Everything You Wanted to Know about Graduate School

Below are notes from a recent information session entitled "Everything you ever wanted to know about the MA/PhD Graduate Program, but were afraid to ask…." Graduate Program Director Jenny Spencer referenced a list of questions she'd received via e-mail and through conversations with students. This is by no means an exhaustive summary but hopefully it is useful in answering some of your questions. If you have additional questions or concerns, we would recommend consulting the department's website and/or talking with your advisor(s) or Jenny.

Students have expressed concern about a lack of course offerings or courses not being offered during the time frame in which they need to take them. In talking with colleagues at other institutions, this is a common and complex issue.

Taking classes outside of the English department is a great way to tackle this issue. Recommended departments to consider are: communications; Afro-American Studies; comparative literature; history; art history; and women, gender, sexuality studies.

These departments, particularly communications and comparative literature, are good resources in fulfilling theory requirements.

Find professors you feel comfortable with and visit them during office hours or chat with them through informal meetings, like getting coffee.

Students should expect as much as they need from professors. Because you will need one person outside the department for your dissertation committee, taking courses in other departments and building contacts within those departments will be useful in the long term.

Your focus on conferences should relate to how each call for paper (CFP) will further your dissertation as writing the dissertation is your most important job in graduate school. If you have a paper that suits a specific CFP, then you should pursue it.

Go to the MLA conference once before you’re on the market because it can be an overwhelming experience.

Attend conferences specific to your interests. Here, you will be able to network with contacts who will be more useful to you personally. One of the conferences recommended during this conversation was the University of Louisville’s 20th Century Literature and Culture Conference. This year's conference is scheduled for Feb. 18 – 20.

A great place to start attending or presenting at conferences is by participating in the English Graduate Conference here at UMass Amherst. This year’s topic is Caught in the Act: Performance and Peformativity: CFP

CFPs from various sources are collected on the EGO Wiki. Check back often or subscribe to them via RSS feeds.


  1. Always give high priority to the work that will allow you to write your dissertation and get a job.
  2. Keep up in your field constantly. This means reading beyond what is assigned in your seminars. Start by identifying journals in your field and skim their tables of content. This will allow you a broad overview of current research. From this list, choose articles to will read in-depth. Set a goal of reading one article per week.

Language requirements seem to be an obstacle in degree completion as the field becomes increasingly transnational. However, the department would like for students to take language requirements more seriously.

Options in satisfying language requirements include:

  1. online course
  2. study abroad course
  3. graduate-level course
  4. auditing undergraduate course to prepare for the exam

The international programs office is a good resource for information on study abroad courses with intensive immersion. Also, research via the internet as there are many outside organizations who can assist students in this type of a search.

The advisory exam takes place in your third semester in the program. By the end of the first year of study (two semesters), you should be able to select two seminar papers to submit for this conversation. In addition to those, you will write a five pages discussing the path you would like to follow. You will also address your strengths and weaknesses during this conversation.

When you are ready for the advisory exam, you should have a conversation with Jenny to discuss the papers you will submit and who you would like to work with it. She will select the committee after that conversation.

The next major step after the advisory exam will be the two areas.

The two areas replaced comprehensive exams consisting of three areas. There is a conversation about changing the structure of the areas exam but the information below is accurate as of December 2009. More information on any possible changes will be available after the Spring 2010 semester.

Currently, studies in the two areas consist of studying 30 texts in each area. These reading lists should be created in conjunction with the professors with whom you’ll be working. A common model is for one area to focus on primary texts and the other to focus on theory. Another common model is to have a mix of primary texts and theory in each area.

The areas you will explore during this study should be reflective of how you will market yourself. You should be able to teach courses in these areas once you are hired. Furthermore, they will be representative of how you have positioned and will continue to position yourself in your area/field. You should market your areas more broadly than the actually are during your time of study.

Files of all completed areas are available across the hall from Jenny and Wanda’s office.

The prospectus is your plan for your dissertation. It will be useful to complete it earlier rather than later. Its completion makes you eligible for funding through grants and fellowships.

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