Guidance for UMass Lowell English Majors Applying to Graduate School
An undergraduate degree in English can be preparation for a wide array of careers; depending on your plans, graduate study may be a part of your pathway. English undergraduates go on to graduate programs in law, medicine, literary studies, theatre studies, library science, education, public humanities, and more. This page will give you some information and guidance, but be sure to talk to your advisor for more specific information.
Creative Writing (MFA)
Students interested in continuing work in the field of creative writing -- whether in poetry, fiction, or creative non-fiction -- typically go on to an MFA program (Master of Fine Arts). UML alumni have won scholarships and placement in prestigious MFA programs across the country, including Boston University, Colorado State University, New York University, Ohio State University, Oklahoma State, Southern New Hampshire University, and Warren Wilson College, among others.
In an MFA program, over two or three years students hone their craft skills through workshops, and have the opportunity to complete book-length works for their final theses. The MFA is a terminal degree, which positions graduates to teach creative writing; many students have the opportunity to apprentice-teach during their MFA program through graduate assistantships (in full-residency programs).
The writing sample is the most important component of your MFA application. Typically you’ll need three recommendation letters from professors or others who can attest to your writing skills and the seriousness of your intent. Some programs require Graduate Record Exam (GRE) tests as well, and most request a personal statement to explain your interest in and goals for an MFA program. When choosing MFA programs, look for those that offer funding, especially since the degree doesn’t guarantee a teaching job or a book contract upon graduation. Fortunately, there are many programs that offer partial or full funding (fully-funding programs are most competitive), which generally means that in exchange for a tuition waiver and a stipend, you will teach part-time as you take classes and study writing.
The benefits of an MFA program include: a deep focus on learning the craft of writing in one or more genres; allowing time to write; belonging to a community of writers; finding mentors and champions of your work; and developing writing-colleagues and friends who will support you throughout your journey as a writer. An MFA program allows you to focus solely on writing for an extended period of time, enabling you to attend seriously to your hopes and ambitions for being a published writer.
Education -- at the elementary or secondary school level -- is a popular pathway for English majors. Our own UMass Lowell School of Education offers a degree and licensure in K-12 education, and many English majors choose to pursue the Accelerated Bachelor’s to Master’s degree program, also known as the “Fast Track to Teaching.” For more information, see the Bachelor's-to-Master's Program in Education.
You will need to take the MTEL tests in Communications and Literacy and a Content Area test, and you should be sure you maintain a GPA of 3.0 or above.
For more information on getting a Master's in Education, see the College of Education's program overview for Curriculum and Instruction.
If you’re thinking of a career in law, you may be interested in the Legal Studies minor. It is *not* required for graduate work in Law, but you may find it useful to start thinking about the field and your interests.
If you are considering law school, you should definitely get in touch with our UMass Lowell Pre-Law Advisor.
Library Science (MLS)
Given the interest that English majors have in books, it’s likely not surprising that some English majors go on to work in libraries. Several UML English graduates have pursued this kind of work, which requires graduate school in a Library program to achieve a Masters of Library Science (MLS) degree.
The MLS degree can be expensive and the job market, especially in New England, can be highly competitive. Do some research before you commit. Different libraries serve different communities and have different purposes. For example, a library at a university is different from a public library. Talk to different librarians to get a sense of what work they do. The UMass Lowell librarians are happy to talk to you but, reach out to public librarians or school librarians to see how that work and expectations are different.
Before you commit to the degree program or while you’re getting a degree, try getting a part-time job in a library. The job experience will additionally help you stand out among other candidates when job hunting. The American Library Association (ALA) is the main organization to join. They provide tips and job listing websites typically used by libraries in their employment guide.
Make sure the school you pick is included in the Directory of ALA-Accredited Programs. This is critical to getting a job. Some of these programs offer virtual classes so you can pick one that fits your needs.
You may be surprised to learn that English is a relatively common undergraduate major among medical doctors. If you’re thinking about this path, you will definitely want to get connected with UMass Lowell’s Pre-Health Advising, so that you can be sure to complete the right science courses to prepare.
Public Humanities: The MPA-Arts Administration at UMass Lowell
Thinking about a career in arts education, arts administration, or cultural policy? Would you like to work in a museum, a cultural institution, or historical archive? Perhaps for a city or regional culture administration office where you work with artists to help make festivals and public exhibits happen? Are you interested in the public and civic functions of the humanities and the arts? This program offers the internationally recognized MPA degree with a specialization in the skills and hands-on experience necessary to work in arts, humanities, and cultural organizations. You will take courses (39 credits) in Arts and the Community, Arts Administration, and an array of other offerings focused on the humanities, as well as courses in public policy and public finance, grant writing and administration. Most courses are in the late afternoon and evenings and/or online to accommodate working students. Lowell’s close proximity to a number of museums and cultural institutions allows students to receive credit for internships and practicums. The program offers a BA-to-MPA track that allows advanced undergraduate students to take courses at the graduate level toward the eventual MPA-Arts Administration and Public Humanities degree. For more information, see the Master of Public Administration program page.
The road to a Ph.D. in English is long and challenging. Expect two years of coursework at the master’s level, followed by an additional couple of years at the Ph.D. level, followed by comprehensive area exams (usually a year or so to study). Once you’ve completed these initial preparations, you can write your dissertation. If you allow two years for the dissertation, that’s about seven years of graduate work to earn your doctorate.
Be aware that many graduate students spend years working very hard for very little money only to find that there are few employment opportunities in their fields when they finish. The job market for full time faculty jobs is (and has been for a long time) in bad shape, and shows no signs of improving.
When selecting a master’s or doctoral program in English studies, you often find specialized degrees in: literature, rhetoric and composition, writing studies, and linguistics. It is possible to find a general Master’s of Arts in English Studies, but most programs require a specialization. A general MA in English Studies works well for K-12 teachers or graduate students who do not intend on pursuing a doctoral degree in an English studies specialization. If you’re interested in K-12 public school teaching, you’ll want to consider state regulations regarding degrees (some require degrees through an Education program, while others require subject specialties).
To pursue a MA or PhD in an English studies specialization, you should take undergraduate classes in that specialization. For example, to pursue a PhD in rhetoric and composition, it is highly recommended to take at least one course in rhetoric or writing studies (not creative writing). The same holds true for literary studies and linguistics. For example, it is unwise to apply to a PhD program in literature without a literature concentration.
MA/PhD in Literature
If you’re choosing “Literature” or “Literary Studies” as your focus, you will likely want to start thinking a bit more about specific interests. Is there a genre, time period, or other sub-set of literature that interests you and that you’d like to pursue further? You don’t have to decide on a dissertation topic yet, but you should have a general idea of a focus -- for instance on “American Literature of X period” or “Medieval Literature” or “LatinX Literature.” It’s possible that your path will change as you enter and proceed through a graduate program, but you should have something specific -- not just “I love literature” -- in mind as you begin planning for graduate study. One of the best things you can do is take as many undergraduate 3000- and 4000- level English literature courses as possible. Explore different periods and genres, and read widely! This will help you figure out what interests you, but also help you situate your interests in the larger field. Talk to your advisor and your instructors about their courses and their own pathways to graduate school.
MA/PhD in Composition and Rhetoric
Put simply, rhetoric and composition is the study of writing and other forms of academic, professional, social, political, and public communication. Rhetoric and composition scholars research how people compose and theorize ways to teach people to compose effectively for specific audiences. The field draws on the history and theory of rhetoric—often defined as the ability to identify and use the available means of persuasion in a particular situation.
Rhetoric and composition is also known as “Literacy Studies,” “Writing Studies,” “Rhetoric and Communication,” or “Composition Studies.” The field also includes programs focused on professional and technical writing, digital writing, and new media. Often housed in English departments, graduate programs in rhetoric and composition offer students core courses in composition theory, rhetorical history/theory, and research methods along with more specialized courses like writing program administration, public rhetoric, critical pedagogy, genre theory, cultural rhetorical studies, and other courses that reflect the core faculty’s areas of expertise.
For more information about specific graduate programs, see the Rhetoric Society of America's list of graduate programs or the The Consortium of Doctoral Programs in Rhetoric and Composition.
Some general advice as you think about pursuing an MA / PhD in any field of English
- Your professors are a great resource. The faculty here are proven scholars and the sooner we know what your plans are, the sooner we can steer you toward classes and experiences that will help you pursue your goals. Develop relationships with faculty in your field of interest and ask questions.
- Take courses in a variety of subjects within the department and do well in them. If you are consistently struggling in your English classes despite your best effort, you should consider the possibility that graduate study may not be for you.
- Look into whether you need to take the GRE general and subject tests. This varies by school, as many institutions and programs have removed the GRE and/or subject test requirements. If you do need to take one or both, it’s best to do this early in case you need to retake one or both. Some evaluators pay more attention to these scores than others, but high scores can help you stand out and low ones can most definitely sink you.
- Start the application process (asking for letters of recommendation, working on your statement and writing sample, etc.) as early as September of your senior year if you plan to go directly into a graduate program.
- Consider taking some time off. This is especially good advice if you really aren’t sure whether you want to go to graduate school or why. Most of the time, this academic break can help students clarify why they wish to pursue graduate study.
- A good school is one that is right for you. Look around at the kinds of courses offered, the work the faculty are doing, etc. By snooping around a department’s website, you can get a sense if the graduate students in a program are active, if they serve on committees, etc. You will also get a sense of how the program defines itself and how it sees its strengths.
- A good school is also one that offers you funding. Often, students pursuing an MA/PhD in English teach college writing, serve as teaching assistants, or work as research assistants while attending graduate school. This work typically covers the cost of tuition and offers meager means for living while you complete your studies.
- Apply to several schools at different levels. You may be at an advantage if you’re willing to relocate to another region of the country.
- Once you have narrowed down the schools to which you want to apply, do your homework. Read up on their specialties, offerings, and programs. You should be prepared to tailor your application letters to each individual school. Most schools are looking for a good fit and will seek out students whose interests match their specialties.
The Personal Statement
- Many students have said this is the hardest thing they have ever written. It is very difficult to get right. You’re introducing your best self to people who don’t know you and who are reading hundreds of these applications.
- It is absolutely essential that you have at least one (and preferably more) faculty members review this document. Give it to anyone who is writing you a letter of recommendation (more on that below), and ask for their feedback.
- Try to show that you are acquainted with your chosen field and that you know the central questions and issues in that field. You don’t want to seem too narrow, but a focused student will stand out.
The Writing Sample
- Plan to send 15 pages or more of your best scholarly work. Check to see if the programs you’re applying to have a set minimum or maximum number of pages, and be sure to keep your material within those limits. (Follow the rules.)
- Your writing sample should have a developed context, and demonstrate solid research and analytical thinking skills. Writing should be confident, interesting and – of course – error free. Do not try to impress your readers with too much academic jargon. Admissions committees have been there/done that. All citations should be double-checked for accurate MLA format.
- Have at least two professors look at your writing sample before sending it in, and take their suggestions for revision seriously.
Letters of Recommendation
- Ask for these at least four weeks in advance. Choose professors who know your work well and can say more about you than that you got a good grade in their class.
- Give your professors everything they need to write a good, informed letter: resume or cv, transcript, samples of papers you’ve written for them, a list of courses you took with them and the grade you received.
- Give your recommenders a list of schools to which you are applying and their deadlines. Your professors are busy and due dates often coincide with other busy periods in the semester. A gentle reminder a couple of weeks before the due date will not offend your recommender, and may help you.
- Because a good letter can take several hours to write, a thank you note is nice once all the letters have gone out. It can buy you a lot of good will for the next time—when you need just one more at the last minute. It is also good courtesy to let your professors know where you were accepted and where you will be going. We want to celebrate your successes!