The Road Towards a PhD

Thais Rutledge

(Note: Thais Rutledge is co-chair of the MLA Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities.)

The impetus for this blog post was a conversation that took place in the Graduate Lounge at MLA 2023 about the need for resources, guidance, and information about how to pursue a PhD. This blog post, therefore, is an attempt to encourage individuals who wish to earn a PhD in an MLA field, but who, like myself, might benefit from some advice on how to go about it all.

My decision to return to graduate school came after years of random jobs, and from my desire to become a university professor. In addition, my love for teaching and researching was my fundamental reason for wanting to pursue a PhD. What I did not know, however, was how to search for schools that would be a good fit, whom to talk to about my research interests, and how to go about securing funding, among other things.

Looking back at my experience, I now realize how clueless I was about the process. It all came to a head during my first year as an MA student at a local college, which I was attending to test the waters without disrupting my life. As I began to search for schools to apply to, the only thing I knew about funding was something a previous professor had told me—to only attend a program that was fully funded. In amazement at what his advice implied, I wondered: “Wow, I can get funding to go to graduate school?” How naïve I felt; but at the same time, as I look back, I wish I had had more information. But that started me on doing more research to find the answers to my questions.

The right questions led me to many discoveries and meetings with individuals who truly wanted to help. The thought of contacting people I had not met gave me a bit of anxiety, as I was not sure how to talk to them. Still, eventually I reached out to schools, departments, and the professors whom I believed could be a good fit for my dissertation committee. After choosing the top five schools that would provide full funding for my graduate education, I called the respective graduate coordinators at each institution. These individuals provided me with more information, guidance, and answered all of my questions. In fact, many encouraged me to email professors that I may have wanted to work with. I was stoked! I had no idea that I could actually email professors, and that they would, in fact, respond. What would I say to them? The thought of contacting a professor that I had never met (or taken a class with) was a bit uncomfortable, I admit. However, I needed to use the personal skills I had to get the answers I needed. I wondered if I would get a response, if the response would be welcoming, or if I would get a response at all.

My emails to professors were pretty straightforward. I told them who I was, my interest in the school, and in their work. To my surprise, I received kind replies and answers from most I contacted. I felt heard and seen for the first time by these professors who seemed eager to hear my research idea and why I was interested in their schools. After a few emails, phone calls, and in-person physical meetings with professors and chairs of departments (today they might be on Zoom), I was ready to begin the application process. The in-person meetings allowed me to not only put a face on my application, but they also allowed me to have conversations with the people I would be working with. Most importantly, I wanted to make sure these individuals registered my interests and commitment to pursuing a doctorate. I sent out five applications and got accepted—with full funding—into two, including my first choice.

My entire experience proved the complete opposite from what I had heard from other fellow students at the MLA whose experiences were different from mine. I am not speaking for all here when talking about my own road towards a PhD. I am quite aware that others have had no guidance on how to go about earning such a prestigious degree. What I do believe, and encourage, is to go after the answers you seek. Talk to other students, professors, graduate coordinators, and chairs of the departments. You might be surprised at the answers you get. Finally, and I hate to sound so cliché here, if you don’t succeed at first, try it again. 

The graduate secretary or coordinator or graduate advisor of any program you might be interested in would be glad to help you with information and how-tos. Go in having done your research, and with specific questions to make the most of your time with those offering guidance.

The MLA Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities offers a number of resources for prospective and current graduate students on their web page.  Graduate students are also eligible to apply for travel grants to attend the annual convention, where many professional development opportunities are on offer, from group and one-on-one mentoring to sessions on obtaining jobs with humanities PhDs and more.

Living with Disability in the Time of Coronavirus

Shahrzad Ghobadlou

(Note: This is a post in response to our call for submissions addressing the experience of graduate students living with disability in the time of COVID. Thank you to Shahrzad Ghobadlou for sharing such an experience, and thank you to Ariadne Wolf for taking the lead on the call. If you are interested in contributing a post to MLAGrads on this or any other topic, please email Janine Utell, program manager for professional development and co-staff liaison to the Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities, at jutell (at) mla (dot) org.)

I am responding to a thoughtful post by Ariadne Wolf, who wrote how the pandemic has affected people with disabilities. Of course, we were disabled in many ways due to the pandemic, but this period also gave us a new perspective on how to live under constraints. This post is about our life under constraint from the perspective of someone who has an invisible disability.

I suffer from a chronic disease that severely affects my immune system and makes me susceptible to infections and viruses. However, if you were to meet me at school, you would never guess how hard I work to maintain a sense of balance in my life. You would see me as a young, energetic person interested in learning about new scholarship. There is an accent and rhythm in my speech that immediately identifies me as an international student. I am proud of my accent and pleased to show myself as equally engaged in academic life as my peers. So far, I look like any other graduate student in your eyes and am also so glad to have met you!

All of a sudden, the pandemic arrives like an unexpected fall and henceforth, life descends into despair like leaves falling from trees. Everyone is forced to adjust their social interactions, first by wearing masks and then by distancing themselves from others. You might still meet with your friends and family but you are more cautious. The social distancing policy soon prohibits any large gatherings, and all meetings and classes transform to virtual Zoom meetings. Even though surreal, virtual becomes the new normal! 

You might have noticed that I am recently absent from all gatherings. You respect my decision for being cautious, but the social distancing makes you also forget about me. After six months you do not inquire about my whereabouts. 

On my side, things are a bit different. I see a question getting bigger and bigger: Who would help if I test positive for Covid? While most students went back to their home countries and hometowns, I couldn’t return due to visa issues. Like many other international students, I shouldered the solitude alone. Later in the summer 2021, the insurance stopped covering one of my medicines. After a few months of changing multiple medicines, my auto-immune system developed multiple inflammations, so I started new injections to suppress it even further. Life got more complicated when my housing situation became precarious through no fault of my own. I am not writing this post for sympathy but to let my scholar friends with disabilities know what they should do in such cases.

Despite the fact that I could see no end to the pandemic and my medications were failing me, I’m glad that I talked to my school about my situation. My constrained life has also taught me to be cautious about my level of tolerance for outside obstacles. The importance of taking care of yourself can’t be overstated. So define a level of tolerance for yourself and know which part is doable by yourself and which part is not. It is also important not to endure a situation silently. If you recognize an outside element interfering with your control over your disability, talk to your family, a counselor, or even your advisor. 

In my case, I discussed the situation first with my parents. As a result of their distance, they were unable to offer any assistance other than to raise concerns. As soon as I discussed the situation with my advisors, they immediately sought help from the school to ensure I received appropriate support, both financially and mentally. When you are dealing with a disability, whether it is visible or invisible, don’t try to handle it all on your own. Be vocal and talk to your advisors before you lose your energy to handle the difficulties that life throws at you. Maintaining good energy is essential for academic success. A final suggestion: keeping each other in mind is essential.

Call for Submissions—Living with Disability in the Time of Coronavirus

The Call: I would love to hear from any of you about your experiences surviving Covid as a student who, like me, experiences disability. If you have ideas about how your university did a great job supporting disabled students during this time, or ideas about how your university can do better in the future, now’s the time to share them! Heck, if you’d just like to vent a little anonymously, that’s fine too. I want to hear your voice.

I am inviting you to submit your blog posts to me, Ari Wolf, member of the MLA Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities, at I want to get your work up as soon as possible so that others can hear what you’ve got to say. When people think about college campuses and disability, they often think about things like testing times or parking. The idea that disability can be a source of oppression that impacts every aspect of our lives still isn’t quite there yet. It is my wish that this project will be a small drop in the bucket that moves us all forward to acknowledging disability as a vital part of understanding diversity in all its glory, as well as all the bullying and abuses done towards those who are marginalized. I stand in solidarity with all of my “crip sibs” who self-identify as disabled. You’re not alone.

I’ve written my own blog post on this subject to kick us off:

Dear Colleagues,

I write to you today with a purpose. My purpose is borne from Covid-19, from the struggles I’ve witnessed my fellow students undergo, as well as the struggles I myself have fought through.

My purpose is simple: I wish to inspire, encourage, beg, advocate, do whatever it takes to push universities to acknowledge the needs of the growing population of immunocompromised and disabled students.

We’re here. We will enter through the front door of every college and university in this country in this fall of 2022 and beyond. We are just like every one of you reading this, with our big dreams and our dedication to working hard to achieve them. We are also very, very different.

We are different because the mandate to unmask is, for some of us, the difference between being physically able to attend college in the fall, or not.

We are different because right now, many of us are already engaged in what will become protracted arguments with departments too entrenched in their traditional and elitist vision of university life to accommodate our needs with a hybrid model of classroom attendance.

We are different because there are laws to protect us, including federal ADA standards, but unfortunately many universities do not follow them out of inconvenience or callousness.

We were here before Covid. Some of us, like myself, have auto immune diseases. Some of us had asthma worsened by raging fires or polluted skies or global warming or all of the above. Some of us had heart conditions, inflammatory disorders, rare diseases, amputations.

We were always here. You often chose not to see us. We were never invisible just because you were not always interested in looking at us.

Now that Covid has hit with a vengeance, we’re here in even more sizable numbers. Unfortunately, given the research into the symptoms of Long Covid, our numbers have rapidly grown in the past two years. Given a few more short years, we might well outnumber you.

That is all the more reason to adapt your policies now.

Colleagues, we do not demand anything from you. We are in no position to demand anything. We are sick, remember? Our lives are too often about managing drawers full of medication, hospital stays, working ahead in fear of the days or weeks when we will not be able to get out of bed. We don’t have the energy to convince you that we are worthy of being given anything.

Nonetheless, I so wish that you would consider what I have to say. Now is the time to implement solutions to the challenges we present. Be creative and be bold. Use your existing technology.

For example, schedule departmental meetings online to spare people the trek and the safety concerns. Most Humanities and Social Sciences classes can easily be adapted to accommodate a hybrid model which allows for remote attendance for those too ill or concerned about Covid outbreaks to be on campus. If you are a Teaching Assistant, normalize meeting your advisees remotely rather than in person. Practice using your voice to raise concerns about your university’s Covid testing practices or rising Covid rates or mask mandates, and find someone willing to listen to you.

We can all make campus environments safer and more inclusive. 

That responsibility falls on every one of us.

Publishing Your First Academic Article – A Roadmap

by Didem Uca, Ph.D., co-chair of CSGSH, Assistant Professor of German Studies, Emory University

So you want to publish your first academic article––but where do you start? This roadmap outlines the key stages and steps of this process, beginning with selecting a piece you have already written as part of your graduate studies through working through revisions.

  1. Identify potential piece(s) of writing you already have produced to develop for publication, as well as potential publication venues. Sometimes you just *know* something has potential, which is great, but if you don’t:
  • Discuss with professors/mentors (e.g. if you got very positive feedback on a seminar paper, ask your professor if they think it would be a good piece to develop, get advice on venues and revision suggestions). If you presented the paper at a conference and got a good reception, ask your fellow presenters or the convener/respondent of the conference panel for more feedback.
  • Notice what kinds of research different journals in your field are publishing. This isn’t so that you tailor your piece to the venue, but rather so that you choose a venue based on what piece you want to publish.
  • Think about how this project fits in with your overall research agenda (is it part of dissertation/thesis or an important subfield not in your diss/thesis?)
  1. After getting feedback from a few different mentors/colleagues, create a revision plan that answers the following questions (among others):
  • RESEARCH: What additional research needs to be done and how will I manage this (Will this require archival work? → need a summer grant? part of regular dissertation workload or a different project? → time management/balance)
  • BACKWARD-DESIGNED TIMELINE: What is my desired date of publication? For most journals, it takes a minimum of 1 year from the date of submission to the date of publication, and that’s with a very smooth process and minimal revisions. So, consider: Do you want this to come out before you go on the job market or by graduation? Or by another particular milestone? Figure out the ideal date of publication and work backwards from there to outline when you will need to complete the various research, writing, and revision steps.
  • WRITING/REWRITING/REVISING: What content still needs to be added? How many new words do you need for your argument? Be sure to consult the journal’s word count min. and max. before you start adding or subtracting words. What stylistic issues do I need to fix? These may include typos, writing style, flow, organization/structure, and adhering to the journal’s style sheet.
  1. Get writing support! (Listed as #3 but you should do this throughout the process!)
  • Organize or join a writing group with your department mates or even with people you don’t know personally. (Side note: virtual writing groups saved my pandemic sanity.)
  • Find an accountability partner (whether this is a colleague or mentor), share your timeline with them, and have them help you stick to your goals (and vice versa).
  1. Get it as close to perfect as you can––and then press send!
  • Most journals won’t even read your work if you don’t follow the style sheet or submission guidelines, so follow these closely as you’re preparing your submission.
  • Once you’ve done that, the worst thing that can happen is an outright rejection, but this can still provide helpful feedback for next time.
  1. Learn how to approach revisions and editors/reviewers to make your piece shine:
  • If you pass through the initial stage of review, you will be asked to do one or more rounds of revisions before the journal can commit to publishing your article. This is an absolutely ROUTINE part of the process and will result in a stronger piece you will be proud of in the long term, so try not to feel personally attacked by feedback.
  • Sometimes you feel like the reviewers/editors are asking for the moon but maybe it’s not *that* bad and you’re just feeling attacked, tired, or frustrated. Take a beat to try to write a list of the most pertinent suggestions and prioritize them. Or if you’re truly at a loss, share the reader reports with a colleague or mentor to help sort out the most salient points.
  • Sometimes the editors or reviewers will ask you to make changes you don’t agree with or that you feel veer away from your original argument. Have an open conversation with the editor to clarify what is required and then choose your battles (and don’t back down if the changes will detract from your vision of your work). Most importantly, make your argument coherent, clear, and bullet proof, so that you can be confident in your contribution.
  • Keep a running list of anything you do to improve and revise your submission (even if you’re using track changes). You will need to write a revision letter detailing the changes that will be sent to the editors/reviewers as part of the revisions process that needs to demonstrate that you have seriously engaged with and addressed (most of) the feedback.
  • In general (though there are certainly unfortunate exceptions), reviewers/editors are on your side and acting in good faith. They are engaging with your work to help you improve it, which is actually a really cool thing!

Sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error, but if you follow this roadmap, I have no doubt that you will find success in placing your work in a great venue. Good luck!