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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 Modern Language Association's (MLA’s) useful online article: "Professionalization in Perspective"

The article offers suggestions for both students and departments. The recommendations for departments fall into five headings:

  • Providing a Comprehensive Sense of the Profession
  • Providing Directed Information and Guidance
  • Establishing or Formalizing Professional Development Programs
  • Career Mentoring
  • 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 Director of Graduate Studies (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 dew developments and changes in the field. In addition to the 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. 

Job Placement Services:  The English Department's Placement Officer helps guide students through the application process, from the drafting of application letters and "curriculum vitae" (c.v.) to conducting practice interviews and practice job talks. This process begins in earnest in the Spring of the fifth year, as students are finishing their dissertations, and picks up in intensity in early Fall before the first job listings are advertised.

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 or not. Students who receive campus call-backs have the opportunity to practice the talk ,"Q & A", and receive extensive feedback on their performance.

Some Nuts and Bolts:  Dossiers are typically handled electronically there days. The dossier should include a c.v. and at least three letters of recommendation. Other documents, such as award citations, may 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 their c.v.

Graduate students are urged to participate in the various workshops and practice sessions run by the Placement Officer. Students should also discuss their job search with as many members of the Faculty as possible.

Most English Departments require a completed and approved dissertation from each job applicant; moreover, publications have become increasingly important for successful applicants. 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 entering the job market. Students should also apply for post-doctoral fellowships simultaneously with the job search. 

Increasingly MLA and graduate programs 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, Vanderbilt's Graduate School as an Assistant Dean for Career Development, Ruth Schemmer, and the English Department is continually gathering information about the variety of paths taken by our own Ph.D.s over the years.

Additionally, 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:

  1. The departmental publishing program, "Project Publish".
  2. The college-sponsored program for academic leaders

Project Publish is a year-long, non-credited, optional program that is designed to get students to submit an article for publication by May of their fourth year. It is run by the DGS with support from other Faculty members. All students in their fourth year are encouraged to participate. Students in their third year 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 is on how editors think about article 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 from attention to one or two journals that seem appropriate for their article. Each is expected to say something about what they've found. Three invited Faculty members participate in facilitating discussion of writing for particular journals.
  3. Getting Started:  Discussion of openings of published article distributed in advance. Students come in prepared to discuss ways of engaging the reader, setting up arguments, and distributed openings. Students will then submit their own opening pages (3-4) by the early November deadline. These are read and commented on by the 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 focus of the work shift to peer reading groups and dissertation committees. Deadlines are set over the course of the semester for meeting with peer reading groups to discuss initial drafts of entire articles, then for meeting with dissertation committees to discuss revised drafts; then the process repeats with the goal of submitting the article in May of the fourth year.

Graduate Leadership Academy 

Graduate students have the potential to serve as the next generation of leaders in academia, government, industry, and the professions. The Graduate Leadership academy aims to fulfill this potential by identifying tomorrow's leaders, 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 university and are selected by the university.

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 assigned by the Vanderbilt English Graduate Student Association.
  2. A current lecturer mentor (i.e. a new Vanderbilt Ph.D. working as a lecturer as they embark on the job market) assigned by the DGS.
  3. A Faculty mentor assigned by the DGS.
In subsequent years, students have put together committees, first for comprehensive exams then for dissertations, with the guidance of the DGS that provides steady career guidance.
Making Teaching Important

Vanderbilt provides extensive teacher training. Each August new Teaching Assistants (T.A.s) attend Teaching Assistant Orientation events run by the Center for Teaching. The English Department also runs an annual August workshop for all English T.A.s.

In addition, T.A.s are observed by Faculty teaching mentors both semesters of their first year of teaching and again when they first teach basic composition, which is typically in their third year of teaching. Mentors provide written feedback that is made available to the T.A. 

Colloquia on syllabus design and course-specific pedagogies are offered each Spring. Before setting foot in the classroom as an instructor, all T.A.s observe the kinds of classes they will later teach. T.A.s are also encouraged to make use of the various services provided by the Center for Teaching.

T.A.s have full instructional responsibility for their courses, which range from course design and 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 University also makes an annual award for excellence in graduate teaching by a graduate student.