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Noticing a change in my research interests-- what should I do?

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Hi everyone. 

For a while now, I've been noticing that my research interests have been changing. Though I applied to grad school in American history, and am writing a thesis in modern American history, I've realized that I've grown a bit disinterested. ? A majority of the history courses I've taken are in European history, and I've found that I've been much more interested in European history. More dramatically, I've found that I've been the most excited about medieval and early modern history. My fear, though, is that my experience as an undergrad would make it hard to get into European history at all. 

So far, I haven't had any PhD acceptances and I'm honestly not expecting any, but I do have an MA acceptance. Would it be best to accept and attend this MA program to get my foot in the door with non-American history, or just continue in the field that I wrote my undergrad thesis?

Edited by historygeek
Grammar.

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If the Villanova MA is funded and there's room to shift your regional focus, I'd recommend the MA--it'll give you some time to get a grasp on where you want your work to go. I've shifted around a bit in my program, though always with the same advisor (my advisor was always more of a methodological than a regional fit), and no one minds/cares. Pretty sure it's actually a relief to my advisors that I abandoned my shitty SoP idea. Ultimately, given supportive advisors and a supportive program, you'll end up writing the work you need to write--but if you're noticing now that you might want to change fields entirely (it's different if you're interested in something approaching "global" or transnational history), then it might be a blessing in disguise if you don't end up with a PhD offer this round. Don't think of your undergrad thesis as defining your future, it's really more of an exercise in working on a sustained research project. 

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Thank you for your response! One of the PhD students at my undergrad did her MA at Villanova, so I talked to her today and was assured that it was a flexible program, which was a relief. I've also been thinking about it and I realized that I'm not sure that I'm totally ready for a PhD program just yet, so that is definitely also going to be taken into consideration.

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I'm out of upvotes today for @OHSP!  Your thoughts, @historygeek are on point and absolutely appropriate for an undergraduate.  I thought I wanted to do US history but a little time off and a MA made me realize that I strongly preferred European history.  Of course, once I realized that, I had to get pretty serious about language trainig (Hello German!) to show my commitment to studying European history.

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2 hours ago, historygeek said:

Hi everyone. 

For a while now, I've been noticing that my research interests have been changing. Though I applied to grad school in American history, and am writing a thesis in modern American history, I've realized that I've grown a bit disinterested. ? A majority of the history courses I've taken are in European history, and I've found that I've been much more interested in European history. More dramatically, I've found that I've been the most excited about medieval and early modern history. My fear, though, is that my experience as an undergrad would make it hard to get into European history at all. 

So far, I haven't had any PhD acceptances and I'm honestly not expecting any, but I do have an MA acceptance. Would it be best to accept and attend this MA program to get my foot in the door with non-American history, or just continue in the field that I wrote my undergrad thesis?

Obviously only you can answer this but I would give yourself some breathing room from the thesis before you definitely change focus. 

I remember feeling the same way sometimes when I was in the later stages of my undergrad thesis (although my thinking never went to such a dramatic shift), only to reaffirm my research interests after a couple months break. 

What's new and exciting today might not always feel that way. Just make sure you are making the shift for the right reasons and not running away from your research for something you'll be just as bored with in the long run. 

Edited by Dark Paladin

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4 hours ago, historygeek said:

Hi everyone. 

For a while now, I've been noticing that my research interests have been changing. Though I applied to grad school in American history, and am writing a thesis in modern American history, I've realized that I've grown a bit disinterested. ? A majority of the history courses I've taken are in European history, and I've found that I've been much more interested in European history. More dramatically, I've found that I've been the most excited about medieval and early modern history. My fear, though, is that my experience as an undergrad would make it hard to get into European history at all. 

So far, I haven't had any PhD acceptances and I'm honestly not expecting any, but I do have an MA acceptance. Would it be best to accept and attend this MA program to get my foot in the door with non-American history, or just continue in the field that I wrote my undergrad thesis?

A few things to say here: it's perfectly normal for your research interests to shift and develop as you get more exposure to the field. I applied to graduate school to do early modern history of astronomy.  Due to a variety of strange and unforeseen events, I now work primarily on 20th century US medicine. As for your future applications, you're not stuck in whatever you did in undergrad. I spent a lot of my undergrad working with a New Testament specialist, and my undergraduate thesis was actually on a highly technical element of New Testament studies.

If you want to do an early modern/medieval topic, you need to have the requisite languages. That means, at a minimum, an ancient language (most frequently Latin, you can have ancient Greek if you make a case for it) and a European research language, most frequently German or French.

As for the MA, if it's funded, then yes, you should do it. I would recommend looking at the MA's placement into other PhD programs, but that's slightly more of a secondary concern than the resources available. I would also recommend consulting some of the world class medievalists who teach at your current university. They have insight into the field that most of us will never have.

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I think everyone has offered excellent advice, but I do want to add onto/ highlight @Dark Paladin's point- you're knee deep in a thesis that's likely your first in-depth experience with historical research and writing, and you haven't heard from any PhD programs, which naturally has made you doubt yourself and what you want to do. I'm not convinced that, if and when you get into a PhD program, your opinion won't change in the light of an acceptance letter. I say this because when I applied, I was trying to write a senior thesis that I found agonizingly hard, and I wanted nothing more than to be done with it. I thought somewhat seriously at one point about withdrawing all my PhD applications and re-applying to MAs. Then, because it was too late to withdraw, I wondered if I should have applied for American history instead. Once I started getting acceptances, however, both those wishes completely left me, and they have never come back. It's hard to know what is an honest change in interests and what is application nerves, but time usually helps sort out one from the other-- so certainly give it thought now, but revisit it later once you know how everything has shaken out.

Additionally, studying early modern and medieval history is a different ballgame than studying modern Europe or US. Your archives are different, your sources are different, you piece together evidence differently (as you just don't have the masses of stuff that modernists do), you ask different questions with different stakes. Do you want to address those questions? Do you find them compelling? In my case, I realized that the animating questions of US history by and large weren't the big questions I wanted to think about the most. You may find that you really are drawn to the work of early modern history, in which case, a MA may be a good place for you to make that transition. But you can have a wide variety of interests, and being interested in one thing doesn't mean you've chosen the wrong one for yourself. It means you're well rounded. 

Finally, regarding readiness for a PhD program. It's very good to be honest and self-aware (truly), but it's also hard to see yourself and your capabilities clearly when you're this close up to it, and under so much application stress. Quite honestly I'm not sure if one ever does feel ready. I can think of a number of times where my advisor suggested that I move onto the next stage of the program, or take a risk on some opportunity that presented itself, but I myself didn't feel ready. I would always protest that I needed more time: more time to study for comps, more time to take another class, more time to revise an article or clarify an argument, more time to figure out what I was trying to say. Then I would do some more Tina Belcher style groaning in the privacy of my apartment and try to do it anyways. And in each case, my advisor was right, and I was wrong. I was ready for it, and I could do it- I was just really nervous. 

Graduate school is full of moments like these where you feel on the absolute edge of what you're capable of doing. But you have to be on that edge if you want to really push yourself and grow as a scholar/ thinker/ person. So I really would try to sit on your hands for a few more weeks, even though it is incredibly difficult, and see how it all shakes out; schools won't accept students they don't think are ready, and your professors wouldn't have recommended you apply to these schools and helped you throughout the process if they didn't think you could make it. 

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Personally, I am incredibly thankful that I attended an MA program before applying to doctoral programs for this very reason. I’m not sure how your MA program would be structured, but mine was broad. They required us to take at least 2 courses in European, 2 courses in American, and 2 courses in “non-western.” We also had the flexibility to take up to 2 independent studies, provided there was an instructor interested in facilitating that topic for us. While I ultimately did stay with modern American history, my interest from undergrad shifted from military history (particularly the pacific theater of WWII, I think I was drawn to that topic because I am a navy veteran) into the variety of factors within American society that impacted Cold War American politics. That odd change in interests came from an MA program that pushed me to explore outside the box I had put myself into.

It is not an easy transition, but I strongly recommend you attend an MA program before your PhD so that you have the opportunity to narrow your interests within European history if you want to transition. Obviously I speak from my personal experience, not of any place of authority, but sometimes it helps you grow if you take the smaller steps (like an MA) rather than jumping from undergrad to PhD. Good luck!

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Wow-- thank you for all the advice, everyone!

Just to address some points: I've always loved European history, and it's consistently been the field I'm most interested in. All of my upper-level history classes have been in European history (ranging from classical Greece to Rome in late antiquity to British imperial history to 20th century Italy). I chose to do a thesis on American history because of an internship I did at a museum in the Italian neighborhood of St. Louis, and felt that it would be easiest to do a thesis on American history (though I heavily considered doing my thesis on modern Italian history). I worried, though probably erroneously, that I would only get accepted to American history programs, so I applied mainly to American history programs (and some global). 

As for my language training, I'm double majoring in history and Italian, so I have one language under my belt-- another reason I felt that applying to PhD programs in American history was the best course of action. I'm trying now to learn Latin, and will try to be learning German and/or French in the near future!

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I just love @gsc's advice, so this is not in anyway a counterargument but just another possibility, and obviously I can only speak from my own experience, so please do read this with a grain of salt. The first time I applied to PhD programs, I mainly applied to Political Science programs, and I was rejected everywhere, even by the school I am currently attending. The only offer I got is a two-year MA offer in Political Science without any word on funding. My supervisor suggested that I take the offer and use it as an opportunity to adjust to American academia and to access resources that would make me readier for the next round of PhD application, but I just didn't feel it. (it's not mainly about funding, though, bc I would have other sources of scholarship; it was more of an issue of opportunity cost in general) Instead, I reapplied, this time to PhD programs in history only, and got in half of the programs I applied to... Now I think about it, my supervisor was probably more stressed out and upset by the unhappy news than I was. And I am now very very happy in my current program. 

Of course, the change you have in mind is a lot less drastic than changing the discipline, but should this feeling about change follows you around....well, I definitely second gsc's wonderful comments regarding the self-doubt part, but this doesn't mean any decision you make while you are self-doubting is a bad decision. I certainly made the decision of changing discipline while I was stressed out, in a lot of pain, and self-doubting, but I knew Political Science wouldn't work for me, and applying to PhD programs in PolSci was more of a result of path dependence than that of self-reflection. 

I have only been in my program for a bit over an semester, but like @gsc described, the "on the edge" feeling is a daily experience. That being said, I also feel that I can and should be able to feel fulfilled and make rational decisions while I also self-doubt and feel stressed. In short, it's totally normal and legit to think about changing fields even if you are feeling stressed, some supervisors would even encourage you to rethink what you want to do once you are in the program. When I asked my supervisor what they expected me to do for my first year, they said they simply wanted me to explore and experience as many different things as I can and see what could excite me the most. 

Also, it's not over until you hear from every program, and it's not over even after you hear from every program. Fingers crossed that you hear good news soon!

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1 hour ago, historygeek said:

Wow-- thank you for all the advice, everyone!

Just to address some points: I've always loved European history, and it's consistently been the field I'm most interested in. All of my upper-level history classes have been in European history (ranging from classical Greece to Rome in late antiquity to British imperial history to 20th century Italy). I chose to do a thesis on American history because of an internship I did at a museum in the Italian neighborhood of St. Louis, and felt that it would be easiest to do a thesis on American history (though I heavily considered doing my thesis on modern Italian history). I worried, though probably erroneously, that I would only get accepted to American history programs, so I applied mainly to American history programs (and some global). 

As for my language training, I'm double majoring in history and Italian, so I have one language under my belt-- another reason I felt that applying to PhD programs in American history was the best course of action. I'm trying now to learn Latin, and will try to be learning German and/or French in the near future!

At risk of being overly blunt, if you chose a thesis topic primarily because you thought it would be "easier," it's probably not the sub-field you should get a Ph.D. in.  It does sound like you are truly more passionate about European history and already have Italian under your belt so it shouldn't be too painful of a switch. 

That said, I really think you should still keep in mind what @gsc put so well.

If you got a Ph.D. offer tomorrow for an American history program at, say, NYU or Michigan would you take it? Just make sure you are not emotionally rationalizing changing paths because of the way this admissions cycle has gone. I'm guilty of thinking like this all the time. 

Edited by Dark Paladin

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@historygeek you're getting exceptional guidance in this thread. You might benefit if you were to take a couple of days to read and reread and think and rethink about what you're being told before commenting further. 

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And to be blunt, there were quite a few posts back in the fall that dealt with the very questions that you are bringing up now such as "how do I justify wanting to do a PhD in XZ when my thesis deals with YZ?" and those folks who listened to the advice of the experienced have not had such a problem.  FWIW, US history is quite impossible to get in for PhD compared to European history simply because many people want to take the "easier" route to completing the PhD. (it's true, Americanists take at least a year or two less than other fields). To be very competitive, one needs to ask insightful, carefully thought out questions informed by secondary literature and personal experiences.  European history is highly competitive but there's a bit more flexibility.  Just because there doesn't seem to be as many Italian historians in the US, it doesn't mean it's not popular. Examine their work to see how they are surviving in the sea of French, German, Russian, and British historians.

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4 hours ago, gsc said:

Do you want to address those questions? Do you find them compelling?

I think this is really key advice. Like many historians (basically all historians? faculty do this too) my geographic and temporal interests have wandered around a bit, but the more work I've done the more I've realized they coalesce around particular questions, approaches, and sources I find most compelling.  That is to say, I think most people's gut intuition of what they like is generally accurate, but once you have a sense of what you like it's worth looking over those interests critically to find what connects them. Admittedly, when most people apply to graduate school they don't have a large body of their own work to do this with, but you can think about in terms of other people's work you've liked as well. 

Also just to reiterate what has been said above, you have no need to feel locked into your undergrad thesis topic, your SOP proposal, and definitely not coursework. As @AnUglyBoringNerd experiences' show, trying to shoehorn your interests into a field they don't fit is not setting you up for success or long-term satisfaction with your work. Thinking about the questions and approaches that motivate you, however, is a great way to frame changing fields as an introspective and productive shift, rather than a whim i.e. "In my previous work in x field I've always been drawn to questions of y, but I've recently come to believe these would actually be better approached through field z." On the other hand, thinking more about why you're interested in shifting fields could also lead to the realization that what you actually  are drawn to is an approach, or writing style, or question that's entirely compatible with your own. 

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3 minutes ago, TMP said:

And to be blunt, there were quite a few posts back in the fall that dealt with the very questions that you are bringing up now such as "how do I justify wanting to do a PhD in XZ when my thesis deals with YZ?" and those folks who listened to the advice of the experienced have not had such a problem.  FWIW, US history is quite impossible to get in for PhD compared to European history simply because many people want to take the "easier" route to completing the PhD. (it's true, Americanists take at least a year or two less than other fields). To be very competitive, one needs to ask insightful, carefully thought out questions informed by secondary literature and personal experiences.  European history is highly competitive but there's a bit more flexibility.  Just because there doesn't seem to be as many Italian historians in the US, it doesn't mean it's not popular. Examine their work to see how they are surviving in the sea of French, German, Russian, and British historians.

I guess we're being especially blunt, so I'll just tack this on too: US history jobs are probably the most competitive of all, simply because there are a ton of applicants. Post-Civil War United States is arguably the most oversaturated field for PhD candidates in the United States. US history is, in a very real sense, a bit more protected from the current trend of department consolidation, but that doesn't mean the jobs are there. Many of the US history jobs these days go to people who work on transnational/colonial US topics. You're not likely to find too many US legal historians anymore. They just don't exist outside of law schools.  

Choosing a US history PhD because of "ease" is a very bad decision. I shifted into history of US medicine, but I'd be quite surprised if my dissertation doesn't end up focusing on tropical/colonial medicine in one way or another. 

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2 minutes ago, TMP said:

FWIW, US history is quite impossible to get in for PhD compared to European history simply because many people want to take the "easier" route to completing the PhD. (it's true, Americanists take at least a year or two less than other fields). 

Yes. I'm not entirely sure why people think it'll be easier to get into schools if they apply as Americanists. Also worth being a bit careful about how you phrase these things, especially when you're asking for advice from current graduate students. I've recently received a few messages in which prospective students/applicants say things to the effect of: "I figured 'your school' would be easier to get into than x school, I don't know what I was thinking applying to ~~better schools~~" or "I thought about applying to your school as a safety" or "I'm worried that if I went to your school I'd struggle on the job market". Obviously these kinds of statements can rub people the wrong way, whether you're talking about a specific school or a specific field! Develop tact early.  

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Easier probably wasn't the best way to phrase it! I chose an American history thesis because of the availability of related archives, and applied as an Americanist in part because of the accessibility of relevant archives.

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23 minutes ago, OHSP said:

Yes. I'm not entirely sure why people think it'll be easier to get into schools if they apply as Americanists. Also worth being a bit careful about how you phrase these things, especially when you're asking for advice from current graduate students. I've recently received a few messages in which prospective students/applicants say things to the effect of: "I figured 'your school' would be easier to get into than x school, I don't know what I was thinking applying to ~~better schools~~" or "I thought about applying to your school as a safety" or "I'm worried that if I went to your school I'd struggle on the job market". Obviously these kinds of statements can rub people the wrong way, whether you're talking about a specific school or a specific field! Develop tact early.  

This is a total aside, but anyone who talks about "safety," "reach," and "match" for graduate schools has missed the point of graduate education. It's not "get into graduate school." It's "find a job after graduate school." 

Also, in what fantasy world is NYU not an outstanding program? 

 

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13 minutes ago, psstein said:

This is a total aside, but anyone who talks about "safety," "reach," and "match" for graduate schools has missed the point of graduate education. It's not "get into graduate school." It's "find a job after graduate school." 

Also, in what fantasy world is NYU not an outstanding program? 

 

The world where people are thinking about ivy prestige and US news rankings ? Placement-wise the program has serious strengths and serious weaknesses but that's a different matter. Also a friend in the program who's a few years further in has received similar emails this year and has never received them previously. Maybe a fluke, maybe not. 

Edited by OHSP

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Hey, everyone! I want to thank you all again for the advice given on this thread, because it's been really helpful! 

I took into consideration the points made here (especially the point that I could very well be burnt out on American history) and spoke with my faculty mentor (an early modernist). He did mention the job market for 20th century Americanists being not great and did give me some reading suggestions since I'm considering early modern (including a series on early modern women's history). I was also able to speak with the director of the masters program at Villanova, who mentioned that the program is very flexible and most students don't stay with the concentration they applied with. Right now, I'm leaning heavily towards doing a Masters to fine tune my interests, get language training, and get more acquainted with methodology and historiography. Depending on funding, I will probably accept Villanova.

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21 hours ago, historygeek said:

Hey, everyone! I want to thank you all again for the advice given on this thread, because it's been really helpful! 

I took into consideration the points made here (especially the point that I could very well be burnt out on American history) and spoke with my faculty mentor (an early modernist). He did mention the job market for 20th century Americanists being not great and did give me some reading suggestions since I'm considering early modern (including a series on early modern women's history). I was also able to speak with the director of the masters program at Villanova, who mentioned that the program is very flexible and most students don't stay with the concentration they applied with. Right now, I'm leaning heavily towards doing a Masters to fine tune my interests, get language training, and get more acquainted with methodology and historiography. Depending on funding, I will probably accept Villanova.

This is a very intelligent move. The job market for everything is bad, but 19th and 20th century US suffer from incredible oversaturation.

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3 hours ago, psstein said:

This is a very intelligent move. The job market for everything is bad, but 19th and 20th century US suffer from incredible oversaturation.

Thank you! From some statistics searching, it definitely seems like competition for Americanists is... stiff.

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I was rejected from PhD programs out of undergrad and ultimately, it was a blessing. I went to a partially-funded MA instead. It gave me the chance to develop my languages, broaden my research interests, and network through faculty. In undergrad, I was interested in 18th-century British imperial history. During my MA I took courses on a variety of world regions, and now I'm more interested in early modern Indian Ocean history and material culture. By this PhD cycle, I had more languages, more archival research experience, and a better grasp on historiography and how to propose a feasible research project. The applications were also easier: I only applied to 4 PhD programs because I know what I am looking for. 

Re: early modern Italian history, there is definitely a demand for more globally-oriented research on Venice, Livorno, etc. Plus, I can attest that Italian archives have their, err, quirks... but there are benefits to travelling there! 

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@historygeek, you've gotten some wonderful advice already, and it looks like you've made peace with your situation and are making some very sensible decisions, but I just wanted to share my experience as well, on the chance that it may help. I'm currently doing an MA and I cannot overstate how important this experience has been for shaping my research interest (perhaps the effect was more dramatic in my case because I didn't do my undergrad in history, but I think it can certainly also be very valuable for people who do have a background in history, especially in terms of what @gorgogliante mentioned above).

Also, I'm sure that your professors will be a much bigger help than myself, but I started out as an early modern Italy person (slowly made my way into early modern France, and then colonial North America) so maybe I can offer a few reading suggestions or answer some  questions you may have. I know you're also interested in women's and gender history, and that's what I was doing (in a few words, prostitution in early modern Venice was my thing) and I can certainly dig up my old reading lists/bibliographies if that's something you're interested in. Shoot me a PM if you are! :)

Edited by Karou

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