In an academic context, English is a broad field of study that encompasses multiple disciplines including literature, writing and composition, cultural and visual studies, and creative and professional writing. Individuals pursuing a degree in the field use theoretical principles and advanced analytical skills to study texts (written, visual, or digital), exploring how they relate to and impact different historical, cultural, economic, ideological, social, religious, gender, local, national, or global contexts.
English is a multi-faceted academic field that covers a vast range of genres (e.g. fiction, poetry), time periods (e.g. 19th century American, post-colonial), and topics (e.g. sexuality, war). Whether in literature, rhetoric, or writing, the study of English advances the understanding of how meaning is derived from historical and contemporary texts, and – more importantly – its mutability based on literary theory, context, and time.
There is a wide variety of graduate programs available in English studies, providing students with the opportunity to specialize in unique aspects of literature or writing that align with their future career goals. Although many master’s in English programs prepare students to continue their studies at the Ph.D. level, there are career opportunities beyond academia for graduates.
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Classification of Master’s in English Programs
Master’s-level English programs are traditionally offered as Master of Arts (M.A.) degrees through English departments or colleges of liberal arts. It is important to note that curriculum may vary across the three major academic tracks: literature, writing, and rhetoric. Below is an overview of these three types of English master’s programs.
Master of Arts in English with a Focus in Literature
The most common academic track for master’s programs in English is literature. The curricular focus of these programs is typically literary criticism and theory. Students who pursue this degree track can expect to develop expert competencies in editing, writing, and academic research in a specific area of literary studies. Example areas of study include:
- American literature (e.g. literature to 1900, literature since 1900)
- British literature (e.g. Renaissance, 18th century, medieval)
- Pre- and post-colonial literature
- Film and visual culture
- Children’s literature
- Gender, race, or identity literature
Master’s degree programs in literature generally use a course of study that emphasizes advanced literary study through critical research of historical, contemporary, and emerging theories and contexts. This foundational education prepares graduates to pursue Ph.D.-level study in the field, or transition into the professional world in areas ranging from business to publishing. These programs can be found at colleges and universities across the country, including the following: Northwestern University’s Master of Arts in Literature, Penn State University’s Master of Arts in English, and Iowa State University’s MA in English.
Master of Arts in English with a Focus in Rhetoric and Composition
Within the field of English, rhetoric and composition studies are concerned with how language (written and non-verbal) is used to convey meaning. Degree programs in this concentration introduce students to rhetorical theories that can be used to analyze and critique texts within different socioeconomic, political, and cultural contexts. With that knowledge, students develop an advanced understanding of writing and how to teach others to write well. They may also have the opportunity to further specialize their studies in a particular area of interest, such as:
- Language and literacy
- Cultural theory
- Writing theory
- Gender studies
Typically, master’s programs with a focus in rhetoric and composition are designed for students who plan on continuing their studies at the Ph.D. level and eventually teach writing at a postsecondary institution, as well as those looking to become writing center directors or transition into another professional career that involves coaching others in the writing process. Some examples of schools that offer a Master of Arts in English with a specialization in rhetoric include: Northern Arizona University’s Master of Arts in English – Rhetoric, Writing, and Digital Media Studies, University of Arizona’s MA in Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English, and Bowling Green University’s Master of Arts in English with Professional Writing and Rhetoric specialization.
Note: MastersinCommunications.com classifies master’s in communication programs with a focus in rhetoric and/or rhetorical studies under communication studies. Please visit our Master’s in Communication Studies page for a comprehensive list of these programs.
Master of Arts in English with a Focus in Writing
When it comes to English graduate programs, there are several sub-disciplines that fall under the category of writing, including writing studies, creative writing, technical writing, and professional writing. Writing studies programs are generally for teachers looking to enhance their knowledge of writing theory pedagogy and strategic teaching practices, especially writing assessment. Pursuing a degree in creative writing can help aspiring or professional writers hone their craft across genres, from literary fiction to poetry. The technical and professional writing tracks are designed for professional communicators who want to advance their knowledge of multi-channel communication, planning, writing, editing, and analysis.
Master’s programs in English with a writing specialization can prepare students for continued studies at the doctoral level, as well as professional opportunities in fields outside of academia, such as communication, digital marketing, technical communication, public relations, publishing, or journalism. Examples of programs in this focus include Carnegie Mellon University’s Master of Arts in Professional Writing, and University of California, Davis’ Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing.
Curriculum Details for Master’s Programs in English
Whether specializing in literature, writing, or rhetoric and composition, graduate programs in English typically share similar curricula, with the option to pursue either a thesis or non-thesis course plan. Thesis course plans generally entail 30 to 36 credit hours that emphasize scholarly research and writing, along with the student’s independent study in their chosen area of literature. Non-thesis plans traditionally require 33 to 36 credit hours focusing on a broader scope of literature, composition, or pedagogy.
Curriculum in these programs is typically divided between core coursework, electives, and the capstone requirement. During their first year, students often complete a foundational course that serves as an introduction to the scholarly methods used in the study of literature and composition. A second core class usually covers critical theory, history of criticism, and an overview of literary studies.
After satisfying core curriculum requirements, students progress into a course of study in their chosen area of specialization. Electives vary considerably based on the program focus students select – literature, writing, or rhetoric and composition. In literature, example specialization topics may include Chaucer, literature and the environment, colonial and post-colonial literature, 19th century American literature, or feminist theory. For students in a rhetoric and composition degree track, elective coursework might cover topics such as discourse analysis, political rhetoric and the media, visual design, or gender and communication. Electives in a writing program may include courses like poetry techniques, fiction workshops, experimental memoir writing, voices in modern fiction, or novel form and style.
Each of these degree tracks typically give students flexibility and creativity in selecting courses to meet their academic goals. Below is a sample list of classes students might find offered in a master’s in English program, depending on its particular focus.
- Introduction to John Milton: This course serves as an overview of John Milton’s poetry and prose, including an examination of the historical contexts surrounding his work, as well as his personal, religious, and political beliefs. Students may also look at how Milton’s individual texts both influenced and were influenced by the theological and political events of his time period.
- Studies in Victorian Literature: Through the study of Victorian writers like Thomas Hardy, this course questions how contemporary thinking on topics such as philosophy and science affect understanding of Victorian sensibilities in the major novels of the time period.
- American Poetry: This course considers Nineteenth-century poetry and its historical and cultural contexts through the study of Dickinson and other writers within the poetry “canon,” typically with a focus on how that poetry shaped literary historical narratives.
- Introduction to Creative Writing: Through lectures and various writing assignments, students develop their unique voice as a writer while gaining a better understanding of different types of creative writing (e.g. fiction, poetry), studying elements such as narration, description, character development, and dialogue.
- Introduction to Linguistics: In this course, students study the central principles of linguistics within English, including topics such as morphology, phonetics, and typology, as well as learn applied skills in related areas of study like language acquisition and sociolinguistics.
- Rhetorical Theory: This course provides an overview of both classical and contemporary rhetorical theory, covering central topics such as Aristotle’s modes of persuasion (ethos, pathos, and logos), figures of speech, and the five canons of rhetoric (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery).
As noted above, master’s in English programs generally require students to complete between 30 and 36 credit hours of study. While total credits may vary depending on the particular program and track, students can typically complete their degree in two years of full-time study. Some English master’s programs also require students to complete and pass a comprehensive examination in addition to their thesis or writing portfolio/project.
Below is a sample course plan for a master’s in English program with a focus in literature that requires a thesis. Keep in mind, curriculum plans will vary based on school and specialization.
Master’s in English Versus Master’s in Technical Communication Programs
While master’s programs in English and technical communication share some similarities in curriculum and subject matter, they are significantly different in their learning objectives, overall structure, and career outcomes. The master’s in technical communication is typically an applied degree track, aimed at professionals who want to develop strategic communication, research, and analytical skills to advance their careers. These programs are generally not designed for those planning on pursuing a Ph.D. in communication or English after completing their master’s degree requirements. In contrast, the master’s in English tends to combine a broader theory- and research-based curriculum for students seeking a doctoral degree after finishing their master’s.
At the master’s level, coursework in a technical communication program focuses on teaching students the technical acumen and writing skills needed to pursue careers as technical editors and writers, information technologists, consultants, document specialists, or other technical writing professionals. The core curriculum typically revolves around focused, skill-based classwork in technical and professional writing. Central areas of study often include content strategy, editing technical content, and information architecture.
Beyond core curriculum, students in technical communication programs may be able to specialize in different areas of study, such as writing for the computer industry, technical design, or user experience. Elective classes introduce students to the process of organizing, examining, and presenting technical information in different mediums for a variety of audiences. Graduate students also gain an understanding of prototyping, sketching, and wiki-documentation, which is increasingly being used in the technical communication space.
Due to the multiple degree tracks available for graduate programs in English and technical communication, students should be sure to review each program’s curriculum, requirements, and core and elective classes before applying, to ensure they choose a course of study that aligns with their academic and professional goals.
For more information about master’s degrees in technical communication, visit our Master’s in Technical Communication Programs page, which includes a comprehensive directory of programs in the United States.
Online Master’s in English Degree Programs
In addition to traditional, campus-based master’s in English programs, many schools offer degrees in the field that can be pursued through online study. These can be a great alternative for working professionals or other busy individuals unable to commute to campus on a regular basis for courses. In fact, an online program may be the only option for students located far from a school that offers graduate English programs, unless they are willing to relocate. With the wide range of degree tracks and specializations available online, students also have more options to choose from when it comes to pursuing a master’s in their particular area of interest.
Online master’s degree programs in English can be found at a variety of colleges and universities. It is important to note, however, that while some can be completed entirely online, others require students to visit campus at certain points throughout their studies for orientations, in-person lectures, discussion groups, or other activities. There are also programs that utilize a hybrid model, in which students complete a portion of their coursework online and the rest through on-campus courses. Before applying to an online master’s in English program, students should check with a school representative to make sure they fully understand any campus-based requirements.
Career Paths for Graduates with a Master’s in English
Earning a master’s degree in English provides students the ability to use a variety of theoretical and historical frameworks to analyze and study literature or conduct rhetorical analysis across different mediums (e.g. oral, written texts). Traditionally, a master’s in English serves as the starting point for continued studies at the doctoral level and a career in academia. However, students develop skills (e.g. critical thinking and analysis, writing, audience-based research, and editing) that translate well into a variety of other career fields, such as journalism, education, business, marketing and advertising, nonprofit and government, or communications. Here are just a few career paths graduates of a master’s in English program might pursue:
- College Professor: Working at four-year universities or community colleges, college professors teach various English, literature, writing, or rhetoric classes, conduct research on their area of specialization, mentor students, publish articles in peer-reviewed journals, attend conferences, and more.
- Content Marketing Manager: Content marketing managers oversee strategic digital content projects, manage editorial calendars, and handle end-to-end content production with writers and editors to create and publish digital content that drives web traffic, leads to audience engagement, and converts to leads or sales.
- Technical Writer: Technical writers translate scientific and technical information about products, processes, or services into language that the general public can understand, using a variety of formats such as operating instructions, how-to manuals, and training guides.
- Public Relations Specialist: Working in nearly every industry, public relations specialists plan, coordinate, and launch strategic communication initiatives to promote a company’s product, services, or personnel, as well as develop and maintain positive relationships with the public and enhance internal communications within a company or organization.
- Market Researcher: Market researchers combine their critical analysis and research skills to study and identify marketing trends within different industries that can be used to understand consumer behaviors and craft creative marketing campaigns or solutions to reach target audiences.
- Grant Writer: Traditionally working in government agencies or nonprofit organizations, grant writers use their writing, editing, and critical analysis skills to locate potential backers, develop strategic approaches for funding requests, and write grant proposals to secure funding for their employer.
- Policy Analyst: Policy analysts examine a broad spectrum of political topics at the local, state, and national level (e.g. trade partnerships, foreign political campaigns) and use qualitative and quantitative research methodologies to identify economic, social, cultural, or political trends that might influence policy making decisions.