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Factors to Consider in Choosing a School

  • Size: Large schools often have better resources, but may strike you as impersonal or intimidating. Where will you do your best work?
  • Location: How flexible are you in this respect? Are you willing to move to a new part of the country? Will you be comfortable living in this place, or will you feel alienated? Will the adjustment process be very stressful?

  • Reputation (of the university; of the English department; of individual professors): In the very tight job market of recent years, it is probably the case that the odds of landing any academic job improve with the reputation of your doctoral institution. You may have to balance questions of quality and match (below) against the question of how your degree will look on paper. Consult publications that rank departments (see section V), and ask your professors what they know about various schools.

  • Quality/Rate of Success: How many students are typically discontinued after the first year? How many typically fail exams? How many drop out? What percentage complete the degree? (Check this against national averages, which may be as low as 25%). What is the average time-to-degree? Are standards, expectations and requirements clear and consistent? Are they very rigid, or does the program allow some flexibility? Are students left entirely to their own devices (a "sink or swim" mentality)? What does the department do to help place students in jobs? What is their success rate? How do current students, and alumni, feel about the program?

  • Match: Is the department a good match for you, personally and intellectually? What is the overall intellectual orientation of the department? Are some faculty members currently doing research in your area of interest? Are they senior people, or junior people, or both? (Both is ideal. Junior people may not get tenure; senior people may retire). Does the department regularly offer courses in your area of interest? How often? Who teaches them? If you are interested in doing interdisciplinary work or taking courses outside the department, check carefully into the department's policies.

    • Is the faculty "factionalized"? (Is there pronounced conflict among groups of faculty divided along lines of methodology or theory?) Are graduate students forced to compete with each other for continuation or major funding?

    • Is there a climate of bias (against women, against minorities, against people with different beliefs, interests, or approaches; against people from certain regions or kinds of institutions)? If the bias is against you, are you prepared to spend some time and energy combating it?

    • Will you feel comfortable here, or alienated? Departments have very different social and intellectual climates. You can get some clues to this from looking at web pages, but it is a good idea to visit the campus, talk to several people in different positions, and pay attention to your intuitions.

  • Range: Many Ph.D. programs have a very competitive admissions process. For example, Northwestern U receives over 330 applications every year, and only admits 8 students. UW-Madison receives over 185 applications, and admits 25 students. Master's programs are less competitive, but many are nonetheless unable to admit a significant percentage of qualified applicants. When you apply to graduate school, keep in mind that you are competing against a large pool of other smart, dedicated English majors. It can be very difficult to predict which graduate schools will admit you, and which will not. When choosing among qualified applicants, admissions committees may try to balance the entering class in terms of geographical origin or area of interest. There is no way to foresee how that will play out. However, you can and should read the advice each graduate program gives to applicants (often on a web page). The program may provide average GRE scores of students admitted to the program, or even a “cutoff” score or GPA. If your scores are lower than the cutoff for a given program, or much lower than the average scores, you may not want to waste time and money applying to that program (but see “A Word on Applying,” below). Even if your GRE scores are high, it is a good idea to apply to a range of different kinds of schools. For example, you may want to apply to a couple of programs that are very competitive, and two or three programs that appear to have more generous admissions policies. If you are applying to Ph.D. programs, it is also smart to apply to at least one Master's program, just in case. As discussed above, Master's programs can sometimes be used as a stepping stone toward the Ph.D. The good news: approximately 87% of students applying to advanced degree programs get at least one acceptance (Goldsmith, Komlos and Gold 25).