(I'm writing all this even though, as far as I know, no student of mine has ever listened to my advice about graduate school. This is in one sense curious, because my students seem to listen to me when I talk about all sorts of things, including things I know very little about. But when it comes to applying to graduate school, I believe people just do what they want to do. So I'm putting this page up to satisfy my conscience, not because I think anyone will give serious attention to what I write here. But hey, perhaps you will be the first….)
A. Should I Go to Graduate School?
First of all, you should give lengthy consideration to the question of whether you should go to graduate school at all (in English, that is, or in the humanities more generally). Tim Burke, a historian at Swarthmore College, has reflected seriously on this question and his reflections may be found here. But be forewarned: to the question “Should I go to graduate school?” his “short answer” is No. Which I think is the right answer. Another equally helpful, and perhaps equally discouraging, essay may be found here. And if you really want to get downcast, take a deep breath and read this one. Oh heck, try one more on for size.
These are not good times for the humanities. Actually, these are good times for the humanities in several ways, but these are not good times for people who want to go to graduate school in the humanities. Which is a different matter. (For a recent conversation on this subject, see this far-too-pessimistic take on the situation and this far-too-optimistic one.)
More specifically: people often ask me about what the best options are for Christians who want to attend graduate school in English. And that’s a more complicated issue, though not one with a more appealing resolution.
I think the first thing that needs to be said is that there simply aren’t any graduate programs in English that emphasize, or allow a student to emphasize, the relations between literature and Christianity. Not officially, anyway.
Also, many people have written to me because they have a particular interest in studying C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien or the Inklings collectively. But graduate school in English doesn't work that way: you can't come in specializing in one author or a small set of authors. Instead, you will be required to study a fairly broad range of topics, authors, genres, and historical periods, and only after all that will you be allowed to specialize. But few English departments in the country — and even fewer really good ones — would encourage you to study Lewis or Tolkien. They are not generally thought worthy of serious academic inquiry. Even at my new employer, Baylor University, where such authors and ideas are taken more seriously, at least by some, you can't focus completely on them. Nor should you be allowed to. (By the way, I do not teach graduate courses.)
There used to be a handful of “religion and literature” programs around the country, most notably at the University of Chicago and the University of Virginia, but these are defunct or moribund or folded into some kind of "theology and culture" track. There's still one at Boston University, though, and if you're interested in going overseas, two serious programs in Scotland: at Glasgow and St. Andrew's. But please be aware that British graduate programs rarely offer the teaching experience that can be essential to getting an academic job in the U.S. (It's very risky for academic departments to hire people to teach who have no experience teaching.)
It's vital to understand that such religion-and-lit programs are positioned uncomfortably, being not-quite-literary-studies and not-quite-religious-studies. It would be nearly impossible for a graduate of such a program to get a job in an English department, and from what I can tell (as an outsider) the situation in religious studies is about as bad. Such programs, therefore, are best suited for people with no aspirations to hold an academic job in their field of study. A similar warning should be given to those who want a literature degree but hope to study modern Christian authors: by doing so you reduce your job prospects dramatically.
One can find a number of serious Christians teaching in various English departments around the country, but there aren’t too many of them. Most of the Christians I know in English studies are pretty shy about announcing their beliefs (and therefore I will not name them here) and tend not to think out loud about the relationship between their faith and their professional work. Christians in English have been much less successful at establishing a significant public presence than our colleagues in history and philosophy, alas. And in any case, I am not sure it’s wise to pick a graduate school on the basis of a single scholar, no matter how brilliant and simpatico that person might be. People go on sabbatical, or extended leave, and sometimes they change jobs; even if they stay around you might not get along with them as well as you’d like, or they might have an overload of students to supervise and can't add any new ones. There are just too many imponderables.
I know all this sounds like bad news, and I suppose that from most points of view it is. But really, it just means that anyone interested in forging connections between Christianity and literary study is going to have to do it on his or her own, by reading and thinking and writing, rather than by taking classes and being mentored. That’s certainly the way I did it, and in the end I found a very good dissertation advisor, Daniel Albright, who though not a Christian (as far as I know) nevertheless respected my interests and was very helpful to me in developing my writing and thinking. In the end, whether you find a Christian professor to serve as your mentor is almost certainly less important than whether you find a supportive church community and a stimulating overall graduate program that makes you a better scholar.
And now that you've been thinking depressing thoughts for a while, try reading this noble essay by Anthony Grafton, to remind yourself of what the humanities can and should be.
B. But If I DO Go . . . ?
Okay. (Are you sure? Have you prayed about this, if you are a praying person? Have you sought wise counsel? Have you taken wise counsel? . . . Well, if you say so.)
1) Think about where you would like to live. There are many, many graduate programs in this country and abroad that can offer you a fine education. But they are in widely varying locations: some in warm climates, some in cold; some in large cities, some in small towns, some even in rural environments. Since, even in graduate school, you have a life beyond studying, you should spend a good deal of time thinking about what sort of environment you believe you would thrive in. You may end up in a first-rate graduate program that offered you no end of intellectual thrills and challenges, but if that university is located in a town you hate, with a climate that oppresses you, you probably won’t enjoy your graduate school years very much.
2) The most important information you can get about an English department is the description of courses offered in a given semester. For instance, from the Notre Dame English Department website a couple of years ago:
ENGL 90610 - Fictions of the Public Sphere in U.S. Literature and Culture - Glenn Hendler
Using and critiquing concepts of the public sphere from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well as from recent critical theory and cultural studies scholarship, this course will explore the history of the gendered and racialized distinctions between public and private, domesticity and the market, reason and sentimentality in U.S. literature and culture before 1900. Several historical problems will structure our theoretical, critical, and literary readings, including: the development of domestic ideology; the rise of social movements such as temperance, feminism, and abolition; and the role of popular literary forms in the development and critique of both working-class politics and imperialist ideology. Central issues in many of our readings will be the politics of represented emotion, especially the key sentimental concept of sympathy, and the varying ways in which the reading and writing of literature were meant to prepare potential citizens – especially boys and men – for participation in politics, economic exchange, and civil society.
Does this interest you? Are other course offerings similar in tone, in approach, in the kinds of readings they assign? A less-prestigious program that features courses you’re really interested in taking may well be a better fit for you than a top-ten program that offers course that bore or annoy you.
3) Consider the size of the department: smaller departments, with fewer students, can be more intimate and often build more community; on the other hand, they will offer you fewer choices of courses and advisors, and therefore can sometimes be hard to fit into. Conversely, the larger departments give you lots of choices, and increase the chance that you’ll find an advisor who understands and supports your interests; but their size can make them feel impersonal, and some students in them feel neglected.
4) Unless you are very wealthy, or supported financially by a spouse, you shouldn't even consider attending a program that doesn't give you a full-ride fellowship. Given the paucity of tenure-track or even full-time jobs, and given that that situation is likely to get worse in the coming years, you simply can't afford to incur debt to go to graduate school. To have invested six or eight years of your life in a program only to find no employment at the end of it and to have immense loads of debt as a result — that is not a situation you should wish on your enemy. And it is a situation that many people I know are in.
5) When you have a short (or even longish) list of programs that you're interested in applying to, try to find out which ones are most alert to alternative academic career paths and are willing to help prepare you for them. Given the decline in the number of tenure-track, or even full-time but not permanent, faculty in American colleges and universities — a decline that is only likely to accelerate in the coming years — anyone considering graduate school in the humanities needs to do some serious research into alt-ac career possibilities. To get an idea of how alt-ac has developed into a serious intellectual and professional movement, start with this essay and then move along to this site and to this one. If you have not explored the alt-ac world, you have not done due diligence in your research. And remember: for some people, alt-ac careers are actually more interesting and satisfying than conventional professorial careers.
6) Finally, you should try to find out about churches and Christian community in a given area. A lack of meaningful community outside the academy can be just as oppressive as a poor climate, boring classes, and a lack of good coffeeshops.
C. Advice for those applying to graduate school in English