Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Applying to PhD Programs: Advice from Faculty

This is part three of our Plan Your M.A. online content. Prior to the session we asked a few faculty to offer some advice about applying to PhD programs. Copies of their advice can be found outside Rome 751. If you have any questions about this advice or the application process, please contact us or your M.A. coordinator Dr. Daiya or your Director of Graduate Studies Dr. McRuer.

Kavita Daiya:
I recommend Cary Nelson's book No University is an Island which illuminates the state of the profession right now and is a must-read for anyone considering entrance into a PhD. program. Also refer to this article by Louis Menand and this article on Professionalizing the Professor for some helpful information on considering relevant issues in the field.

Tony Lopez:
MA students will be expected to express a strong sense of, if not an outright commitment to, a particular field of study in their application, and that the best advice about articulating that will come from someone on our faculty in that field (Victorian, African-American, etc.).

Gayle Wald:
My main advice is for students to work closely with their current professors. Recommendations will be important, as will strong writing samples. But current faculty are students' best resources, as well as contacts at other schools.

Jonathan Hsy:
1. Certain things you NEVER want to say in a personal statement: "Ever since I was little I've always loved to read" (or anything to that effect) or "I want to come to your institution because I like your city" (that in itself is not at all persuasive). You don't know how many applications we get that read like this!

2. Statement of Purpose is NOT a "personal statement." The point of the statement is to provide a sense of your scholarly and intellectual identity and potential. The statement can certainly have a narrative - e.g. outline the development or progression of your interests over time, illustrate how you gained critical thinking skills, or showing how your thinking transformed over the years, etc. But only bring in personal info if it's directly relevant to your actual intellectual goals. When we get essays along the lines of "I was born in a log cabin and overcame adversity" or "I'm a wacky curious intriguing person so please admit me" it reads as lacking maturity (or, to put things another way, it provides information that is not relevant for this purpose).

3. In general, when writing a statement of purpose, it can be useful to frame it in terms of a particular problem (intellectual issue, gap in the critical tradition, new line of thinking, etc.) that you find compelling and build from there. The rest of the statement can focus on narrating your engagement with that issue or the development of your thinking on that topic, and, presumably, you'd suggest how you would pursue that issue (or issues) further in a PhD program.

4. Another general point: think of yourself as a scholar and not a student. Since the PhD is ultimately a research degree, we want to get a sense of how you might have the potential to make contributions to a larger discipline or a broader field of knowledge. (That is, something along the lines of "I learned about X in undergrad and would really love to learn more about it in classes with your faculty" isn't, in itself, very compelling.)

5. When you write your applications, please do your homework: admission committees want to see a *fit* between your application and what the particular school/program has to offer. If there are a few faculty members you could mention by name somewhere in your statement, it shows you have a sense of the program and its strengths. If you say you want to work on, say, Celtic literature, and nobody in that department works on it, then we really can't admit you.

6. General: have as many people take a look at your statement as possible. It might also be worthwhile having someone who you know is a good and attentive reader - but not necessary a "literary" person or an academic - to take a look at it too. This can help give you a sense of what areas are unclear or need more development.

A general word of encouragement: it's worth noting that admission to PhD programs (esp. ones with funding) is competitive, but if you heed these points you are already doing much better than most of the applications in the pile!

Robert McRuer: 
In the personal statement, tailor what you're saying to the university in question (here, for instance, if you're applying to one of our clusters, we do notice that you've looked at the list and thought about who you might like to study with).  Be careful with this, however, because it's also obvious when your tailoring is very cursory.  By that I mean, sometimes students just drop in names of faculty that they've clearly pulled from the website ("I very much look forward to working with XXX member, whose work in American literary studies I respect") with, say, a faculty member named who hasn't published anything in two decades.  In short, see who you might *really* want to study with at a given university.  Avoid sweeping statements like "I want to go on for a PhD because I really love to read.” At this point personal statements are much more intellectually rigorous and trace a range of concerns connected to interest in theory, questions you want to work with as a scholar at the PhD level, etc.
Obviously, choose your very best writing sample; potentially send two if they are short.  Longish writing samples do *not* get a good reading by graduate admissions committees.  Choose your letters well, too— only ask professors who you are certain can write you a solid recommendation.

I'm also of course happy to talk with any of the students who would like to confer with me on their applications.

Thanks for taking a look at our Advice from Faculty post. Stay tuned for more upcoming Academic Enrichment events as well as opportunities to have fun with your fellow grads. We also have advice on Time Management, Stress, and Fostering Faculty-Student Relationships on the way - so check back with us!

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