From “Should I?” to “Submit”: a step-by-step guide to the Ph.D. application process

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And here we go again, applicants! Graduate school application season is upon us! In the flood of personal statements, GRE scores, writing samples, and recommendations, applying to Ph.D. English programs may seem like an insurmountable task. But fear not! Thanks to the efforts of Jenna Lay, Assistant Professor of English here at Lehigh, we’ve compiled a list of things to keep in mind as you begin to send applications out.

Goals, Goals, Goals

A word you will become very familiar with throughout your application process, the first thing you want to ask yourself is: Why are you applying for a doctoral program in the first place? Remember, the average English Ph.D. timeline takes about 9 years (with M.A.). You may imagine yourself getting a Ph.D. in order to land that plush job as a tenure-tracked professor, the job where you teach eager-minded students underneath a shady elm tree while writing thought-provoking and world-renowned research. These dreams are wonderful, these dreams are fulfilling, but these dreams are dreams. This is not to say that landing a tenure-track job is impossible, but it is a highly competitive and narrow market. Since the job crash of 2008, the state of the academic job market has become a focal point of concern for all involved in academia. The reality is that there are not a lot of jobs out in academia.


This is a long-winded way of saying: be flexible with your goals. If attaining the tenure-track job is your only motivation for applying to the PhD, you may want to consider other options.

Keeping this in mind, there are many wonderful reasons to apply for a PhD! If you are looking for a dedicated time and space to commit to a topic of research or intrigue, a community of scholars who can support and challenge your work, or an opportunity to strengthen specific skills to translate into a multitude of professional work, the Ph.D. is certainly a worthy investment. This is a time where you can solely focus on your professional and scholarly interests and delve into the nuances and extremities of your chosen topic. Working with experienced scholars and among a community of fellow Ph.D. students provides an incredible opportunity for professional connections and feedback on the work you are bringing to the table. One tip for all of those heavily considering the Ph.D. track: think ahead about how you can translate your skills into multiple career paths, not simply teaching or research. The Ph.D. offers you so many skills, so make the most of this time to hone as many of these skills as possible!


 So, you’ve decided to charge ahead with the application process. Now, this is the fun part! Give yourself time to research various programs within your field. Study program websites and rankings very carefully. Some things to look out for as you research:

  • Transparency – Do websites reveal detailed information about the program structure, funding opportunities, post-doc job placements or publishing rates? If you have to dig to find a lot of these details out, or if programs are hesitant to share these pieces of information, this could be a red flag that this program has something significant to hide or is not the place you want to be.
  • Location – Where are programs located in the country? Are you willing to up and move anywhere in the country, or do you have particular places in mind that you must be? Remember, this is a significant commitment of time  and energy, so make sure you will be able to call your new place home!
  • Centers and Programs – Are various departments connected to particular centers or programs that would be of particular help to your area of interest?  Are there interdisciplinary opportunities that benefit or intrigue you?
  • Rankings – Wherever you stand in the conversation regarding the ethics or value of program rankings, remember that they are a significant factor in the application process. Higher-ranked schools tend to have larger applicant pools and well-funded programs, so pay attention to how your programs are ranked. Usually, 10 or more applications is the recommended range for what you should send out. Try dividing your list into two “dream” schools (high-ranked schools with very selective pools), 4-5 mid-ranked, really strong programs (usually ranked 20-60), and 4-5 lesser-ranked schools (60 and below) that may have specific strengths in your area of research. Check out The National Research Council’s program rankings or U.S. News and World Report rankings to get a sense of where your program falls.

Compile the Profile

After selecting schools, it’s time to get your hands dirty. You need to think about recommendations, GRE scores, writing samples, application fees, and any other miscellaneous features of the application. Pay special attention to formatting and deadline requests for each program’s application; dates and formats will vary from program to program. During your research stage, make a spreadsheet or list of needed dates and pieces to make sure you are on top of the application process.

One thing you will want to do as quickly as possible is secure your recommenders. You will usually need 2-3 faculty members from your undergraduate or graduate programs who know your strengths as a scholar, potentially as a teacher, and as a student. Make sure you select teachers who can give you the strongest recommendations possible. This is where frank conversations MUST happen. You want to ensure that your recommendations are portraying you in the best light possible as you put yourself out there. If a faculty member seems hesitant about the recommendation, for any reason, simply thank them for their time and consider your other options.

Also, give your faculty members time! Try to confirm your recommendations by October to ensure that they have enough time to draft statements for you. Also, sending them a copy of deadlines and reference instructions will help them make sure they stay on track and submit everything correctly.

You will also need to take the GREs if you have not already done so. Most Ph.D. English programs require the GRE General Test and the GRE Subject Test in Literature. Register for the Fall examination to ensure your scores will arrive on time. To study for the GRE Subject test, check out the Norton Anthologies of American and British Literature and look for the major players in these texts. Study guides and practice test booklets are also available at most major bookstores.

Writing samples and personal statements are some of the most important parts of your application. Your writing sample should demonstrate the strongest level of writing and critical thinking in your academic career thus far. Send it to professors and colleagues to edit and give feedback on. Don’t be afraid to revise! You want to send the strongest sample possible. Also, make sure your personal statement is clear and concise. You don’t always have a lot of space to articulate your goals for the degree, so make sure you can clearly and quickly explain why you think the program is right for your professional goals, but, also, what you can bring to the program to which you are applying.

Make that Bank!

We’ll keep this portion sweet and simple: Never. Pay. For. This. Degree. Loans and debt are not something you want to continue to pile on as you are studying. Look for programs that will fully fund you and offer a livable stipend during your time in the program. This is a time that should be dedicated to your scholarly pursuits, not to making sure you can afford next month’s rent. Many programs offer tuition remission and stipends through Teaching Assitantships, Graduate Assistantships, or Fellowships and Grants. Take the time to research programs that will allow you to live (if not lavishly) comfortably during your time in the program.

Keep in mind, too, that applying to Ph.D. programs is expensive enough! Save the money you need to apply to schools and register for GREs. Every dollar counts!

Take a Breath and Submit

There will be moments throughout your application process where you question if this is the right decision. This is a big step in your academic and professional pursuits, and it is not a decision to be made lightly. However, be gentle with yourself as you work through this. Don’t be afraid to reach out to loved ones, classmates, or faculty and staff for help and encouragement as you work through this. Ask questions, watch Netflix, binge on ice cream (chocolate preferably), and allow yourself to enjoy this time as much as you can. As stressful as this can be, applying to Ph.D. programs is an exciting step towards solidifying your identity as a student and as a scholar. Revel in the rush of discovering your true interests and strengths as you work through your applications. And, when it’s all finally said and done, take a breath, give yourself a pat on the back, and hit “Submit.”

*Special thanks to Jenna Lay for her fantastic presentation on the Ph.D. application process*

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