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Is it too early for Fall 2019 anxiety?


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I'm a 2nd semester junior set on starting the application process this summer/fall (I'm taking the GRE early to have buffer room to retake if need be) and have some serious anxieties about applying. I'm mostly interested in Comp Lit/Critical Theory, but my program (large SEC school) doesn't really offer courses directly dealing with those very often. Besides designing an independent study course, how do I deal with that going forward? 

Also worrying to me is that my college career was very rocky for a few years, including a two year period off to pay back a loan and move to a new area. Since coming back I've earned my AA with a 4.0 and have a 4.0 at my current institution. Will a continuing upward path offset the two-ish years that weren't so great? Do I even need to address this in an SOP? (Barring extreme personal details, obviously.) 

 

 

 

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Hi @jadeisokay! First, I want to say that the advice I am about to give is mostly anecdotal, and I am by no means an authority on this whole process. That said, some of the best advice I got was to take a gap year between undergrad and grad school. I knew halfway through my Sophomore year that this was what I wanted to pursue with my life, and I planned to apply during my senior year, but several grad students and professors strongly advised me against this. After going through this application process, I understand why. Applying to grad school has been a much more intensive, emotionally draining, and intellectually taxing process than I anticipated. Thankfully, I have had the flexibility to only work part time this year; I can't imagine how stressful it would have been to study for the GRE (and subject test), draft my SOP, and complete these applications while taking a full load of classes. I certainly wouldn't have been able to write the same quality of undergraduate thesis, perform my best in my classes, etc. Anecdotally, the people I know who have tried to apply to grad school during their final year of undergrad have not gotten into the programs they wanted and have often been shut out completely.

I am slightly perplexed that your school does not offer many classes in Comp Lit and Critical Theory. Maybe I was spoiled by the quality of my undergraduate English department, but you say you're at a large school, so I'm wondering if there are more opportunities than you realize. Even if your school doesn't have a Comp Lit department, often foreign language departments will have a couple options of literature classes that don't require the language prerequisite (are taught in English). Though, if you are seriously considering Comp Lit programs, it is a good idea to take as many classes in a non-English language as you can. I debated applying to Comp Lit programs but soon realized I did not have the breadth of language experience expected for such. 

I am sorry this has gotten quite long-winded.  But I think it is incredibly important for you to concentrate on the present. Make sure you are taking classes that challenge you, whether they are in your major or not, and talk with Professors and grad students. If you can, write a thesis and/or sit in on graduate seminars. I had the opportunity to take a grad seminar through the history department at my school. It did not correlate with the research I hope to pursue in grad school, but it is something that I can use to show grad programs that I have proven myself capable of graduate-level academia. Your school might not have these specific options available, but you should ask your professors/advisers/peers to make sure there aren't less publicized opportunities. 

Again, this is just based on my own personal experience and what I've seen of my peers' experiences. The fact that you've already found forums like these shows that you are on top of your research. Keep it up and you have good things ahead of you.

Edited by mads47
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Thanks! I'm actually minoring in Russian and have an okay command of Spanish. I'm trying to get as far as I can with Russian because I absolutely love it. There were one or two theory classes offered last semester but by the time transfer students could register, they were full and one was cancelled this semester. I'm leaning towards independent study in the fall and it would help with honors thesis writing anyways. All of your advice is much appreciated! 

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Welcome to the forum, @jadeisokay

I'm going to offer a slightly different perspective than @mads47, whose advice, nonetheless, ought to be taken seriously. 

First, to answer your thread's question, yes, it's a little too early for anxiety about 2019. A lot of us here (and I say this with love) are micromanagers, long-term planners, perfectionists, late-bloomers (like me -- I almost went to law school after graduation), and the like. As a result, we tend to worry about things, especially so pertinent to our futures as this application process. Therefore, my primary piece of advice for you, at this point, is not to stress too much about grad school. Yes, yes, I understand that there are the awful GREs to tackle, and Flaubertifying your statement of purpose and writing sample, and picking schools, and money, and everything else, but (and I agree with mads47 here) you should try to focus on undergrad now and do your best to avoid anxiety about the future. Like I mentioned before, I originally intended to go to law school; however, I had a major epiphany while I was sending in my law-school applications. I realized, in what I can only describe, with a touch of irony, as a Major Life Moment that all the best memories of my academic career were centered on participating in English classroom discussions, researching and writing English papers, and shooting the shit with my English professors. Instead of being responsible, however, and immediately preparing for grad school after this change of heart, I boarded the hot-mess express and freaked the fuck out for like three weeks because my entire Life Plan had changed in the course of ten minutes (although, looking back, the red flags against law school were probably hoisted at the start of my sophomore year). Those three weeks were not pleasant. So don't be like me. Don't freak out. It's okay to not know what to do, or to change your mind, or even be a little anxious, so long as you're not crippled by anxiety or dread. Also -- this is important -- please don't forget to pencil in a little fun during these last 1.5 semesters. You're only an undergrad once! 

That said, this is where I'm going to diverge from mads47. I think there are some steps you can take now to help along your preparation. For example, I would start studying for the GRE (both general and subject test) as early as you can. If you have any free time (of course, after you've finished your undergrad work and spent some time on yourself), then buy a few self-study books (Manhattan Prep's 5-lb Book is good IMO -- but avoid Kaplan) and get crackin'. As much as we hate to admit it, the GRE is unfortunately important, and you wouldn't want your score to close any doors. Further, don't neglect the quant section. Yeah, I know, we all hate it over here, but, who knows, you may impress an old-timer on the admissions committee who still thinks that the math section is relevant to a PhD in English. Scoring well on the math part, moreover, suggests that you're well-rounded (at least, in standardized-test terms), and well-roundedness seems to be a desirable element of the holistic decision-making process. Then, there's the Literature in English subject test. I've already written on this here: 

You'd do well, especially, to consider @unræd's answer. He scored in the 99th percentile, and since you can't score any higher than that, he's undoubtedly on to something. It's also not too early to begin discussing your plans with trusted professors. First, you're going to need letter writers. Second, your mentors should be able to help you sharpen your research questions and outline your interests more fully. Mine definitely helped me flesh out my way-too-abstract ideas. But collaborating with your professors is much easier when you're a student. It's not impossible after graduation (essentially what I did), but it's more difficult to navigate around a full-time job and office hours that are primarily reserved for current students. So don't waste your current resources! 

On your specific interests, I was in a similar situation. My undergrad English department was small (but good!), so I didn't have the opportunity to take many (any, in fact) theory-based classes. Instead, during my sophomore year, I bought Deconstruction in Context (https://www.amazon.com/Deconstruction-Context-Literature-Mark-Taylor/dp/0226791408/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1517500818&sr=8-1&keywords=deconstruction+in+context) and then used that fantastic short collection as a springboard to consume everything theory-related that I could. I ultimately planned an independent-study project, during my senior year, in which I wrote about E.D. Hirsch's theory of "common sense" and its relation to other twentieth-century approaches in the vein of the New Critics and deconstruction. Of course, it would've been nice to study theory in a classroom setting, but teaching yourself is an important skill to develop and good practice for grad school. 

Now, as far as your grades go, I probably wouldn't bring them up in the statement of purpose unless you think they really merit an explanation. Many of the schools to which I applied asked specifically for my upperclassman GPA, in addition to the cumulative score. I'd venture to guess that universities understand that most students don't really figure out what they want to do until their sophomore or junior year. Therefore, some freshman forgiveness is in order. Also, don't forget that schools tend to assign fairly strict word limits on the SoP (sometimes even 500-words max), so each word you use must make a positive contribution in the limited space you're allotted. If you have a compelling reason for your low grades (if they really are that low), then you should feel justified in including it. But I tend to follow the prescription: When in doubt, leave it out. In the mean time, I'd recommend browsing around Grad Café. There's soooo much good advice here from people who went through the same struggle. You wouldn't believe how much wisdom is available for free! At any rate, good luck, and I'm sure we'd all be happy to answer your questions! 

Edited by FreakyFoucault
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36 minutes ago, FreakyFoucault said:

Further, don't neglect the quant section. Yeah, I know, we all hate it over here, but, who knows, you may impress an old-timer on the admissions committee who still thinks that the math section is relevant to a PhD in English.

FF’s post is wildly helpful and spot on but I would take this particular bit of advice with a grain of salt. I have had professors/advisors laugh in my face when I tried to bring up anxieties over GRE quant scores. They wouldn’t even go there because no one cares. Programs care about the GRE minimally in the first place, they REALLY don’t care about the math score. I even called around at a couple institutions and was told point blank that the English programs do not consider the math score. Not even a little bit. Many programs list on their faq or requirements page that they don’t consider the quant section. I only say this because applications are SUCH a process. They take massive amounts of preparation, time, and energy. That time and energy is much better spent on developing strong relationships with faculty/potential letter writers, perusing a research assistantship, coming out of your BA with a strong writing sample, and (if anything) improving your verbal score. Just my two cents!

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12 minutes ago, clinamen said:

That time and energy is much better spent on developing strong relationships with faculty/potential letter writers, perusing a research assistantship, coming out of your BA with a strong writing sample, and (if anything) improving your verbal score

Definitely agreed. SoP, WS, LORs, LGRE, and verbal all take a large degree of precedence over quant. But still, some programs consider aggregate scores for fellowship thresholds, so I wouldn't completely ignore it. And if you're applying to top programs, they may very well like to see at least some effort applied to math. Of course, I could be wrong. But again, @clinamen is correct in saying that an applicant shouldn't focus too heavily on the quant section at the expense of other more important elements of the application. 

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I guess the whole GRE quant thing also depends on what sort of student you are, and the schools you're applying to? If you're a top-nerd student shooting at Harvard & co and can't handle rejections well, you'll get a good quant score. If you're like me, a slightly above average person who doesn't know how she gets to places, and only knows she's not interested in programs who want her to get a good math score, then it's not important.

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8 hours ago, jadeisokay said:

Thanks! I'm actually minoring in Russian and have an okay command of Spanish. I'm trying to get as far as I can with Russian because I absolutely love it. There were one or two theory classes offered last semester but by the time transfer students could register, they were full and one was cancelled this semester. I'm leaning towards independent study in the fall and it would help with honors thesis writing anyways. All of your advice is much appreciated! 

You're welcome! If there are theory classes offered that you are unable to get in officially, ask the professors if you can sit in on these classes unofficially. It won't show up on your transcript, but it will help bolster your theory background (and you can always mention these things in your SOP). This is not a replacement for independent study if you have that option but something you can do instead. 

Additionally, I agree with what @FreakyFoucault has told you in terms of GRE prep and SOPs. I do want to comment on one thing though.

1 hour ago, FreakyFoucault said:

 Many of the schools to which I applied asked specifically for my upperclassman GPA, in addition to the cumulative score. 

This is going to completely depend on the programs to which you are applying. Only 1/8 of the programs I applied to asked for my upperclassman GPA, the other 7/8 wanted my cumulative. Thus, you are going to have to wait until you know what each of the applications asks of you before you tailor your SOPs accordingly. 

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IMO, there is no shame in starting know. This is a serious endeavor that needs to be done right (a lot of money wasted otherwise on app fees). 

As I wish I had figured all this stuff out earlier, I’ll share 25 steps that I think will make you a stellar candidate. Don’t rush them, but also don’t shirk them (should you use them).

 

1. Figure out what makes you relax (if it’s whatever you’re studying, find a new hobby or something)

2. Start working out a little bit on a regular basis, if you don’t already (everyone talks about the freshman 15, no one talks about the grad school 30 and the wheezing after going up three flights of stairs)

3. Talk to your professors 

4. Talk to your professors 

5. Talk to your professors 

6. Narrow focus (e.g. theory that explores geo-political questions, Slavic lit, etc.)

7. Talk to your professors 

8.Talk to your professors 

9.Start researching what programs have faculty doing research in what you’re interested in

9. Narrow that focus down further (e.g. space and place theory, 19th century Russian lit)

10. Start studying for GRE

11. Create a theory reading list. Make space to read at least a book-sized length of theory each week.

12. Submit a paper to a conference (https://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/) related to your area of interest 

13. You’re talking to your professors right? Get one of your professors opinions on the conference paper you’re presenting.

14. Take the GRE

15. Take at lest two weeks off (go to the beach or something)

16. Apply for conference travel grants (your school might even have x amount for students that just require receipts)

16. Present your paper somewhere (try to go to a publishing panel, if they have one and it is free; talk to people so as to learn more about what your future might look like)

17. Talk to professors 

18. Work out a specific research question in your area of interest that you can talk about in a way that fully shows you are familiar with key thinkers and works 

19. Run said question by your professors 

20. Build an SOP that revolves around you trying to pitch the need for you to answer that question (with help of the education they can offer)

21. Dig through professor faculty pages and CVs at grad schools, then compile a spreadsheet tracking ideal faculty that could help your project at universities that you want to apply to

22. Talk to your professors and email them formal requests for letters of rec

23. Expand out that spreadsheet with application details

24. Turn your SOP into your dream school’s SOP

25. Get as many eyes on your SOP as possible (especially any professors who have served, or currently are serving, on grad school admission committees)

 

With these 25 steps down, it’s just the business of creating individual SOPs and applying that you have left (though you should keep up the physical activity, your hobbies, and the theory reading). Oh, and don’t forget: talk to your professors.

 

 

 

Edited by CulturalCriminal
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  • 4 months later...
On 2/2/2018 at 2:25 AM, CulturalCriminal said:

9. Narrow that focus down further (e.g. space and place theory, 19th century Russian lit)

11. Create a theory reading list. Make space to read at least a book-sized length of theory each week.

18. Work out a specific research question in your area of interest that you can talk about in a way that fully shows you are familiar with key thinkers and works 

I know this is SO old, sorry -- any tips on how the process of narrowing down the research question works? Or on creating a theory reading list and why that's so important? I can't imagine having time to read a book of dense theory every week (especially since this month and next I am doing a summer program that requires me to read a lot of primary literature). I took a novel theory graduate seminar (which involved a ton of classical theory readings) during undergrad and am taking another graduate seminar in standard critical theory for my MA this fall. I also did a good bit of reading in theory/philo on my own last year. I was hoping this would be enough and I could spend any free time I might have during my MA when I'm not already reading something for class catching up on contemporary scholarship in my fields, which is really my weak area. Thoughts?

Edited by indecisivepoet
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@indecisivepoet It sounds like you might actually be started on #9, as it seems from other posts that you are realizing that you are mostly interested in 18th/19th c. British Lit. I think that is pretty good, though you may of course try to really consider if you are more interested in 18th vs. 19th c. British Lit and can break it down further.

It sounds like you have some basic ideas on the foundation of critical theory, but you need to engage with current scholarship and be familiar with current use of theory relevant to your interests. In my experience, the general/standard grad theory course is not really enough. That said, my "book a week" advice was based off this one individual being in Undergrad. Given that you are in a summer program and are entering the world of grad school, I would say trying to get a book a month in is more realistic approach. Plus, it'll aid with the various research papers you'll need to write for your Masters.

Since you are aiming for Fall 2020 PhD cycle, I think #18 might be good to return to in a year. There is a good chance that simply being in a Masters program and engaging with current scholarship will help you towards this goal.

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my testing center had technical difficulties during the essay portion of the gre, and i regret not filing a complaint. i scored 160 verbal, 130something in math, and a whopping 4.0 on the essay because i had to re-write one entirely after the server crashed. should i retake? that $200 is going to hurt :/

Edited by jadeisokay
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2 hours ago, jadeisokay said:

my testing center had technical difficulties during the essay portion of the gre, and i regret not filing a complaint. i scored 160 verbal, 130something in math, and a whopping 4.0 on the essay because i had to re-write one entirely after the server crashed. should i retake? that $200 is going to hurt ?

Your verbal is great, but I would say that a 4.0 for a Ph.D. program is on the lower end. Maybe ask an advisor or professor at your current program.

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@CulturalCriminal Wonderful information, thank you. I'm primarily interested in Romanticism but I understand I'll have to place that in the context of either c18 or c19 British for the sake of marketability and I'm continually torn between the two. My plan is to probably write my MA dissertation on a topic in Romanticism and then decide during the next year and especially during that process which century I'll choose to focus on in my PhD SoPs once it's all done. 

I think I see what you're saying about theory -- less paradigmatic texts in critical theory and more the theoretical and other research areas that are currently going on in my period or subfields, right? I definitely think I'll need to do independent reading here this next year or so as I think it's my weakest area (as an undergrad I felt very underexposed to any type of contemporary discussion -- just primary texts and a little bit of standard theory). I'm not sure whether we'll have additional readings assigned (I hope so), but even looking at the syllabi for the seminars I'll be taking this next year is worrying because it seems to be mostly primary texts with a little bit of major theorists. So all to say I'm thinking about picking up an anthology or two on my theoretical field(s) of interest and asking faculty for recommendations for readings in Romanticism. I will shoot for one a month in addition to what I'm reading for class; that seems more doable.

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@TeaOverCoffee ETS is graciously allowing me to retake the test for free because of the technical issues even though it was outside of the 7-day reporting window for issues. i think the sitting and waiting threw me off. i have no problem with essays (if there were ever a more obvious statement on this forum...) but i have a week-ish to look over how to improve my score. hopefully my verbal stays in the same range. i was so surprised at that score.

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  • 2 weeks later...

question for anyone about letters of recommendation- if we particularly excelled in a grad student's class and know they would write a positive letter, are they acceptable sources for an adcom? they're at least a 3rd/4th candidate and instructior of record for the class. i have several other options but am just curious.

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3 hours ago, jadeisokay said:

question for anyone about letters of recommendation- if we particularly excelled in a grad student's class and know they would write a positive letter, are they acceptable sources for an adcom? they're at least a 3rd/4th candidate and instructior of record for the class. i have several other options but am just curious.

They might be. But programs often give more weight to those who have earned a Ph.D.  in their discipline and have many years of teaching experience to judge you with previous students.

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4 hours ago, jadeisokay said:

question for anyone about letters of recommendation- if we particularly excelled in a grad student's class and know they would write a positive letter, are they acceptable sources for an adcom? they're at least a 3rd/4th candidate and instructior of record for the class. i have several other options but am just curious.

I don't have any more experience than you do with applying to/being accepted into programs, but as an undergrad I was in a situation where I unfortunately hadn't gotten to know many faculty members and had taken my courses mostly with grad students/post-docs/lecturers (one of the reasons I chose to pursue a terminal MA before PhD) and I was told by the one faculty member who I did have a strong relationship with that I essentially could not (if I wanted to get into a program) use a letter from a grad student, even for MA applications. She suggested that a mediocre letter from a faculty member was preferable to a strong letter from a grad student and she helped me get an okay letter from another faculty member that got me into my MA.

That said, that's just one person's perspective; I've been told many conflicting things by many faculty members on all things applications/job market.

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On 7/10/2018 at 10:23 AM, jadeisokay said:

question for anyone about letters of recommendation- if we particularly excelled in a grad student's class and know they would write a positive letter, are they acceptable sources for an adcom? they're at least a 3rd/4th candidate and instructior of record for the class. i have several other options but am just curious.

One of my letter writers was an ABD grad student and it worked out fine for me applying to funded MA programs. I did well in her class and knew that my other recommendations from tenured professors were strong, so I felt comfortable asking her. For a few reasons, I didn't have as many options for people to ask for letters, so if you do it might be better to go with all tenured professors if possible. 

Edited by darcyt
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I asked a non-tenure faculty member from my undergrad who was a major mentor of mine for a letter of rec, he told me that he wouldn't write me one unless I'd first exhausted all possible options to get one from a member of the tenured faculty, which I did.  It wasn't that he wouldn't write me a glowing letter, it was that he didn't feel like it would hold as much weight, no matter how glowing it was, and wanted to give me the best chance.

Edited by jrockford27
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On 7/10/2018 at 10:23 AM, jadeisokay said:

question for anyone about letters of recommendation- if we particularly excelled in a grad student's class and know they would write a positive letter, are they acceptable sources for an adcom? they're at least a 3rd/4th candidate and instructior of record for the class. i have several other options but am just curious.

I also was told not to have a graduate student write my LoR when applying while in undergrad. When in my master's, I was told that I shouldn't ask anyone who wasn't on a tenure track. 

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Kind of a related question that nobody here probably knows anything about, but: my PhD LoRs will be written by British faculty for the most part and they have strange names for faculty over there that don't correlate with ours. Very few are "Professor of English;" most are Reader/Senior Lecturer, titles that translate to our Associate Professor from what I understand. Surely (I'm hoping) asking these faculty members for LoRs will be appropriate, right? Should I expect programs in the US to know that Lecturer in the UK does not equal Lecturer in the US?

Perhaps more important might be whether the faculty are well known in their respective fields but I'm not sure any of them at Edinburgh would be bell-ringing names, even if they are strong scholars with interests similar to mine.

Edited by indecisivepoet
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On 7/10/2018 at 2:15 PM, Warelin said:

They might be. But programs often give more weight to those who have earned a Ph.D.  in their discipline and have many years of teaching experience to judge you with previous students.

Also, it really can help if you can get a letter from someone who does work in your desired speciality, and whose name the adcom might know.

I won't go as far to say that having famous letter writers is the be all, end all, but I've certainly got "ah, I see you've worked with Famous Prof! They spoke so highly of you in their letter" type comments on campus visits. Again, might just be smalltalk since these profs all know each other, but it certainly couldn't have hurt during the admissions process, and I don't know if a 3rd or 4th year PhD candidate can have that same appeal. Because, depending on your speciality, you never know who went to grad school with who or who worked together or what have you! 

Edited by klader
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