What is graduate school in English?
Advanced degrees in English literature fall into three main categories:
MFA (Master of Fine Arts): the degree in creative writing
MA (Master's degree): first stage in the advanced study of literature
PhD (doctoral degree): ultimate degree in the study of literature
The MFA typically takes two to three years. It requires coursework (typically one writing workshop and one literature or craft course each semester or quarter, for two years) and a thesis consisting of a book-length manuscript of poetry or fiction of publishable quality. It prepares you for college or university teaching, although most university jobs will expect you to have published, and some may additionally require a Ph.D. Requirements may vary considerably from program to program; it is important to check the specific programs that interest you. For sample explanations of MFA programs and their requirements, see the websites of the University of California at Irvine, the Johns Hopkins Writers Seminars, and the New School.
The MA typically takes one or two years. It requires coursework (graduate seminars, typically a total of eight) and a master's thesis, a portfolio of work, and/or a comprehensive final exam. It prepares you for jobs other than college or university teaching that require some graduate work (e.g., high-school teaching, publishing). For sample explanations of MA programs and their requirements see the websites of the University of Iowa and Boston University.
The PhD typically takes five to eight years. It includes the MA but then pushes on to further work and additional requirements. It typically requires two years of coursework (for a total of 12 to 16 graduate seminars); qualifying exams of various kinds, typically in the third year of the program; proof of foreign-language proficiency (sometimes three languages, sometimes one, or none); teaching, typically as a "teaching assistant" in a lecture course, or as an instructor in composition or basic-level literature courses; and a dissertation, typically begun in the third year of the program, and evaluated by a "defense" in the year of completion (year five to eight). For sample explanations of the way graduate programs work, see the websites for Rutgers University and The University of Texas at Austin.