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My ambition is to become a professor of Literature, and I intend on pursuing admission to some form of graduate school for Fall 2019. 

As I get closer to really starting the application process in earnest, I'm kind of overwhelmed by uncertainty about the whole thing. The big question on my mind is whether or not my grades are even close to being good enough. My overall GPA is about 3.35. In the major (English), I'm at a 3.66. I have confidence in my ability to do graduate level work, and my advisor and professor has insisted that I'm a good candidate for graduate study, but I'm worried that my grades don't reflect that, particularly when reading anecdotes on here about people with 3.9 GPAs getting turned down by multiple schools... 

So I feel really disoriented going into this. What schools should I even consider? Especially with the cost of the application process, is applying to the more prestigious programs I really connect with (i.e. Duke) just a waste of time and money for me at this stage? Even the less-prestigious Ph.D programs may be too much to ask for me. Maybe I should focus solely on getting into a non-flagship state school's MA program... but I don't want to sell myself short (if I actually do have a chance at getting into a Ph.D) and I really want to work with professors who excite me! All this with the sheer number of schools, programs, each with different standards and expectations, and a lot of financial question marks, is very overwhelming. I have an excel spreadsheet of programs of interest but it just gets longer and less coherent.

My main question is: does anyone know what steps I could take to cut down on some of this uncertainty and start to formulate a concrete strategy going forward?

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A few things.

1.  Your in major GPA isn't bad.  People have gotten accepted to good programs with worse, I'm sure.  In any case, GPA doesn't even really rate in the top three most important aspects of an application. While you correctly cite that this board is filled with people who have 3.9 or even 4.0 GPAs, some of those folks get shut out (for example, I had a 4.0 and I was totally shut out my first time around).

2. You should consider all schools that genuinely interest you after thoroughly researching the subject (this number should be between 8 and 13).  There are people doing absolutely fascinating work at schools who aren't household names.  Off the top of my head, none of the major citations in my dissertation work at "Ivy/Ivy Equivalent" schools.  If you are casting a truly wide net, and really being diligent about picking schools that are a good fit, your list will likely contain a healthy mix of schools whose names will impress your aunts and uncles, and schools whose names contain "State" or at least are named after states. As you are likely to learn, the academic job market is largely a crap shoot, and a scholar's level of brilliance does not necessarily correlate with the prestige of their workplace.

3. Relatedly to #2, If your goal is to be a university literature professor, that should be the uncertainty that really terrifies you! However, specific prestige of school - I think - matters less in getting a job, than who your advisor is and whether you can make the case that your dissertation is compelling through your cover letter and a strong publication. People in the field are aware for example, that some schools lack a general prestige but have excellent reputations in sub-disciplines. This is not always apparent to outsiders or undergrads, but is (naturally) common knowledge within sub-disciplines. I attend an English program that is top 40 on USNews but well regarded in a pair of subdisciplines that don't get ranked, we've recently placed people at Stanford, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Cornell, among others.

4. Nothing is likely to cut down on uncertainty. I can honestly say that applying to graduate school was one of the top three most anxiety inducing and miserable experiences of my life. I spent most of that time attempting to struggle against uncertainty, the best thing is to find some way to embrace it.

5. One way to embrace the uncertainty is to realize that you have almost no control over the most important aspects of the application process (the makeup of the committee, their current needs/desires, the composition of graduate students already attending, and the pool of other applicants) and that your admissions results have nothing to do with your level of brilliance or worth as a human being (I say this because I wish somebody had been there to tell me this when my shiny 4.0 failed to secure me any admissions my first time around).

6.  Contained in all of this, is that the most important thing is to think really hard about the schools you apply to, cast aside all biases and preconceptions about the names of schools and the rankings of their department. If your list only contains "Ivy or Ivy equivalent," go back to the drawing board and look harder. 

Edited by jrockford27

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So the entire process is overwhelming and it will continue to feel that way until you're accepted into a program. This is especially difficult when you're still getting your B.A. If your grades don't reflect your abilities, mention that in your statement of purpose and have stellar recommendations to support that. Most programs aren't going to cut you for mediocre GPAs; they typically look at applicants holistically. I don't think any of us can tell you what programs to consider because it all depends on your research interests, your geographical preferences, and your finances. I'm, of course, not asking you to share any of this--especially finances--because it takes a while to figure out. I would look through the other forums in Literature, Rhetoric, and Composition to see what others are saying, too. 

I'm not an expert in the least, but if you have any questions, I could try to help if you dm me. 

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Thanks a lot to you both for the wisdom and perspective. Definitely have some things to keep in mind going forward.
 

On the note about sub-discipline reputation @jrockford27, that is definitely something I struggle to put into perspective when looking at grad programs. There aren't a whole lot of names I recognize, so there are only a couple of schools that I can easily identify as being of good repute in a given sub-discipline. Besides searching this forum, (which has been helpful so far) and flipping through a lot of journals, do you have any favorite methods for estimating this from the outside?

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12 hours ago, ©har1ie said:

On the note about sub-discipline reputation @jrockford27, that is definitely something I struggle to put into perspective when looking at grad programs. There aren't a whole lot of names I recognize, so there are only a couple of schools that I can easily identify as being of good repute in a given sub-discipline. Besides searching this forum, (which has been helpful so far) and flipping through a lot of journals, do you have any favorite methods for estimating this from the outside?

 

I would ask your professors about which schools they recommend, especially professors in your desired research field. They'll know best. 

I didn't know that in undergrad, so what I actually did was look through the top 100 English graduate programs in the U.S. from usnews.com. Then I looked through every single one of the programs' faculty to see which ones had faculty in my field. I then tried to see how many instructors were in my field at that university. You'll want at least two to three in your field at the university, and be careful because sometimes they could be retiring soon. Once I had the programs on my list, I extensively researched the professors I was interested in working with by looking at their scholarship. From there, I was able to narrow down my list even further. 

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It's very hard for you to know, for sure. I did not begin to have a real handle on reputation until I was in grad school for awhile. Which is why reputation isn't really a great litmus test for determining whether to apply to a school. I will tell you, my first time around I was focused much much more on prestige than fit in putting together my list, which is one of many explanations of why I was shut out.

I'll tell you what I did the second time around.  Maybe this sounds super tedious, but this is a major process and must involve some tedium: I went to the U.S. news rankings, and I just started going down the list, looking at the faculty in the programs, skimming their publication titles or their listed interests.  Some schools make this exceptionally easy.  If I could find 2-3 professors who really seemed to interest me, I put the department on the "long list." I stuck in the top 50.

Then, my "long list" established, I started looking a little deeper, actually skimming book chapters and articles, reading the department's grad handbook (if it was available), and that was how I constructed my short list. It contained programs from across the top 40.  After I'd conducted this process, in fact it emerged that all things being equal, my favorite two programs on the list were in the 20s and 30s. Indeed, in my first time around I had my head so far up my ass about prestige that I didn't even realize there were programs so well attuned to the type of work I wanted to do.  Those programs weren't even on my radar the first time around.

In determining fit, too, I'll go back to something I said in another thread last week, that no department is likely to contain a "dream team" of faculty working and actively publishing in your area.  My committee's work has very very little to do with the content of my dissertation.  Instead, I chose them based on a combination of how well I worked with them (which you wont know until you get there) but also how interested I was in their work, and if I sensed it had methodological or theoretical kinship with mine. Actually, I picked  my chair in part because her work differs so wildly from my own inclinations, and that I knew she could keep me honest and make sure I don't drift too far afield ("fit" is very complicated!).

Edited by jrockford27

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23 hours ago, jrockford27 said:

Instead, I chose them based on a combination of how well I worked with them (which you wont know until you get there) but also how interested I was in their work, and if I sensed it had methodological or theoretical kinship with mine. Actually, I picked  my chair in part because her work differs so wildly from my own inclinations, and that I knew she could keep me honest and make sure I don't drift too far afield ("fit" is very complicated!).

This is a bit off-topic but sparks something I've been thinking about: is it appropriate to hone in on and mention in SoPs faculty who are working in different subfields and even different periods than you are but who seem to be driven by the same kinds of questions or who for whatever reason seem to employ methodologies that resonate with you? I've come across a number of faculty members who are interested in some of the same topics as me (in particular I'm thinking about things like "modernity", industrialization, genealogies of modernity) but who are working in different periods (I usually find these people are in Modernism whereas I'm in Romantic). I wouldn't say those are my absolute primary interests, but they form part of a project for me. Would it be appropriate to -- if I'm selecting 3 POIs in my head -- decide a program is fitting if there's say, a Romanticist, an aestheticist who resonates with me, and someone interested in the broader ideas/questions I mentioned? And then perhaps another 2 Romanticists who have different interests than me but could nonetheless supply expertise in the field. It seems like I'm coming across programs with this sort of array much more frequently than I'm finding 3 Romanticists with the same subfields as me.

Edited by indecisivepoet

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On 7/17/2018 at 1:03 PM, indecisivepoet said:

This is a bit off-topic but sparks something I've been thinking about: is it appropriate to hone in on and mention in SoPs faculty who are working in different subfields and even different periods than you are but who seem to be driven by the same kinds of questions or who for whatever reason seem to employ methodologies that resonate with you? I've come across a number of faculty members who are interested in some of the same topics as me (in particular I'm thinking about things like "modernity", industrialization, genealogies of modernity) but who are working in different periods (I usually find these people are in Modernism whereas I'm in Romantic). I wouldn't say those are my absolute primary interests, but they form part of a project for me. Would it be appropriate to -- if I'm selecting 3 POIs in my head -- decide a program is fitting if there's say, a Romanticist, an aestheticist who resonates with me, and someone interested in the broader ideas/questions I mentioned? And then perhaps another 2 Romanticists who have different interests than me but could nonetheless supply expertise in the field. It seems like I'm coming across programs with this sort of array much more frequently than I'm finding 3 Romanticists with the same subfields as me.

In my opinion, yes, absolutely. Finding an advisor or a team of faculty to work with is hard- finding someone who you get along with, work well with, AND they have the exact same interests as you? Nearly impossible! Find a program that supports your broader research interests, has faculty that challenge and excite you, and has an advisor who is interested enough in your topic/a topic similar that they will be supportive during the process. I think your situation of having 2-3 faculty who share broader interests plus one specific faculty member with similar interests is great.

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I’m going to disagree a little about the importance of advisor over prestige in the hiring process. Though you should definitely try to get with well fitting profs who may be a bit big in the field, the hiring committee members and deans in charge of hiring you aren’t all that likely to be operating in you or your advisor’s specific field and (unless they are titans of lit with broad cross appeal) will likely have no knowledge of how important your advisor is. I think this is especially true for your average state school or small liberal arts college where they’re hiring to fill an area that is limited to one or two faculty members.

This is not to say who you work with isn’t important. It totally is and they can totally alter the path you head down as a researcher. Just, I think there is a need for caution when assuming going to a tier 3, 4 school that has a hip advisor will be of more help to getting a job than going to a tier 1, 2 that has an advisor who  - while not famous in the field - will fit and support your interests.

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