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Current English PhD students - Q&A

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On 2/22/2019 at 10:34 AM, eddyrynes said:

How competitive/cutthroat are some of these top programs? How do you deal with feeling like an imposter/not good enough all the time?

caveat, i'm in coursework, so this might not apply to later stages, but...

depends so, so much on where you are. and who you are. and how you handle school. and what you're trying to get out of any given experience.

for example, grades in grad school are meaningless. I know a lot of people who came out of undergrad and had a really hard time adjusting to a world without grades. how do I know if my stuff is good? the answer really is that you'll never finish the idea -- the feedback will always be more things to think about, more ideas to hone. you're never going to get a paper back that says "great, perfect." if you do, you've been let down.

so this question for me is really about how you find value in your work and what you're after. there's no way to measure yourself that's objective and "real," so you have to set up some definitions you can live by. this semester, I have two seminar papers. I want to use one to explore a new interest. I want to use the other to improve my skills in clarity and analysis. if I do both of those things, this semester will have been a good one. and I'll use the comments I get to set goals for next semester.

my program is dope because we aren't trying to outdo each. sure, it can be a spectacular bummer when you get passed up for a position and someone else gets it, but I always keep in mind that seven years is a long time. there's gonna be more stuff. 

---

there was also a question about time.

i think honestly it's more helpful to tell you what I did this week. everyone does stuff at their own pace.

1. worked on a paper for a conference that's in a few weeks. I had hit a wall. I think I've spent three hours this week re-orienting the focus of the paper and making a revision plan that I plan on doing in small chunks each day. 

2. graded papers for my students (this semester, that's fifteen of em)

3. had a fifteen-minute meeting with each student about their next paper. had some pretty good ones.

4. read four articles (~20 pages each) for one class

5. read one book (~250 pages) for another class -- this class has a pretty high reading load

6. planned three lessons to teach next week

7. spent three hours teaching

8. spent five hours in class 

9. couple of meetings here and there. 

10. random writing/email time/notes revision*

11. half an hour each day preparing for my language exam. ugh.

let's assume thirty minutes per student paper (a slow pace, but one that I intentionally choose) and twenty pages of reading per hour... i'd say that's about 48 hours. give or take. my math is probably wrong too

*notes revision, where I write down the greatest hits from my reading in the hour before class, is something I recommend to everyone. it's great having one sheet of organized notes to refer to when discussion is going real quick. plus it helps you remember complicated stuff you might have read six days ago.

Edited by NoodleKidoodle
all writing is rewriting

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I'm a current MA student with questions for current PhD students because I will be applying to doctoral programs this Fall.

 

My biggest question is how did you decide to market yourself? Sure, being genuine about your interests is important, but what rhetorical strategies did you use to construct a narrative of your past academic work that shows promise but also shows an openness to researching new things/working with faculty that maybe don't directly align with your current theoretical investments, historical period of study, etc. Beyond that, how did you make it so that your SOP was not "brown nosing" the program/faculty, I assume that most grad programs know that they are good programs and don't really need to be reminded of that by every application they receive so how did you avoid this in your application materials? Also, if anyone is comfortable with sending me an SOP of theirs that would be incredible, I have found some online but not many. I would be incredibly grateful.

 

I am also concerned with contacting grad program directors: What do you ask? Is there such a thing as too many questions? What is appropriate and what is not appropriate to ask? Should you even contact a DGS if you don't have any burning questions/just want to show face? Etc.

 

Thank you so much for any info on these two questions, I am sure that I will be back with more. If anyone has any questions for me about doing an MA (particularly doing a funded MA) in English please feel free to ask me too.

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5 hours ago, Dogfish Head said:

My biggest question is how did you decide to market yourself? Sure, being genuine about your interests is important, but what rhetorical strategies did you use to construct a narrative of your past academic work that shows promise but also shows an openness to researching new things/working with faculty that maybe don't directly align with your current theoretical investments, historical period of study, etc. Beyond that, how did you make it so that your SOP was not "brown nosing" the program/faculty, I assume that most grad programs know that they are good programs and don't really need to be reminded of that by every application they receive so how did you avoid this in your application materials? Also, if anyone is comfortable with sending me an SOP of theirs that would be incredible, I have found some online but not many. I would be incredibly grateful.

I think it's fantastic you're already beginning to consider these issues! To preface what I'm pretty certain will be a somewhat long-winded response, I'll say that I applied this season and had moderate success. I have no idea how much my SoP was significant for my results; the minor feedback I've received so far by my acceptances had to do with my WS rather than my SoP. In retrospect, though there are significant changes I would make with my WS, I'm pretty happy with my SoP and don't feel like it was a detriment to my app. In any case, writing the SoP is a pretty individual process, so take the following with however much salt you see fit. Also, there are a multitude of threads on this forum you could look at for SoP advice that may answer your questions.

I started with a basic list of ideas/experiences/achievements I wanted to mention, and tried to see how I can interweave between them organically: my MA thesis, some significant seminar papers that influenced the direction of my research, my experience as a research assistant, and of course my proposed research project (also briefly describing a conference paper that directly relates to this research). My teaching experience didn't make the cut. Neither did any mention of accolades/awards/scholarships (leave the bragging for the letter writers to do). From a certain point, after free-writing and revising a couple of drafts, the main question guiding me was "are these words worth the space they take up?" That is, does this idea/experience/whatever add enough content to offset the cost of space? In a sense, then, my SoP was on the drier side, because it really did focus on my research. Of course, I tried to present things in an interesting way, but didn't have a personal expository anecdote, humorous details, or witty asides. Whenever I added those it felt contrived or cheesy to me even when they were very sincere, so I ultimately decided to go with direct and succinct. But this is very personal; I think that since I'm ESL, my writing is always a little deliberate and not as buoyant as I'd like. 

In terms of research specificity vs. openness to new ideas, I presented a pretty specific research project, but showed how it could be taken in different directions. My overarching focus is driven by queer/feminist theory and poetics, but I discussed the project's possible interconnections with, for example, issues of race, disability, aesthetics and visual culture, urban studies, affect, and trauma. While I offered a highly niche project, I tried to highlight the possible interventions I could make in current discussions and therefore show why this project is relevant, important, and expansive. I think this should be the crux of the SoP. You should be familiar enough with your field to know what questions are currently being asked, and frame your research in relation to these. The SoP should implicitly explain--why this research project? What about this topic is important, and how could it resonate with contemporary issues in literary studies? IMO, this is how to navigate the tension between a niche project that still allows for openness to new ideas.

For programs with similar word limits for the SoP (8/11 programs to which I applied required something around 1000 words), the body of my statement was mostly the same, with minor differences to (implicitly) account for the particulars of each department (e.g. emphasizing a detail that uniquely ties with a POI). The last two paragraphs addressed the university, department, and POIs specifically, highlighting different aspects of my proposed research to relate it to the POIs etc. Like you, I was also worried of coming across as brown-nosing, but ultimately found this easy to avoid by deleting any superlatives and using direct, nuanced, and specific language that expressed the methodologies/approaches/themes/ideas in POIs research that dovetail with my own. I also mentioned any departmental/university facilities, certificates, interest-groups, interdisciplinary opportunities and so on that made me want to apply there. So, instead of praising the program, I explained why I thought it was a good fit for my research (and I for it) in a very matter-of-fact tone. No mention of prestige or quality.

Hope this is helpful!

Feel free to PM me if you want to talk further. Good luck!

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On 2/18/2019 at 12:50 PM, Ramus said:

Personally, I wouldn't attend a program outside the 30s. Others will, of course, feel differently. But once you get out of the 30s, you're looking at places like Iowa or Ohio University or LSU, and those places, while having great faculty, won't place you at the kind of job you deserve. 

The caveat here is that I'm speaking of lit/literary history tracks. Rhet/comp tracks are a different ballgame, and the prestige of those programs doesn't square with the prestige of traditional literature programs. (E.g. Purdue = good for rhet/comp, not great for literature)

Hello Ramus,

Following your responses in the thread and was wondering given your first response to go with rank: if the choice is between a top 10 and a top 20 (instead of 2, 3, 5 as in your example), would your advice stay the same?

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On 2/28/2019 at 1:35 PM, NoodleKidoodle said:

i think honestly it's more helpful to tell you what I did this week. everyone does stuff at their own pace.

 

I was just wishing that I could know what a grad student's normal week looked like--this is so helpful. Thanks for the detailed breakdown. 

Edit: @Dogfish Head I'm not a current grad student (and coming in only with my BA, so you have more grad experience than I do at this point), but FWIW I didn't contact any grad program directors. I had asked one of my mentors about it, and he said it was unnecessary and not at all expected. IMO if you just contact so they recognize your name, there is the chance of standing out in a bad way.  

Edited by sugilite

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15 hours ago, beardedlady said:

I think it's fantastic you're already beginning to consider these issues! To preface what I'm pretty certain will be a somewhat long-winded response, I'll say that I applied this season and had moderate success. I have no idea how much my SoP was significant for my results; the minor feedback I've received so far by my acceptances had to do with my WS rather than my SoP. In retrospect, though there are significant changes I would make with my WS, I'm pretty happy with my SoP and don't feel like it was a detriment to my app. In any case, writing the SoP is a pretty individual process, so take the following with however much salt you see fit. Also, there are a multitude of threads on this forum you could look at for SoP advice that may answer your questions.

I started with a basic list of ideas/experiences/achievements I wanted to mention, and tried to see how I can interweave between them organically: my MA thesis, some significant seminar papers that influenced the direction of my research, my experience as a research assistant, and of course my proposed research project (also briefly describing a conference paper that directly relates to this research). My teaching experience didn't make the cut. Neither did any mention of accolades/awards/scholarships (leave the bragging for the letter writers to do). From a certain point, after free-writing and revising a couple of drafts, the main question guiding me was "are these words worth the space they take up?" That is, does this idea/experience/whatever add enough content to offset the cost of space? In a sense, then, my SoP was on the drier side, because it really did focus on my research. Of course, I tried to present things in an interesting way, but didn't have a personal expository anecdote, humorous details, or witty asides. Whenever I added those it felt contrived or cheesy to me even when they were very sincere, so I ultimately decided to go with direct and succinct. But this is very personal; I think that since I'm ESL, my writing is always a little deliberate and not as buoyant as I'd like. 

In terms of research specificity vs. openness to new ideas, I presented a pretty specific research project, but showed how it could be taken in different directions. My overarching focus is driven by queer/feminist theory and poetics, but I discussed the project's possible interconnections with, for example, issues of race, disability, aesthetics and visual culture, urban studies, affect, and trauma. While I offered a highly niche project, I tried to highlight the possible interventions I could make in current discussions and therefore show why this project is relevant, important, and expansive. I think this should be the crux of the SoP. You should be familiar enough with your field to know what questions are currently being asked, and frame your research in relation to these. The SoP should implicitly explain--why this research project? What about this topic is important, and how could it resonate with contemporary issues in literary studies? IMO, this is how to navigate the tension between a niche project that still allows for openness to new ideas.

For programs with similar word limits for the SoP (8/11 programs to which I applied required something around 1000 words), the body of my statement was mostly the same, with minor differences to (implicitly) account for the particulars of each department (e.g. emphasizing a detail that uniquely ties with a POI). The last two paragraphs addressed the university, department, and POIs specifically, highlighting different aspects of my proposed research to relate it to the POIs etc. Like you, I was also worried of coming across as brown-nosing, but ultimately found this easy to avoid by deleting any superlatives and using direct, nuanced, and specific language that expressed the methodologies/approaches/themes/ideas in POIs research that dovetail with my own. I also mentioned any departmental/university facilities, certificates, interest-groups, interdisciplinary opportunities and so on that made me want to apply there. So, instead of praising the program, I explained why I thought it was a good fit for my research (and I for it) in a very matter-of-fact tone. No mention of prestige or quality.

Hope this is helpful

 

Incredibly helpful! Thank you so much! I will definitely PM you if other questions arise. I have always kind of heard to not include anything that they can learn from your CV (teaching, awards, etc.) would you say that is true?

9 hours ago, sugilite said:

I was just wishing that I could know what a grad student's normal week looked like--this is so helpful. Thanks for the detailed breakdown. 

Edit: @Dogfish Head I'm not a current grad student (and coming in only with my BA, so you have more grad experience than I do at this point), but FWIW I didn't contact any grad program directors. I had asked one of my mentors about it, and he said it was unnecessary and not at all expected. IMO if you just contact so they recognize your name, there is the chance of standing out in a bad way.  

That makes sense, I would hate to stand out in a bad way lol.

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1 hour ago, Dogfish Head said:

Incredibly helpful! Thank you so much! I will definitely PM you if other questions arise. I have always kind of heard to not include anything that they can learn from your CV (teaching, awards, etc.) would you say that is true?

I mean, they can also learn from my CV about my research assistanship, that I wrote a thesis, and that I presented at conferences--all of which I included in my SoP. I would say that the point is to show how these experiences were significant in preparing you for the rigors of a PhD and/or have influenced your research trajectory. So, for example, I mentioned a research scholarship I received to study abroad; but I framed this not as an achievement in itself, but showed how my experiences as a researcher abroad have allowed me to gain new perspectives on the issues I'm interested in etc. I didn't include my TA position following advice from my professors, but I can't imagine that mentioning it (briefly!) would hurt, especially if it ties nicely with the narrative of the statement (it didn't, in my case). I wouldn't mention awards/prizes in the SoP; but discuss it with your letter writers and make sure that they do mention it. I would recommend not thinking of the SoP as a document in which you "sell/market yourself" as such, but an exposition of yourself as a scholar. Who are you as a researcher, how have your interests developed, what do you research/intend to research (and how? what methodologies/theories/etc), and why is it important/how does it intervene in previous and current discussions?

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On 2/28/2019 at 11:35 PM, NoodleKidoodle said:

this question for me is really about how you find value in your work and what you're after. there's no way to measure yourself that's objective and "real," so you have to set up some definitions you can live by

Thank you for this. I think this is a really productive way for me to be thinking about grad school 😀

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18 hours ago, new2019accept said:

Hello Ramus,

Following your responses in the thread and was wondering given your first response to go with rank: if the choice is between a top 10 and a top 20 (instead of 2, 3, 5 as in your example), would your advice stay the same?

That makes the decision even easier. Go with the top 10. 

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On 2/15/2019 at 10:51 PM, swarthmawr said:

what do you wish you had asked about or known when making your decision? Anything undergrads wouldn’t have the foresight to consider about PhD life when applying? 

I wish I'd asked to talk specifically with one of the faculty members I wanted to work with. I talked with one of them, and was told multiple times that the other wanted to work with me, but then when I got here, he spontaneously retired. In other words, make absolutely certain that each faculty member you need to work with will work with you--and check if anyone's planning to retire any time soon.

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On 3/2/2019 at 6:33 PM, Ramus said:

That makes the decision even easier. Go with the top 10. 

Can I ask what is considered a top 10 school? The qs rankings are flawed, obviously, as are the us rankings. Are top 10s Ivy/ivy-adjacent? (e.g. Stanford, Chicago..)

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3 hours ago, thismortalcoil said:

Are top 10s Ivy/ivy-adjacent? (e.g. Stanford, Chicago..)

Yes, basically. The only potential surprise on the list is Duke, and that's only surprising if you know nothing of Duke's reputation as the theory powerhouse. Sometimes people don't realize Michigan is on that same level, but it's often classified as a "public Ivy," so it shouldn't really surprise either.

Edited by Ramus

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3 hours ago, thismortalcoil said:

Can I ask what is considered a top 10 school? The qs rankings are flawed, obviously, as are the us rankings. Are top 10s Ivy/ivy-adjacent? (e.g. Stanford, Chicago..)

And not to pick on you, because plenty of people do this on this forum, but noting the fact that the rankings are flawed probably does more harm than good. Sure, the rankings are not perfect, and they shouldn't be taken as scripture. But they are a rough approximation of prestige, and that, above all else, is what matters in academe. While you shouldn't be so foolish as to think the difference between, say, schools ranked 32 and 33 is sizable, you'd be making a big mistake to discount the rankings' general insights because their methods are flawed. 

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11 minutes ago, Ramus said:

And not to pick on you, because plenty of people do this on this forum, but noting the fact that the rankings are flawed probably does more harm than good. Sure, the rankings are not perfect, and they shouldn't be taken as scripture. But they are a rough approximation of prestige, and that, above all else, is what matters in academe. While you shouldn't be so foolish as to think the difference between, say, schools ranked 32 and 33 is sizable, you'd be making a big mistake to discount the rankings' general insights because their methods are flawed. 

Yes, this makes a lot of sense! I suppose I just was/am skeptical about qs in general, since their methodology is premised in part on how often X scholar has been cited — which doesn't account for changes in departmental make up due to emeritus status, etc. I do see your point, though, and agree that rankings are important. (In my eyes, the US rankings make more sense since they seem to base their methodology on "survey of academics at peer institutions.") Thanks for clarifying what constitutes a top 10! As an international student, it's hard for me to gage the prestige of these schools, as name brands carry different weight, here,

Edited by thismortalcoil
weird strike-out text! I don't know how computers work

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30 minutes ago, Ramus said:

The only potential surprise on the list is Duke, and that's only surprising if you know nothing of Duke's reputation as the theory powerhouse. Sometimes people don't realize Michigan is on that same level, but it's often classified as a "public Ivy," so it shouldn't really surprise either.

Interesting! I knew about Duke, but did not previously consider Michigan top ten. In my eyes it was the standard Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Yale, UPenn, Brown, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Duke..

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20 minutes ago, thismortalcoil said:

Interesting! I knew about Duke, but did not previously consider Michigan top ten. In my eyes it was the standard Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Yale, UPenn, Brown, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Duke..

and u chicago

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1 hour ago, thismortalcoil said:

As an international student, it's hard for me to gage the prestige of these schools, as name brands carry different weight, here,

Even in the US, it varies greatly by region, too. On the West Coast, people outside of academia might not recognize Michigan as a top school as much as they would UCLA, for example. 

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On the subject of prestige, I'm curious, as an international student, to hear about Northwestern's reputation. Is it considered a top school/English department, or rather, what are some of its peer institutions?

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On 3/6/2019 at 4:24 AM, eddyrynes said:

On the subject of prestige, I'm curious, as an international student, to hear about Northwestern's reputation. Is it considered a top school/English department, or rather, what are some of its peer institutions?

When people refer to rank, they generally mean how they rank according to USNews.

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On 3/6/2019 at 8:16 AM, Warelin said:

When people refer to rank, they generally mean how they rank according to USNews.

@eddyrynesI'm sure you've heard this before, but it's important to note that the ranking might be different if one were to rank particular subfields within the program. My department has two subfields in which we have a large number of faculty and a strong placement record, for example--but other subfields with few faculty and weak placement records. The USNews ranking is helpful in broad strokes--i.e., in differentiating the top 20 programs from the top 40 or 60--but within those divisions, I think it's more important to consider the prestige of the faculty mentors with whom you would be working: their visibility in the field, their reputation as mentors among current graduate students, their record of placing students in desirable jobs.

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22 minutes ago, emprof said:

The USNews ranking is helpful in broad strokes--i.e., in differentiating the top 20 programs from the top 40 or 60--but within those divisions, I think it's more important to consider the prestige of the faculty mentors with whom you would be working: their visibility in the field, their reputation as mentors among current graduate students, their record of placing students in desirable jobs.

What about young advisors who might not be big names or experienced scholars (they are currently advising two ongoing dissertations for the first time), but whose research focus fits really well with my project? I'm about to accept an offer from a well regarded program, but all three potential advisors are quite young. This is a concern that's preventing me from committing... any thoughts on this? 

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50 minutes ago, cyborg213 said:

What about young advisors who might not be big names or experienced scholars (they are currently advising two ongoing dissertations for the first time), but whose research focus fits really well with my project? I'm about to accept an offer from a well regarded program, but all three potential advisors are quite young. This is a concern that's preventing me from committing... any thoughts on this? 

Do they have tenure? Or, if they don't, are they on track to get tenure? You'll probably be in the Ph.D. program for around 6 years, which is enough time for a junior scholar to establish a name in the field and to achieve professional stature. Obviously, it depends a little bit on the institution. If you're talking about the "Big Three," they have a reputation for a revolving door of junior scholars; I wouldn't want to count on a junior professor getting tenure there. If, on the other hand, you're talking about a program that has a strong record of mentoring and tenuring its junior faculty, then I wouldn't worry about having advisors who are early in their careers--especially if the fit is good, as you say. If you were choosing between two institutions, and one had more senior scholars in the field, then perhaps it would be slightly "safer" to go with the latter--but even then, I think fit would be more decisive for me than seniority. If you can speak with your undergraduate (or MA?) advisors with more specifics (or if you'd like to PM me with specifics), you might be able to glean more inside-baseball information about the program, the advisors, and their career trajectories. But in general, I wouldn't worry too much about this issue. 

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@emprof, piggybacking off this question: to what extent, in your opinion, does one's supervisor's reputation matter when one enters the job market? I've heard a variety of things on the matter and would love to hear your thoughts. Is a "famous" supervisor an alluring factor in one's application to a t-t- job? Or do other things (i.e. quality of research, publications) matter more? 

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