Frequently Asked Questions
Should I go to graduate school?
Some people want an MA just because they love literature, which is perfectly legitimate and, indeed, the need that the MA was designed to serve.
Some people want an MA because they’re thinking about going on for the PhD but not quite sure. This is also a very good reason to get an MA. You will get a sense of what graduate-level work is like and be able to decide whether it’s really right for you.
Some people want an MA because they plan to teach high school; that is also fine. For more details, see below.
But for a PhD or MFA you need a very different feeling. You need to feel that you passionately love literature – that you have such a strong drive to study or write this stuff that you can imagine nothing better – that spending a few years holed up in a research library communing with Chaucer, or having other people critique your poems word by word, is the most blissful thing you can imagine. For a PhD or MFA you need to feel that you have found your calling.
Do NOT get a PhD if you just want to study literature for a few more years. The PhD is not another MA program. It is much longer, much more arduous, and demands complete commitment.
What can I do with a graduate degree?
An MA enables you to teach high school. If you teach high school in New York, you will have to get an MA for your certification. But here are two facts people don’t usually know:
- With an MA you can also get jobs at private schools, where you may not need certification and where conditions are often much cushier (well-laid out campuses, a picked body of academically strong students, small class sizes, interesting course topics).
- With an MA you can also get jobs at community colleges. You generally will not be teaching literature there, but introductory composition. It can be quite grueling (you teach about five courses a term, to students who are often very needy), but the pay is excellent, you have the cachet of being a professor, you can enjoy teaching adults who don’t have the disciplinary and developmental problems of high school students, and you can sometimes get motivated, diverse, mature students.
An MFA enables you to teach creative writing at the university level. However, this is a very competitive field, especially if you hope to stay in New York. So in order to win a job as a professor of fiction or poetry, you have to have other credentials as well: at least one published book, preferably two.
A PhD is different from an MA. It is, specifically, job training to become a professor. If you enter a PhD program, you are planning to become a professor of literature, teaching at the university level. You should know, however, that academic jobs are scarce and highly competitive, and it may take years to land one. Therefore you should also have some backup options. These may include: working at a non-profit institution, popular writing, journalism, prep school or community college teaching, computer work, etc. In other words, do a PhD only if you plan to become a professor, but keep in mind that you may have to resort to something else if that doesn’t work.
How much does it cost?
If you go for an MA, you will have to pay tuition. If you are teaching in a high school, the school may cover that cost. Tuition costs vary from school to school. An MA generally takes two or three years, depending on how long it takes you to write your MA thesis, so you can figure out the costs. Our MFA program also requires you to pay tuition.
If you go for a professional degree, a PhD, you will not have to pay anything. Normally, you will get a tuition waiver and a small stipend – about $18,000 per year for living expenses. The graduate school is not doing this out of charity. They will be using you to teach their basic English classes. If they had to hire a professor to do that, they’d have to pay the professor $40,000+ per year, so by paying you $18,000 per year, they are saving considerable money. Do not go to any grad school that makes you pay your own money for the privilege – this is exploitative and indefensible. (The CUNY Grad Center does not waive tuition, but it offers other ways of making up the money.) Different grad schools will offer you different financial packages. You need to consider not just how much they pay, but how much it costs to live in the area (Princeton is far more expensive than Iowa State) and how much teaching they make you do (teaching will slow down your own work and force you to spend extra years in grad school).
If I know I want a PhD, should I go get my MA first?
No. When you go to a PhD program, you will get the MA along the way anyhow, and you won’t pay for it because you’ll be in a PhD program. There is no reason to spend your money and an extra two or three years to get the MA separately. Nor will an MA save you much time in your PhD program. Some PhD programs may give you some credit for the MA, but this is highly variable. You probably won’t save more than a year from your PhD, and you’ll have spent two or three years at the MA to do it.
There are some exceptions. Get the MA separately first if: a) you’re not sure you want a PhD and need to test what grad school feels like; b) you feel you’re not emotionally ready to embark on a PhD yet and want to have a transitional experience; or c) your undergraduate record is spotty and you want to improve your chances of admission to a PhD program by showing you can do an MA.
How do I apply for the MA?
See our admissions page. Our MA is fairly typical of programs nationwide, so the advice there will help you wherever you decide to go.
How do I apply for the MFA?
See the admissions advice on the MFA website. For the MFA, your writing sample will be of the utmost importance. Here are some tips:
- Make sure that what you send is the most original, interesting, well-crafted work you have. If you’re not sure, take it by a creative-writing faculty member for advice.
- If you have done your research, you will know that the writing program to which you are applying has specializations, and if your writing fits that specialty, so much the better.
- Make sure it is the length requested in the application; if you send your 150-page novel manuscript nobody will read it.
- Print it out neatly but without frills. You want it to look like a serious professional manuscript that can speak for itself, and if you use fancy fonts or pictures or glossy binding you will make it look like a homemade high school project.
- If you can get something published in a real journal (not self-published or on a dubious website) that will help too. Look for lists of likely journals in the Writer’s Market guides.
How do I apply for the PhD?
Basically, you’ll take the GRE and the GRE’s Literature Subject Test, write a personal essay, and include a writing sample (generally your very best undergraduate essay), a transcript, and recommendations from professors. Applications are generally due in the fall, and you hear in the spring. Some warnings:
- The verbal section of the GRE and the Literature Subject Test ought to have very high scores. If you don’t get scores in the 700s, you will have trouble getting into grad school. The departments won’t care very much about the math or logic parts of the GRE, although obviously it’s better if you do well on them too.
- Instead of making your recommenders produce multiple copies of each letter, set up a dossier at Career Development. Then the professor puts one copy of the letter into your folder, and Career Development sends out the contents of the folder to each school. Click here for tips on how to ask professors to write recommendations.
How do I write the application essay?
You will feel an overwhelming compulsion to write an essay about why you want to go to grad school. Go ahead, do so. Then rip it up and construct an essay about why you would be a good choice for that particular grad school. You don’t have to convince them that you want to come; after all, you’re applying! Instead, think from their perspective. What would make you look like an intriguing candidate? Why should they pick you over Joe Schmoe from SUNY? Here are two hints.
- These admission committees get a lot of middle-class white students from private schools. So already you probably offer something different. If you come from a particular ethnic group, if you identify yourself as working class, if you’ve had to work to put yourself through college, if you’ve overcome personal obstacles to succeed academically, play that up.
- At the same time, admissions committees want to know that you are aware of, and can cope with, the type of work you’ll be doing in their program. So if you have familiarity with a particular theoretical approach, or if you’ve done original research, or if you’re fascinated by a currently hot topic (gender, class, race, sexuality), or if you have experience organizing poetry slams and interning at summer writing workshops, emphasize your interest in the field and demonstrate your mastery of its terms. Generally speaking, you want to construct a narrative of how you got to this point, in which you can incorporate stories of your own difficulties and your own intellectual triumphs. If there’s anything in your record that needs to be explained – a C- in your sophomore year – now is the time to do it. You want to give them a full picture of you.
How long does it take to get a degree?
It’s up to you. You have to write the thesis. An MA or MFA takes two or three years; a PhD, five to seven years. It can be longer if you have a difficult subject, get writer’s block, or have personal events or teaching duties that interfere. But it will almost never be shorter.
Where can I find more information?
There are lots of guides to graduate school. For MFAs, look at awpwriter.org, the website for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs; they sell The AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs. For PhDs, see if you can get hold of the now-unfortunately-out-of-print Lingua Franca Real Guide to Grad Schools. Page through the other graduate-school guides in the bookstore. Go to the websites of the schools in which you’re interested. Try out their library catalogues; look up their faculty; investigate their towns; peruse their graduate course offerings. Ask QC faculty members who work in the area in which you’re thinking of specializing. You also can go to the Office of Career Development (213 Frese Hall) for advice about applications.