Category Archives: Student News

Waiving Your Right to Access Recommendation Letters, & Other Advice for PhD Program Applications

Some of our MA students aspire to join a subsequent program upon completing their MA degree, such as a PhD or MFA program. If you’re one of those students interested in pursuing a PhD, this blog post is for you. This will be a long one so get a cup of coffee.

Securing admission to a PhD program has always been, and is still, a very difficult thing to do. The field is highly competitive. Most programs open just a few seats each year and have hundreds of applicants (the CUNY Graduate Center, for example, opens 15 to 20 English PhD seats each year and receives four hundred applications on average; UC Berkeley opens about 10 to 15 English PhD seats each year and receives upwards of five hundred applications annually). This information isn’t meant to discourage, is rather meant to contextualize the process so that your expectations will be informed by real data. Some of our MA graduates have achieved entry into PhD programs; others have tried and have not. There are steps you can take during your MA studies to make yourself a more viable candidate for PhD programs.

This includes developing a rapport with Mercy professors who teach and publish in your area of interest and from whom you will eventually want to request a recommendation. Building a rapport can be accomplished by taking courses with those professors and making sure you’re a positive and helpful presence in the classroom, aren’t just doing the bare minimum but are striving in discussions and in your papers to go beyond the minimum required. Building rapport can also be done by treating your professors with respect in exchanges of all sorts, whether in the classroom, in email, on the phone, or otherwise.

Another step is to go beyond the classroom and engage in the other types of professional development: such as presenting papers at conferences, conventions and symposiums. This might sound daunting but it can be done rather easily by reading something you’ve written for one of your MA classes at our annual Graduate Student Symposium; the next one of which will be held later this spring on zoom. Details about that will be shared on this blog in good time. Presenting in this way is classified as “scholarship” and having any sort of scholarship listed on your curriculum vitae is practically essential for applying to PhD programs these days.

The next-level of scholarship, the most valuable form of scholarship, is publication by peer-reviewed journals or presses. But it’s extremely rare for applicants applying for PhD programs to actually have publications of this sort. Most often it’s during PhD studies that a student begins to achieve scholarly publication of this sort. Again, presenting scholarship at conferences, conventions, and symposiums is the most reasonable focus for your scholarship as an MA student.

Performing other relevant work can boost your application chances too, such as volunteering for an editorial position for the college’s annual Red Hyacinth literary journal (advertised each year on the blog). Such volunteer editorial work doesn’t have to be done at Mercy College, so be on the lookout for similar opportunities in your area, or online.

Within your classes, be sure to read everything assigned; and read as much as is possible beyond the required readings. That can mean reading the recommended readings a professor might list, or even just doing your own research each week to secure sources, primary or secondary, relevant to the required reading. You all need to secure an assortment of secondary sources when completing your papers, but doing that sort of scholarly work throughout the semester, rather than just when the papers are coming due, will both develop your research chops and increase your overall knowledge of and experience with texts and scholarship in the field.


Typically PhD programs will accept applications during the spring, summer and early fall of the year prior to the intended year of entry, and will have a deadline late in the fall of that prior year (so for example, if applying for fall 2024 entry, the deadline for applications will normally be fall or early winter 2023). What this means is that MA students who aspire to apply to a PhD program for fall 2024, and who are on track to complete their MA degree prior to fall 2024, should be starting to survey the scene and get their application materials together now.

Surveying the scene can include selecting what programs to apply to, reviewing the applications from those places, gathering required application materials, establishing your recommenders, and actually submitting the application. Let’s talk about these steps.

When selecting institutions to apply to, the first consideration is whether or not you’re willing to relocate. If you’re not, then don’t waste time looking into any institution beyond whatever is your commute distance. It’s rare for someone to not have to relocate to attend a PhD program, so just keep that in mind. Even today it’s difficult to find a PhD program that’s fully online because one of the primary responsibilities of a PhD program is providing its students with old-fashioned in-room teaching experience. This is why you might find a few almost-fully-online options out there, but they’ll still usually require a semester or two of residency (because that’s when they’ll put you in the classroom to teach).

Research various programs. Learn about their faculty, and particularly about the faculty teaching in the area of your interest. Review their curriculum and see if it speaks to you. Find out what financial support the program offers (some offer “full rides” to every incoming student, others might have competitive scholarship or grant opportunities for some students, others offer support only through work-study and teaching fellowships, while others offer little or no support. Of course the programs that offer the most widespread and comprehensive support are also the most sought and competitive to enter, and so might not be the most reasonable target for your application).

Consider a range of institutions; and to increase your chance of success, apply to multiple institutions. A good start is to look into state universities (University of [X] and [X] State University). Avoid the allure of applying only (or at all) to the supposedly elite/prestige institutions. Ivy league institutions, for example, might open just a few new PhD seats in a year, and might favor their own undergrads or MA students, or applicants from what they consider to be their elite “peer” institutions. Moonshot applications to such places, including to ultra-elite public institutions such as UC Berkely, have an extremely low chance of success for most applicants nationwide, and especially those not already in the pipeline of these institutions. Of course you should do what you want and feel is right, but each application costs money. Consider, always, the cost of such things. As a point of reference, in recent years Mercy College MA students have entered PhD programs at: University of Wisconsin, University of Georgia, Texas Tech, Marquette University, St. Johns University, Bowling Green State University, Nova Southeastern University, among others.

Regarding recommendation letters: establish your faculty recommenders many months before any recommendation will actually be due. One of the rudest things you can do in this regard is to approach a faculty member for a recommendation that’s due next week. Many faculty will simply say no in that situation, as they will already have a huge queue of work to which they are tending. If you’re planning to apply to programs for a 2024 start, now is the right time to be asking around and securing your recommenders. Keep in mind that in instances where you and another candidate look essentially identical on paper, your recommendation letters will likely spell the difference. You want to be sure that whomever is writing your letter has plenty of time to do so, doesn’t feel rushed, and doesn’t feel disrespected (which is how it can feel when someone asks for a letter due next week). And with that in mind, let’s talk about the point included in the title to this blog post:

When submitting your application you will be asked whether or not you waive your right to access the recommendation submitted on your behalf. Of course the choice is yours to do whatever you want, but you should strongly consider waiving your right to access. You’re not going to find any Admissions Dept. that will ever say this in writing, but institutions will generally be skeptical of recommendations submitted for someone who did not waive their right to access the recommendation. The only reason this is even an option is due to a lawsuit a few decades ago which thereafter required this to be an option. Prior to that, recommendations were by default kept confidential between the recommender and the institution. When the recommendation is kept confidential, meaning is done without the applicant monitoring the exchange, institutions know that whatever the recommender is saying is the unfiltered truth. If the right to access the recommendation is not waived, though, institutions might presume that the recommendation is skewed toward the positive due to the recommender’s knowledge that the applicant is monitoring the recommendation. It’s human nature: people tend not to say anything critical about someone if that person is standing right there, and so the possibility of the student monitoring the situation threatens to invalidate anything positive being offered by the recommender.

Your recommenders know if you refused to waive your right to access the recommendation because we get an alert informing us of this when we go to submit our recommendation.

So from the institution’s perspective, not waiving the right to access could suggest that the applicant does not trust the recommender to provide a positive recommendation, or is even hoping to influence the recommender into providing a more positive recommendation than they might have otherwise. For the exact same reasons, from the recommender’s perspective, it can be insulting when you choose not to waive your right to access the recommendation.

The irony is that you should only be asking for letters of recommendation from faculty whom you know for sure will say only wonderful things about you (and the way you secure such faculty, and know as much, is by building rapport with faculty as described above). And so there should be no question that your recommenders will be saying only wonderful things on your behalf. And so by not waiving your right to access, you risk invalidating, in the eyes of your target institution, a glowing recommendation that would have been no less glowing otherwise. And you risk alienating your recommender.

If you’re curious to see what your recommenders are saying about you, all you have to do is ask them privately to share with you a copy of their letter. Most faculty are happy to do so, especially because there are plenty of situations in the world where it will help you to have a copy of the letter in-hand anyway.

Deciding whether or not to apply to a PhD program is a big decision. If you decide that you want to apply, that’s just the beginning of an application process that takes time, patience, research, and money; and that doesn’t always result in landing a seat in a PhD program. Hopefully the information and advice above will prove useful to those in our MA program who are interested in applying to PhD programs. As a last bit of advice: speak with your 599 thesis tutorial mentor for more personal suggestions and advice regarding this process.

Zoom Holiday Social Hour Wrap-up

Just want take a moment here to say thank you to the students, alumni, and faculty (and the dog) who were able to attend the holiday social hour hosted by Dr. Kilpatrick this afternoon on zoom. It was a nice time, full of conversation, stories, and humor. We will have future zoom social hours in 2023, in addition to our annual symposium. Information about those events will be posted here on the blog, as they come into view.

Cheers and Happy Holidays to everyone in the graduate English community!

Zoom Holiday Social Hour, Friday 12/16 at 3pm eastern

This coming Friday 12/16, at 3pm eastern, Dr. Kilpatrick will be hosting a live-online holiday social hour for the graduate English community. So make a cup of coffee, or pour yourself your favorite holiday drink, and get online this Friday afternoon for some casual conversation and holiday cheer. Use the link below to attend:

Zoom Meeting ID: 929 6065 4436

Passcode: 314781

Student & Alumni Zoom Meeting, Friday 10/14, 12:45-1:30pm Eastern

All current students and alumni of the Mercy College MA in English Literature program are invited (and encouraged) to attend a Zoom meeting on Friday, 10/14, at 12:45pm eastern. The meeting will be with Dr. Jennifer Ryan-Bryant from SUNY Buffalo State. Dr. Ryan-Bryant is what’s called an “external reviewer” and she is reviewing the Mercy College MA English Lit program as a part of a greater five-year self-study process that all programs at accredited colleges/universities are required to undergo. For an external reviewer, meeting with students and alumni to hear your thoughts and feelings, whether positive or negative, about your experiences in the MA program is one of the most valuable and important parts of this process. To be clear: the external reviewer is not reviewing the students and alumni, she is reviewing the program’s faculty and curriculum, to determine if the the program is providing a substantive and effective graduate education to our students. No one can speak better to that than students and alumni.

No Mercy College faculty will be present for this, except at the very beginning when the Program Director will introduce Dr. Ryan-Bryant to the room, and then will exit the room. And although the external reviewer will include in her report some of the things she learns from this meeting, any such information will be anonymous.

To obtain the zoom link for this meeting, or if you have any questions, please contact the Program Director at

We encourage all students and alumni to attend this meeting and to express yourself!

Red Hyacinth Journal: Editors Needed!

Red Hyacinth Journal is an annually published, perfect-bound literary magazine that showcases the writing and art of Mercy College students and alum. The journal’s first issue was produced in 2018 through the generosity of the family of the late Professor Valerie Lewis, a former instructor in the English program.  Over the past few issues, Red Hyacinth has featured the diverse creative work of over 200 Mercy College graduate and undergraduate students from across many majors and disciplines. Student editors from the Departments of Literature and Language and Communication and the Arts collaborate on the editorial decisions, design, and concept. The journal’s student editors receive hands-on experience in the editorial and production processes as they select the work (poetry, drama, nonfiction, fiction, and art) in a blind-review process, prepare the magazine for press, and communicate with the college community regarding its release. The journal’s website can be found at

As we put together a 6th annual issue (2023) we are looking to assemble an all-volunteer staff of Editors. Many literary magazines are produced by not-for-profit entities such as colleges and art collectives, and as such, most rely on a volunteer staff. While the positions are not paid, the Editors’ names appear in the Masthead of the journal and editorial service can be listed on one’s resume and referenced in job interviews. Serving as an editor provides graduate and undergraduate students with invaluable, relevant, hands-on experience in editing, publishing, and arts administration, and allows you to make an important contribution to the Mercy Community, one that will endure for years to come. The journal is a “living” artifact, representing not only the students and editors who collaborate on an issue, but the challenges and aesthetics of the time in which the journal was produced.

We are looking for reliable, dedicated volunteers to fill the following positions for the 2022-23 academic year. The positions will start immediately and generally run until May 2023. In general, the first month or so of service is light as we wait for submissions to come in. All positions will currently operate remotely and applicants must have access to a computer, Zoom, reliable Internet, and the ability to meet at least twice a month during the day, Eastern Standard Time, to collaborate with other editors; some daytime availability (morning or afternoon) is required. Editors cannot publish their own work in the issue they are serving on.

If interested, please send your resume and/or a brief letter stating your interest and qualifications, as well as the general hours of your availability Eastern Standard Time, to Dr. Kristen Keckler, no later than Oct 4, 2022.

Because the work is spread out over several months, the time commitment is manageable. Editors will be provided back issues of the journal so that they can see various versions of the finished product. Below you can find more information about the two different types of editorial positions we’re looking to fill:

Managing Editor (Priority position)

The Managing Editor position functions as the top editorial position on the staff and manages the day-to-day operations of the literary Journal for one cycle/issue, with the opportunity for renewal for another issue cycle if the candidate so desires. The Managing Editor will coordinate with the content and design editors to ensure that the team stays on task and that deadlines and benchmarks are met at key junctures in the production schedule. The position requires strong organizational skills and ability to create spreadsheets using Google.

Responsibilities include:

  • Manage the email and Google drive for the journal
  • Communicate with students/alum who submit to the journal
  • Create spreadsheets to track submissions and ensure a blind submission process
  • Create and monitor Google doc for Content Editors to mark as they review submissions
  • Lead editorial meetings
  • Communicate with faculty advisor about progress  
  • Ensure names of contributors are correctly reflected in journal and titles of pieces are accurate

Content Editors

Content Editors will review submissions in various written genres (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, etc.) and determine the artistic merit/potential of each piece and its suitability for the issue of the journal. There are a limited number of Content Editor positions.

Content Editors’ responsibilities include:

  • Read submissions and mark notes on the spreadsheet
  • attending Zoom meetings to discuss the submissions and decide on which content is most suitable for the issue in terms of showcasing a variety of themes, styles, voices, and genres.
  • collaborating to decide on the order and “arc” of the journal’s creative work, deciding on, for example, which pieces have connections that can be highlighted through juxtaposition and ordering
  • assist in light copy editing and review of proofs for errors/omissions
  • assist with outreach to classes and potential contributors about the journal
  • other assistance as needed from faculty advisor and managing editor

Attention students and alumni: please complete this program survey!

Every five years, as a part of Mercy College’s accreditation, the MA English Lit program is required to perform a “program self-study.” This involves the Program Director gathering together data and other info, including student & alumni feedback, and then reflecting with the MA faculty and college administrators on what these elements reveal. The goal is to identify where the program is succeeding, and where it needs improvement, based on what we learn from the “self study.”

Few things are as meaningful and as valuable for these purposes as student feedback, so please, if you’re an incoming student, active student, or alum, take some time and complete the survey linked here. Complete as much of it as makes sense (you don’t need to answer every question) and then click the submit button down at the bottom. Your voice is so important and so I hope that each of you will raise your voice and express yourself through the survey.

Survey responses are anonymous.

The direct link to the survey form, in case your browser is blocking the embedded link above is:

Any questions about the survey? Please write to

Call for Applications: FALL 2022 English Learning Assistants (formerly known as Teaching Assistants)

We are now accepting applications for fall 2022 online English Learning Assistants (ELAs). This is the next-step in the evolution of our graduate teaching-assistantship program.

The deadline for submitting the required materials is: July 1, 2022.

Details about the ELA position’s responsibilities and requirements, and pay, as well as detailed instructions for applying, are in the PDF linked here.

All questions regarding the ELA position and application process should be directed to Emily Cunningham, Assistant Program Director of IREPO, at:

Experience as an ELA can be a valuable line-item in a curriculum vitae. And assisting in a classroom will provide a first-hand look at, and real-time experience with, how an actual college composition course unfolds over a semester. We strongly encourage anyone in the MA program who hopes to pursue a PhD, or to teach at all in the future, to apply.

ELA positions are limited.

Year-End Events and Honors: Symposium, Student Awards, and Commencement

It’s the end of the academic year, which means it’s time to celebrate! One way we celebrate, as a graduate community, is with the annual graduate student symposium, which this year was held live-online at the end of April. Eight grad students presented a variety of scholarly and creative work. Four graduate faculty members moderated the different sessions. Other program faculty, and an Associate Provost of the college, were in attendance, as were a number of other active MA students and alumni. It was an interesting, idea-filled, and collegial event. Click the banner below to see the program for the event, and to get a look at the topics on which students presented:

Another way we celebrate the end of the academic year is by awarding four different program distinctions. The first of these is the Graduate English Christie Bowl, named for the late Joannes Christie who established and long chaired Mercy College’s English Program. The award, determined by the collective graduate faculty, recognizes one graduating student for their consistent academic excellence and classroom performance throughout their time in the graduate program, their other contributions to the program’s scholarly learning community, and their relevant accomplishments beyond the program.

  • The winner of the 2022 Graduate English Christie Bowl is Cera Bryant Fornataro 

Next is the Howard Canaan Thesis Award for Innovation. This award honors the late Dr. Canaan, a long-time and highly-esteemed professor of English at Mercy College who (among many other things) taught Shakespeare and Science Fiction, and advocated that the latter could be as meaningful an area of study, could be as “literary” and as significant, as the former. This award recognizes a thesis that does one or some of the following: approaches literary analysis in a unique, unexpected, or unusual way; reconsiders and otherwise treats with dignity genre fiction; or involves interdisciplinary studies.

  • The winner of the 2022 Howard Canaan Thesis Award for Innovation is John Alleman for his study “Revision and Women in a Selection of Alan Moore’s Comics”

Next we have the Thesis Award for English Studies. “English Studies” is an encompassing term that includes literary study and traditional literary pursuits but also enfolds wider practices in the field of English such as: theory, linguistics, writing, and rhetoric; inquiring into research practices, into English curriculum and canon, and into the teaching of English; exploring aspects of digital literacy; and more. This thesis award therefore recognizes an exceptional thesis that tends to the intra-disciplinary thresholds within the field of English.

  • The winner of the 2022 Thesis Award for English Studies is Melissa Lizotte for her study “Empowering Student Writers: A Genre Approach to Teaching the College Admissions Essay”

Lastly we have the overall Thesis of the Year Award. Selecting one study for this award, as much as for any of the thesis awards, is always extraordinarily difficult, as thesis students across the program regularly create excellent studies that are each worthy in their own right. The paper receiving this distinction stood out in all respects.

  • The winner of the 2022 Thesis of the Year Award is Cera Bryant Fornataro for her study “Intersectional Mysticism: Tarot, Hoodoo, Folk Magic, and the Working Conjure Woman in Select Works by Sandra Cisneros and Zora Neale Hurston.”

It is always a strange thing to announce such distinctions as when doing so one can’t help but think of the marvelous students and studies that are not the ones named. Again, it is extraordinarily difficult for faculty judges to locate any single person to honor for any of these awards out of the many exceptional students graduating each year from our program and the college overall. So as we recognize these honorees let us please also recognize all members of the graduating MA class of 2021-22 for their hard work and dedication that has gotten them to this moment of completing their MA degree in English Literature.

One final way we celebrate the end of the academic year is with commencement. Mercy College held five different commencements over the course of the past week, one for each of Mercy’s five schools (Liberal Arts, Health & Natural Sciences, Social & Behavioral Sciences, Education, and Business). The School of Liberal Arts, in which our MA program is housed, held commencement this past Wednesday. A good number of graduate English students were in attendance and walked in the procession. Below is a shot of the 100-yard tent on the western athletic field under which the event was held, this taken a few hours prior to the ceremony.

Cheers to everyone in the MA English Literature program, to our alumni, and to all of your family and friends. Congratulations to our graduating class of 2021-22. I hope that everyone will do something special, something nice for yourselves, to celebrate in your own way the end of the academic year, and the start of the summer. Onward!

Info about the SLA Graduation (Commencement) Ceremony on 5/18

This Wednesday, 5/18, the School of Liberal Arts (SLA) will hold its graduation commencement ceremony on the Dobbs Ferry campus. Below you can see the tent being set up for the event on the western athletic field.

For any graduating students traveling to campus to attend here are a few things you should know:

First, the SLA event runs from 2pm to 4pm. Earlier that day, from 10am to noon, is the School of Business’s (SBUS) commencement ceremony. No one knows if the two hour window between the two events will be adequate for the SBUS attendees to exit the campus to clear the venue and parking spots for the SLA attendees arriving. This is the first time the college is holding commencement at the Dobbs Ferry campus so there are a lot of unknowns. The college’s other schools are holding their commencement ceremonies on other days this week.

Anyone who has registered for commencement should have received a temporary parking permit. You must have a parking permit to drive onto the campus. Security will turn you around at the campus entrance otherwise. If you have registered for the event but have not received a temp parking permit, contact immediately. FYI the Ardsley on Hudson Metro North station, on the MTA Hudson River Line, is just through those trees on the right side of the above image.

There will be coffee, water, snacks, bathrooms, and a place for our graduating MA English students (and other SLA students) and their families to sit prior to the event in the Gratia Maher Hall conference room. The room will be open from about 11:45am until about 1:30pm. Faculty will be moving in and out of the building that day in preparation for the ceremony, but you might see a few familiar faces in passing if you’re sitting in Maher Hall that afternoon.

Of course you don’t need to attend commencement to actually graduate. Commencement is a purely ceremonial event. Everyone who has met all of the requirements for the MA degree will be conferred their degree this month. Your physical diploma will be mailed out later, over the summer, but you will officially hold the MA degree once it has been conferred by the Registrar of the college. Any questions write to