money enough to cover a whole transatlanticism. If you have a couple of offers, though, it may all add up. I visited four universities over the course of a week, travelling from Bulgaria where I was working, and the separate reimbursements (keep your receipts…) ended up about £200 short of my total costs. That was well, well worth it: without visiting I might have made a very different choice.
A final note on choosing where to apply: for undergrad, people apply to universities in tiers: to one or two ‘reaches’ better than you think you are, to 3 or 4 that fit your self-conception, and to a couple below your level as ‘insurance’. This model is not a sane one to follow at the PhD level. The idea of ‘reaching’ ought not to apply, since if you’re assuming that you can emerge from a PhD employable then you are assuming that you can emerge as one of the best 20% of qualified people: aiming low at the start implies a degree of uncertainty which is probably worth pausing over before you sign away 6 years minimum of your life. And insurance again makes little sense with regard to future plans. Wherever you want to end up in life, a PhD is not as culturally compulsory as a Bachelors, and not having one is a preferable life-choice to having a sub-optimal one: you should go somewhere you’re sure you can work at your absolute best, or you should not go at all.
In Britain, chances are that you’ll be paying tuition, and that if you’re paid to study at all it will be by competing through public national institutions like the AHRC, or very rarely (vanishingly rarely for PhDs on literary topics) by private scholarships. In the USA, the vast majority of students in well-rated English-PhD programs are funded by the universities themselves, usually in exchange for a consistent teaching load that can vary from too little to be constructive to enough to be semi-exploitative. You want to be somewhere in the middle, with enough experience to make you an employably good teacher and enough time for research to write the best possible dissertation. Primarily, you want to get your degree without spending anything but what the university pays you.
Tuition even at public universities in America is horrifyingly high. It, usually around $30,000 a year for the English PhD, will almost always be covered by the university where you study/that employs you. Don’t go if it’s not. At the same time, however, a tuition waiver is not the same thing as being funded (compare a visa waiver to citizenship). You will usually be offered a certain amount of stipendiary funding on acceptance. Some places will offer you a set funding pattern for the length of your degree, some will force you to reapply for funding every year. Most places fund all their incoming students to some extent, some will fund a majority but leave open slots for unfunded students. An unfunded offer is not a vote of confidence…
It is not ever sane to pay for a 6-or-more-year PhD in the humanities; it is no more sane to accept an offer to start one if you’re not guaranteed funding through the expected duration of the dissertation. If you do get into one of the 30 or so universities that make 6-year funding commitments, though, then you are in a much better financial situation than your British equivalent. Pleasantly for you, my fellow foreigner, stipends from competitive universities seem to be based on the assumption that the students they support will be suffering from the hideous price of undergraduate education in America, and thus that a living wage must cover giant student-loan payments and a car (since America operates on the assumption that everyone drives). As such, if you’re debtless from a low-undergrad-tuition system (like Britain’s used to be), and you don’t get a car, then you can live pretty well and save money on your stipend.
This may all sound very jetset, but the funding comes, by comparison with the British system, at a cost. It’s primarily contingent on teaching, unless you are very very good at winning fellowships and grants, 90% of which you won’t, as a foreigner, be eligible for. Most appealing funding packages will contain at least one year of fellowship in which you get paid without teaching. See part 1 for some brief notes on fellowships. Dependence on teaching for funding isn’t a bad thing in and of itself: teaching is ace, and getting a PhD in English without thinking so is mad, a ticket to a life of resentment. However, some places will offer you what seems like a pretty liveable stipend and then ask you to teach two or three classes of first-year writing (aka ‘freshman composition’) per term.
Introductory writing courses don’t really exist in British university, and I rather think they ought to. They are however very difficult and very time-consuming to teach, especially to begin with, especially if you come from an undergraduate system where neither you nor anyone you knew took any such class. Their premise is that these young people, the Fresh, have just got to university and need someone to introduce them to the way that scholars argue and think.9 This is deeply time-intensive work to do well enough to be worthwhile.
Per class, you might have 25 students, each requiring written feedback on written work at least once a week, with a minimum of 4 major assignments (30 pages worth, drafted multiple times) per term to mark in depth. One class of this per term is reasonable, challenging, useful and fun. More than one class per term will seriously bite into the time you can give to your own classes and research, and will put you well under minimum wage as a per-hour rate, even if your stipend is among the better of those available to humanities PhD students. Make sure, basically, that the teaching you do contributes as much to your professional development as to your department’s ability to weather budget cuts by ‘processing’ the maximum number of undergrads at the minimum of cost.
Funding for a PhD in America, then, is generally better for students at 20 or 30 universities than for even their AHRC-funded equivalents in Britain, but the teaching work you must do to make that money may be sufficiently overwhelming to affect your ability to do good enough work to emerge employable from the PhD. When considering an offer from an American university, look closely at teaching load (number and nature of classes), length of funding, number of points at which your funding situation may be reassessed, and really only then at the cold hard cash amount.
Be wary as well of a lack of summer funding opportunities. The F-1 visa on which you would be in America allows no employment outside of the university, and this means that many standard summer jobs are not an option for international students. Somewhere that provides ready access to summer teaching or research-assistant opportunities, or even (though these are not so readily available in the current climate) summer stipends for independent research, will easily make up for $2/3000 deficits in the 9-month academic-year stipend.
It’s also easy, and really damaging, for a foreigner to overlook the question of health insurance. America’s lack of a single-payer healthcare system puts everything in the hands of private insurance companies. Healthcare is, along with university education, the fastest spiralling and most recession-proof cost in American life,10 and if you don’t have insurance you pretty much have the choice of staying very healthy or going very bankrupt (I cut my thumb on a glass and had 4 stitches: the bill was around $2500. My graduate insurance thankfully reduced my liability to $75). Most universities will make membership of an insurance plan part of their funding offer to incoming PhD students, and it’s worth giving as much detailed scrutiny to these plans as possible, since in the long run they could make more difference than exists between the highest and lowest basic stipends on offer.
This is particularly important if you’re coming from abroad with any sort of chronic illness or existing condition: I know more than a couple of fellow international students who’ve had huge trouble getting American insurers to fund essential ongoing medical care, and our insurance plan here is as good a one as I’ve heard of at a state university. Judging whether the offered insurance is adequate to your situation comes back to the core advice on funding: don’t accept an offer where you can reasonably expect to have to go into debt to earn the degree.
A final consideration on funding: the way a program is funded can hugely affect departmental dynamics. At Michigan, everyone in our cohort is funded equally: we can all apply for fellowships that make us richer, but the same basic 6-year funding package is default for everyone. This means that we don’t have to see each other as enemies or competitors for another couple of years (when we will go on the job market and realise we should have slain each other like rats when we had the chance…) It does make the atmosphere around the department very friendly and collaborative.
This could, you might argue, lead to some complacency, a loss of the red-in-tooth-and-claw entrepreneurial dog-eat-dog vibe of Real Men and Winners. Perhaps it is thus UnAmerican. Suspecting so, other places will fund half their incoming students and not the others, setting up an implicit hierarchy subject to periodic zero-sum revision. Others might guarantee funding for the 6-year span, but reassess each student’s funding every 2 years based on performance. Still others fund you for the 3 years of coursework and then ask you to find part-time teaching at other local universities to pay the rest of the way (this doesn’t really work on an F-1 visa. It’s most common, obviously, in big multi-uni cities like Boston and New York). Each of these structures will of course heavily influence the way that you relate to other people in your program, which is a bigger factor in America than in Britain since A) you’re going to be their colleagues for twice as long and B) you spend so much time in class with them in those early years. The different systems suit different types of people: make sure before you accept an offer that you know not only your own funding situation but also how it will fit into that of your whole cohort.
Most American PhD programs have a deadline somewhere around the 15th of December for applications to start the program the following August/September. Some places have deadlines as early as October, others as late as mid-January. You can expect to get responses from late January through to mid-March, acceptances earlier than rejections, and waitlist places notified last of all. Most visiting weekends happen from mid to late March. There is a trans-uni standardised day by which decisions on offers have to be made: April 15th. If you’re on a waitlist, you might remain in the running for an offer right up until the late afternoon of that day. Generally, though, since all departments run waitlists, they like to know your decision as early as possible. As such, it’s likely that the process from submitting your application to knowing where you will end up will last around a third of a year.
The process of getting your materials together before the application deadline should if anything be spread out across an even broader timeline. If mid-December is standard for submission, then you need to aim to have all your tests taken, all your references + transcripts requested, by the start of October, earlier if possible since these things always take longer to process than you expect. The materials you can keep working on up to the last minute are things like the personal statement and writing sample that if anything you should have started to work on even before you put in requests for transcripts. Below, I’ve listed in rough order of when-you-should-have-them-done-and-dusted the major materials you need to apply to any American PhD program in English.
GREs - to be considered by graduate programs in America you have to have taken the GRE (Graduate Record Examination). This is a standardised test and money-making exercise (it costs about £100 to take each exam and you have to then pay extra to actually have the results sent to the relevant universities). For admissions to programs in English you usually need to take both the general (combined verbal, arithmetic, writing) and the subject test. You can’t do either test online; they are, conveniently, administered in completely different places at different times of year; the general can be done on computers in London, while the subject can be done on paper in either Leeds or Kent.
At any rate, the general test involves three parts – a verbal component that is currently being revised and so is not possible for me to advise you about, a maths one which asks you to problem-solve based on knowing how to improvise with stuff you learned for GCSE, and a written one that asks you to write strange hyper-specific communications - ‘you have been tasked with writing a letter that explains to three technology providers which of them you have chosen to be the sponsor of the referees’ commission of World Series Baseball 2032’ or similar.
The subject test is a lot of multiple choice based on a broad base of English-Language literary history (post-Chaucer). Its often recommended that you read through the whole Norton Anthology as preparation: you can do well without doing so, but bear in mind that the weighting is slightly heavier to American literature-knowledge than most British degrees prepare you for (I had to guess a couple of questions that would make an American schoolchild laugh). Usually the GREs are offered in Britain 3 or 4 times a year for the general, twice for the subject. For a December deadline, the last takeable date is usually in October, but it makes sense to take it as early as possible.
The GRE is not always a relevant factor in admissions decisions, but is more so depending on the degree to which the relevant English department is unemancipated from its university’s overall arts-and-science graduate school. Some graduate schools of which specific departments are a part use the GRE to contest decisions made by the department. Some departments use the GRE merely to establish a cut-off where they won’t admit you if your total score is below a certain level. At others GRE scores dictate who gets funded and who doesn’t. Where English departments have more autonomy (private universities, high-prestige departments) the GRE may have zero bearing whatsoever, though high scores are always useful to balance out any aspect of your application that seems weak (my application was a mad mess, the opposite of every bit of advice I give below, and my very high GRE scores may well have been useful mitigation). Generally, the GRE tests how good you are at the GRE, and most departments acknowledge this. It’s a good idea to do well, then, but you don’t need to freak out with over-preparation.
GREs can be retaken, but the prior scores are submitted along with the resat ones.
Recommendations - Try to let your recommendation-writers know that they will be your recommendation-writers at least 6 months before the deadline comes around. The less you’ve actually worked with them, the more you should follow up their acceptance of the responsibility of writing for you by providing a couple of examples of your best written work, ideally including the writing sample you will use. And once you’re able to submit applications for the year, make having your recommendations written and submitted a priority: these are easy things for a professor to procrastinate over, and hence it’s best not to wait until the busy end-of-term bits of December to remind them that your future hinges on what they have to say about you. A rushed recommendation is can be an active curse.
You might have heard that the recommendations written within the American system are super-flattering, and that the mild semi-affectionate frankness that can characterise those written by British professors is thus a surefire hex upon your making your way across the Atlantic. The first half of this is true, the latter less so. This is because every American professor I’ve heard talk about recommendations has said ‘The British ones are comparatively hardcore, we take that into account when we read them’. If anything, people seem to overstate how critical British recommendations are, meaning that they might take lukewarm recommendations more approvingly than intended. At any rate, the Transatlantic Recommendation Fluffiness Differential is not something you need to go out of your way to address. Remind your recommendation-writers once, after they’ve agreed to write but before they have started, that they have an American audience, and having once done so don’t let it cross your mind again.
Transcripts – You need official copies of your grades and the classes/papers you got them in from your undergraduate institution. Photocopies are not okay. These can take an aeon to process, so request them as far in advance as possible, budgeting an absolute minimum of 3 months. Furthermore, ask for a number of copies (the number of places you’re applying to +5) in your initial request. There’s nothing worse than being held up waiting for them to get processed right up next to the deadline, or having to re-request a couple more after deciding you want to apply to a couple of extra places.
The system by which As, Bs, Firsts, 2:1s and so on are scored is different in America from Britain. Ask whatever service at your university is sorting out your transcripts to include an overview of the British grading system in what they print out for you. A 79 in Britain is great, in America it’s in the C range. American faculty know there’s a difference, but if the transcripts themselves say what this is, that’ll be more authoritative than a note from you in which you explain each of your marks one by one. The most irritating outcome of the different marking systems comes when some online application software asks for your overall ‘GPA’ and requires you to enter a number in the B=3.0, A=4.0 format in which American grades are collated. What I did in that instance was to take a first (70%) as 4.0, a 2.1 (60%) as 3.0 and do the maths from there. I then entered a note explaining my workings somewhere else in the forms. I’m not yet in prison, so presumably this didn’t count as fraud. If there’s any way to avoid such jigglery, then avoid, but as of 2008 when I applied there were various pieces of application software that wouldn’t allow you to move to the next page without entering an American-format GPA, so you need to be prepared to convert, and to find somewhere else in the software to say how and why you’ve converted (worst case scenario, tack explanation on the end of the personal statement).
Writing sample – You usually need to submit a representative sample of your work, generally around 15-20 pages, which in American length-measurements involves double-spacing. This is around 4/5000 words, annoyingly short of the length of any self-contained undergrad thesis or journal article you may have written, and longer than conference papers. Most places are happy for you to excerpt something from a longer work if you contextualise it. The main thing is that it’s meant to be polished, the best possible piece of research you can offer, rather than a literal ‘sample’ of the kind of stuff you were submitting in undergrad days. It can therefore be something you wrote for an old class and have rejigged, or something completely new. If it’s something you’ve presented at a conference or had published, that’s obviously an external endorsement of its quality but doesn’t elide the imperative to revise and revise until what you have is absolutely unimprovable. That should really mean starting before you do any of your other application stuff and continuing to work on it, or at least read it sceptically with revision-quill in hand, up until the deadline.
As for what kind of writing it should be, this will really depend on what kind of thinker you are. I’ve heard people say that its focus should be on literature rather than literary theory, but you can’t go too far in the close-reading-purist direction since similar sources suggest that papers with a really clear conception of the debate they’re engaging with stand out most positively. Obviously, if you think about the kind of achievements a dissertation is meant to embody, then a piece of writing that does so too will appeal to PhD admissions committees. And yet it’s not as if the bare threshold for what you submit is that it be a readily publishable intervention in a major field. Run what you’ll be submitting by as many of your recommendation-writers as are able to give you feedback on its quality, and with any luck they can also alert you if it seems somehow skewiff-approached for a writing sample.
And, to avoid one of my own errors… submit something that’s broadly about the field you intend to study. I submitted a paper about Ben Jonson along with a personal statement about how I was planning to work on Thomas Pynchon and William Gass. Two of the committees that turned me down said subsequently that their noticing this was the very early point at which I lost hope: if you want to do a Renaissance dissertation, submit a Renaissance paper so that the Renaissance faculty can get a sense of whether they’d like to work with you. Fairly logical, but not sufficiently so that the younger me wouldn’t have benefitted by seeing it clearly stated somewhere like this. Obviously not all programs are quite so hardline on this issue, or I wouldn’t be here, but there’s little point ruling yourself out of half the contests you’ve entered.
Statement of purpose – The statement of purpose for an American PhD is not the same thing as the research proposal for a British, since you’re not going to start a final project the minute you arrive. There’s no point laying out a single project detail by detail, since your project will inevitably evolve. The mistake you can make by acknowledging this is to go too far the other way and offer a kind of splurgy intellectual daydream that is too vague about what you envisage achieving with the degree.
This document (I realise now, mine having been laughably bad and confused) should basically establish that you have worked out ideas, motivations and orientations for a graduate career. Have some sort of dissertation idea in mind, but relate your expected progress towards it to the work you’ve already done (did you write undergraduate theses, present at conferences, do archival research?), and to the kind of thing you might be able to do along the way at this particular university (are there faculty there who you envisage being on your dissertation committee, who you’d like to take a single class with, do they have strengths in a related discipline, is there a library with relevant archives?). I’ve also heard it heavily emphasised that this document needs to establish that you understand what is actually involved in a PhD, and in the particular department’s program of study.
Do all of this while giving, between the lines, some sense of how your mind works and why you want that mind-work to be applied to literary debate rather than anything else, and you should be fine.
A minor note here: the statement of purpose is not in any way binding. Since you’re not going to choose a committee of faculty to work with until your second year at the earliest, and since you have a large number of classes to take, no-one expects you to have the same plans by prospectus time that you did when you arrived. Such natural evolution can go so far as to completely change the field you think you’ll be working in. In my starting cohort of 18 people, we’ve had two switch from Renaissance literature to contemporary fiction (within the first term), and one from contemporary queer fiction to canonical modernism (after being mindblown by Ulysses in a class in 2nd term). It’s no issue. I won’t go so far as to suggest that you try to sneak into crowded fields like contemporary literature by pretending to be a medievalist at the application stage.
CV – You’re normally asked to submit a CV as part of the application process. I now have an academic CV that ignores my vast achievements working in the college bar and entrusted with the care of the college tortoise in favour of listing conference talks and university classes taught. Most people applying for the PhD won’t have a very extensive academic CV as yet, and so the question is, do you submit the kind of CV you’d submit to a non-academic job, or a bare ‘academic’ document that basically just lists where you’ve been to school? Consensus is that you’re best off inventing a one-off ‘application CV’.
List your non-academic employment, but only with a line per job, and none of the ‘I learned great leadership skills and teamwork by blah blah blah’ stuff. On the other hand, list academic things that wouldn’t normally go on a job-CV: did you organise seminars or reading groups as an undergrad? Top of the year in any particular exams? Give the titles of any extended theses you wrote, maybe even a couple of lines about the argument of each one. Basically, anything you’ve done that relates to research and teaching (or to the particular issues you want to research), stress, anything you’ve done that is standard employment, list but don’t go into. If you’ve done the kind of things expected of dissertation-stage PhD candidates (publishing research, conference presentations, conference organising), list this right up front. If you’ve published relevant things in non-academic venues (substantial literary reviews or interviews in the local paper, for example), then list these, but not under the heading of ‘publications,’ which you should reserve for writing in academic venues: call them instead something like ‘relevant journalism’.
The document you’re left with wouldn’t get you a job in the non-academic workforce, and shares no format with the CV of a post-PhD academic jobseeker. But it’s the format most suited to stressing your suitability to get onto the PhD in the first place.
Doing so is of course the purpose of your application, and helping you do so one rationale behind my writing this. I haven’t covered everything, and there’s a further post to be written about some of the natural hassle you will encounter by dint of your foreignness (why do Visas run out after 5 years for a 6-year degree, why do you get taxed up front on fellowship money when American students don’t, who exactly do you need to hunt up to get your SEVIS fee reimbursed? And so on) once you are actually underway. But for now, I hope that the stuff above is useful, whatever you hope to achieve by pursuing or fleeing a PhD in America from an undergraduate education in Britain.
Featured image by INDelight Photography under a CC-BY-NC-ND license.