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How specific were your research interests when applying?


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Hey everyone,

I have 3 areas in philosophy that I am most interested in studying in grad school (in the US), and I have no idea which to emphasize in my statements of purpose and the writing sample. I've found potential grad programs where I could reasonably expect to pursue any of them, though they of course differ in which area they are strongest in. For instance, say I have interests in A, B, and C -- Program 1 is known for A, and has a handful of faculty working on B, and maybe a certificate program with an allied department where I could work on C, whereas Program 2 is known for B, has a handful in C... you get the idea. 

My undergrad thesis is in one area, I have a publication in a different one, and I have relevant language skills in a third altogether. I have conference presentations in each of these and a few others. I'm not applying until the fall after next, and I'm planning on figuring out the writing sample this upcoming fall... so I also don't know what area would be best for the writing sample. I was sort of leaning towards submitting a writing sample in the area I have language skills for, since the completed thesis (which I will hopefully be able to publish part of in the next year) and the existing publication should already speak to my ability in those areas. However, my concern is that I'll be spreading myself too thin, which leads me to consider instead trying to show depth by submitting a sample in one of the other two areas. (Of course, the three areas intersect in what I think are very interesting and important ways, but I can't demonstrate that adequately in a 15 page sample.)

Obviously, I'm going to consult with faculty members at my university, but for now I was wondering whether anyone else applied to grad school with very open research interests, and how they "sold" that, so to speak. I don't have a dissertation project in mind already, and I don't intend to by next fall. I could honestly see myself being happy working on any of the three, and I imagine it'll depend a bit on which program I end up in (assuming, of course, that I get into grad school at all!). I'm tempted to emphasize different areas in different SoPs, but I realize that could backfire.

In short, my question is this: has anyone gone through or is anyone in the process of going through applications with very diverse and broad research interests? How did you demonstrate ability in each? How did you sell yourself as a promising candidate without having a specific dissertation project in mind? (Also, any advice concerning my own situation is welcome and appreciated!)

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What I did was say that I was interested in how the areas overlap and had a writing sample that demostrated that I did them all. I also have a publication in a different but still related area. You can tie everything together, I'm sure. I don't know if its necessary to do that, though, and I did apply to continental programs. If you want specifics (that is, if you are continental), PM me. 

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I would tell A I'm primarily interested in A, with ancillary interests B and C (provided A can support interests in B and C! If it can only do C, then talk about C, not B). I'd tell B that it's B, with ancillaries in A and C. And so on. And then I'd work to make sure each individual statement emphasized the proper areas. You want to demonstrate that you're a fantastic fit for the department's research culture and community. You do that by talking not just about the kind of work you want to do there and who with, but by talking about precisely the kinds of things you've mentioned here--e.g. your interest in the certificate program.

Ideally your sample will match and showcase your research interests, but it's OK if it doesn't quite (as long as it matches one of your stated interests!). Rather than spend time cultivating separate samples, you'll probably be better off polishing just the one. Remember that you're aiming to impress the faculty member(s) who work in that area, because then they'll advocate for your admission.

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