English majors go on to many different graduate programs. You could earn a master’s degree in literature, creative writing, linguistics, professional and business writing, public relations, journalism, speech communication, rhetoric, film studies, library science, women’s studies, education, teaching English as a second language, publishing and editing, or many others. Some of these areas also offer doctoral (PhD) programs for those interested in going into college teaching. Professional degree programs that often attract English majors include law, business, and health sciences. As this suggests, you can’t just “go to graduate school.” You have to decide on the degree that is right for you, learn about job prospects for degree holders, and research different programs.
Whatever graduate program you are contemplating, talk with your advisor about how you can prepare. You should meet with your academic advisor and your recommendation writers before applying. Discuss your interests and ask for an honest assessment of the kind of programs that would be most suitable for you. Get their suggestions on your writing sample and your application essay. Talk with faculty members who have recently completed their own degrees. Many professional organizations such as the Modern Language Association and the Linguistic Society of America have web pages devoted to graduate school advice; make use of those resources. The ELC Department sponsors an annual panel in which faculty talk and answer questions about graduate programs, and Career Services sponsors several graduate school sessions every year.
If you are considering graduate school, use your undergraduate years to prepare, just as you would use them to prepare for a first job. An example: if you are contemplating an MA or PhD in literature, take courses in as many time periods, genres, and national literatures as you can. PhD candidates usually need reading knowledge of at least two languages other than English, so consider starting your second as an undergraduate. You will be a more successful candidate for a literature program if you can prove your familiarity with contemporary literary theory, perhaps by taking a course that emphasizes theory. To prepare yourself for graduate coursework in literature, take courses that teach you to write research papers (e.g., most seminars) and consider creating an individual study in which you write a long scholarly paper. Most literature programs require a writing sample, so you get double benefit from courses that involve such papers.
If you don’t know what you want to do in the long run, graduate school is not a good way to postpone deciding. Unlike undergraduate education, the purpose of which is to make you a better-educated citizen, graduate school is almost always about preparing for work in a particular profession or getting advanced training in a particular area. Graduate school can be expensive, it takes years of your life, and at the end of it you still need to decide what comes next. Don’t go unless you know why you’re going.
Academic and Career Services also offers advice about graduate study here.
Financing graduate school
Most MA and MFA programs offer little or no financial aid, although some allow students to work as teaching or research assistants in exchange for a stipend. PhD programs generally offer financial aid, and many professors advise students not to enter a program that does not provide such aid: salaries for PhDs are relatively low and job opportunities often scarce. Think carefully before incurring a large amount of debt for any graduate program. If your degree program is relevant to your employment, some employers will pay part or all of the cost, so it may be worth finding employment first. A few competitive national fellowships are available for graduate study, especially for students working toward the PhD.