9 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting a Ph.D. Program in Literature, Criticism, and Textual Studies

For seven years I worked tirelessly through my undergraduate and graduate programs all in hopes of getting accepted into a fully-funded Ph.D. program. I have a BA in English and French, and an MA in English and Women’s and Gender Studies, and through each of these degrees, I networked, participated in departmental events, and tried to make a name for myself throughout the universities I was a student at. I jumped through every hoop during my bachelor's and master's; I worked up to five jobs at a time to help cover application fees and moving expenses. After waiting months in confusion and turmoil after application season, I was finally accepted into a program.

If you are thinking about pursuing a Ph.D., here are some helpful tips to contemplate. They range from discussing the preparation and application process, as well as an in-depth look into the devastating, challenging, exciting, and memorable moments that make up the academic world.

Be prepared to move quite a bit.

Moving was something I had anticipated early on in college. Growing up in WV, I knew that I would have to leave the state to pursue post-graduate work. Since graduating from college and beginning my doctorate, I have moved five times; three of those five times have been to different states for a specific degree program, while the other two times I moved were across town to decrease my expenses by getting a roommate. That might not seem like a lot, but moving is expensive—especially across several different states. And, for English majors, we have books on books on books. Embrace the minimalist style and buy only what you need—especially when it comes to books. Don’t plan on studying Victorian Literature for the long haul? Then, don’t hold on to the Wilkie Collins collections that’ll surely only collect dust on a shelf.

Welcome the challenges of creating community in new areas.

Despite how much I enjoy moving and living in different areas, I didn’t fully realize how difficult it would be to create community every time I moved. It’s easy to feel isolated in a new area, and people might often not express just how lonely they feel when starting over, but know that it is perfectly normal to feel alienated when moving to a new city.

During my Master’s, I was consumed by the academy and I didn’t allow myself to have a life out of school. This isn’t healthy, and if you want to pursue a Ph.D., it’s best to learn early on in post-graduate work that you have to take time for yourself. Join a gym, find a community group, take swing dancing lessons—anything that will allow you to de-stress and make friends.

Be frugal and save money, but feel free to splurge on occasion.

Graduate school stipends are not budget-friendly. Life tends to happen when you’re in graduate school; things breakdown, people get sick—so on and so forth. If you are not allowed to work outside of your graduate teaching appointment, this can put a significant strain on your budget. If you are permitted to work outside of your appointment, do it! It’s a lot of work, but it helps you time-manage and create a savings account.

Plus, if you plan to go on for a doctorate, the application process is pricey. Between the application fees, transcript requests, and GRE tests, many applicants spend over $1,000 just trying to get accepted into a program. Be frugal and save as much money as possible, but in the process of working hard to create a sustainable income, don’t forget to treat yourself sometime. You need to love on yourself on occasion.

Mental (and physical) health is important.

It’s great to love on yourself with material things, but make sure you are also taking care of your mental health. I cannot emphasize this enough. Graduate students are overworked and exhausted and mental health is often entirely overlooked. We beat ourselves up over impostor syndrome and we doubt ourselves daily. Our work is constantly being investigated and critiqued, and this can be so damaging to our own mental and emotional states.

Many universities offer counseling services, and most graduate programs do provide health insurance, meaning that not only can you have your physical health tended to, but most insurances offer coverage for psychologists or mental health clinicians. Take advantage of resources like these—they can make such a difference when you’re in the midst of a perpetual academic existential crisis.

Treat your professors as colleagues.

I think this is one of the most difficult things to do as you transition out of an undergraduate mindset into a graduate student role. Suddenly, your status as a graduate student provides you access to a new realm of professor-interaction. As a graduate student, you vacillate between being a student and a professor, and the tension between these two areas is very difficult to navigate sometimes. However, treating your professors as colleagues is so helpful when you go to apply for doctoral programs. Many of your professors not only develop student-professor relationships with you, but they also begin to treat you as their equals. This relationship is vital to have when applying for Ph.D. programs, because these professors are the ones who are much more willing to attest to your abilities as both a scholar and instructor.

Write daily.

Despite writing and studying writing for most of my life, I never considered myself a writer. I demarcated boundaries between writing for work and writing for myself. I have since learned that I cannot define myself as solely an academic writer, nor can I limit myself to only this genre. Writing can only be developed by writing. That means becoming comfortable with a variety of genres and challenging yourself to write daily. It’s hard, and it requires dedication that I’m still learning how to master. There is a sense of wholeness and healing when you can use writing as a creative outlet, while also developing the very skill that is crucial to your degree field.

Research can be brutal. (If you let it.)

Between writing and research, our entire degree is centered around regurgitating information and developing some novel approach to literature and language. The research that is required for a doctorate can be a dark place; it’s seemingly never-ending, and it can also feel overwhelming and unforgiving. You don’t have time to search every single written piece of text that has ever been written on a particular topic, author, or book. Don’t convince yourself that this is necessary either. Bibliographies should become your best friend.

Teaching is an ongoing, everyday performance.

It’s almost like being in a Broadway play; you are continuously perfecting your performance for your role. However, you have the same audience for a semester, so you have to learn how to gauge their reactions and adapt your performance daily. It can be a soul-sucking job if you let it. But, it can also be wonderful and enjoyable.

Love what you do.

It can be easy to become cynical about graduate work, but make sure you remember why you chose the journey in the first place. In one day, I can go from loving every single facet of my Ph.D. process to wanting to set all of my writing and research ablaze. I also often oscillate between loving and hating teaching. It happens. Quite regularly actually. I think it is fairly normal for many doctoral students. However, don’t let the negative aspects of the degree keep you from loving your work. You should have a form of excitement and attachment to your research and teaching, and without these affinities, the degree is almost pointless. My final word of advice: make sure this is something you truly love. That love and dedication will help you power through the dark times. Seriously.


Marisa Stickel is currently a doctoral student at the University of Tennessee, where she specializes in 20th American Literature and Feminist Studies, with interests in spatial theory, embodiment, cognitive science, and performance studies. She holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in English and French from Fairmont State University, and a Master of Arts degree in English and a Post-Baccleureate Certificate in Women's and Gender Studies from The University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Her work explores how women experience various places and how their movement through spaces is restricted or prohibited. She also explores mapping, memory, and empathy in early 20th century literature, calling special attention to texts that address issues of modernity, corporeal identity crises, public/private sectors, and place/space.

Outside of academia, Marisa is a dancer and performer. She is a writer, traveler, and taco/coffee connoisseur. Currently living in the mountains of Tennessee, Marisa enjoys paddle boarding and hiking, but she is counting down the days until she can move back to the beach. You can read our Dear English Major interview with Marisa Stickel here.