PhD Apps: Let Me Back Up a Bit

There was a time, months and months ago, when the last rambling post I made would have been impossible even to start. It was a time before THE LIST took over my life. And by THE LIST, I mean the list of schools and check list of application requirements that has not left my side and is becoming mildewed and so coffee stained that most of the paper is a stale brown color.


So, where did all of this madness begin? How did I even know what schools to look at? How did I sift through the immensity that is academia and find programs that I thought would foster and challenge my research?

Well, like all English majors, I started by snooping. And by snooping, I mean, being part of the English dept. long enough to learn where all of my professors went to school. Those schools were where I started my research. Now, as a disclaimer, my Alma mater has a grand total of one Victorianist, and even though the school she went to has an excellent program, it is very close to where I grew up and I knew I wanted to go somewhere different for PhD school.

So, I turned to a handy list compiled by the University of Texas at Austin, which you can find here. This list is organized in two formats: alphabetically and by state. The “by state” option is much more helpful, in my opinion, because it allowed me to look for universities in parts of the U.S. that I actually like and where I would actually like to live.

The only problem with this list is that it does not provide any indication of which schools just offer Bachelor’s / Master’s  and which offer PhD programs. But it is an immense list, and adding those kinds of notations would be a phenomenal task.

So, I delved into guesswork, clicking on university names and perusing their English department websites to see if (a) they even offered a PhD in English or Literature, (b) if they had any Victorianists on their faculty lists, (c) what kinds of work they required for the PhD, including coursework/hrs but also comprehensive exams, language requirements, etc. (d) if they offered funding and in what form–TA, RA, Graderships, etc, (e) if they offered health insurance, (f) if they offered research and/or interdisciplinary opportunities.

As I noted in a previous post, one of my big criteria for this round of applications was whether or not the school required the GRE Subject test, because if they did, that automatically put them into “next year, if none of these schools pan out” territory. It’s not that any of them are second-choice schools, in fact, Harvard and Yale both made the list (although I would only apply to one, because they are both reach schools). But there are so many possibilities that they have to be sorted somehow, and the GRE Subject requirements seemed to be a rational way to sort them. Mostly for financial reasons, but also because I’d rather not take another standardized test if I don’t have to. They make my eyes glaze over.

After I compiled a list of possible schools in this fashion, I also did a Google search for “best PhD in Victorian literature” which didn’t turn up much, and “Best doctoral programs in 19th century British lit” which led me to the highly contested rankings of the US News. I didn’t concern myself terribly with the actual rankings the site gave, but rather took advantage of the list  of schools that I knew had PhD programs in a Victorian and/or general 19th century studies. This was immensely helpful, as was their list of 100+ English Grad programs in the U.S. (not sorted by specialty).

Finally, I skimmed through the forums of Grad Cafe, where people occasionally post lists of the schools they intend to apply to. That site is more terrifying than helpful, but it’s become something of a morbid fascination for  thousands of potential grad students (as far as I can tell). All it really offers is a swirling vortex of angst, anxiety, self-doubt, and a few dubious and vague statistics on acceptances and rejections for every U.S. institution you can imagine.

Interestingly, this is probably the EASIEST part of the application process, because you aren’t in so deep that you’ve lost confidence in your decision making abilities. It’s also fun because, like window shopping, it involves a lot of daydreaming and “what will my life be like if I end up here” scenarios. I also did a lot of research about the bookstores, coffee shops, farmer’s markets, and pubs near each school I chose. Because those are the essentials of life. Enough said.

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