Frequently Asked Questions
- How important is it for there to be a ‘fit’ between my interests and those of people already working in the department? How can I investigate my ‘fit’ with the department?
- What is the difference between the English Department and the Program in Literature at Duke? Which should I apply to?
- What opportunities will I have to engage in interdisciplinary study?
- How can I find out what my doctoral work in English at Duke would involve?
- How would I be funded during my study?
- What sort of teaching work would I be doing in the course of my degree in return for my funding?
- Does it matter whether I already have an MA? Will I get transfer credit if I do have one?
- What if my undergraduate career was unusual in some way (transfers, study in another country, undergrad degree in field other than English, etc.)?
- Are you looking for one particular kind of person for your program?
- Should I apply early to beat the rush?
- Should I visit the campus before I apply?
- How important are the GREs in your evaluation of candidates?
- I am an international applicant, and my native language is not English. But still, I've done all or a large part of my education in English, and I've even attended another US institution. Do I still have to take the TOEFL?
- Do you have a cutoff undergraduate GPA?
- Is there a foreign language requirement for admission? As part of the requirements for earning the PhD?
- Who should I ask to write letters of recommendation for me? Do the people who write for me need to be in the field of English?
- What sorts of things are you looking for in the Statement of Purpose that is part of the Graduate School application? How important is this part of the application?
- What sorts of things are you looking for in the Writing Sample I send directly to the department? How important is this part of the application?
1. How important is it for there to be a ‘fit’ between my interests and those of people already working in the department? How can I investigate my ‘fit’ with the department?
The issue of ‘fit’ is crucial in the application process. We do not expect you to know in advance on what historical field(s) or interests you will focus your PhD. But for any department to which you might apply, you should be intrigued by some or all of its faculty's research. As a general rule, you should apply to graduate departments with faculty who can help you with your specific interests (rather than simply applying to “good schools.”) Research interests and approaches are described on faculty webpages, but we also recommend that you read a bit of a faculty member’s published work to ensure that his/her approach is indeed one that appeals to you. The Director of Graduate Studies and Assistant to the DGS may be able to help answer questions about fit, and many faculty will be happy to answer your questions via email (though bear in mind that faculty on leave are not always available on email). Most importantly, craft your Statement of Purpose and choose your Writing Sample so that the good 'fit' between your interests and those in the department and beyond will be apparent to the Admissions Committee.
2. What is the difference between the English Department and the Program in Literature at Duke? Which should I apply to?
You may apply to English and to Literature. In rare cases where we feel that a student has misdirected an application, we will contact the student to suggest transferring the application. But we cannot guarantee that there will be time for this, so we recommend that you read both the English and the Literature website carefully. The key criterion is again “fit”: though each program allows you to take courses in the other and to appoint faculty from either program to your committee, if you find that a majority of the faculty with whom you are interested in working are based in Literature, it would make sense to apply to that program.
The Director of Graduate Studies and Assistant to the DGS in both English and Literature will be glad to answer your questions as you make your choice.
Such opportunities are ample here: students are encouraged to take courses outside the English department and to appoint faculty members in other disciplines to their dissertation committees. Most faculty in the department have interdisciplinary interests: a series of links to other department and programs in which faculty are cross-appointed appears on our main page. We encourage you to contact individual faculty in our department who might be able to help you pursue a particular interdisciplinary interest, and to investigate courses and faculty in whatever other disciplines you want to pursue as part of your program of study. The Director of Graduate Studies and Assistant to the DGS will be glad to help in your research.
The Overview of the Program gives you a quick sketch. For more details, see the Student Handbook.
Nearly 100% of students in our program receive funding that covers their tuition, fees, and living expenses. We strongly discourage any student from taking on the financial burden of graduate study without adequate funding. See the Overview of the Program under both Fellowships and Funding and Pedagogy for more details. A detailed description of how you would be funded will be provided to you if you are admitted. For full details on how students currently in the program are being funded, see the Student Handbook; note that the stipends and teaching payments are adjusted each term to the cost of living.
We take pride in educating our students in pedagogy as well as in scholarship, and our students engage in a coherent, progressive pattern of training in teaching. See Pedagogy for a brief description. They do not teach freshman composition courses in each of their years in the program: at Duke, the Writing Program is in any case separate from the English Department. Students funded according to the department's standard funding package typically have their first two fall terms free from teaching responsibilities, and engage in a teaching apprenticeship in the spring term in each of their first two years. (A teaching apprenticeship is a pedagogical training experience involving a lighter workload than a teaching assistantship). In third, fourth, and fifth year, students typically spend one term acting as a teaching assistant in an undergraduate English course, and in the other, follow a progressive sequence of independent teaching assignments. In their final year in the program (usually the sixth, but sometimes the fifth), students are free of teaching responsibilities so that they may concentrate on writing their dissertation. For more detailed information, see the Student Handbook.
You do not need an MA in order to be accepted into the doctoral program in English. Each year's class includes both students accepted straight from their undergraduate degree and students who have subsequently completed an MA. Some students complete an MA before applying for a PhD for a variety of reasons: if, for example, your undergraduate degree is in a different discipline, then you may need more background in English before you will be ready for graduate study in English (and an MA might give you a chance to find out whether English is really what you want). For students at undergraduate institutions that do not often send students to top graduate programs, an MA may help establish that you are prepared for a PhD program. If you've been out of school for a number of years, then an MA might help you to launch yourself back into academic life. (Many of these purposes might also be served by taking a few graduate courses on a part-time, non-degree basis with the best scholars you can seek out to study with: the decision which of these routes to follow will probably depend on personal and financial factors.) Up to three courses taken in your MA work may count toward your eleven required courses (though many students take extra courses in any case), and more importantly, you will have a head start on deciding how best to pursue your chosen interests.
8. What if my undergraduate career was unusual in some way (transfers, study in another country, undergrad degree in field other than English, etc.)?
There are several things you can do to ensure that your application is easier to evaluate, here and elsewhere. If failures, low grades, or dropping out were factors at some point, then at your discretion you may want to include a letter of recommendation from someone who can explain the circumstances, or make some brief mention of these in your Statement of Purpose. If you have studied abroad, many institutions will include with the transcript they send some explanation of the way they evaluate students and what the US equivalents of your grades would be: you should ensure that this is done if at all possible, and include some explanation of the content of the courses if it differs greatly from that in a US course of study. If your undergraduate degree was in a different discipline, this will not bar you from consideration provided that you have sufficient background in English literature to serve as a launching point for a PhD, but be sure that you foreground your preparation in the field of English (for example, discuss it in your Statement of Purpose, include a list of relevant courses, and/or choose recommenders who can comment on your extensive preparation).
Our faculty have diverse interests and backgrounds, and so do our graduate students. The most important things we look for in your application are 'fit', intelligence, originality, and writing ability. The most important places for you to make these qualities evident are your Statement of Purpose and Writing Sample.
We do not begin reading applications until after the final deadline has passed—but nor do we consider applications parts of which are submitted late, so we recommend that you not wait until the final day to begin the application process.
You are welcome to visit campus, but it is worth emphasizing that we evaluate applicants on the merits of their written application materials, and thus meeting with faculty, the DGS, or the DGSA will not give you any advantage in the application process. If you are accepted into the program, then we will invite you to visit us for our graduate recruitment weekend at our expense. On this visit you'll get a chance to meet the other students who have been accepted as well as current students, and the Assistant to the DGS and Director of Graduate Studies, as well as faculty who share your interests, will be ready to answer your specific questions about the program and your place in it.
The average GRE scores of students entering our program in a recent year were Verbal 167 and Quantitative 157, but there is wide variation among the students we accept. There is no special reason for concern if your quantitative score is considerably lower than your verbal score. The scores must not be more than five years old, and an official copy must be sent to the Graduate School Admissions office, institution code number 5156, directly from the Educational Testing Service. We do not have a "departmental code." The Graduate School Admissions office will give your scores to our department. Personal copies are not acceptable, nor are "attested" or notarized copies. As a general rule of thumb, combined scores on the quantitative and verbal GRE of less than 308 will be seen as unusually low.
13. I am an international applicant, and my native language is not English. But still, I've done all or a large part of my education in English, and I've even attended another US institution. Do I still have to take the TOEFL?
We sympathize with your position, but we cannot waive this requirement for you since it is not a requirement of our department but one of the Graduate School. The Graduate School stands firm behind the requirement that all international students whose native language is not English must take the TOEFL exam. However, the Graduate School does consider exceptions to this rule if the medium of instruction for all or most of your primary and secondary education was English or if you attended a college or university in the United States. If you would like to request that the TOEFL requirement be waived, you may do so at the time that you submit your application for admission. No waiver requests are considered until the Graduate School has received your application and supporting documents and is able to evaluate your English proficiency. Please note that there is no guarantee that your waiver request will be approved.
The average undergraduate GPA for students entering our program in a recent year was 3.9. But there is no cutoff GPA for admission to the doctoral program in English, and while good grades are obviously a good thing, they are not the only thing. We will look at your undergraduate transcripts, but your specific GPA will be of less concern to us than seeing that you've taken a variety of English courses and done well in them, and demonstrated a pattern of success and consistency in your achievement overall. If there are any departures from this pattern in your transcript, then (at your discretion) you might want to make some brief reference to why they need not concern us in your Statement of Purpose.
15. Is there a foreign language requirement for admission? As part of the requirements for earning the PhD?
Demonstrated competence in a foreign language, whether through course credit or by other means, is not required for admission. However, demonstrated competence in at least one language (again, not necessarily through credit in a course) is the minimum requirement for completion of the PhD. And depending on your field of interest, you may really need to learn two or three languages: your committee will advise you on this issue as you are developing your PhD project. For a description of the PhD language requirement, consult the Student Handbook. Resources and funding to help you in learning languages will be available at Duke: see this brief account, or consult the Student Handbook. Although there is no language requirement for admission, we'd advise you to consult mentors who share your interests in order to find out what languages are likely to be most useful to you, and get started on language study as soon as possible. In some fields where multiple languages are likely to be needed (e.g. medieval, postcolonial), the fact that you have begun work on your language training may be advantageous to you in the admissions process. And having a head start will definitely make your life easier as you are working on your PhD.
16. Who should I ask to write letters of recommendation for me? Do the people who write for me need to be in the field of English?
The Graduate School requires at least two letters from specialists in your field of study (for this purpose, that means English professors). One of these letters in your field should be from someone who knows your work well, and one (if possible the same letter) from someone who works in the historical field, or on the same main focus of interest, that you are claiming as a special interest in your application. If possible, avoid requesting all your letters from part-time, untenured, or emeritus professors, as letters from tenured scholars (or equivalent) actively engaged in mid- to senior career generally carry the most weight. If there is more than one professor outside the field of English who you'd like to write for you, then consider submitting four letters rather than the minimum three. The same would apply if you're currently working in a job related to your future career (say, teaching or publishing) and would like to submit a letter from your boss in addition to your academic letters.
You can help to ensure that your letters are as good as the writers can make them by speaking briefly with each recommender to update them on your activities since you last had contact with them, and providing each recommender with your Statement of Purpose and Writing Sample, your transcript, and perhaps with papers you wrote for them in the past. If you have letters on file that were written in the past, then it is often a good idea to ask your recommenders to update them, if possible. Using a dossier service that will send your letters to the Graduate School as a package, or asking for your letters long in advance of the deadline, can help to ensure that all the letters you want to be in your application are indeed there when it is read.
17. What sorts of things are you looking for in the Statement of Purpose that is part of the Graduate School application? How important is this part of the application?
The Statement of Purpose is the place where you can speak in a direct, personal voice about your reasons for wanting to engage in doctoral study in English. The Personal Statement and Writing Sample are by far the most important parts of your application, and the parts over which you have most control. We recommend that you show your Personal Statement to the people who are writing letters for you, and to others whose opinion you value: this is a difficult genre to get just right, and other eyes will be a great help. Having read your statement will also help your recommenders to write better letters.
Pay attention to style and tone. While we might expect complex language and lengthy sentences in your Writing Sample, in your Personal Statement you should strive to describe your interests using shorter sentences and ordinary language. In terms of tone, try to avoid both arrogance and false humility. Showing your Personal Statement to other readers will help with both these issues.
Keep your audience in mind. Remember that you're speaking to people who are spending their lives in the field where you hope to study. You don't need to justify your interests for this audience in the way you might for friends or family. Instead, try to be as specific and detailed as possible about the things that you love studying and want to pursue further. Convey your enthusiasm as vividly as you can, but don't waste space justifying it.
Work for depth and focus, not a biography or a list. It is rarely effective to list all the courses where you've excelled, to attempt to provide a full intellectual biography, or to provide lengthy lists of theorists or literary writers who interest you. Instead, be selective (see below) and work for depth and focus. We'd really like to see you pursue and develop an idea, or a small cluster of related ideas, with all the depth and complexity possible within such a short statement. The rest of your application can do the work of telling us about your accomplishments and recounting your intellectual career thus far.
Keep one eye on the future. Talk not just about what you've already done and thought, but about what you hope to do next. What ideas do you want to pursue further, and how? Any specific ideas you might have about how you might do this at Duke are definitely worth mentioning : do you want to work with particular faculty members? engage in some specific kind of interdisciplinary work that would be easy to do here? etc.
If appropriate, explain possible concerns without being defensive. If your GREs or GPA are unusually low, or if your undergraduate record has some unusual aspect, then you might, at your discretion, want to include some brief acknowledgement, and possibly explanation, that could work to allay concerns about your future success that these features of your application might raise. You don't need to defend yourself: people are not machines, and plenty of successful people have blips in their official records. But a brief acknowledgement, usually appearing close to some statement of your future plans and goals, may be useful.
Keep it short. Remember that your audience may be reading more than 400 of these statements. Don't go beyond two pages, and in setting font, margins, and spacing, please ensure that your statement remains easy to read.
18. What sorts of things are you looking for in the Writing Sample? How important is this part of the application?
Your writing sample should be 10-25 pages long: remember that your audience may be reading hundreds of these, and thus do not send us more. It should be a copy of an essay (nonfiction), preferably a critical or scholarly essay submitted as an academic requirement in a literature course. Your name should appear on each page in the top right corner. Please upload the sample in PDF format.
The writing sample is usually the most important single item in your application, so as a general principle, send us what you--and, if possible, your instructors--judge to be your best work. In nearly every case, the best strategy is to submit an essay in the historical field, or focused on the particular interest, that you are foregrounding in your application. Be aware that if you do not do this, then you are making your application much harder to evaluate. If you wish to submit an excerpt from an undergraduate thesis or some other kind of longer paper, then choose your excerpt wisely: it should be that section which best exemplifies a fluent expository style, a fresh, original voice, and awareness of current work in your field.