Why Go to Graduate School?

Considering graduate study primarily for career reasons?

Will graduate school be a good career step for you? That depends on what you want to do.

If you're considering graduate school primarily for career or vocational reasons, you should be aware that the job or career you're interested in may not require an educational background beyond your bachelor's degree. You should explore the career field you're interested in thoroughly before making your decision. What you may find is that your bachelor's degree is perfectly adequate for securing you an entry-level job in the field of your choice. In many fields, such as publishing, editing, advertising, business, public relations, government and non profit administration, etc., your skills, abilities, talents, portfolio (history of your experience, samples of the work you have done), and contacts are much more important to employers than an advanced degree. You may find that it will be more important for you to focus on getting some professional experience (through work, volunteer work, or an internship) or some specialized training (technical or skills-based courses or programs) and to pursue contacts through networking rather than to pursue an advanced degree, which may or may not be helpful to you in terms of career entry or advancement. (See Career Information for English Majors for more discussion of career issues.)

A graduate program in English requires a great deal of time, commitment, and passion for English scholarship. Without a high level of motivation to pursue graduate study for academic or scholarly reasons, it doesn't make a lot of sense to seek a graduate degree simply as a credential or for career enhancement outside academia.

Certain careers, on the other hand, will require an advanced degree: if you want to be a lawyer, a college professor/instructor, or a school librarian, for example, then post baccalaureate training will be necessary preparation for you. Before deciding on a graduate program, you should investigate the career field thoroughly to make sure that you have a good understanding of what kind of graduate study will best prepare you for the specific work that you want to do, and how you should prepare for that study. Talk with your professors, with current graduate students in your chosen area, with professionals in your chosen field, and with academic or career counselors about what kinds of graduate programs may be right for you. (If you're interested in a career in K-12 teaching, please click here for information.)

If your goal is to teach English at the college level, you should be aware that the job market is extremely competitive, and that many recent PhDs are finding it difficult to secure full time and permanent academic positions at both the junior college and college/university levels. Many of those recent graduates (with MA, MFA, and PhD degrees) who have found teaching jobs are working in a part-time or temporary capacity teaching composition or beginning literature classes. In these kinds of adjunct, non-tenure-track positions, there are few benefits, there is very little job security from quarter to quarter, and in order to teach in a full-time capacity, instructors may have to teach at more than one college during the same quarter, commuting back and forth from campus to campus. When permanent, full time, "tenure track" positions become available, they attract dozens, often hundreds, of well qualified applicants, depending on the area of specialization. In some areas, such as Colonial American literature or composition and rhetoric, jobs can be easier to secure, whereas competition is fierce in areas such as modern/postmodern literature and theory. Those with PhDs obviously have an advantage over those with master's-level degrees only, but the competition is still extremely vigorous. A number of recent PhDs in the humanities areas are finding themselves seeking employment outside academia.

None of this information is intended to discourage you from pursuing graduate education. If you have a passionate desire to continue your study in English language or literature, you should consider graduate school in English. If, on the other hand, you're considering graduate school primarily for career interests outside academia, you may want to investigate terminal master's programs in other areas which are more directly related to the work you want to do (e.g., MBA programs, master's degree programs in public affairs, social work, museology, etc.). For a complete list of graduate programs available at the University of Washington, click here.

Considering graduate study primarily for academic/scholarly reasons?

The most important reason for choosing to pursue graduate study in English is because you are fascinated by or passionate about a specialized area of study within English language, literature, creative writing, critical theory, cultural or textual studies, etc., that you'd like to explore in an academic setting where you can participate in the academic discourse within a community of scholars, under the guidance of faculty mentors, and be trained to engage in scholarly research.

What Can You Expect? What Will These Degree Programs Train You to Do?

MA/PhD in English: If an institution offers an "MA/PhD" in English, the MA program is often not designed as a terminal master's program, though students who are accepted to the MA/PhD program but decide not to complete the PhD can often earn an MA by fulfilling specific requirements. Some schools do offer a terminal MA program: these are typically schools that have dual-track graduate programs (terminal MA and MA/PhD) or that do not offer a PhD program. You should investigate each program carefully, bearing in mind that, in general, if a school offers an MA/PhD program in English language/literature, those who apply for an MA only will likely not be as competitive. They will likely also need to reapply to the program if they decide to go on to pursue the PhD upon completion of the MA program.

An MA typically takes two years or longer to complete on a full-time basis. A PhD typically takes an additional three to five years (beyond the master's level) to complete on a full-time basis (i.e., those who enter an MA/PhD program after earning their bachelor's degrees typically complete the program in five to eight years). Most schools have specific course requirements along with essay/thesis/dissertation requirements and (for some MA and for PhD candidates) exams. Most graduate programs also have foreign language requirements, which vary from school to school. Graduate study is built on mentorship; graduate students locate faculty mentors with compatible scholarly interests (usually in a committee format) and work under their supervision.

MA/PhD programs in English prepare students for scholarly pursuits and college-level teaching. Those who've earned an MA/PhD are qualified to teach at the college level, though this field is extremely competitive as there are far more qualified candidates than there are jobs. Those with a PhD will obviously have an advantage over those with an MA only. In recent years, many graduates from MA/PhD programs have had to seek careers outside academia.

MATESOL: The MATESOL is typically a terminal master's program in teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. A MATESOL degree typically takes two years to complete and usually involves specific course work in TESOL, linguistics, English composition and rhetoric, etc., along with a practicum (supervised teaching experience) and foreign language proficiency.

MATESOL programs prepare students to teach English to speakers of other languages at the secondary* or college level and to pursue scholarly research in TESOL.

*Note that those who wish to teach ESL in a K-12 public school format must also be certificated as teachers. If you are not a certificated teacher already, click here for information about UW's College of Education Teacher Education Program.

MFA: The Master in Fine Arts in English is a terminal master's program in Creative Writing (usually in either fiction or verse, sometimes in creative non fiction or other genres). A Creative Writing MFA or MA degree typically takes two years to complete and usually involves graduate writing workshops, courses in English literature and critical theory, a creative thesis, and (often) a critical essay. Foreign language proficiency is often required as well.

MFA/MA Creative Writing programs train writers and assist them in developing their craft, and their primary mission is to offer a curriculum through which students can devote a couple of years to an intensive, mentored writing experience. Although it is possible for those holding an MFA to teach creative writing at the college level, these jobs are extremely competitive, and hiring decisions are typically based on the candidate's body of published work as opposed to his or her academic background. While some who've earned an MFA may be qualified to teach composition or literature at the college level, this field is extremely competitive as there are far more qualified candidates than there are jobs. Those with a PhD will obviously have an advantage over those with an MFA/MA only.

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs has a guide to studying creative writing at the graduate level.

How can you decide if graduate study is the right choice for you?

Here are some suggestions:

Talk with English faculty. They will be your most important resource in making this decision.

Talk with English graduate students. You can connect with UW graduate students in English through the English Graduate Student Organization (GSO). You can also review resources they've put together on the PhD program at the ENGL GSO wiki site.

Talk with academic and pre-professional advisers. English undergraduate advisers are located in A-2-B Padelford Hall. Pre-professional advisers (for pre-law, pre-med, pre-vet, pre-dental students) are available in 171 Mary Gates Hall.

Consider your career options. English Advising has a site for Career Information for English majors; it's possible that you don't need a graduate degree as a credential for the kind of work you want to do.

Attend faculty lectures and seminars on campus. The English Department maintains a site for lectures and events, as does the Simpson Center for the Humanities. You can also watch for posters and handbills on doorways and in elevators in Padelford Hall. Some lectures and events are publicized by e-mail to undergraduates through the englmajors e-mail list. The UW also maintains a calendar of events organized by general categories.

Read scholarly publications. English Graduate Studies maintains a listed of resources and publications. The UW Library System also maintains a web page of English Studies resources.

Consult the UW Career Center's Graduate School pages.