Getting a Master's Degree in English

Getting a master's degree is a good way to enjoy graduate study without committing your whole young adulthood to the project!

An MA in English differs from a MA in Education or Teaching (MAT, MEd) and it is not the same thing as an MFA (master in Fine Arts). If you want Teacher Certification, look for an Education program. If you are primarily a creative writer, look at MFA programs. If you want to test the waters for a PhD in English, an English MA is appropriate. You may also wish to do a Master's degree in English simply to extend your education. That's fine, just try to avoid getting into debt to do it!

Master's programs differ from PhD programs even though most PhDs earn MAs along the way. Some, such as Georgetown, offer only a terminal master's degree. These are excellent, though funding may be more limited. PhD programs often grant MAs along the way to the PhD, which means that a person often leaves a PhD program (having decided to drop out) with a master's degree. The only reason to aim for a master's from a program set up for the PhD is to get better funding: you act as if you want the PhD, take the fellowship, and leave when you've earned your MA. However, PhD programs are a lot more competitive, so this isn't really a very sensible route. If you already have a teaching job, or another job that enables you to take 6 weeks off in the summer, think about summer master's programs such as the Bread Loaf School of English, where W&L English grads have earned Master's degrees. Disclosure: Professor Keen teaches for Bread Loaf.


You apply to five or six programs. To do so you ready your:

  • languages. Most programs require 1. Find out which languages count before you start a new one. The actual exams in grad school tend to be pretty easy--translation tests, taken with a dictionary. You should be able to learn and pass one language during your one or two years of grad school. Almost all programs will expect you to pass at least one exam during the first year of study. For the application, it is important to be able to claim preparation in languages. A person who looks weak in languages might be eliminated from the applicant pool on that ground. So, if you can claim proficiency in one language and reading knowledge in another, that's great.
  • personal essay. Write an intellectual statement of purpose, not an autobiography or starry-eyed hymn of praise to the glories of your discipline, a famous professor, or institution X. An argumentative personal essay is fine, so long as it doesn't insult or disparage certain approaches. Use your natural writing style. You may weave in remarks about a special collection at the library of Institution X, or about particular professors (especially if you have corresponded with them, or based your thesis on their work), but avoid the law-school-application-essay style of "I first read Wordsworth in the eighth grade, and from then on I knew it was my destiny to. . ." Even if it's true! Imagine your essay as the one opportunity for you to lay out your plan, your big questions, and the way in which your academic experiences-research, writing, publishing-have altered your ideas. Write about your senior thesis, if you wrote one, and where you see yourself going from there. It's ok to indicate a change of direction. Be specific. And don't worry, no one will hold you to anything you write in your application. You can change your mind once you're there. Many people do-that's one of the reasons for required course work and broad general examinations, not unlike the "comps" in English.
  • dossier of letters from the best known scholars, those who know you best. It's unfair, but fame counts, unless the famous person says "I taught Joe as a freshman and he earned a B+." Do get a letter from your thesis advisor. This is especially important if the thesis isn't done yet, and can't be part of the writing sample. Find out where professors studied or taught earlier in their careers. A letter from a "known quantity" means something to an admission committee. Give neatly paper-clipped forms, stamped addressed envelopes and instructions to your recommenders as early as possible. (Recommended: sign the waiver.) Write down the deadlines for completed applications. Some programs will send a postcard about incomplete applications, but assume that you are on your own. Two weeks before the earliest deadline, politely ask your recommenders if they've had a chance to send the letter in. Most busy professors will appreciate the reminder.
  • GRE. Take it early-October is best. Or, take it in the spring of your junior year, and again in the fall. High verbals and high subject test scores matter the most. Prepare using the materials from ETS (reviewing anthologies and notes from survey courses helps). Don't waste money and time on Stanley Kaplan.
  • writing sample. There is no one recipe here, only general guidelines. This can be the most important part of an application. Choose your very best recent paper and rewrite it. Respond to criticism, and take it back to the professor to see if you've succeeded in making improvements. Make sure your argument is clearly stated on the first page, or at the very latest on the second page. Proofread obsessively. Spell check. If your middle names are not "Strunk and White," get a person with a perfect grasp of grammar and syntax to read your essay. Revise for clarity and elegance. Use MLA style for citations, not just any old format. Do not use a bad printer, a micro-font, or an arty font. Your readers will be sitting down to read sixty files in a weekend, during the school year. You mustn't give them an excuse to cast your work aside with an oath.

OK. It's early April and the Fates have smiled upon you. You've gotten into three or four good master's programs. Then what?

Making a decision requires specific knowledge about:

  • financial support. Unless you have applied to PhD programs intending only to do the MA, you will probably not get a big financial aid package. Look at the state university programs in your home state, where you may qualify for reduced tuition. There are some great English graduate programs in state universities. Assume that financial support is merit based, even when the institution requires parents' information. Please don't pay tuition to an MA program on the hopes of making it into a PhD at the same institution: it's a bad bet.
  • the library: main collection and special collections. In most humanities fields, a puny library means a big hassle for you. The kind of work you can do in your courses and in your dissertation will be shaped by the availability of texts. Ask if ILL (interlibrary loan) use is free and unlimited. If your interests will most likely take you abroad to foreign archives, ask if summer funding for research trips is available.
  • the professors. Do your homework. Who are they? Do they really teach courses (look at the graduate course catalog). Do they teach grad students? (Some famous professors at places with superb undergrads teach grad students reluctantly.) Use automated bibliographies in your field, such as FirstSearch's "Articles1st" to pull up periodical publications. Look at the dates of publication. Is the famous professor you admire still active in her field? Are all the fields you hope to study represented by distinguished senior professors and up-and-coming younger professors? The latter can be as important as the former, since younger professors still building their followings may devote more time and energy to you.
  • the structure of the program. All masters programs require course work- 1- 2 years, 8-14 courses-, language examinations (usually 1 in addition to English), and some require a master's thesis.
  • the visit. If you can afford to visit campus before you decide, do it. Ask to be housed with a grad student, and go to classes. Talk to the Director of Graduate Studies (the "DGS") and professors in office hours. Do the grad students seem happy? Do they seem to have a community? Dissertation-writing groups? Colloquia or reading groups based on common interests? Real lives? Are they working second jobs in addition to their teaching or research assistantships? Are they divided into "camps" about some issue that doesn't matter a whole lot to you? Or, conversely, are they passionately upset about something that matters a lot to you, and might be a source of unhappiness if things don't go your way? (Real life examples: unionization, sexual preference.)
  • the place. Attractive? Dangerous? Bucolic? In an exciting city?

Before you decide to go:

(If you care about going on after your master's), ask about placement in graduate and professional programs: ask the Director of Graduate Study where recent MAs have gone to undertake PhDs, what law schools they've entered, what professional schools they've chosen after completing the MA. Then try to get names and talk to the individuals who've gone through the MA program and found a successful path in the direction that interests you.

Beware Composition Slavery:

It is a national disgrace, but many graduate programs exist solely to provide cheap labor for universities. Bad signs:

  • The program wants you to begin teaching in your first semester of study.
  • All the composition courses and many of the lower-level undergraduate courses are taught by graduate students, not by professors.
  • The program expects you to teach the same course (composition) over and over throughout your years of study.
  • Very few students in the program complete the MAs.

There are always exceptions, but you should be aware that teaching experience, a vital component of your graduate training, should never overwhelm the other parts: course taking, independent work, thesis-writing.