Advice for Graduate Study

Heartfield BushMuch of what follows has been borrowed (with permission) from Adam Potkay's very useful handbook for English majors. You can see the complete text on the website for the English Department. For more information on graduate schools and programs, visit the Career Center.

Some Common Questions about Graduate Study

MA vs Ph.D.? An MA, which typically requires 1-2 years of study, is often viewed as a professional degree in the fields of publishing, editorial work and secondary education. It also allows one to teach in community colleges. An MA is also a way of "testing the water" to see if you'd like to pursue further graduate study, that is, a Ph.D. Finally, if your undergraduate record is less than perfect, a successfully completed MA (and strong letters of recommendation from those who have taught you in MA seminars) will make you more competitive for a top Ph.D. program. Information about what colleges and universities offer MA degrees may be found in Peterson's Guide, in the reference room at Swem Library.

There are two types of MA programs:

  1. The Master's degree that is offered by a department that does not have a Ph.D. program.
  2. The MA granted by a department that does offer a Ph.D.

There are pros and cons to either type of MA program. If you go to a college that has a terminal MA program, the pros are that the program will be smaller and that your professors will pay considerable attention to you. The cons are that your professors may not be very well known in the academic world, and hence their recommendations may or may not carry much weight if and when you apply for a Ph.D. elsewhere. The pros of going to an MA program at a place that also grants the Ph.D are (a) that your professors will likely be top-notch scholars/critics (if not always engaged teachers); (b) hence, if they pay any attention to you, and if they come to smile upon you, you can ask them for letters of recommendation; and at that point, c) you'll be an attractive inside candidate for their Ph.D. program, and a strong candidate for Ph.D. programs elsewhere. With so many brilliant Ph.D. candidates around, however, you're apt to be treated like a second-class citizen as a master's student.

Generally speaking, the Ph.D. will require a more or less full-time commitment for a period of 5 to 8 years. During this time most of your income (unless you have a trust fund or exceptionally generous parents) will come from your graduate institution through fellowships, teaching assistantships, instructorships, library work, odd jobs, etc. Graduate students lead a distinctly low-rent sort of life, so keep that in mind--you won't be getting rich any time soon. (See, therefore, the section below on When to Apply).

Some words of advice from W&M faculty: "A good program waives tuition and pays you a small living stipend, which you might have to augment by temping (I did) in the summers or taking out moderate student loans. The best programs fund you through at least 4 years without making you re-apply for support each year." (Christy Burns, English - Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins)

The Job Market

It has been very challenging for recent Ph.D.s to find employment in college teaching ever since the 1970s. There was a brief rise in the number of available jobs around 1988-90, but then the recession hit. Keep this in mind--recent hiring committees in the William & Mary English department, for instance, have been able to draw on pools of about 200 applicants for any available position, however narrowly defined.

"I read recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education that something like only 50% of all Ph.D. students end up finishing their degree. And of those 50% only half of that group will end up with a job in academia (to say nothing of those who end up with a tenure track job!). Fairly dismal statistics. But it should clue in potential Ph.D.s that if you're going to commit to an academic life then you have to go "all in." You have to be both very good (i.e.very hard working) and very lucky to succeed. The most important piece of advice I ever got from anybody regarding grad school is: know what the track record of the program is regarding how many of their grad students get jobs." (Chris Scales, Music - Ph.D. from Illinois).


Graduate school applications typically consist of:

  1. Your undergraduate college transcript. Let's assume that you'll be applying to graduate school either in your senior year or a year or two after you graduate. In either event, there's nothing you can do about your GPA at this point, so don't sweat it. When looking at schools you want to apply to, remember that when they list a median undergrad GPA among accepted applicants, fully half of the people they accept fall below that median. If you want very much to go to a specific school, don't not apply just because your GPA might be (way) too low.
  2. Two or three faculty recommendations. You'll need letters of recommendation from two or three of your professors. Always save the graded and marked-up versions of your essays (especially "A" essays)--thus, when you ask for a letter you can quickly refresh your professor's memory as to who you are and why you deserve a detailed and laudatory recommendation.
  3. A sample of your own critical writing. You'll need an essay, preferably 12 pp. or longer, that demonstrates original thought, an elegant prose style and some familiarity with secondary materials.
  4. A short (2 pp.) narrative statement that typically addresses the question, "Why do you want to go to graduate school?," and sometimes the even better question, "Why do you want to attend OUR graduate school?" Be honest. Whoever reads these things will read through any smokescreens of bull. They also read hundreds of applications in any given year, and so will be bored by generalities. Try to indicate your awareness that graduate school is professional training. Check the graduate program catalogues for wherever it is you're applying, and see what the program's course selection is like; see also who's teaching in your field of interest. (Another faculty hint: look for a community of scholars, with more than one person in your prospective field - remember s/he might get hired away). Seek out any book or books these people have written; skim through it/them. If something seems interesting to you, you might say so (and why it's so) in your narrative; alternatively, if everything you read by the faculty at a given place strikes you as impenetrable, impossible, and/or ridiculous, you might want to reconsider applying there! After you've drafted your essay, take the essay to someone you trust to read it over for content, grammar and tone.
  5. GRE (Graduate Record Exam) scores. GRE exams can be taken repeatedly. They cost $60 a shot for the standard paper-and-pencil version, given four times a year in October, December, April and June. There is also a computer-based test available, which provides more flexible scheduling and faster results, for about $100. As with the SAT, opinions differ about if and how much one should study for the GRE; there are, of course, many review guides and prep courses available (Barrons, Kaplan, the Princeton Review, etc.). The GRE tests are graded on a scale of 0-800. Graduate schools would like to see scores of 600+, but there's no hard and fast rule about this.
When Should I Apply to Graduate Schools?

Earliest graduate school applications are due in December for admittance the following September. Many, probably most, LCST students ended up applying after a year or more, and there are some good reasons to do so.

  1. You have enough to do in your senior year without the added stress and busywork of applying to graduate programs.
  2. If you wait to apply until after all your coursework is through, you'll have the time to take your best William & Mary paper (be it your Honors Essay if you've written one, or an essay for a 401 seminar or favorite course) and polish it up. Otherwise, you'll end up sending as a writing sample something from your junior year, which won't represent your own best self.
  3. After four years of this place, you need to break up your routine. By waiting to apply, you'll get a better sense of your own calling: it will become clearer to you whether you really want to pursue the professorial life, or whether you're really only seeking to defer making decisions about your life.
  4. You're only young once. Grad schools will still be there - and maybe you save up a little money in the process.

"The key to grad school decision making, as well as success in the program, is self-knowledge. You have to know yourself, your needs, your strength and weaknesses, not so much intellectually but emotionally. The seminars, archives, comps, etc. take care of themselves after a while. The tougher and more important work is on the head and the heart." (Charlie McGovern, History/American Studies - Ph.D. from Harvard)

Where to Apply

Besides the above issues about MAs and Ph.D.s, financial support, job placement records etc., it's a good idea to think about a program's size, local resources and what you can gather of its character.

"Choose a place where the culture meshes with your personality. My choice came down to University of Washington and University of Michigan. UM was the higher ranked program, but was very cut-throat competitive for resources and professors' time, whereas UW seemed much more collegial, and that fits me better, so that's where I went, and was quite happy there." (Tom Linneman, Sociology - Ph.D. from Washington). "I liked participating in a grad program that had reciprocal registration with four nearby colleges/universities. This greatly expanded my ability to work with diverse prof/take classes in a variety of areas. Thus, I'd recommend students look at the immediate program they are applying to but also look at other resources in the area: other departments/other colleges." (Kelly Joyce, Sociology - Ph.D. from Boston College).

Here are a range of possible programs for LCST majors, chosen to represent regional diversity and for a compatibility with our program. Since we intend to update this list, please send feedback if you find that these programs or others work well with the preparation you've had here - or, alternatively, if they don't. While these programs might fit well with your interests, you should keep in mind the potential downside: media and cultural studies are still relatively new fields, and a lot of academic hiring still takes place in more "traditional" fields--so you might also look into those (e.g. in English, Sociology, Modern Languages, History etc.), especially if you're concerned about life after graduate school. W&M faculty in relevant departments will be the best source for advice about their particular fields, and departments might have information available to guide their majors.

Cultural Studies/Popular Culture
Media/Visual Culture
Cinema Studies (n.b. NOT film production - see below)
Critical/Literary Theory
Comparative Literature
If you're interested in film production programs, you might try this gateway website.