Sunday, December 11, 2011

How to write a cover letter for a humanities doctoral program: a conversation

by KARL STEEL

Some zombies creeping up below. Save your imperiled brain and read that first. Then come back here.

Consider what follows less of a guide than an opening to a conversation. If you're an undergraduate or MA student, look at the comments below (if any appear) for corrections to my missteps. But because of my own mistakes and those of my students, and because googling for how to write a graduate cover letter in the humanities gets me only hits guiding recent PhDs in applying for jobs, what follows fills a need, I think.

EDIT: I'd forgotten that they're also called statements of purpose. So: here is a nice set of guidelines with good links. Consider this post a supplement.

Caveat: (and slight edit) My department's graduate offerings are MAs or MFAs (CUNY PhD students all do their doctorates at the Graduate Center in Manhattan), and the only hand I've had in admissions to date was a volunteered afternoon of culling rejected MFA applicants to determine which might be suitable candidates for our MA program. Further caveat: in my four years at Brooklyn College, I believe only one student for whom I've written a recommendation letter has been accepted to a funded spot in a literature doctoral program, although I've had successes in placing students in other kinds of degree programs and in helping them win fellowships.

If you're still with me--and you've every right to have jumped ship by this point--here are two important facts:
  • as of this Fall, I now require students requesting recommendation letters to provide me with their application materials--particularly their cover letter--at least several weeks in advance;
  • every first draft of a cover letter I've seen has been...not very good, no matter how smart the student.
My first cover letter, back in 1997, was awful (too). Like all the inadequate cover letters I've seen since, it crowed about my enthusiasm for literature and my hope to teach, and that plus some good recommendation letters and stellar GRE scores cost me several hundred dollars in application fees and won me nothing but rejection from 8 or so doctoral programs and the offer of a spot in a very expensive MA program. I scurried to apply one last time to a local MA program, which--for unknown reasons--said yes, funded me, and taught me how to teach and, more importantly, how to be a graduate student.

So: A good cover letter for a doctoral program needs to express more than enthusiasm. It's kind of a Gerald Graff point, but I don't think graduate schools want students who they have to train to be students. And students must realize that a graduate degree is a professional degree: just wanting to be in the program is not enough. Enthusiasm is nice, but know that everyone applying to a doctoral program is presumed to be nutty enough to want to spent 8.2 years for a degree that could end in nothing but learning. Everyone's enthusiastic; but not everyone has focus.

Your letter needs more than a sense of enthusiasm, and it needs more than personal story, regardless of surmounted hardship or chance meetings with, oh, Jacques Le Goff. It needs to describe someone who does research, someone who chooses projects that matter (think, students, about the so what? factor), and someone who at least seems to have a research agenda tying together his or her various projects to date.

I tend to think, then, that a good cover letter has the following format. Two-pages, single spaced, with room for addresses, salutations, and signatures:

  • Paragraph 1: introduction (my name's blah blah, I'm finishing a degree at blah, and I'm applying to your program in blah blah and will concentrate in medieval/early modern/Vorticist/whatever literature)
  • Paragraph 2: here's what I've worked on so far and why it's so interesting/important
  • Paragraph 3: here's what I hope to work on in the future, and here's where I see my career going
  • Paragraph 4 (customized for each letter): how you hope to take advantage of the particular academic resources of each school, particularly its faculty
  • Paragraph 5: personal stuff
Thank you for time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Prospective Student

My 1999 letter, the one that finally got me into a funded PhD program, followed this format, and was edited mercilessly four or five times by a universally beloved medievalist, then at Western Washington University. In other words, draft your letter well in advance and expect to have it torn to pieces. If you follow the above format, maybe you can get by with only three rewrites instead of five.

My second paragraph described the medieval courses I'd taken at in my MA program (Chaucer, Medieval Drama, independent study on Medieval Women's Lit), and focused on the three conference papers I'd given by that point and on my MA Thesis. Paragraph three discussed my preference for noncanonical medieval texts and expressed my hope to one day edit a TEAMS volume. Paragraph four differed depending on the school, and graph five was the only place I talked about me as a human being rather than just as a scholar: that's where I sold myself as a first-generation working class college student blah blah blah. Everything else, though, did its utmost to present me as a kind of junior colleague.

I know this all sounds kind of dull, particularly given the kinds of work we champion and practice here. Correct me in comments, then.

16 comments:

Little Nemo said...

As a student currently neck-deep in 15 Ph.D applications, I concur with your advice and suggestions. My longer-form statements of purpose more or less follow these principles. However, one of the most frustrating parts about applying to doctoral programs is the fact that different programs require differing word counts, such that I have a 500-, 1000-, and 1200-word iteration of my statement on hand, depending on the institution. I find it so very difficult to express oneself as articulately and as fully as possible in 500 words. What might you suggest we applicants focus on in cases like that?

Karl Steel said...

Wow, great question, and one I hope others more senior than I am could answer. My sense is that in 500 words, you give your name and the name of the degree program you're applying to + your subspecialty and THEN very efficiently describe your research interests to date and something you hope to on in the future. You don't really have room in a letter like that to talk about your personal life OR about the school's particular strengths...

dan remein said...

Minor quibble, and way way off the main thrust of your post. But I couldn't help myself--as one who has applied successfully for both PhD and MFA programs, to say, "nothing more advanced than an MFA" is something of a misnomer: The MFA, in almost all cases, is a terminal degree, and many of my friends that took their MFA went on not to pursue a PhD, as I did, but with their terminal Fine Arts degree proceeded to enter into the job market fray--and many of them are now called 'professor.' Ben Lerner, the national book award nominee who is on the faculty at your institution, in fact holds 'nothing more advanced' than an MFA.

I know this is a little quibbly, and, knowing Karl, I know you didn't mean to demean MFA courses of study in any way (I, the MFA-holder, am more likely to do that!)--I'm saying this insofar as its an occasion on which this point might be clear whereas its an otherwise a pervasive source of recurrent misunderstanding. But it IS important because folks in PhD programs (especially instructors), especially those without MFA programs DIRECTLY attached to them, don't realize that its just as possible for an MFA to be colleagues with the instructors of PhD students as it is for that MFA to be a PhD student.

Karl Steel said...

thanks Dan! point appreciated. edited the post slightly to take out the whiff of demeanment

Anonymous said...

I was told not to spend so much time on what I have done. Other parts of the application packet (the writing sample, transcripts, recommendations) will attest to that. Most places ask for a CV which could/should include a line for research interests. The statement of purpose looks forward. In my statement of purpose, I tried to present a germ of my dissertation proposal, while also demonstrating I was enthusiastic about continuing to grow and expand my thinking with mentoring from the department's professors. I explained how the methodology from my writing sample would be exported to a set of related texts. I briefly elaborated on the theoretical framework that inspires me. And I explained how I saw the particular expertises in each department fit into my plan of attack. I was lucky enough to figure out what excited me very early on in my MA and that laid the ground work for that "research agenda," but I wouldn't have applied to PhDs without an agenda. It was enough to convince/trick five programs into funding me. As my DGS later told me, that agenda was the key. It made it seem (seem being the key word there) that I would come in hit the ground running, would need less hand-holding, and would finish ON TIME, e.g., before my funding ran out.

Carin said...

I'm so glad you're writing about this, Karl. I think your basic form is right on. From the perspective of someone who's had a lot of students from a good but regional (i.e. not well known) undergrad program go on to PhD's, and then read admissions files for high-end medieval studies and English Ph.D. programs, I'd add the following observations:

- It's worth emphasizing how little the graduate SOP has to do with the college application essay. Your remarks make that clear, but it bears repeating. I always told students they needed to expunge all the gee-whizzitude from their letters.

– For better or worse, I often saw interesting/nontraditional life stories bump an otherwise not-top-tier candidate to a shortlist, but never saw that candidate make the final cut. Sad but true.

– Also for better or worse, candidates straight out of undergrad are going to find themselves competing against people who already have MA's. The difference in sophistication jumps off the page and college seniors are at a major disadvantage. To overcome that disadvantage, they need excellent mentoring from savvy people *in the field they want to specialize in* (like you).

- Students should be careful about gushing about the one person they really want to study with. Alarmingly often, that person turns out to be dead, insane, chronically absent, no longer teaching, forbidden from teaching for unmentionable reasons, in talks to move elsewhere, or the mortal enemy of the person reading the application. Unless very up-to-the-minute, in-the-know advice about the people in a particular program is forthcoming, it's better to talk about areas of strength in the program rather than particular people.

ASM said...

I took a look at an old job letter a few years back, and thought with absolute clarity, "Oh, so THAT'S why I didn't get the job... I don't really remember my PhD Statement, but I think it was not too different from this outline. I remember talking a lot about theoretical approaches of (I hoped) interest to me. I think that is probably pretty important, at this point.

Sarah Rees Jones said...

From my personal/UK perspective - if you only have 500 words then 3 is much the most important and especially the first half of 3 - what research will you do. Other things on Karl's list you should mention but much more briefly.

I am not so sure about including 'personal stuff' - depending on what that means - for UK applications. North American applicants have sometimes told some great, colourful stories about their personal lives (which discretion prevents me from repeating), but it is not something that UK institutions expect (and various laws prevent us from allowing all kinds of personal discriminations too).

Jeffrey Cohen said...

As someone who for many years has sorted through many, many letters in the excruciating process of deciding who to admit to our PhD program, let me add: You need to make an argument about why your research project and the strengths of the program into which you are applying mesh. An applicant should do the necessary research, and name names (and not just designate one star: it has to be a program-wide argument).

It is very, very difficult to enter a PhD program these days without an MA: the competition is too fierce. MA students already know how to be graduate students, so BA students are at a huge disadvantage. But not an impossible one.

Thanks, Karl, for starting this conversation.

Patricia Ingham said...

Just an addendum, also having chaired grad admissions in English for years. Some large schools (like mine) are very, very keen to enroll a majority of incoming students without the M.A. (There are complicated reasons for this that I won't go into here.) So while it's true that applicants from M.A. programs are very impressive relative to students recently out of undergraduate programs, it's also true that we admit far more fresh-faced students for the MA/PhD than we do for the PhD. (In an incoming class of 15-17, at most 4 will have M.A.'s in hand.) So here, again, it's good to do research on the program in question. Also the grad application Wiki can be helpful.

i said...

Quick question from someone who's just starting out in this ref-letter writing biz: how much of this holds for MA applications too? Is the MA now also seen as a professionalizing degree, or a program requiring similar focus to the PhD, or is there more space for bushy-tailed enthusiasm?

Irina

Karl Steel said...

Great question Irina, and thanks a million for the advice/insight, Carin, Asa, Jeffrey, Patty, and Sarah.

My sense--totally unfounded--is that the more professionalized the letter can be, the better. And, ideally the process of thinking about graduate school and professionalization would begin in earnest for students in the first semester of their junior year...

I know I got into an MA program with a letter that had nothing more than bushy tailed enthusiasm (and, I think, a writing sample about Bunyan's Battle for Mansoul, of all things), but it's not an approach I'd recommend to others.

Rob Barrett said...

While I think all of the advice tendered in Karl's original post and in the ensuing comments is spot-on, I do want to stress that the writing sample matters much, much more than the statement of purpose--at least here at Illinois. I have seen many great statements of purpose torpedoed by a sub-par writing sample and a large number of so-so statements of purpose rescued by an awesome writing sample. While we appreciate not having to read the umpteenth short essay about how much Candidate X lurves literature, we care more about how well they analyze literature.

Ann H said...

Generally I would agree with everything you say about the cover letter. However...."It needs to describe someone who does research, someone who chooses projects that matter (think, students, about the so what? factor), and someone who at least seems to have a research agenda tying together his or her various projects to date." I find myself wondering why such a person would need to go to grad school at all, since s/he already knows how to do research; knows how to choose effective and valuable research projects; and not only has a collection of projects already completed or under way, but also has an overarching plan that ties them all together (presumably as the first step to a monograph). So what is this person going to grad school for? Just the piece of paper that certifies all these skills s/he has somehow acquired by him/herself? I would think that a letter that made those claims to expertise on behalf of a recent B. A. or even M. A. would draw an extremely skeptical response.

Karl Steel said...

Ann, it does sound as though I'm recommending students present themselves as already professionalized. This is deliberate, as I imagine that given the choice of, on the one hand, a good writing sample and a cover letter that claims a research agenda, and, on the other, a good writing sample and a cover letter that shows nothing but brains and enthusiasm, the first student's going to get the spot and the funding.

My basic answer to your questions would be that students are looking to get credentialed and to be able to be in an environment where they can be supervised closely by experts, have access to a quality library, etc.

Again, I'll stress that I've never made any official admissions decisions, but I felt the need to write this because just about every statement of purpose I've seen from students for whom I'm writing recommendation letters has been crap. Clearly they're not seeking out advice, or what advice they're getting is bad. This post attempts to fix that problem by opening a conversation.

I'll throw it back to you: have you culled graduate school applications? What have been the patterns you have noticed in the cover letters/statements of purpose for students who made the cut?

Linda jack said...

Thanks for the interesting information.