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Matching faculty interests

Hi everyone, 

I'm applying to English programs, and I wondered if I could ask for some advice.  My husband is a resident and will not finish his program until the summer of 2012 and so I'm limited in terms of where I can apply.  My dilemma is this: while there are some really excellent PhD programs around here, for me, honestly, looking through the research areas and interests of the faculty at these programs, I'm finding that I'm not terribly excited by what I see.  These programs have great reputations, but I'm just not finding anyone that fits my interest area very well.  

My question would be this: how important do you think it is to be in a PhD program where the faculty's interests are well aligned with your interests?  Is it enough to have one person, for instance, whose reserach you can sort of see yourself interested in?  I've heard that no matter how great the program, if you can't find someone who's really interested in your work, it can really ruin the experience.  And I've heard that when you write your personal statement, you need to sort of mention some of the faculty's interests and show how your interests fit, and if I were to do that in my situation, I'd be really stretching it, and I'm dreading the process. 

I've got three professors who're on track to write me letters to all these different programs, but I'm thinking now that it might not be worth it to apply to all these PhD programs, because even if I got in (which would be a long shot anyway, given how competitive these programs are), they might not be the best places for me anyway.  I'm thinking it'd be best to get my MA, beef up my application, and then apply out to programs where I'll be happy and when I won't be so bound geographically.  
 
Any wisdom you can offer would be most appreciated. 

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
sarahleigh13
Oct. 17th, 2009 07:41 pm (UTC)
Hi! Based on your options as you present them, I would recommend getting the MA first. Some English PhD programs allow you to apply credits from your MA to the PhD anyway, so it wouldn't necessarily be setting you back a full 1-2 years.

That being said, depending on what your research is on, you may not find a wonderful fit with all of the programs you eventually apply to. After doing an MA in English myself, however, I realized how important "fit" is. Think about it: When you select your main advisor, you want to have a choice. If you want him/her to be knowledgable in your area of research and you've chosen a school with only one professor--or perhaps no professors--who specialize in your area, you're limiting your choices. You will also need several professors to serve as dissertation readers.

If you really want to apply to PhD programs this year, you could also check out professors in related departments if your subject draws from other disciplines (such as history, women's studies, etc.).

Of course, this is all just my opinion. Best of luck! :)
greekdaph
Oct. 17th, 2009 09:30 pm (UTC)
Fit is, as sarahleigh pointed out, really important both for getting into programs and for your happiness within the program itself. But keep in mind that interests do change and that being shaped by the interests of the faculty you're working with can be a good thing.

When you think about fit, one question to ask yourself is, "What new directions will my interests take if I end up in this program?" Are you willing to let yourself be shaped by the people you encounter there, or are their interests antithetical to yours? For instance, I'm a 19th century Americanist, and some programs I visited had such strong early Americanists that I'm sure my work would have ended up going in that direction; other programs had Modernists that would have encouraged me to take my interests into the 20th century; some were more historicist; some focused more on material culture, etc.

The MA route could be a good one for you, provided that you get funding, but if you apply to PhD programs, a helpful question when arguing for fit could be something like, "Are there people in different fields who use the methodologies I want to use?" And: "What are the program's hiring priorities?"--might they get more faculty in your area of interest?
saunders
Oct. 17th, 2009 11:07 pm (UTC)
Definitely seconding Daphna's point about interests changing. I jumped continents and extended my time period in my first year, and I was--or so I thought--totally committed to my stated interests. For me, I was less drawn to the methodology of professors I had originally thought I'd be working with, and found myself really interested in the work of professors who did something completely different. Be open to change: grad school is such an incredible opportunity to learn new things from new people that you can find your interests developing in different directions.
sibilance7
Oct. 18th, 2009 04:32 am (UTC)
Thirding the advice of these two wise posters!
circumfession
Oct. 18th, 2009 02:35 am (UTC)
Fit is, simply put, absolutely essential.

1. Your adviser will become far more important to you than you can possibly imagine: finding someone who "thinks" along the same currents as you (even if they come to different conclusions) and values your particular questions is probably the single most important factor--far above the prestige of the school or how "hot" your topic is--that will determine your success on the job market. (And finding a good "personality" fit is important as well). Trust me on this: you will be utterly miserable if you can't find faculty who supports YOUR work.

2. The faculty interests, predictably, tend to also reflect your peer's interests. I find that I've learned as much outside the classroom as I did within, and finding individuals who are pursuing similar questions...or at the very least, who finds my questions to be intriguing can be challenging, provoking interlocuters has been essential to my scholarly growth. (Conversely, when I lacked such support from my peers, I really floundered).

***

Contrary to what others have said, if you do go the MA route, expect to start over from scratch, particularly if you end up in a top-25 university.One student took spend a year as a "guest" at a particular university, taking a full load of graduate-level coursework for credit. When this person transferred into that program a year later, he/she had to repeat coursework from scratch, including all the classes that she/he had taken at the school the year before. As absurd as this sounds, not a single one of those courses "counted." This seems to be the norm rather than the exception among transfer students and those who arrive in Ph.D programs with an MA degree in hand. While you might be given some credit for previous work (typically limited to one semester's worth), you will almost always be required to complete 2-3 years of coursework (again), before starting your orals.

In short, the MA won't give you a jump start. What it CAN do is provide you with the opportunity to become a stronger scholar, and possibly get into better programs...but that also entails a heavy risk. Switching programs (particularly "trading up") isn't common, unless you have a good excuse for doing so (aka, switching interests). However, it may also be worth considering that it's difficult to "grow" as a scholar without adequate faculty guidance...sure, much of the learning is independent (and I personally tend to learn very well on my own), but you'll want at least some nudges in the right direction. And whenever you leave, do expect some backlash. I'm not saying that it's never worth it, but academia is a tiny world, and you'll have to be careful whom you piss remember. Remember that if you do apply out, especially after 2 years, you MUST ask for recommendations from your graduate professors...which means you'll be announcing that you're trying to leave before you have an offer. If you don't get in, that can be lethal, depending on the politics of your department and how vindictive your professors might be/whether or not they take it personally.
kchoi216
Oct. 19th, 2009 05:51 pm (UTC)
Thank you guys, so much. All of this is really, really helpful!!!
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )