Study Literature: Masters, PhD & Online Degree Info

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Master's and PhD degrees in literature can lead to careers in writing, postsecondary education, or even advertising. Get the truth about the requirements, courses, and career options, and find out what you can do with your degree.
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Literature Master's Degrees and PhDs: Degrees at a Glance

A graduate degree program in literature involves in-depth reading and analysis of various genres, periods, and authors. Teaching is a common career option. If you're looking for a tenure-track position, it's advisable to earn a PhD, but a master's degree often suffices for working at technical and trade schools or community colleges. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that employment of postsecondary teachers in general would grow at an average rate of 17% between 2010 and 2020 (

With a master's degree, you might also work as a teacher at a high school or seek out writing and editing jobs for book publishing, advertising, or broadcasting industries. However, the BLS predicted that job growth for writers would be slower than average, at 6%, from 2010-2020. At the same time, little change - only 1% - was expected in the editing job market.

Master's PhD
Who Is This Degree for? People who want to teach at the secondary or college level or work in fields (like writing) in the private and public sectors Individuals who are interested in working in academia as researchers and/or professors
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Secondary teacher ($57,000)*
- Postsecondary literature teacher ($69,000)*
- Writer/author ($68,000)*
- Editor ($60,000)*
- Postsecondary literature teacher ($69,000)*
- Postsecondary education administrator ($97,000 with 1-5 years of experience in a related field)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years full-time 3-5 years full-time after the master's
Common Graduation Requirements - 8-12 graduate courses
- Foreign language requirement
- Master's thesis or capstone project
- Master's exams
All master's degree requirements, plus:
- 4-6 more graduate courses
- Teaching assistantships
- Qualifying exams
- PhD dissertation
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree in literature, English, history, foreign language, or a related field Bachelor's degree in one of the relevant fields (same as master's)
Online Availability Yes None found at this time

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures)

Basics of a Master's Degree in Literature

Establishing your literary interests before applying to literature master's degree programs is important, since they vary in focus and scope: There are interdisciplinary programs that weave literature with cultural studies and art, as well as programs narrowly focused on topics like multicultural literature. You might be able to develop a program centered on your unique interests, leading to an in-depth study of areas like Native American, feminist, or sports literature.

Topics commonly studied include literary theory and criticism, American and British literature, and different forms of writing (like essays, short stories, and poems). You can take courses that delve into various genres, time periods, or cultural backgrounds in literature.

Pros and Cons


  • You can teach English literature or writing at the secondary and postsecondary levels
  • The diverse subject matter allows you to seek careers in different industries (examples: teaching, publishing, editing, writing, research)
  • You can hone your reading, writing, analytical, and observation skills, which you can apply to everyday life


  • A master's degree isn't a hard requirement for most jobs, like writing, editing, and high school teaching
  • Master's degrees are costly; some programs may offer little funding, forcing you to take out student loans
  • Procuring a teaching job at the collegiate level is difficult without a PhD

Common Courses and Requirements

In most master's programs in literature, you'll find that there are generally 8-12 courses ranging from period courses (medieval, modernism, etc.) to genre ones (drama, poetry, fiction, etc.). Elective options might cover science fiction, children's, or Caribbean literature, among a multitude of other topics.

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

  • English drama
  • Expository writing
  • Major authors
  • Linguistics
  • World literature

In addition to your required coursework, you may also have to take a certain number of electives, complete a master's thesis, and/or pass master's exams. You'll be expected to be able to identify different literary theories and criticisms, conduct research, write scholarly papers, and have a comprehensive knowledge of literature upon graduation.

Online Degree Options

If you're seeking to further your education with a master's degree in literature, but you have a very busy lifestyle, you may find that taking courses online is convenient. An online master's degree in literature typically requires the same amount and type of work as a traditional on-campus program. Classes are conducted online, usually asynchronously, in order to accommodate each student's schedule. Like on-campus programs, online programs require students to complete master's theses prior to graduation.

Although all coursework is completed online, students work closely with faculty members on their specific research areas and interests. Advising occurs via e-mail or the institution's Intranet.

How to Stand Out With This Degree

If you hone in on a literature concentration area early in your program, your professors and advisors can help you plan a curriculum that highlights your interests and provides career-specific training. Also, some programs show preference to applicants with interests in seldom-studied areas of literature, like critical theory or literature in foreign languages.

Applying your literary knowledge and skills outside of the classroom by publishing in academic journals, working for school magazines, and presenting at conferences can also build your reputation within the scholarly community. This can especially come in handy if you'd like to work as a writer, since employers are interested in your publishing background, per the BLS. Due to the increasing prevalence and popularity of Internet publications, learning how to write for the Web and developing an understanding of online multimedia applications could also help you land a writing job.

Basics of a PhD in Literature

PhD programs often allow you to tailor the curriculum to your interests, incorporating courses from a range of subjects. The PhD program is broken down into year-by-year requirements. Typically, students spend the first two years in this program working on their relevant coursework, fulfilling the foreign language requirement, and developing their dissertation focus. You could start a teaching assistantship in your third year, in addition to completing oral and written exams by the end of it. For the remainder of the program, you would work on researching, writing, and successfully completing your dissertation.

Pros and Cons


  • You have a better chance of becoming a tenure-track professor than someone with just a master's degree
  • You can learn valuable research and writing skills that prepare you to publish your work in scholarly journals
  • You should graduate with fluency in at least one foreign language, though it's common to be proficient in several


  • PhD programs can be very expensive if the school doesn't offer you any funding
  • Availability of online PhD programs is extremely limited
  • Tenure-track positions are competitive
  • When beginning a postsecondary teaching career, you typically must juggle teaching and research assignments, which can be hectic

Common Courses and Requirements

Research, pedagogy, and theory courses are commonly required. You'll also need to devote time to completing teaching requirements and carrying out dissertation research. PhD programs require their students to be proficient in one or two foreign languages by the time of graduation, though you may study additional languages if you're in a comparative literature or foreign language literature program.

Courses to choose from are often the same as those offered at the master's level. Some additional examples of courses you might take at the PhD level are:

  • Comparative literature
  • Language study
  • Postcolonial literature
  • Gender studies

Online Degree Options

You aren't likely to find a distance-learning PhD program in literature. Keep in mind that if you do locate such a program, it may not be accredited. Also, since teaching college courses and defending your dissertation must be completed face-to-face, at least some on-campus work would likely be required if you found a PhD program offering online coursework.

How to Stand Out With This Degree

Though doctoral students tend to specialize more than master's degree students, it's still important to build a broad set of knowledge. Schools may encourage you to take elective methodology and theory courses that cover periods of literary history or literature in various languages. It's also advantageous to you to create strong relationships with your mentors since they can provide academic and career advice.

Since you may very likely be seeking an academic position upon earning your PhD, it's encouraged that you pursue teaching opportunities in addition to required teaching practical work. You can seek teaching fellowships and incorporate teaching into course projects. Teaching courses related to your research area may boost your learning experience.

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