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markovka

What career path with a narrow research focus is there?

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Hello there! My problem is that I don’t know how I should present myself to adcoms in the statement of purpose and CV when applying to PhD programs in philosophy in the US, Canada, and the UK. Your responses will be greatly appreciated. I believe there are many people in the world who were or currently are in the similar circumstances.

As a senior, I wrote a thesis on Plato’s Timaeus. Since then, I’ve been writing articles and sending them out to journals. I even managed to get one of them published in a semi-professional journal, but they were all on the Timaeus. I was hoping my enthusiasm would get me into a top PhD program this year, but I was wrong: I was rejected from everywhere. I graduated in 2017 by the way.

When he shared his thoughts on the letters of rejections with me, my advisor told me that I should use the space of the SoP to explain how my interests (basically, Plato) will allow me to benefit from the strengths of the departments I am applying to. I gather that analytical philosophy and philosophy of mind is big in the philosophy departments now. Considering that my transcript lists as much as three courses in these fields I also gather that just saying that my coursework qualifies me to write papers on Plato for the rest of my life won’t do. I think that the whole idea of studying Plato itself for itself comes under attack even though I can clearly see gaps in the scholarship that I could fill with my work as I am doing it now with these papers on the Timaeus. I guess departments are looking in their candidates for something other than skills for becoming an author of philosophy articles, right?

I am assuming throughout that I have an excellent writing samples by the way. My question to you is, what other factors should I bring in to my profile to make my research interests be an asset, rather than a liability? How do I ward off the adcom’s fears that once I get into the diverse academic environment I won’t be able to keep up the pace? As I am seeing it, the problem is that I don’t have any other achievements to show off except my work on the Timaeus which very little people ever heard of in the first place and, therefore, cannot say anything conclusive as to its quality. I hope a new piece that I sent for peer-review in Phronesis will remedy this, if it’s accepted for publication of course. Likewise, I am planning to take classes for credit next fall in some other field than ancient philosophy to convince the adcoms that I intend to bring my research interests to bear on relevant topics. Which do you think I should take? Other than that, do you have any other suggestion? 

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Outsider's opinion here: it seems to me that the problem in your application is in seeing the broader picture. First off, just because you've only studied Plato so far and you think that's all you'll want to do in the future, that's a bit narrow minded. You don't know that this is true, and it's important to at least allow for the possibility that your interests will develop over time in grad school and beyond. More crucially, as scholars, we need to be able to communicate our research to others, within and outside our (sub)field; a critical part of that involves telling others why they should care about our research. In this case: why is it important/interesting to study Plato? What do we learn from doing so? How does it fit into the broader scheme -- does it influence our theories, or how we should think about anything else? If all you can say is that it's interesting to study for its own sake but you can't see any broader implication or interface with any other area of thought or life, that's indeed a very hard sell. It probably also means you haven't given your proposed area of study enough thought, because it can't possibly be true. 

I'd suggest that communicating this broader understanding is what matters most in your application. The fact that your actual current publication or classes were about Topic X aren't all that important, given that we understand that you've had limited exposure and a limited amount of time to study your subject. What matters more is how you digest it, as an indication of the kind of scholar you'll become, if and when you go to grad school. 

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I don't know much about Plato, but I don't think there's anything wrong with having a narrow set of interests, provided that you can articulate them to a broader philosophical community. However, if that is the case, you should be able to demonstrate a good knowledge of the current state of scholarship and the problems people are working on. What readings are the most recent, and of those, which are standard and which are controversial? What universities have the strongest faculty working on topics you're interested in, and how do you feel about the work of various specific faculty? How has the field developed over the last 10-20 years, and where do you see this going in the future? What do you find to be the most  important books and essays on your topic published within the last couple of years? Which people in your area do you think are doing great work, and what work do you think is not so good? Those are the kinds of questions you should want to have an answer to, if you don't already. 

With regards to research interests, my sense is that Plato (if not also the Timaeus) is too narrow in one sense, but also too broad in another. Rather than honing in on an entire philosopher (or even just one work), it's often more compelling to develop an arc where you show how a small part of a person's text (e.g. a reading of term X) informs a common reading Y of their theory, and how a Z reading might avoid the problems of Y, but that Z also has its own problems, etc. That's for the writing sample. The statement of purpose will be less specific, but should nonetheless exhibit a similar kind of movement: e.g. maybe you're interested in how a specific aspect of Plato's work informs something else, or you'd like to explore how other textual tensions work to address a certain philosophical problem. Maybe there are other problems you find interesting as well. My guess is that there are enough departments with people studying Plato, that you shouldn't be worried being about ostracized because of that alone (I did run into that problem with my WS on another philosopher)—but you do need to focus on how to articulate those interests in a way that shows what kind of scholar you might develop into. 

Aside from that, I would try to solicit as much feedback as possible from faculty and grad students working on ancient philosophy. Going to conferences can be a good way to do this if you don't already have connections, and is often a good way to meet people and get a sense of how the field is progressing. 



  

 

Edited by lyellgeo

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On 16/04/2018 at 10:23 AM, markovka said:

When he shared his thoughts on the letters of rejections with me, my advisor told me that I should use the space of the SoP to explain how my interests (basically, Plato) will allow me to benefit from the strengths of the departments I am applying to.

Right. So you want to apply to programs that are strong in whatever your area of interest is. Areas of interest match up with what the professionals call areas of specialization. If it's Plato you're interested in, then your prospective AOI is Ancient. So you tell them you're mainly interested in Ancient, and then you can specify Plato in particular (as long as you realize that Ancient means you'll have to know something about the pre-Socratics and Aristotle, too).

So the first step is identifying which departments are strong in Ancient. The next step is identifying faculty members with whom you'd like to work. And that means familiarizing yourself with their work, so that you can say something about why you want to work with them. Then, you should spend some time on the department's web page, and on the pages of cognate departments to see if you could take advantage of any resources elsewhere in the university--e.g. a certificate program in Classics, or maybe a co-supervisor from Classics, or whatever. You'll also want to identify some ancillary interests you'd like to develop a bit more (roughly: areas of competence), and perform the same kind of process for them. Play to the department's strengths.

On 16/04/2018 at 10:23 AM, markovka said:

I gather that analytical philosophy and philosophy of mind is big in the philosophy departments now.

Not really. Mind is a high-status subfield, but it's been low on jobs for several years now (the big boom was in the mid-to-late-aughts). Most reputable departments are strong in the history of philosophy along with what I guess you could call "analytic" subfields, though that's really a mischaracterization. There are just more subfields that get grouped under the heading "analytic" than there are that get grouped under "continental", and the "continental" subfields are often seen as luxury subfields--which is just to say that most Anglophone PhD-granting departments don't think of covering those subfields as being core to their research missions.

 

On 16/04/2018 at 10:23 AM, markovka said:

Considering that my transcript lists as much as three courses in these fields I also gather that just saying that my coursework qualifies me to write papers on Plato for the rest of my life won’t do.

Right. Three is not an impressive number of courses, and what qualifies you to write about X for the rest of your life is a PhD with a research emphasis on X. What you're doing in your applications is petitioning a department to take the time to train you to become a qualified writer on X. So you have to convince them that you're a worthwhile investment.

 

On 16/04/2018 at 10:23 AM, markovka said:

I think that the whole idea of studying Plato itself for itself comes under attack even though I can clearly see gaps in the scholarship that I could fill with my work as I am doing it now with these papers on the Timaeus. I guess departments are looking in their candidates for something other than skills for becoming an author of philosophy articles, right?

That's good, because identifying gaps is often the hardest part of cultivating a research agenda.

Departments are looking for the skills that will allow you to become an author of articles, yes. But they're assuming that follows naturally from earning the PhD. So what they're looking for at this stage is (1) the ability to complete a PhD, and (2) promise. Think of it like scouting for sports teams (scouts in philosophy are about as good at identifying talent as in sports--which is to say, not very). Completing the PhD will take solid writing skills, determination, the ability to motivate yourself and work on your own, the ability to develop new ideas and churn out short papers to present at conferences, (ideally) good public speaking and presentation skills, the ability to pass whatever progression requirements there are (e.g. logic, languages), etc. That's what they're looking for.

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