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.