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Ever since the tower of Babel fell, languages have created barriers between nations. With the advent of the internet and the ever-more-popular tendency towards a global community, some of this has changed. But this only makes the need for cooperation and understanding between different societies and cultural groups more necessary. Enter the study of Comparative Literature. A scholastic response to the international situation, the study of Comparative Literature seeks to eliminate artificial boundaries of language and geography which too often define the course of literary scholarship. How better to explore other cultures than through their writing?

Comparative Literature (or Comp Lit) and its insistence on rooting literature in its cultural context promote relations between cultures through exchange of the best that societies have to offer. Comp Lit is the study of diverse cultures—whether cultures defined by national boundaries, or cultures that exist within the same society—and it looks closely at both the contexts of literature and the interaction between literatures

At the same time, Comp Lit looks at the similarities in literary traditions around the world, insisting that the urge to record and interpret is universal, though the methods may differ. It also focuses on the way literature in a given society is linked to other forms of cultural production, like science, film, art, philosophy, religion and music.

Though being able to study materials in their original language is a pre-requisite of Comparative Literature, students of the field can expect to study more than just linguistics and literature. In order to grasp the cultural context of such varied literatures, students have to become well-versed in the cultural and historical backgrounds which create them. Whether this means developing expertise on the political history of Japan, or on the emergence of the oral tradition of the Masai, you can expect to end up with a broad knowledge base indeed.

Degree Information

A Master of Arts (M.A.) in Comparative Literature will normally take between one and two years to complete, and will involve submission of a master’s paper or a thesis, a written exam and mastery of at least one foreign language.

A Ph.D. in Comparative Literature will take between five and seven years to complete, and will involve submission of a dissertation, a comprehensive exam and mastery of multiple foreign languages. Along the way, students will usually earn an M.A.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a Degree Program

  • Which literatures interest me, and does the university have strong departments in those areas?
  • Is the school known for its language faculties as well as its literature faculties?
  • Will I be taught by native speakers?
  • Does the program admit many international students?
  • What sort of access do I have to faculty members, especially any big names?
  • What kinds of fellowships or teaching assistantships are available?

Career Overview

Graduates with a graduate degree in Comparative Literature have a multitude of options available to them. While some end up, predictably, in editorial positions or as writers, professors or translators, many can be found in the U.S. Foreign Service, international relations, tourism and international business. After all, what better way to understand a national culture than to read the materials that create it? And who better to conduct negotiations than someone with an intimate understanding of both parties? The emphasis that a graduate degree in Comparative Literature places on cultural understanding and recognizing both what is unique and universal in literature prepares its students for fostering communications between communities, both in the literary and political realms.

Career/Licensing Requirements

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

Salary Information

The average annual salary for new graduates with a M.A. or Ph.D. in Comparative Literature is between $30,000 and $37,000. The range for all graduates with those degrees, with and without experience, is between $30,000 and $60,000. An associate professor in Comparative 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 with a regular salary and job (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. Also provides a quarterly newsletter.

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

American Comparative Literature Association
The American Comparative Literature Association provides links to journals, prizes, conferences and also to affiliated associations and research sources.