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Reflections on a PhD in Literature: The Basics

[This is the first post in our three-part series Reflections on a PhD in Literature.]

During the time I’ve been involved with the Books We Read project (including this blog), I’ve been working on a PhD in English at Rutgers. Actually, I’ve been working on that PhD for about twice as long as this project has been around––I started in the fall of 2014, which now seems unimaginably distant. At last, I’ve finished: I submitted my dissertation in February of this year, defended it before my committee on March 10, and will be receiving my degree in May. In other words, there’s a doctor in the house! (Actually, my fiancée is a Doctor of English as well, so now there are two doctors in the house and no qualified physicians.)

The English political theorist Thomas Hobbes famously described life without laws as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” An undergraduate mentor told me that graduate school is about 80% similar; it’s solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and long. My experience was certainly long, but at least it was none of the others (well, depending on your view of the stipend). Since this is a blog about books and reading, I wanted to reflect a bit on what getting a PhD in literature looks like and feels like.

First, the basic structure. Every doctoral program in literature is structured a little differently, but all are split into two periods, coursework and the dissertation. In the first two to three years you’re taking classes––fewer classes per semester than a typical undergraduate courseload, but with a much more intense reading load and an expectation of active classroom participation. After that, you start writing a dissertation: a single-authored work of literary criticism, split up into three to five chapters, which looks more or less like a book manuscript (and is typically the first draft of the first book for those who go on to a research career). Between coursework and the dissertation is a set of comprehensive exams, called “orals,” “quals,” or “comps” depending on your program. You might spend an entire semester or more studying for these exams, which ask you to master both the literature of your chosen period and area (mine was eighteenth-century Britain, for instance) and the critical traditions you plan to draw on for the dissertation. This is really the hinge point between being a student and being an apprentice scholar, and so typically after passing these exams you receive a Master of Arts degree.


Nick in the middle of becoming Dr. Allred at the Rutgers Convocation.

While you’re taking classes, studying for qualifying exams, and then writing the dissertation, you’ll also be teaching––either as a teaching assistant leading a discussion section of a larger lecture or handling an entire course in your own right. (In the latter role your title is still technically a “teaching assistant,” but you’re effectively acting as a professor.) Most doctoral programs will have some mix of fellowship years, in which you’re paid to focus wholly on your studies, and TA years, in which you’re paid to teach on top of your academic work. Balancing the two can be tricky, but it’s important experience for those seeking an academic job––as long as the department and/or the university doesn’t overextend grad student labor as a way to cut costs. We’re both students and workers, whose prospects in a tough job market may hinge on having the right mix of research activity and teaching experience, and so our own best interests are complicated enough without being called on to pad the university’s bottom line. I’m grateful to have been part of the union at Rutgers, AAUP, and watching grad students at peer institutions fight multi-year battles against their administrations for the right to organize has reminded me not to take that for granted.

Continue to read what it takes to get a PhD in Part 2, and what it’s like (and how you can remain sane) in Part 3

Related Rutgers resources