College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences


Resources for Aspiring PhD Students

Getting into a PhD program requires more than intellect; students need to be prepared. PhD programs expect that students know the field they want to enter (Medieval, 19th C. American, etc.), the scholarship they want to pursue (performance and queer identity, finance and Romantic poets, etc.), and the programs/professors best suited for that field.

While this informal group can't make those decisions for you, it can provide you with some resources to help you think about the expectations of advanced graduate work (like the fact that you needed a scholarly field at all). 

Important to keep in mind, though, is that these resources can not replace the face-to-face advice of your faculty members. Go talk to them. You can't get into a PhD program if you don't have letters of recommendation from faculty in your field.

1. How do I prepare for a PhD during my MA work?

Students who move on to the PhD must start to imagine themselves not as students in a classroom but as a professional scholar in the field. That means working hard for good grades, but also making academia a part of your life. The best prepared MA students also do the following:

  • Talk to faculty mentors regularly
    • You can't get good letters of recommendation unless your faculty know you. Talk to them. And most importantly, seek out faculty in your field. A 17th C. British scholar might be brilliant and fun and helpful, but they might not have much guidance to give you about 20th C. World Literature.
  • Attend local conferences
    • As presenter, chair, or visitor, attending conferences gives you greater awareness of the field, expectations of literary discourse, and opportunities to share your ideas and network with peers. 
    • Some great local opportunities inclue CPP's English Graduate Symposium and the Student Research Conference, as well as regional conferences like CSULA's "Significations"CSULB's "Re/Inventions"; and PAMLA
  • Attend guest lectures frequently, even those not at CPP
    • CGU, UCLA, USC, Cal Tech, UCR… all of these programs have English departments and invite speakers. Bookmark these homepages and keep an eye out for their events.
  • Maintain journal alerts and read at least two new scholarly articles per week
    • This also includes RSS feeds, listservs, Facebook feeds, etc. Author societies, the Society for the Study of American Women Writers, boundary 2, etc. All of these groups have web presences that you should be connected to.
  • Organize reading groups
    • Outside of class, gather together a group of like-minded people who are interested in your area (gender studies, trauma theory, postcolonial lit). Read an article every other week and meet over drinks to talk about it.
  • Organize writing groups
    • Outside of class, gather a group of trusted peers to submit work to. Writing or thinking in a vacuum is a great way to suck at writing and thinking.

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2. What kind of timeline should I follow to apply for a PhD?

Because most CPP students work part time, if not full time, it is not often possible to move straight from the MA program to a PhD program, and an extra year off can really improve your chances (and your emotional well-being). Here are two timelines that identify where you should be on a two-year and a three-year plan:

Two-Year Plan

Year Quarter Objective
Year 1 Fall Start MA Program; Identify field
Year 1 Winter Draft CV; Identify mentor
Year 1 Spring Graduate Symposium; Conference #1; Draft Personal Statement; Solicit Recommenders
Year 1 Summer GRE General; GRE Subject; Revise Writing Sample; Revise Personal Statement
Year 2 Fall Submit writing sample; apply to conference #2; Applications due in Nov.-Dec.
Year 2 Winter Conference #2
Year 2 Spring Graduate Symposium; Conference #3; Hear back from schools
Year 2 Summer Relax
Year 3 Fall Begin PhD program

Three-Year Plan

Year Quarter Objective
Year 1 Fall Start MA Program; Identify field
Year 1 Winter Identify mentor; Draft CV
Year 1 Spring Graduate Symposium; Conference #1
Year 1 Summer GRE General; GRE Subject; Revise seminar paper #1 for journal submission
Year 2 Fall Revise CV
Year 2 Winter Conference #2
Year 2 Spring Solicit Recommenders; Personal Statement
Year 2 Summer Revise seminar paper #2 for journal submission; Revise personal statement
Year 3 Fall Applications Due in December; Revise all materials
Year 3 Winter Conference #3
Year 3 Spring Conference #4
Year 3 Summer
Year 4 Fall Start PhD program

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3. Choosing the program that's right for you.

Choosing the right program involves many factors, and there are both professional and personal considerations that need to be accounted for:

Professional Considerations

Program Quality: 

Faculty Research Interests:

Your PhD program is an apprenticeship. You want to work with particular faculty in your specific field. You should find the faculty doing research in your area of study and determine programs based on that.

Personal Considerations

Quality of Life:

Many students choose their program simply because of location, but that is a poor strategy, as many strong programs are in the least desirable places to live. Try not to let "weather" be the determining factor in your decision. PhD programs, like the job market for Assistant Professor positions once you graduate, require you remain flexible. A PhD is not a VIP pass to all the hottest clubs in town; it's a reservation at Hertz—the chances of them having the car you want (or ordered) is slim, and you may wind up using mass transit anyway. 


NEVER EVER EVER PAY FOR YOUR PHD. PhD programs in English will support you through TA opportunities, fellowships, and grants. If not, that is not the right school for you.

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4. What materials do I need to apply for the PhD?

Every program is different, but the main items you'll need to produce (and revise incessantly) are:
  • Cover letter
    • Also called a "personal statement," this document is NOT a memoir of how you came to love literature or linguistics, but rather a detailed document about your scholarly agenda: the research you're working with, the papers you're presenting, and the direction of your scholarship
  • A CV
    • A record of your professional accomplishments, including presentations, articles, awards, and so on.
  • Writing Sample
    • A REVISED seminar paper, written in your field of interest.
  • GRE General Test Scores
  • GRE Subject Test Scores
  • Transcripts

Noteworthy here is that PhD programs like to see teaching experience, but it is rarely a determining factor for your acceptance into the program nor does it determine whether you are eligible for a TA position. Keep that in mind as you think about proportioning your time.

For more CPP-specific notes on the application process, read Ryan Leack’s PhD Application Guide posted here:

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5. Do I need to write a Thesis?

No, absolutely not. But if you don't, you should devote a significant amount of time to revising a seminar paper into a publishable article. PhD programs want to see scholarly development and achievement. The thesis is one way to demonstrate that, but a less time-consuming way is to write an article-length essay, submit it, present it, and start networking with people working on similar ideas.

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