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It was Shakespeare who wrote, "I have immortal longings in me." And if he’s achieved immortality, it’s not only due to the countless high school students who’ve sat bleary-eyed through Richard III, nor to Kenneth Branagh’s noble efforts. It’s through the work of the countless students of English literature who have dignified it with their scrutiny. It’s through their scholarship that the greatest works of the English Language are still-living works which grow and continue to have meaning.

The study of English Literature is the study of the past and the present, and is especially important when one considers the power the literature has had to shape so many cultures and societies. Graduate students examine not just how English Literature reflects its own society, culture, politics, economics, religion, and aesthetics, but also how it is reflected in and has shaped those of many other cultures. At the same time, as with any study of literature, English Literature demands an in-depth knowledge of how language itself operates. Thus, semiotics and structure accompany theory and history in most programs.

But since the sun has more or less set on the British Empire, students have had to begin to ask what constitutes English Literature. Literature in conversation has become an important part of the course of studies as former colonies have responded to English Literature—and have begun to build their own.

Degree Information

An M.A. in English Literature will normally take between one and two years, and will involve submission of a master’s paper or a thesis and written exam(s).

Many programs offer a Ph.D. in English with specialization in English Literature, though some now offering a Ph.D. in English Literature. Either doctorate will take between five and seven years, and will involve a submission and defense of a written dissertation. Some degree programs often require doctoral candidates to pass a set of comprehensive exams before awarding the degree in addition to the thesis.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a Degree Program

  • Who are the faculty members and what are their areas of concentration?
  • What sort of access do you have to faculty members, especially any big names?
  • With which other departments does the English department cooperate?
  • What about the students? Where are they from? What are their academic interests?
  • What about the alumni? Have they been successful in the job market, particular within academia?
  • How much financial aid is available?
  • What kinds of fellowships or teaching assistantships are available?

Career Overview

A graduate degree in English Literature is not necessarily a vocational degree. Nonetheless, the skills emphasized in pursuit of the degree—clarity of thought and expression, historical analysis and critical thinking—are invaluable in any number of professions. Because literature is so often examined in light of other elements of culture, students develop a broad base of knowledge that can lead to careers in journalism, media, law, higher education, publishing, teaching, arts, media, administration and even business. If you are interested in teaching, a master’s degree may be sufficient for teaching at the secondary school level, while a Ph.D. is almost always required for teaching at the university level.

Career/Licensing Requirements

There are no specific licensing requirements for a career in English Literature.

Salary Information

Because the employment is so varied, the salary range is similarly broad. However, rough estimates give a range between $30,000 and $50,000 for students just out of graduate school. An associate professor in English Literature could expect to make between $30,000 and $40,000 to start, and the median salary for editors (with and without experience) is about $39,000. Writers who have a regular salary (working for magazines or newspapers, or doing technical writing, for example) can earn as little as $20,000 or as much as $80,000 (only about 10 percent earn more).

Related Links

Modern Language Association of America
The Modern Language Association of America has information on periodicals, conferences, readings, jobs and style guides. It also publishes a quarterly newsletter.

Voice of the Shuttle
The Voice of the Shuttle is an online compendium of sites for academic research. It contains searchable areas from multiple disciplines.

English Literature Resources
English Literature Resources provides a lengthy list of other websites bound to be helpful to any student of English literature.


  • Language And Rhetoric

  • Chaucer Through Spenser

  • Colonial And Early National English Literature

  • Critical Theory

  • Modern/Postmodern/Cultural Studies

  • Nineteenth Century English Literature

  • Restoration And Eighteenth Century English Literature

  • Rhetoric And Composition

  • Spenser Through Milton

  • Textual Studies

  • Twentieth Century English Literature