English Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Degree Info

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Master's degrees and PhDs in English can lead to careers in and out of academia. Get the truth about the requirements, courses and career options, and find out what you can do with your degree.
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Studying English: Degrees at a Glance

A graduate degree in English might seem like a good idea - hone your critical thinking and writing skills while reading great books - but enrolling in a graduate English program is not a good decision for everyone. Few careers have an English master's as a hard requirement, and careers in which this degree can help probably have a better degree match in a related field. For example, an education degree might be better if you want to teach high school.

If you're considering becoming an English professor, keep in mind that, while the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects above average job growth at the general postsecondary teaching level (15% from 2008-2018), this number includes many fields growing faster than English. Additionally, competition for tenure-track positions will remain fierce as a growing number of these positions are replaced by adjunct and part-time instructorships (the BLS reports that around 29% of postsecondary teachers work part-time).

Let's quickly look at how these two degrees compare to each other:

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in teaching at the junior college level or working in many fields in the private or public sector People who want to work in academia as professors or researchers
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Junior college teacher ($69,000)*
- Secondary school teacher ($56,000)*
- Editor ($51,000)*
- Public relations specialist ($52,000)*
- ESL teacher ($56,000 - based on salary for secondary teachers across all fields)*
- English teacher abroad (unavailable)
- University professor ($68,000)*
- Academic administrator ($97,000)*
- Academic editor ($53,000)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years full-time 3-5 years after the master's
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 6-8 graduate level courses
- Master's thesis/research paper
- Master's exams
- Foreign language requirement
Most (or all) of the master's degree requirements, plus:
- Roughly 4-6 more graduate level courses
- PhD qualifier exams
- Dissertation prospectus (proposal)
- Dissertation
- Teaching requirement
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree in English or related field Bachelor's or master's degree in English or related field
Online Availability Yes None found at this time

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2010 figures).

Master's in English

Entering class cohorts for most English departments are usually small (single to low double-digits), and the workload per course is considerably higher than at the undergraduate level. Graduate seminars are usually also small and require that you read a great many critical texts along with seminal English literature. Students often give class presentations and direct discussions.

English grad students work closely with their professors, particularly if their research interests align. You might assist professors with book research, help edit scholarly publications or support department-run conferences on particular literary time periods or schools of thought. Additionally, you'll be expected to produce original critical works and pursue their publication in relevant literary journals.

Some schools consider an English master's degree to be a stepping stone to the PhD, and students are accepted into the program on a PhD track. These schools generally don't accept students who only want to get a master's (called 'terminal master's'). Other schools offer both options or even require that their master's students apply to continue on to the PhD.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • You can teach English literature and composition at the community college level
  • It's a flexible degree that allows you to move into many different career fields (e.g. publishing, research, writing, teaching)
  • Will expand upon your critical thinking, research and writing skills without committing you to the arduous path of a PhD

Cons

  • It might not qualify you for many jobs that a bachelor's wouldn't
  • Some schools might not fund terminal master's students, since they tend to reserve funding for PhD students
  • Master's programs can be expensive and may lead to jobs with low salaries
  • Getting a teaching job at the college level is considerably harder without a doctorate

Common Courses and Requirements

Course requirements for the master's, usually in the vicinity of 6-8 graduate seminars, are designed to cover a range of time periods and locations - from medieval to contemporary times, and from English and American to Anglophone world literature. Many programs also have a required pedagogical course and an academic research seminar or critical theory course requirement for first year English graduate students.

Examples of courses you might take at the master's level:

  • Introduction to Middle English
  • Modern British poetry
  • Contemporary American novel
  • World literature in English

In addition to the required coursework, you might also need to complete a research or thesis project and/or pass a master's exam (written or oral). Many departments also have a foreign language requirement (generally tied to your area/era of specialization) that you can either test out of or can fulfill through coursework.

Online Degree Options

Online master's degree programs in English exist, although they aren't as common as other online programs. Online curricula and requirements are usually very similar to campus-based ones. However, some schools might offer different specializations online (e.g., Transnational Literatures or English Learning & Literature) or place more emphasis on preparing students in practical concerns like building a portfolio or teacher training, instead of in more academic pursuits like research and publishing.

These programs, usually offered for working professionals looking to acquire a graduate degree (e.g., teachers who want more specialized knowledge), can be either entirely online or consist of hybrid programs (mostly online but with some on-campus requirements).

Getting Ahead with this Degree

If you know what you want to do with your English degree, you target skills to stand out in the job market. For instance, if publishing interests you, help your professors proofread and prepare works for publication. You can also be an editor at your school's graduate literature journal. (If your department doesn't have one, find out whether the school has other publications that accept students as workers.)

Also, learn to use blogging software and HTML or take a class in web design. If you go on to jobs in publishing, public relations or marketing, these skills will help you compete in an increasingly tech-reliant job market.

If you're interested in teaching, use electronic textbooks and learn about Blackboard, podcasting, and similar techniques. Embracing technology can help you stand out because secondary and postsecondary schools are looking for English teachers who can use technological tools to improve their students' learning.

PhD in English

PhD programs in English offer a wide range of possible topics, regions and time periods to specialize in. Depending on the program, you could choose to follow a traditional literary study path or adopt a multidisciplinary approach by incorporating cross-listed courses from departments like cultural studies, history, gender studies or philosophy into your studies.

Often schools waive tuition and provide graduate students with a small living stipend in exchange for their work as teaching or research assistants. Being a teaching assistant can mean you're responsible for teaching your own composition class (or classes). It can also mean that you'll assist professors with larger undergraduate courses. As a research assistant you would help a faculty member conduct his or her literary research. You would often look up and obtain copies of references and sources, as well as review and organize research materials.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Once you obtain tenure, there is significant job security
  • Professors have ample travel opportunities to attend conferences, present papers and conduct research
  • English professors play a role in shaping the country's next generation of readers
  • Even if you don't go into academia, having a PhD brings with it a certain cachet and authority

Cons

  • The academic job market is very competitive and English is one of the most popular humanities fields
  • Academic job searches happen at a nationwide level, so job seekers tied to a location can have a very difficult time finding a job
  • It's a very intense, long process and many people don't make it through (about 50% of English PhD students don't complete their program)

Courses and Requirements

Since most PhD programs are designed with the master's as a first phase of the degree, doctorate requirements are the sum of the master's requirements mentioned above and the doctoral level ones. This usually means roughly another year's worth of coursework after the master's, the presentation and defense of a dissertation proposal and then writing and defending the dissertation itself.

Master's and PhD courses can be roughly interchangeable, so the master's courses listed above could also be taken at the PhD level. Traditionally students take the more broad classes (e.g., 'Renaissance poetry') as master's students and take more specialized ones (e.g., 'Feminist literature in the US') later on. At this stage it's also more common to design independent studies in collaboration with professors for the purpose of researching a narrow topic, often relating to the student's specialization.

Online Degree Options

Online PhDs in English are very unusual, and the few programs that are available may not be accredited, so you should research any options you encounter carefully. If you are considering a career in academia, attending a traditional campus-based program affords you the best combination of access to the university's resources and the networking that will facilitate getting a teaching position once you graduate.

Stand out with this Degree

An important part of your work as a PhD student is to lay the groundwork for getting hired as a professor in a very competitive field. Here are some ways to stand out:

  • Specialize in underrepresented research areas - if you're a medieval literature or colonial America specialist, you'll face less competition than if you're pursuing a more popular specialization, like contemporary fiction.
  • Seek publication throughout your studies - schools are more eager to hire people with a publishing track record. Whenever possible, try to tailor your class essays to your research profile and consider them future journal submissions, so you can get both A's and publishing stripes from them.
  • Stay abreast of developments in education technology. Use educational software when you can (electronic textbooks, video lectures, etc.). In addition to benefiting students, this will make you stand out for institutions that are actively trying to have more web presence.

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