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GoneWilde

How 'fitted' does 'fit' have to be?

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I know I've been posting all over the place here lately but I'm trying to get a head start on working on applications this summer so I'm all over the place mentally! So, in regards to applying for PhDs in Literature, I've always heard the advice that fit is the most important criteria, but I'm not sure how close that fit has to be.

For myself as an example: I'm interested in late Victorian/fin-de-siecle literature in Britain and France, especially Oscar Wilde and Michael Field, so I guess you could also say I'm interested in LGBTQ concerns. If I look specifically for scholars who list the fin-de-siecle-related stuff as one of their research interests, or who publish on it regularly, I find few people in America (though many in the UK). On the other hand, I find a LOT of scholars who identify with 19th century British literature or even Victorianism, but that's a HUGE topic, and they often bundle up Victorianism and Romanticism, which doesn't particularly work because I identify more with the move from Victorianism to Modernism than from Romanticism to Victorianism.

Anyway, the basis of my question is just asking how closely I need to line up with faculty interests. Do they have to have published on what I want to study? Or can I assume that any Victorianist could work with my own Victorian interests? Thank you!

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I am in the same boat as you, as my field is very well represented, so there are scholars who work in it in virtually every school. I am planning to spend my summer locating 1-2 scholars who come closest to my research interests, but I also plan to spread a wide net. So I will apply to schools where professors are more generally engaged in the questions/concerns that I am asking, but I would highly prefer to work on the cutting edge along with the scholars who are immersed in the same questions. 

As an MA student, I sometimes find myself explaining a great deal about the specifics of my field to secondary advisors. While these make for animated conversations and at times, lively debates, I would prefer to be immersed with a bunch of scholars who get it and want to get on with it. 

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You don't have to find professors who research just what you want to do. The professors I've spoken to are against creating replicas of themselves. If I were you, I'd broaden your scopes a bit and look for scholars in Victorianism/Modernism and gender studies. (Also, I agree with you about Romanticism; I'd argue that it belongs to the long c18, though many, I'm sure, would disagree.)

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On 6/5/2018 at 12:01 PM, FugitiveSahib said:

I will apply to schools where professors are more generally engaged in the questions/concerns that I am asking, but I would highly prefer to work on the cutting edge along with the scholars who are immersed in the same questions.

@FugitiveSahib Could you elaborate a little bit on what you mean when you say you're looking for professors engaged with the questions/concerns you're asking about/interested in? I'm thinking about it like this: my interests are in Romantic & c18 or c19 (haven't decided yet) but I find that in general the interests that motivate me to pursue research are less coming from within that specific archive and more coming from larger philosophical questions that are then being applied to that archive. I find that there are some scholars working in these areas who share larger guiding interests with me, but most of those who do seem to be studying Modernism (and generally there are very, very few with similar guiding questions as me). As I've been looking through faculty pages, I'm wondering whether I should be focusing more on the Romanticists/etc who study the same period and authors as me but with very different interests within that, or if I should be focusing on the Modernists or whoever else that have the same guiding interests as me but study a different period.

12 hours ago, TeaOverCoffee said:

You don't have to find professors who research just what you want to do. The professors I've spoken to are against creating replicas of themselves. If I were you, I'd broaden your scopes a bit and look for scholars in Victorianism/Modernism and gender studies. (Also, I agree with you about Romanticism; I'd argue that it belongs to the long c18, though many, I'm sure, would disagree.)

@TeaOverCoffee If not faculty with the same research interests as the applicant, what would you suggest being the determiner of 'fit'? Just from looking through the faculty pages I have, I can say there are Victorian/gender studies scholars at almost every single English department. What then becomes the factor used to narrow down?

Also, I'd love if you could elaborate on your argument about Romanticism! As I've mentioned above, I know Romanticism is my greatest period of interest, but I'm having trouble choosing between c18 and c19 for the context of that. I'm interested in Enlightenment and the major changes in thought/the transition to 'modernity' in c18, but I'm not so big on the literature itself. I prefer Victorian, and I'm also very interested in urbanisation, responses to it, work etc, as well as novel theory.

 

Edited by indecisivepoet
typoooos

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20 hours ago, TeaOverCoffee said:

You don't have to find professors who research just what you want to do. The professors I've spoken to are against creating replicas of themselves. 

Exactly this! The mentors in my program told me to choose a PhD program based on faculty who are interested in my work and who can offer some expertise, though not necessarily know every single thing about it. For example, if you're in comp/rhet and you want to study writing program administration, it's good to have faculty in your program who have knowledge, experience, scholarship, etc. in that general area. They may not be experts in the exact WPA area you study (maybe they work on first-year writing administration and you want to focus on capstone courses or something), but they should be knowledgeable and helpful enough to guide your research. 

No one in my program does *exactly* what I want to do, but they do similar things that help me do my things, and that's perfect for me. Just enough guidance that I need to move forward. And they knew that when they admitted me from the way I wrote about it in my SoP. 

Edited by klader

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23 hours ago, TeaOverCoffee said:

You don't have to find professors who research just what you want to do. The professors I've spoken to are against creating replicas of themselves. If I were you, I'd broaden your scopes a bit and look for scholars in Victorianism/Modernism and gender studies. (Also, I agree with you about Romanticism; I'd argue that it belongs to the long c18, though many, I'm sure, would disagree.)

This is the right advice. Widen your scope beyond what you think "makes sense" (within reason - don't apply to places where absolutely none of your interests are pursued.)

Anecdata: the PhD I'm entering in the fall & and the 3 faculty members I'll likely work the most closely with --

One has a similar transnational/historical methodology to mine but works in a related but very different region.

One has a similar interest in diasporic literature but focuses on another related but largely different region and looks at media I don't currently consider.

One has a hemispheric approach that takes my region of study into consideration. However, they are centuries away from me and don't study novels (which I do). 

When I went to visiting days, I was told that the program - while excited about my app - paused before saying YES because they wanted to guarantee they could support my scholarship. 

They decided that they can , and I get the sense that they are interested in taking the dept in a direction that I'm also interested in. Bully for me but, more importantly ... 

I would have NEVER known this as an applicant. My letter writers didn't know this, either. Essentially, no one that I knew understood that this dept was the perfect fit for me.

In some ways, I think it was a case of "right place, right time" - if I'd applied 3 years earlier or 3 years from now ... I don't know what would have happened. 

All to say - tailor your SOP and WS to you and what you want to spend 5-8 years studying. And be open to depts wanting you, even if they're depts that (on "paper") don't make a perfect fit. If you can see a way through and if you like the dept --well, really think about giving them a shot, even if you're unsure about your odds of success. 

Edited by a_sort_of_fractious_angel

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On 6/5/2018 at 10:14 AM, GoneWilde said:

Anyway, the basis of my question is just asking how closely I need to line up with faculty interests. Do they have to have published on what I want to study? Or can I assume that any Victorianist could work with my own Victorian interests? Thank you!

I would recommend trying to get into the best program you can get into rather than trying to find someone who does exactly what you do. The top programs will be a good place to study almost anything (though obviously it varies, so always run your choices past your current faculty mentor). I think a lot of people here have already given good advice in this regard. 

I honestly think that people overestimate "fit" and get fixated on certain programs where they can find an adviser who does something very similar to what they want to do. But fit shouldn't be overemphasized for a number of reasons:

1) Your interests will probably change while you are in coursework.

2) You know a lot about your interests right now, but in the grand scheme of things you're still at the beginning. You will learn a whole lot more along the way.

3) A good program with good advising will allow you to grow into an independent scholar. In other words, if the program is doing its job, you won't *have* to have an adviser who does exactly what you do. 

And then a few anecdotal points from my own time in grad school:

  • I knew a person who chose our program because he really wanted to work with Professor Famous, who did exactly the kind of work he wanted to do. Well, Professor Famous was not as nice a person as he seemed, and he refused to take my acquaintance on as an advisee. Not because he didn't like my acquaintance--but because he didn't like having any advisees whatsoever (and he was famous enough to get away with that). My acquaintance ended up having to scrap his dissertation project altogether because he could not justify coming out of a our program with a dissertation on such a specialized topic without Professor Famous (known worldwide for this topic) on his committee. 
  • It's important to stay open-minded as a scholar. Be willing to try out different topics and different approaches. The people I know who struggled the most in graduate school were the ones who came in with a dissertation project already mapped out rather than the ones who let their interests develop over time. (YMMV--I'm sure for some people it's the opposite. But there is so much value in just letting your coursework change your approaches and interests.)
  • I wrote my dissertation on a topic that my adviser was very familiar with, but I undertook a second project that NO ONE in my program was familiar with. I'm currently in the process of publishing this second project as an article and then hopefully turning it into a book. But it was not a topic that anyone in my program knew anything about, just an obscure interest I developed on my own. If you've gotten good advising and good feedback on your writing, you will be able to apply these skills to other interests you want to develop. 
Edited by Bumblebea

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On 6/8/2018 at 9:56 AM, indecisivepoet said:

@FugitiveSahib Could you elaborate a little bit on what you mean when you say you're looking for professors engaged with the questions/concerns you're asking about/interested in? I'm thinking about it like this: my interests are in Romantic & c18 or c19 (haven't decided yet) but I find that in general the interests that motivate me to pursue research are less coming from within that specific archive and more coming from larger philosophical questions that are then being applied to that archive. I find that there are some scholars working in these areas who share larger guiding interests with me, but most of those who do seem to be studying Modernism (and generally there are very, very few with similar guiding questions as me). As I've been looking through faculty pages, I'm wondering whether I should be focusing more on the Romanticists/etc who study the same period and authors as me but with very different interests within that, or if I should be focusing on the Modernists or whoever else that have the same guiding interests as me but study a different period.

This thread has been quite educational for me, and I see how you can work with people who are not doing exactly the same thing that you want to do. Should've been obvious :) 

I work in Black studies, which is far more tolerant of trans-historical research. And so the one things I look for in scholars is their over-arching orientation toward Black studies; simply speaking, I can work with anyone under the umbrella descriptor of Afropessimism. I am still far more excited at the prospect of working with scholars who are asking questions about poetics, ethics, etc. Its too early to worry about this right now, but it would be interesting (if I am lucky enough) to choose between a "prestigious" university and a scholar who I really like. 

If I were you, I would probably stick to Romanticism programs and think about the intervention I can make in this field. I am very faithless about periodicity so I would have probably become a modernist but I know historical periods are of distinct importance to people. 

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@FugitiveSahib That makes sense, thank you! I do resent the necessity of periodising and am hoping it's something I can do to get into programs but that I don't necessarily have to stick to in my career. I really am torn between my love for Modernism and my interest in the 18th/19th centuries & Romanticism; in a perfect world, I'd study literature 1700-1945, or even beginning earlier! And I do come across quite a few faculty whose pages say they study literature in a similarly broad historical range or who have an eclectic mix of historical interests that are non-consecutive, but my feeling is that I probably need to 'earn the right' to do so by first passing oral exams in my one or two consecutive periods of choice.

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On 6/8/2018 at 6:56 PM, indecisivepoet said:

If not faculty with the same research interests as the applicant, what would you suggest being the determiner of 'fit'? Just from looking through the faculty pages I have, I can say there are Victorian/gender studies scholars at almost every single English department. What then becomes the factor used to narrow down?

There's been a lot of good points made in the thread, but I wanted to highlight this question because it seems to me that it hasn't gotten as much attention. While the others are certainly right to suggest applying to the best programs with people in your field, to point out that "fit" is often only clear in hindsight, and to highlight the importance of flexibility and willingness to engage with other topics and perspectives as a grad students, I don't think fit should be dismissed as a factor in narrowing down programs to apply to. The thing is, however, is that "fit" is hardly ever captured in terms like 'Victorianism', 'Romanticism', or 'Gender Studies'. All of those terms are broad umbrella terms that cover a wide range of research. If you start digging around in the secondary literature, you will probably quickly discover that a Victorianist is not a Victorianist is not a Victorianist.

The upshot of this, is that making sure a program has a few people working in your field is an inadequate way of determining fit. At best, it's useful for a first pass of eliminating potential programs. The next step is to spend some serious times reading CVs, abstracts, and if something catches your attention reading the article or book chapter. In doing this, you will probably find that many people who are ostensibly in your field, approach their texts in ways that are irrelevant or at odds with what you want to do. Certainly, there's something to be said for being pushed in new directions be a professor, but I also think it's good to avoid situations where people are entirely unsympathetic to your approaches. Doing lots of reading, I think, is the only way to discover these nuances as an applicant. Even then, it's insufficient. In entering a program, you will almost certainly realize things about fit that you couldn't have known as an applicant. But I do think some research beyond labels of fields can help narrow down the programs that it makes sense to apply to.

On 6/11/2018 at 8:50 PM, indecisivepoet said:

And I do come across quite a few faculty whose pages say they study literature in a similarly broad historical range or who have an eclectic mix of historical interests that are non-consecutive, but my feeling is that I probably need to 'earn the right' to do so by first passing oral exams in my one or two consecutive periods of choice.

Fun exercise: take a look at the CVs of scholars who have broad ranging interests. In my experience, most of those professors started out working in a well defined area of study and branched out later in their careers (probably when they got tenure but maybe later too). For better or worse, literary studies is a field based discipline and scholars typically need to prove their chops in a well defined field before they have the liberty to expand to broadly beyond that. That doesn't mean you need to ignore your other interests though. I think looking at other fields is often a useful way to develop question to bring new light to your own field.

Also, in terms of wide-ranging scholars, I bet that in many cases their research interests, while broad, are perhaps not as eclectic as they may seem at first. Often scholars who come a broad period of time or geographic region are nonetheless motivated by closely related questions even if they manifest themselves differently in different places. To use Isaiah Berlin's terminology, I think that successfully broad ranging scholars in the humanities today are far more likely to be hedgehogs than foxes.

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13 hours ago, Glasperlenspieler said:

The next step is to spend some serious times reading CVs, abstracts, and if something catches your attention reading the article or book chapter. In doing this, you will probably find that many people who are ostensibly in your field, approach their texts in ways that are irrelevant or at odds with what you want to do. Certainly, there's something to be said for being pushed in new directions be a professor, but I also think it's good to avoid situations where people are entirely unsympathetic to your approaches.

There's another possibility, though: people could be unsympathetic to your approaches because your approaches might not be considered "good" by the discipline at large. Or they might be old news. Or, field wise, they might have evolved into something else. That's not to say that professors know best, or that their approach is right while yours is always wrong. But if you're consistently coming across articles and book chapters that seem disdainful toward your particular underpinnings and inclinations (or ignorant of them altogether), then it might be worthwhile to think about why. And if only a small number of professors in a small number of graduate programs seem to gel with your interests, then you should proceed with caution, as it might be more difficult to get a job when you're finished. 

Like, take Lacanian criticism, for example, and this is just an example. There are a few people at a few programs who do this, and and if you're into it you might be tempted to throw all your eggs in a very small number of baskets. But a lot of scholars consider Lacanian criticism to be "intellectually bankrupt" (a direct quote I heard just recently). So if you're coming out of a program steeped in the stuff, you might find yourself with worse employment prospects than usual. 

I think another way to possibly narrow down programs is to look at what the grad students in your proposed area of study are dissertating or publishing about. Because graduate students aren't necessarily going to be carbon-copies of their advisors, and the best ones are going to be engaging with relevant issues while branching out into new realms. When I was figuring out my dissertation prospectus, I spent time studying the projects and abstracts of recent graduate students in my area (but from other schools) who'd won national recognition for their scholarship (ACLS dissertation fellowships, article prizes, etc.). 

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On 6/13/2018 at 11:52 PM, Bumblebea said:

Like, take Lacanian criticism, for example, and this is just an example. There are a few people at a few programs who do this, and and if you're into it you might be tempted to throw all your eggs in a very small number of baskets. But a lot of scholars consider Lacanian criticism to be "intellectually bankrupt" (a direct quote I heard just recently). So if you're coming out of a program steeped in the stuff, you might find yourself with worse employment prospects than usual.  

May I ask what you are basing this on? I knew Lacanian psychoanalysis was considered fairly 'old news' but not the extent you're describing.

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