Top Rhet/Comp Schools?

A military colleague asked me today for advice about doctoral programs in composition and rhetoric. This colleague has a M.A. in English and several years of experience teaching and administrating writing courses, and is thinking about taking early retirement from the military and wondering where to go and what factors to consider. Of course it depends what areas you’re interested in, I said, and noted that it’s generally not a good idea to pursue a PhD without full funding from the institution (ideally with a 1/1 load for the TAship and the opportunity to teach and design a variety of courses) and health insurance, and it’s awfully nice (from my experience) to have a TA union, and so on. But programs themselves? Well, there are published and online guides, I know, but my colleague got me thinking, and so I’m curious as to what the proverbial word on the street might be:

What, in your opinion, are the ten best PhD programs in rhetoric and composition?

Of course, the criteria themselves for ‘best’ are open to debate, and again, it depends on what one’s scholarly interests are. I’d certainly expect to see Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, UT Austin, Michigan State, Carnegie Mellon, and Syracuse at or near the top of a lot of lists, and I’ve got strong feelings about the excellence of other programs as well — Pitt for its unique and compelling cultural studies approach, and UMass and UNH for their deep (and evolving) historical investment in the process approach — so I’ll ask: what do you think? What would your top 10 be, and what would you say their particular areas of excellence are?

Where do you admire?

Top Rhet/Comp Schools?
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35 thoughts on “Top Rhet/Comp Schools?

  • January 5, 2007 at 12:19 am

    I think I would view a Top 10 list as a very early, very tentative starting point, even though your candidates seem like the right ones (for my money, Syracuse would top the list). Criteria that seemed minor at first — location, personality of fellow grads, looseness of the working environment — have ended up meaning more to me as I’ve progressed. In the end, all of it matters, but what the individual student negotiates after arriving is just as important as what they find out before they make a decision. A scholar can flourish in a relatively unknown program as long as they have some idea of what they want to do, the basics are there and the environment is supportive.

    I guess I’d say the decision process really is a *process*… it’s worth spending a long time on. It’s important to find people who know programs — and more importantly, who know the state of each program now. I put together a spreadsheet with all sorts of info, but I also spent a lot of time talking to a prof in my MA program (Bill Condon) who helped me cross several programs off my list. Campus visits refined the list. The process led me directly to UNH, which ended up really working for me.

    That being said, I don’t know if UNH is “top 10,” due to our current faculty situation. I’d probably feel a little lost as an incoming student in 07-08. But our strengths are definitely second-language writing and all of the broader literacy issues surrounding composition studies. And we’re getting much stronger in research methods.

  • January 5, 2007 at 12:28 am

    Interesting question. I suspect there might be at least one school west of the Rockies, even if Bill didn’t suggest it (Texas doesn’t count as west of the Rockies). Since I can’t think of any schools to name, though, I’ll just suggest that finding a good fit for the personal part of one’s life is as important as finding the right sort of academic fit. We see folks on Tech Rhet getting jobs and they come from all sorts of schools. I’d say a good school is one that gets you a job, assuming that’s your goal. So, UMass qualifies, as does Ball St. and many others. Maybe the question to ask is where are the folks who are getting jobs they want to keep getting schooled?

  • January 5, 2007 at 12:39 pm

    Mike, I totally agree, and I really should have expanded my “and so on” with all the smart stuff you say. Collegiality, mentoring, flexibility, and all those other intangibles contributed as much to my current (n00b) professional happiness as any sort of institutional reputation or status — but I think that’s sort of what I’m asking, too: beyond that institutional rep or status, what institutions with their intangibles — as Bradley asks — make people happiest with the jobs they get?

  • January 5, 2007 at 7:23 pm

    I wanted to participate in this thread, but as the grad director of a program, I’m conscious of how my contribution could be taken up. So in addition to those already listed, and without really offering my top 10, I’d add Arizona, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin to the conversation.

    A further piece of advice, for folks in the region, would be to take advantage of CCCC proximity. Grad students and faculty are often more than happy to spend 15 minutes pitching their programs–the right approach over a day or two at C’s could tell a lot about our field’s programs. Even a scan of the conference program for panels that are doing the kinds of work that a body is interested in doing, and tracing back to those folks’ grad programs, might be a useful way to proceed if costs are prohibitive.


  • January 6, 2007 at 11:01 am

    University of Louisville’s a good one too.

    Seems like there are clearly tiers, and Ohio State, Penn State, and Purdue are first-tier all the way. If you say there are five or six programs in each tier, then U of Texas and a couple of others would be first-tier too.

    People appear to agree on (in no particular order):

    Ohio State
    Penn State
    U of Texas
    Michigan State

    This is for rhetoric and composition, mind. For tech comm, you’ve got U of Minnesota, Michigan Tech, Iowa State, and University of Washington.

  • February 17, 2007 at 12:02 am

    I have heard a lot of good things about RPI. What is your opinion of Rensselaer?

  • March 1, 2007 at 12:14 pm

    Is it more important that the program be ranked outside of the Rhet/Comp field (in the “oh-so-important,” yet totally biased U.S. News & World Report), or that the program has prominence within the field of Rhet/Comp? With teaching jobs as slim as they are, would a program like UT give you more cache in the job market after graduation than a program like OSU?

  • May 21, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    Hi There –

    I am a graduate student in my final semester studying Cultural Rhetoric at Arizona State University. I am tentatively researching PhD programs and I am a total novice. I would like to continue studying Cultural Rhetorical studies. In your opinion(s) what is the best way to asses the quality of a program and what it has to offer. How does one determine top quality rhetorical programs? I agree with Mike in his reference to the looseness of a program. I would like to pursue studies in a school that allows me a large spanse of oppurtunity to experiment and approach ideas from differing perspectives.

    Any advice would be much appreciated.
    Thank you.

  • May 22, 2008 at 9:41 am

    Mary, there’s a good discussion about this on WPA-L that you should be able to search the listserv archives for. (And WPA-L, if you’re not already on it, is easy to find via Google, and worth paying attention to — and you may see messages from people at programs you’re interested in, who can give you feedback.) Mike’s link to Paul Matsuda is very much worth following, as well — which, of course, you know, since he’s one of your faculty. And that’s probably the best solution for you: ask your faculty members! They know the field extremely well, they know your interests, and they’re there to help and mentor you, which includes answering exactly the type of question you’re asking here.

    Beyond that, all the advice above is very worthwhile — and to belatedly answer Lynn’s question, stature within rhet/comp matters more than the general U.S. News rankings, but again, “fit” and satisfaction trump both those.

  • December 28, 2008 at 10:33 pm

    Do you need an MA in Rhetoric and Composition in order to get into a PhD program in Rhetoric and Composition?

  • December 28, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    Does the University of Utah have a good MA program in Rhet/Comp? I have heard some good things about their faculty.

  • December 29, 2008 at 12:52 am

    Melissa, you don’t need an MA in Rhet/Comp in order to get into a Rhet/Comp PhD program — but I would suggest that having some coursework that gives you an idea of the shape of the field will make you a much stronger candidate. At the very least, I’d recommend familiarizing yourself with the Bedford Bibliography.

    I don’t know anything about Utah’s program, I’m afraid.

  • December 29, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    Do you usually have to take a lot of extra coursework if you don’t have an MA in Rhet/Comp and you go to a Ph.D. program in Rhet/Comp? If so, how long would the Ph.D. usually take?

  • December 31, 2008 at 12:22 am

    Not really, but if you’re going to be a good job candidate once you finish your PhD, it’s a good idea to know the shape of the field going in — and that knowledge will also help guide you more swiftly toward your dissertation topic.

    The fastest people I know do the PhD in 4 or 5 years: 2 years for coursework, 6 months for qualifying exams, and the rest for the dissertation. But fast does not necessarily mean good. People often get bogged down with the dissertation, and some never finish. In my mind, a good dissertation — one you learn from — takes at least two years to work through.

  • December 31, 2008 at 10:57 am

    4 or 5 years after the MA?

  • February 21, 2009 at 1:37 am

    This is a great thread, and many of you are asking the sorts of questions to which I have been trying to find answers for quite some time! As far as Lynn’s question goes, I’ve heard different things from different people regarding U.S News and World Report rankings. While my rhet/comp professors have been quick to tell me that it depends on fit and satisfaction, echoing Mike’s advice, English professors have said quite the opposite.

    They’ve told me that because English people are generally on hiring committees and know little about what constitutes a “good” rhet/ comp program, that it’s important to try to marry the two: toward that end, U of Wisconsin-Madison, Penn State, UT, and U of Michigan come to mind, as they are strong English programs with an equally strong rhet/comp component.

    Have you all heard this advice before ? I’ve applied to PhD programs in rhet comp, and I’m having difficulty making a decision, primarily because there don’t seem to be clear cut rankings!

    So, I appreciate any input at all!

  • September 15, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    There used to be a comprehensive list of rhet/comp programs, but I haven’t been able to find it recently. If anyone knows of a flat listing of programs (outside the discussion of which is best) I would appreciate it.

    One thing that i have been doing as I narrow down my list is looking at where faculty graduated from and where the department places their graduates (if it is listed) to help get a sense of the tiers that were being discussed above.

  • January 7, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    Murray is correct that one should not even consider entering a doctoral program without full TA/financial support from the institution. Still the market for doctorates in English, regardless of specialty, is so constipated that pursuing the doctorate in rhetoric/composition remains a highly speculative venture, particularly for the white male candidate. Moreover, the quality of the degree granting program matters not a whit as lesser , fly-by-night institutions like community colleges actually prefer candidates with degrees from the less prestigious universities.

  • January 8, 2010 at 9:09 am

    As a white male and as someone who’s just been a member of a search committee, I have scant patience for bemoaning the imagined challenges faced by “the white male candidate.” As someone who works in rhetoric and composition, I have scant patience for those who describe community colleges as “fly-by-night institutions.” Making those characterizations in conjunction with one another indicates an unfamiliarity with the work and history of rhetoric and composition sufficiently thorough for one to deduce possible reasons for the adjective in the commenter’s alias.

  • January 8, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    The alacrity with which Mike has cast judgment on a commenter with a master’s degree in rhetoric/composition, several years of doctoral work (without an assistantship or one dime of financial aid), and more than a decade of experience in teaching composition (part-time, naturally) at community colleges and universities reflects precisely the mentality that makes a “search committee” such a tough nut to crack.

  • January 19, 2010 at 4:12 am

    Thanks for the great thread! I am currently in an MA program (literature) and I am doing an independant study with our one rhetoric and comp. instructor. One of my primary interests is faith/religion in the writing center and composition classes, but I don’t know if such a topic is even part of the rhetoric and comp. conversation. Any thoughts? And more related to the thread, does anyone know of a good PhD program in rhetoric and comp. that would be interested in working with someone with my interests and Christian perspective?

    • June 29, 2012 at 7:31 pm

      Oh yes, Jesus Christ is definitely part of the rhetoric/composition conversation.
      Or, shall we say: He is – if He exists?
      It’s open to debate, I guess.


  • March 27, 2010 at 1:23 am

    I’m very surprised Washington State University hasn’t been mentioned yet. It’s one of the most collegial environments around, it has a rigorous r/c program, and it has some great instructors, like Victor Villanueva. Also, their writing center keeps winning awards, so the WPA connection is hard to ignore.

    I didn’t see, but has anyone bothered to mention Canadian/UK schools? I’d like to know how they stack up.

  • April 22, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    Any thoughts on Arizona State’s rhet/comp program? They have a huge program, but how does it stack up against the big dogs (i.e., Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin, etc.)?

  • April 27, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    Mike, seeing as how most of the universities mentioned are either in the east or midwest, I would love to know your thoughts on shools like GA State University or WSU’s Rhet/Comp PhD programs.

  • August 10, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    First, I would like to say that I have found the discussion here to be really beneficial. As I’ve continued to find out about more programs (mainly through department websites and talking with other graduate students during conferences) I wanted to add a couple other universities to the discussion.

    In an earlier post Clancy mentioned a handful of programs for technical writing (U. Minnesota, Michigan Tech, Iowa State, and U. Washington). I think that this list is a good start, but I would add Rensselaer Polytechnic and also mention that, while they currently do not have a PhD program, West Virginia University’s MA in Professional Writing and Editing is worth considering. Finally, University of Central Florida offers a PhD in Texts and Technology with a certificate in Professional Writing.

    Fit has been stressed a good deal on this thread and, in relation to technical writing, something that I found worth keeping in mind is if the program leans more towards practical application/experience or rhetorical theory/pedagogy. One reason I think Michigan Tech and West Virginia are two exceptional programs is because they appear to do a really good job of keeping both of these in mind. Especially when considering an MA (MS for Michigan Tech), this balance grants graduate students a certain amount of flexibility to either continue in academia or enter into non-academic fields.

    I was also surprised that Miami (Ohio) and Case Western have not been mentioned yet.

    *The “Ben” posting here is a different person than the “ben” listed above.

  • August 5, 2011 at 12:33 am

    My focus is on writing center theory and administration – I’m thinking about Miami of Ohio and Indiana of Pennsylvania – but I feel a bit like I’m shooting in the dark. Any recommendations?

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  • October 7, 2015 at 2:07 pm

    Hi, I’m a little late to this party, so I’m not sure anyone will read this post, but I thought I’d try.

    I’m applying for fall 2016, and my focus in on pedagogy (with some focus on ESL writers). I am looking only at MA programs and preferably ones with ample funding. I have a list of six schools: Purdue, Arizona State, DePaul, Colorado State, Washington State, and Miami Ohio. One of my recommenders (a literature professor) told me that I’m aiming too low and should look into Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, etc. While I was flattered that she thinks highly of my academic abilities, I also wasn’t sure whether this was another case of literature professors and rhetcomp professors having very different ideas about “good” programs. What do you think? How’s my list?

    FYI–my eventual goal is to teach first-year composition at either a two-year or four-year school. I may pursue a PhD eventually, but it’s not in my plans right now.

    • October 7, 2015 at 7:38 pm

      Hi Sara,

      Your list looks really good. (And yes, by all means, apply to Washington State!) And you’re absolutely right to be considering only positions that offer funding. This list might allow you to dig a little deeper and consider other programs as well. While you’re looking only at MA programs, it’s actually good to consider PhD programs that also offer MAs, because offering the PhD is an indication of the depth of resources that they’ll be able to dedicate to what you’re studying and the range of coursework you’ll be able to do. I also think you’re right about the leanings of your literature professor, who might not fully understand what looks good to people hiring specifically in rhetoric and composition.

      Feel free to drop me a line if you have further questions: my contact info is linked on the main page. And good luck!

  • June 24, 2016 at 4:58 pm

    Hi all,

    I’d argue that University of Michigan’s Joint Program in English and Education, headed by Anne Gere, could be added to a list of great programs. JPEE is small, but grads get tenure track jobs, and the funding here is amazing. (I’m a doctoral candidate). Check it out here:


    • June 28, 2016 at 11:33 am

      Hi B,

      I was reading this thread and thought wow I wish there were some recent posts on here–then I came upon yours. I’ve been looking at JPEE very closely; it’s made it to my top 5. I have an MA in Language and Literacy with a concentration in adult literacy development. I love the idea of the dual PhD but was concerned that the education focus might be too K-12 focused. There isn’t much on the site about that or at least that I could find. Can you speak a bit to the education piece of the program? How does that factor in to someone like myself whose focus is on adult literacy, basic writing, and adult pedagogy?

      Looking forward to your response


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