A fugitive piece on reading and writing, Part I

When I was a kid I told my parents I wanted to be a writer. They responded, as good parents should have, practically. They gave me a typewriter with a fresh ribbon, on which I began composing furious little stories about Sherlock Holmes. And they warned me there was no money in it.


What they told me, and boy did I listen, was that in order to be a writer you needed to have a job. No romantic nonsense about move-to-New York-and-see-how-it-works-out. Nothing about majoring in creative writing or film, getting an MFA — none of that. It was more like: “You’ll need money to feed your children. Get a Ph.D. and become a professor.”

And so I did. From the time I was in fifth grade to this very day, I’ve hardly had a stray thought.

Here’s one occasion for this post: Along with several of my colleagues, I’ve spent the last few months reading a stack of applications to our Ph.D. program. It’s not the first time I’ve done this, but it’s been more thought provoking than usual.

I’m fortunate to work at a place where we have stellar applications — dozens more than we can actually accept into our progam. We got about 500 in all this year, 50 of whom we could have accepted without blinking. We can offer spaces to less than half that number, and we’ll wind up with an entering class of around ten. In the end it comes down to a very limited set of spaces and funding, the combined personalities of the admissions committee (which met for an entire day to hammer out the final list), and a decent amount of sheer luck.

Most of our admits will have been accepted to almost every place they applied. This makes me a little jealous, because it certainly wasn’t the case with me. I had a few solid admissions, a few wait lists, and a whole lot of rejections. I wasn’t very well funded in my final choice, but the fit seemed right, I was young and naive, I wanted to be a writer, and so we moved across the country with a brand new baby in tow. Some of our more practical friends and relatives told us we should be buying a house, settling down. (Not, I should add, my parents, who still believed in the “Get a Ph.D, become a professor” line of advice, though none of us realized at that point exactly how difficult it is to get and keep an academic job.)

As I’ve been reading this incredible batch of applications, and as I’ve been contacting admits, hoping to convince them to join our program, I’ve had ample opportunity to think about my own choices and intellectual history. I’ve also had occasion to compile a list of things people absolutely should not do if they’re applying to grad school in English:

  • Don’t tell us you love to read and write, and especially don’t tell us you loved to read and write as a child. Anecdotes like the one I served up above, about parents buying typewriters, are best saved for blogs or memoirs. If you’re applying for a Ph.D. in English, we assume you are a reader and writer. It comes with the territory.
  • Don’t offer us sentimental narratives about your background. Though these can be extremely compelling, and though we’re not stone figures immune to such storytelling, we deal with narrative for a living. Many of us deal with sentimental narrative for a living, in fact. It’s difficult for us not to encounter such narratives with a critical eye first, understanding how sentimentalism aims to affect a reader, extract a tear, and manipulate a mind.
  • Don’t tell us you want a Ph.D. in literature because you want to be a writer. Or a teacher. Or just generally to improve your condition as a human being or the condition of the planet. You should be applying for a Ph.D. because you feel yourself already to have an academic discipline. We wear unholy robes, signs of a false priesthood, a form of masonry, and the demands are high. This is not something to be taken casually or from humanistic motivations. You will likely be disappointed if that’s your starting point.


I also came up with a set of things you absolutely should do if you’re applying:

  • Start your personal statement with an academic argument, something derived from your recent studies, preferably an honors or master’s thesis. It could even be an observation on recent reading. But it should demonstrate your ability as a thinker and your awareness that this is an academic endeavor and that the discipline of literary studies doesn’t exist merely for self-development or the betterment of the human species.
  • Have a somewhat specific notion of the period or methodological or theoretical problems that most interest you. You don’t want to — nor should you — have a dissertation proposal in your pocket. We’re assuming you will come here and develop such ideas through your coursework. Don’t pick a field that you think is underpopulated simply to improve your chances of getting in. Though it’s true that 20th-century studies has the most applications, the most graduates, and a very scarce number of jobs, you can’t identify yourself as a medievalist or a specialist in Restoration drama without really meaning it. The fakery is too easily detected.
  • Describe why you want to be admitted to our particular program, but don’t namedrop professors without really knowing something about their work. You especially don’t want to list the professors in your declared field in alphabetical order alongside a thin paraphrase of their personal description on the department website. If you’ve read a book or article by someone at a given school, or even if your undergrad professors have pointed you in the direction of a program, fine. But make the connection meaningful. You really should be applying only to schools that can do well whatever it is you want to do.

Even as I began to make such a list, I realized that not all of our successful applicants adhered to all these DOs and DON’Ts. I also realized that I probably violated more than half these guidelines myself when I applied to grad school a dozen or so years ago. 

And with some chagrin, I had to admit that my list of guidelines — although I stand foot-firm behind them — represent part of the problem with my discipline, perhaps with the academy as a whole, or at least the humanities. Getting a Ph.D. in literature (in my case, American Studies), can actually strip from you whatever love of reading and writing you may have had as a child, your very identity as a writer. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t do it: just that you should go into it with eyes open.

To be continued.

20 responses to “A fugitive piece on reading and writing, Part I”

  1. Rachel says:

    Fascinating post, Bry. I can add a couple of ideas that may seem obvious, but having read hundreds of application letters recently myself, I think perhaps not:

    First of all, the letter/personal statement is a genre unto itself, with standards and rhetorical expectations. Read multiple examples of letters if you can–most departments worth their salt keep an archive of letters volunteered by previous students. Learn what seems persuasive. Learn the basic format and how you want to depart from it in order to stand out. But demonstate an awareness of what information is expected.

    Also, since any selection committee is overtaxed and looking for reasons to exclude otherwise fine applicants, proofread carefully. Make sure the application is letter-perfect. Do. Not. Include. Typos. Seems ridiculous to say, but many, many applications contain misspelled words or odd punctuation. Such mistakes are especially glaring when they appear in the institution’s name, the name of a cited author, or a piece of critical jargon. And since even the best writers/editors get tired and have quirky spelling shibboleths of their own, get a trusted peer or advisor to read your work. Get feedback from multiple people, if possible.

    Finally, as your all-day meeting demonstrates, these decisions are made by committee, and committees are made up of people with diverse backgrounds, priorities, and motives. One of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever received was that my success or failure as an applicant was only partially (perhaps not even primarily) about me. No one wants to confront that fact, but it’s true. So while it’s difficult not to feel like the committee’s decision represents your worth and potential as a person, it doesn’t. Getting some emotional distance from the whole process, however you can, is a healthy approach.

    Actually, that’s true from both sides of the typewriter.

  2. Rachel says:

    Of course a comment that prescriptive would have to contain a typo: I meant “demonstrate.” Call the Grammar Police to take me away, ‘cuz I’m guilty.

  3. thanks, rachel. your SHOULDs should have been on my original list. especially the part about dealing with rejected applications. rejection from a program is in no way a statement on personal worth, or even the worth of the application. there’s a lot of contingency involved.

  4. Dave says:

    Who wears the robes of a true priesthood?

  5. Scotty says:

    I vividly remember a conversation, circa ’96, in which I was justifying high salaries for rock stars. My case was that since the amount of risk in pursuing this career was so high that the payoff should be equally high. In other words, one could do everything right in pursuit of rock stardom, and still not make it.

    My argument hinged on the concept that in comparison, it’s easy to be a doctor. “To be a doctor,” I said, “you know what you need to do; the rules are laid our for you; you just follow them.”

    Gosh, I was ignorant. The more I learn about the pursuit of a PHD, the more it seems like American Idol, only there are more slots.

  6. Marleyfan says:

    When you said
    “understanding how sentimentalism aims to affect a reader, extract a tear, and manipulate a mind”, did you mean that writers use this for manipulation, graduate school aplicants, or both?

  7. Marleyfan says:

    I’d be interested to know more about the statement: “understanding how sentimentalism aims to affect a reader, extract a tear, and manipulate a mind”. What did you mean by “looking at it first with a critical eye”?

  8. G-Lock says:

    Maybe it’s just basic common sense and not worthy of mention, but I’d add honesty and humor as essential elements to a successful application. Nothing like slogging through tons of disingenuous garbage that recites the same thing.

    I concur, Rachel: Spelling is absolutely number one for me. After seeing one typo on a formal application, I’ve been known to discredit the entire thing. In this day and age of automatic spellcheck, there is NO excuse for a typo on an application.

    Speaking of, can you Greatwhatsit people please add a spellcheck to the commenting section? Or get a new blog editor program? Too much stress!!!

  9. lisa t. says:

    guilty, i am guilty. i am bound to have a comma splice or misspelling in this (and most) comments (if you haven’t noticed). bry’s regular use of lower case and the general supportive atmosphere here at the whatsit make these mistakes okay, but this post reminds me of the need for generic (not just grammatical) perfection in my own writing– and in my current program of study: Master’s in Enlish, but a focus in Rhetoric and Composition (allow me to network a bit: bryan, rachel, how are those programs fairing for PhD aps at your respective institutions?).

    anyway the study of genre (and the PhD application genre) is quite fascinating. when we write, sometimes we’ve got to shape the piece to the purpose, features, audience…imagine and write to all those poor academics spending their day reading prospective students’ pitches…no matter how much we might want to be “creative.”

    it sounds like you both advocate detachment in the voice of the application as well as from the process, true?

    Thank you for such helpful advice.

  10. Dave says:

    Master’s in Enlish


  11. Dave says:

    G-Lock: The new Firefox browser includes a spell check.

  12. lisa t. says:

    That was a test. And, Dave, you passed.

    (the truth is: damn, and I read it, like, 20 times before posting!)

  13. Dave says:

    Typoz in comments prevent them from blasphemously approaching the perfection of God.

  14. lisa t. says:

    I want to join whatever church you belong to, then. Perhaps I’m an automatic member. Praise typoz!

  15. lisa — i admit, i use my editorial privilege to go in and correct typos in some of my own comments. don’t hate me! fwiw, there’s no spellcheck function in the compose window for this blog either, and since i almost always compose in the program rather than pasting it in from a word processor (that and the fact that i’m often blogging very late on sunday night or, as in the case of today’s post, very early monday morning), i often wind up with typos in the actual post. i have to proof a couple times throughout the day to clean them up. so if people find things in my post, don’t assume they’re intentional! tell me! i was particularly nervous about it today, given the subject of the post.

    i don’t think we have a rhet comp program here. i know we don’t in our department. the entire freshman writing program is housed elsewhere, in fact, which means, for better or worse, that our grad students don’t teach comp (which i did for many semesters as a grad student).

    marleyfan — what i meant by “critical eye” and the comment about sentimental narrative is that since we spend so much time thinking about how writing works — what kinds of effects it seems to want to have on readers — we sometimes read admissions essays through literary critical lenses when the texts themselves want us to read with an open heart and a choke in our throat. a common mistaken assumption about grad school applications: that the personal statement is the same genre as the admissions essay people write to get into college. it’s not at all. this is more like applying for a job. taking a personal approach shouldn’t be ruled out altogether, but it’s a delicate thing to do, and i did find myself gravitating toward statements that were more professional and less personal. i did notice something this year i hadn’t in previous years. some people slipped an extra statement in. one was critical and the other told the personal story. i was more willing to go with the personal story in such cases. the critic david simpson has an interesting book on why we can’t stop saying where we come from.

    scotty: i actually felt like simon cowell more than once while reading apps. i could hear his voice when i’d throw out an app that opened with a dangling or misplaced modifier: “this *is* an application to an english department, after all.” i had to work to resist this voice. some mistakes are breakable; i wouldn’t want to rule out a really smart person simply for grammar’s sake. g-lock’s right, though, that typos in a personal statement can be read as a sign of carelessness.

    dave, your comments made me laugh out loud.

  16. Ruben Mancillas says:

    Bryan, this was great.

    I find myself pondering the whole “I want my kid to do whatever makes them happy/you know what a nice career for you might be?” issue quite a bit lately.

    Anyone else remember She’s Having A Baby? that awkward John Hughes attempt to move beyond the teen years? The scene I loved was when the grandfather is reading a children’s book about some bunny to a young Kevin Bacon and the story spells out the evils that will fall the rabbit if he doesn’t go to college and get a masters degree.

    Sounds like your folks at least prepared you for some of the realities of academic life.

    As a beauty school dropout myself, I wonder if other people had similar motivations/experiences.

    I remember just kind of drifting into it. This degree of rigor, of course, mirrored my leaving as well.

    I liked to read, watch movies, and write (in that order) and enough professors said that a PhD might be the next logical step.

    Do you feel your applicants are more aware of issues like crowded job markets or are there still plenty of dreamy kids with high test scores who don’t want to get a “real job” getting into programs?

    Dave, great Gothic cathedral justification for typos.

    Scott, similarly impressive advocacy for overcompensating those who truly rock.

  17. Marleyfan says:

    BW, I appreciate your taking the time to explain. As I review applications for potential employees, I use grammar error, and the inability to follow simple directions as the initial “weeding out” criteria. However, most of the applications are so very professional yet dry, that I can’t really get a good feel for what the candidate is really like without an interview (but obviously we can’t interview scores of people). Although I don’t want a sob/sentimental story, I appreciate a candidate who makes it personal. We work in entirely different fields, but probably look for similar core characteristics. And, I ordered David Simpson’s book.

  18. one major difference between the two situations, though, is that a grad school entrance committee isn’t necessarily looking for the nicest people but the people who seem to have a blend of decency and the ability to read and write well. we make those determinations on the writing sample — 20 pages or so of academic writing. The sample may be the most important thing in the end, but the statement of intent is usually the first thing I read. It gets your foot in the door. the best statements do a good job of telling me how the applicants think about their own thinking — how self-conscious they are about why they read and write the way they do. another major difference in our two scenarios: we don’t meet the people we admit until after we’ve already extended an offer and they come visit to see if we’re the right fit for *them*. it’s an interesting dance, but one i enjoy.

  19. I found it amusing that Caleb was coming at some of these same issues from a different direction this morning. We were probably composing at the same time.

  20. […] « A fugitive piece on reading and writing, Part I A fugitive piece on reading and writing, Part II by Bryan Waterman Posted on Tuesday, March 13, 2007, under Words andWork […]