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English Department

What We Do

Vanderbilt’s graduate program recognizes the challenges facing doctoral candidates today and devotes considerable attention to preparing students to enter the profession. For a good overview of debates about professionalization in relation to the job market, see the MLA’s useful online article:

The article offers suggestions for both students and departments. The recommendations for departments fall into five headings: 1) Providing a Comprehensive Sense of the Profession; 2) Providing Directed Information and Guidance; 3) Establishing or Formalizing Professional Development Programs; 4) Career Mentoring; 5) Making Teaching Important. The graduate program aims to provide support in each of these areas, as described below.

Providing a Comprehensive Sense of the Profession

The DGS arranges a series of plenary events each year designed to help students with different aspects of the profession. Over the past few years, for instance, we have had sessions on the hiring process, featuring a panel of discussants composed of members of Vanderbilt’s most recent hiring committee; on collegiality; grant writing; and on the transition from graduate student to departmental colleague. We also devote considerable attention to research and publication; undergraduate teaching and broad humanistic education; and new developments and changes in the field. In addition to programs discussed below, all first-year students enroll in a proseminar in the fall semester that is designed to help them grasp various aspects of our rapidly changing profession.

Providing Directed Information and Guidance

The graduate program provides extensive guidance along the way, in part through regular cohort meetings with the DGS to discuss everything from the first-year M.A. thesis to preparing for comprehensive exams, assembling dissertation committees, applying for inside and outside fellowships and grants, to going on the job market. This last is described in more detail below.

Job Placement Services: The English Department Placement Officer helps guide students through the application process, from the drafting of application letters and curriculum vitae to conducting practice interviews and practice job talks. The process begins in earnest in the spring of Year 5, as students are finishing their dissertations, and picks up in intensity early in the fall, before the first job listings come out. Students have the opportunity to have their letter and c.v. read by a number of faculty before they are mailed out, and everyone is invited to participate in a practice MLA interview, regardless of whether they already have one scheduled. Students who receive campus call-backs have the opportunity to practice the talk and q and a and to receive extensive feedback on their performance.

Some nuts and bolts: Dossiers typically are handled electronically these days. The dossier should include a c.v. and at least three letters of recommendation.  Other documents, such as award citations, might also be included.  Periodically, students should update their dossier. Members of the faculty, especially committee members and the DGS, are happy to work with students on the format and content of the c.v.  Graduate students are urged to participate in the various workshops and practice sessions run by the Placement Officer. Students should also discuss the job search with as many members of the faculty as possible.

Most English departments now require a completed and approved dissertation from each job applicant, and publications have become increasingly important for successful applications.  It is, there­fore, advisable to consider each seminar paper as an opportunity to contribute to an ongoing conversation in hopes, ideally, of publishing a revised version before going on the job market.  Students should also apply for post-doctoral fellowships simultaneously with the job search. 

Increasingly, the MLA and graduate programs more broadly have come to acknowledge that, given the shortage of tenure-track jobs nation-wide, doctoral candidates also need counsel regarding alternative academic careers and non-academic options for employment. To this end, the Graduate School has an Assistant Dean for Career Development, Ruth Schemmer, and the English Department is currently gathering information about the variety of paths taken by our own PhDs over the years. The MLA website also contains some useful links for those seeking non-academic careers.

Establishing or Formalizing Professional Development Programs

Two key programs stand out here: the first is a departmental publishing program, and the second is college-sponsored program for academic leaders.

Project Publish

Project Publish is a year-long, non-credit, optional program designed to get students to submit an article for publication by May of Year 4. It is run by the DGS with support from other faculty. All students in Year 4 are encouraged to participate; students in Year 3 may participate if 1) a faculty member has told them that one of their seminar papers is potentially publishable; 2) they receive permission from their comprehensive exam committee and from the DGS.

  • Fall semester: three workshops with coordinated assignments
  1. Introduction and Editorial Survey: main focus on how editors think about submissions, making use of a colleague’s database of responses from journal editors to an annual survey
  2. Journal Review: discussion of targeted journals: students come in having devoted some attention to one or two journals that seem appropriate for their article, and each is expected to say something about what they've found. Three invited faculty participants facilitate discussion of writing for particular journals       

   3.    Getting Started: discussion of openings of published articles distributed in advance; students come in prepared to discuss ways of engaging the reader, ways of setting up arguments, in the distributed openings. Students then submit their own opening pages (3-4) by early Nov. deadline. These are read and commented on by DGS, a second faculty member assigned to Project Publish for the year, and by one expert in the field (recruited from faculty)

  • Spring Semester: peer reading groups, deadlines for drafts and consultation with committees

The locus of the work shifts to peer reading groups and dissertation committees: deadlines are set over the semester for meeting with peer reading groups to discuss initial drafts of entire article, then for meeting with dissertation committees to discuss revised drafts; then the process repeats, with goal of submitting article in May of Year 4.


Graduate Leadership Academy

Graduate students have the potential to serve as the next generation of leaders in academe, government, industry, and the professions. The Graduate Leadership Academy aims to fulfill this potential by identifying tomorrow’s leaders and training and inspiring them to assume leadership roles now and in the future. The Graduate Leadership Academy allows students to explore formal topics related to leadership development, engage with key leaders across the university, and learn specific skills that will enhance their development as future leaders. The academy meets monthly throughout the academic year, beginning in late September; each meeting lasts 1-2 hours.

Candidates for the program are nominated by DGSs from across the college and selected by the College.

Career Mentoring

In addition to the programs noted above, the graduate program supplies several layers of mentoring for beginning students. First-year students are assigned 1) a current graduate student mentor by the English Graduate Student Association (; 2) a current lecturer mentor (i.e., new Vanderbilt PhDs working as lecturers in the department as they go on the job market) by the DGS; and 3) a faculty mentor by the DGS.

In subsequent years, students put together committees (first for comprehensive exams, then for the dissertation) with the guidance of the DGS that provide steady career guidance.

Making Teaching Important

Vanderbilt provides extensive teacher training. Each August, new TAs attend Teaching Assistant Orientation events run by the Center for Teaching (; the English Department also runs an annual August workshop for all English TAs.

In addition, TAs are observed by faculty teaching mentors both semesters in their first year of teacher, and again when they first teach basic composition, usually in their third year of teaching. The mentors provide written feedback that is made available to the TA. Colloquia on syllabus design and course-specific pedagogies are offered each spring, and, before setting foot in the classroom as instructor, all TAs observe the kinds of classes they themselves will later teach. TAs are also encouraged to make use of the various services provided by the Center for Teaching.

TAs have full instructional responsibility for their courses, from course design to grading; these are not discussion sections but independent writing-intensive seminars.

The English Department annually awards the Thomas Daniel Young Award for excellence in classroom teaching by a graduate student. The College also makes an annual award for excellence in graduate teaching by a graduate student in the College.