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dilby

What to ask during visits?

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Hello, everyone. I have back-to-back visits coming up at two schools, both of which are extremely exciting programs for me. One program is extremely prestigious, but the fit with my particular research area is pretty nebulous, and the other program, while smaller and less highly ranked, has a laser focus on the theory I want to be studying — as in, the work happening by my POIs at that department planted the seeds for my entire application and SoP.

I am wondering what kinds of questions I can ask to help determine my fit and quality of life within these two departments. Both programs are generously funded. Both visits will include meetings with faculty and the DGS.

I know that the particulars of my situation might make this seem like an obvious choice, but I want this decision to be meaningful and I am also hoping that this conversation can be helpful to others who are choosing between departments.

Edited by dilby

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There's a really great list of questions earlier on in the first page of the pinned Campus Visits thread, by the way. 

In your situation, though, given how you feel about Yale being a nebulous fit, maybe you could try to suss out what they saw in your application? If you're talking about your research interests with a faculty member, you might ask what ways they see your project or interests growing or something like that. Something that's come up a couple times on this forum is that departments may see fit differently than we do, as applicants. There may also be some faculty members that you overlooked, too. 

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Just now, sugilite said:

There's a really great list of questions earlier on in the first page of the pinned Campus Visits thread, by the way.

Ooooh, thanks for this! I'll check it out.

Just now, sugilite said:

you could try to suss out what they saw in your application?

That is definitely what I've been puzzling out for the past week. I really didn't think I could get in because I was not particularly convinced by my own fit argument in the application. It will be good to hear their understanding of my research/profile and see if that sounds like the kind of work that I truly want to be doing.

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I love the similarity of our situations.

I plan to ask questions about the vibe of the cohorts and department in general & advising styles of profs to determine "quality of life" aspects. For the one that's "not as a good of a fit," I'd ask about what kinds of dissertations graduates are working on/have worked on in the past to determine if anyone is doing similar work to myself. And what kinds of classes are being offered. 

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@madandmoonly Yes, the feel of the cohort will be an important factor in this decision for me as well! :) I know I'll be meeting you and a few others on here in Houston in a few weeks, which I'm excited about.

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On 3/6/2019 at 11:12 AM, dilby said:

@madandmoonly Yes, the feel of the cohort will be an important factor in this decision for me as well! :) I know I'll be meeting you and a few others on here in Houston in a few weeks, which I'm excited about.

I'll be the one who looks like an overdressed child! (I'm really short.)

 

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I don't mean to sway anyone's decision in any direction, of course, since I'm not in charge of anyone's but my own, but I'd just like to point out that in our subfield, certain professors at Rice are really prestigious. Like, I'd say at the very top of this subfield. Obviously I'm a little biased, but that is something you can't see from simply rank alone.

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On 3/6/2019 at 12:16 PM, madandmoonly said:

I don't mean to sway anyone's decision in any direction, of course, since I'm not in charge of anyone's but my own, but I'd just like to point out that in our subfield, certain professors at Rice are really prestigious. Like, I'd say at the very top of this subfield. Obviously I'm a little biased, but that is something you can't see from simply rank alone. 

Oh of course, this is a very good point! One should look at placements of people in their subfields and whether POIs get their students into good positions. Though this still assumes that one would remain in the particular subfield, which isn't always the case. BTW I didn't mean to suggest anything negative about Rice--I think it's an amazing school and I'd have been lucky to have been accepted (but was instead unceremoniously kicked to the curb!)

On 3/6/2019 at 12:26 PM, dilby said:

Thank you for this thoughtful reply! The wild card factor is that my significant other is a medical student in Houston. :) so future vs. present can be quite tricky to tease apart.

Oh that is a tricky one! I'll just say that IMO very open communication about the future is absolutely imperative to making a choice. There is no right or wrong--both Yale and Rice are fantastic options. Do you know where you stand on the waitlist? 

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On 3/6/2019 at 12:47 PM, beardedlady said:

Do you know where you stand on the waitlist? 

I'm told that I am high on the waitlist! And I think that if I visit both places and have a very strong preference for Rice afterwards, I could probably leverage the Yale offer to have a better shot at moving off the list. If not, I suppose don't actually have much of a decision to make :) 

On 3/6/2019 at 12:47 PM, beardedlady said:

I'll just say that IMO very open communication about the future is absolutely imperative to making a choice.

For sure! This is a four-year relationship and we've been doing medium-distance (I'm in Austin, she's in Houston) for the past year. In many ways, it has crystallized our feeling of commitment but also made it very clear how much happier we both are when we're in the same place.

But comparing subjective happiness/comfort to career prospects is a very apples-to-oranges thing. I'm not sure how important the R1 tenure-track telos is to me when I think about other alt-ac/environmental policy jobs that I could potentially do with a PhD (from Rice OR Yale). So does the increased chance of landing an academic job out of Yale beat out the exciting theory happening at Rice AND the potential for three years of building my partnership with my SO? This is the question I'll be asking myself as I visit both schools. Hopefully there will be lots of information I overlooked and perspectives I haven't considered that will make this an easier choice for me.

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On 3/6/2019 at 12:57 PM, dilby said:

. So does the increased chance of landing an academic job out of Yale beat out the exciting theory happening at Rice

I'm not quite sure the increased chance of landing an academic job applies to all schools. It might help at certain R1 schools but the competition for those schools are mostly people from other R1 schools who have spent a considerable amount of time networking with others as well. I have also experienced that there are some universities that will not consider hiring a PHD from the ivies because they've been burned in the past because the individual was always chasing the next big thing. Hiring can be expensive so I can understand why they would want someone to stay at their university. Part of the reason why Harvard and Yale place so well is because people with Type-A personalities are applying to them and choosing them over the same schools. Once upon a time, those schools might've been one of a few places that could offer you instant success. But graduates from those schools are now found in so many different places that your adviser is more instrumental in your success than the college you go to. It's often said that people who turned down offers from the Ivies at the undergraduate level are able to do just as well as those who accepted their offer to the Ivies. I imagine the same is true at the graduate level because those students are the ones that are most often applying for those grants, fellowships and postdocs. It might require a bit more work if you choose not to attend because it might not be required to apply for funding as part of the program, but I think support from your adviser, family, friends and partner are all crucial elements to succeeding.

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Also, for whoever might be facing something similar, among the many other things that others are pointing out is also the simple not that you don't have to have faculty that do EXACTLY what you do-- they can still be a great support for your project even if they're just sort of in the general region of what you're doing (i.e. you could be working on James Baldwin, but be well-supported by someone who is primarily a C.L.R. James scholar, or something). In fact, sometimes that could even be preferable-- you might have more room to do your own work, rather than becoming a disciple of someone (obviously, this isn't always the case! But it does happen). 

 

If you're less sure about Yale, say, being a good fit-- try asking the DGS (or whoever you're meeting with) who they see being able to support your interests. There might be someone who is totally interested in the thing you're working on, but their book on it hasn't been published yet, or maybe there's someone whose work is related but you didn't realize it. Then seek out these people (either during the visit, or by phone or email afterwards) and talk to them. See if they sound excited about what you're doing, and if you feel like you click with them, in turn. 

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7 hours ago, gloriagilbert said:

On a related note, thoughts on Brown vs. Michigan? Haven't visited either yet, but I'm completely and utterly torn. Would love any specific insight or general decision-making advice!

As someone currently waitlisted at Brown (but with absolutely no insight whatsoever) I gotta say.....Go Blue!! 😉

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On 3/6/2019 at 8:57 PM, dilby said:

For sure! This is a four-year relationship and we've been doing medium-distance (I'm in Austin, she's in Houston) for the past year. In many ways, it has crystallized our feeling of commitment but also made it very clear how much happier we both are when we're in the same place.

But comparing subjective happiness/comfort to career prospects is a very apples-to-oranges thing. I'm not sure how important the R1 tenure-track telos is to me when I think about other alt-ac/environmental policy jobs that I could potentially do with a PhD (from Rice OR Yale). So does the extra ~40% chance of landing an academic job out of Yale beat out the exciting theory happening at Rice AND the potential for three years of building my partnership with my SO? This is the question I'll be asking myself as I visit both schools. Hopefully there will be lots of information I overlooked and perspectives I haven't considered that will make this an easier choice for me.

I just wanted to say that I think your perspective seems very level-headed, which is a feat in itself and just amazing (I think I'd be bouncing of the walls with nerves and stress). I truly hope the visits help you with this difficult decision! In any case have fun, and sending you good vibes and lots of luck.

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On 3/6/2019 at 6:26 PM, gloriagilbert said:

On a related note, thoughts on Brown vs. Michigan? Haven't visited either yet, but I'm completely and utterly torn. Would love any specific insight or general decision-making advice!

Brown > Michigan by far???

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13 hours ago, beardedlady said:

I just wanted to say that I think your perspective seems very level-headed, which is a feat in itself and just amazing (I think I'd be bouncing of the walls with nerves and stress). I truly hope the visits help you with this difficult decision! In any case have fun, and sending you good vibes and lots of luck.

Thank you for the good vibes :) I've been going back and forth, and that anxiety is definitely there. My number one priority is talking to enough people about this and giving this enough consideration that when I make my decision, I know it's not based on an impulse or flight of fancy that changes after 48 hours. I gave myself a bit of time after the Yale visit to take a solo trip to Staunton, VA to see some plays at the American Shakespeare Center. I'm hoping that all of my travel time and downtime between plays will give me the space I need to consider everything carefully!

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On 3/6/2019 at 12:26 PM, gloriagilbert said:

On a related note, thoughts on Brown vs. Michigan? Haven't visited either yet, but I'm completely and utterly torn. Would love any specific insight or general decision-making advice!

What are your research areas? From what I understand, Michigan is an Early Modern powerhouse. If you want to study queer/feminist theory, though, Brown might be the best place in the world

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1 hour ago, dilby said:

What are your research areas? From what I understand, Michigan is an Early Modern powerhouse. If you want to study queer/feminist theory, though, Brown might be the best place in the world

I am a 19th/20th c Americanist interested in queer/feminist theory! From what I can see, the faculty seems pretty stacked at Michigan in terms of Americanists. It's just a much bigger department, so naturally, I have identified more profs who I can envision myself working with. I need to double-check the queer/feminist theorists at Brown, though--I was mostly focused on the Americanist roster. Also geeking out at the prospect of taking classes at RISD. Thanks so much for the tip, and best of luck to you!! I've been rooting for you behind the scenes and was so proud/happy for you when that Yale acceptance rolled through :)

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2 hours ago, gloriagilbert said:

I am a 19th/20th c Americanist interested in queer/feminist theory! From what I can see, the faculty seems pretty stacked at Michigan in terms of Americanists. It's just a much bigger department, so naturally, I have identified more profs who I can envision myself working with. I need to double-check the queer/feminist theorists at Brown, though--I was mostly focused on the Americanist roster. Also geeking out at the prospect of taking classes at RISD. Thanks so much for the tip, and best of luck to you!! I've been rooting for you behind the scenes and was so proud/happy for you when that Yale acceptance rolled through :)

Richard Rambuss is one of the primer scholars in queer theory and early modern literature. Not sure if that is much interest to you. 

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4 hours ago, gloriagilbert said:

I need to double-check the queer/feminist theorists at Brown, though--I was mostly focused on the Americanist roster.

And I was mainly speaking to their Modern Culture and Media faculty when I made my comment about theory! So I could be wrong about their English department. All told, you are in a pretty enviable position, so I hope you enjoy the fact-finding and decision-making process! :) 

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I'm hoping any of you can weigh in on what I feel is a related question. With one visit still to come, I'm trying to make up my mind between my two current top choices, Yale Comp Lit and Chicago English. My question essentially comes down to: how much does your main dissertation advisor need to be an expert in your specific field? Versus, what if that dissertation advisor is no good at responding to your work in a detailed and timely fashion? Secondly, how much you can compensate a lack of field-expertise with committee members at other institutions?

Given my interests in Caribbean and global anglophone, Chicago is a great place right now, with lots of new hires coming up (some getting tenure, some of their current postdocs getting tenure-track). Yale, on the other hand, is in a sort of transitional phase w/r/t these fields--to put it euphemistically. Chris Miller, one of the big name Carribeanists, is retiring, and some great people in Af-Am have left as well (Hazel Carby is on her way out, Anthony Reed is moving to Vanderbilt). Apparently they're hiring a Caribbeanist in English, but several failed searches in the past are making me skeptical. At Comp Lit, I don't think they've ever had anyone working on global anglo or Carribean. Given the situation, one person at Yale French has frankly advised me to stay away from there, and choose Chicago. However, there are many reasons I see myself fitting in better at Yale. First, there's the fact of Comp Lit--I do want to continue working in French, and want to add Spanish, if not one Caribbean creole language as well. Although Chicago seems open to that kind of work, the fact is that most of my peers won't be doing it. Yale Comp Lit also has much more funding for international research trips. At Yale, there are still great faculty in (North) African (Jill Jarvis, Stephanie Newell), and Lisa Lowe is joining American studies. Plus, I assume Tavia Nyong'o and Daphne Brooks will stick around. Finally, I think it's important to reach out to scholars beyond one's institution, which Yale's being in the Northeast would make very easy (so many good people in my field at NYU and Columbia, where I could also take classes).

I guess what I'm trying to figure out is how important it is for me to have a deeper, department-wide support in your specific field, versus how much the freedom to stake out my own path will help me grow as an independent thinker. I also think there's obviously no bad choice here, but I'm trying to exercise some control over the next six years of my life, so bear with me...

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1 hour ago, FiguresIII said:

I'm hoping any of you can weigh in on what I feel is a related question. With one visit still to come, I'm trying to make up my mind between my two current top choices, Yale Comp Lit and Chicago English. My question essentially comes down to: how much does your main dissertation advisor need to be an expert in your specific field? Versus, what if that dissertation advisor is no good at responding to your work in a detailed and timely fashion? Secondly, how much you can compensate a lack of field-expertise with committee members at other institutions?

These are some really important questions, I think, and it's great that you're considering them... With regards to whether your main dissertation advisor needs to be an expert in your field, considering the fact that your research is likely to change or mutate in some way, shape, or form during your studies, I am of the mind that it's more important to have a committee of wide ranging, supportive scholars who are interested in your work and your interests, broadly conceived. Someone willing to give you time, and an ear, and some perceptive comments over someone who studies the exact thing you do. For instance, while my main POIs at both of the schools I'm considering do not do work directly in my field, these POIs can fill a number of important roles for my research: some are post45 fiction scholars with an interest in science and technology studies; some are poetry scholars who work with a variety of important theories. As such, I feel like I'll be well supported when I do start my dissertation, however this dissertation might take shape. The scholars you've listed at Yale, do you feel they could feel this sort of role? How did they respond when you spoke to them of your interests? And what of your potential supervisors at Chicago: are there persons in other departments who could work with you in French, Spanish, Caribbean creole, etc? Department-wide support is very important, but I think this support should come more so from an advisor's availability and willingness to talk and to read, rather than their interests being necessarily graftable onto mine.

I was talking with someone else on this forum recently and they mentioned that it's important to also consider atmosphere, so I'm going to paraphrase them here by telling you: atmosphere and the feel of things is also important! Though you seem to recognize as much when you say you see yourself fitting in more at Yale...

I'm rambling. But I'm more than happy to act as a sounding board if you have anything you want to talk through!

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On 3/6/2019 at 1:26 PM, gloriagilbert said:

On a related note, thoughts on Brown vs. Michigan? Haven't visited either yet, but I'm completely and utterly torn. Would love any specific insight or general decision-making advice!

I was an undergrad English major at Brown and I took two grad seminars there so if you have any specific questions you want to PM me about I can try to answer them!

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7 hours ago, FiguresIII said:

Finally, I think it's important to reach out to scholars beyond one's institution, which Yale's being in the Northeast would make very easy (so many good people in my field at NYU and Columbia, where I could also take classes).

I have no familiarity at all with the Northeast, but how doable would this be? I can imagine going to a lecture every semester, but according to Google it would be 1.5 hours from Yale to Columbia driving. 

That said, I agree that from your post you’d much rather be at Yale. It seems a little like you’re really trying to justify the decision—but to whom, I’m not clear! It’s your life, and considering you’re choosing between excellent programs, you have the luxury of just going with the one that feels right. 

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Thanks so much @sugilite! I'm trying to talk these things through with as many people as possible to get a sense of how I actually talk about Chicago vs Yale. Like you said, it does seem like I'm trying to sell Yale to myself. I'm still trying to speak to some graduate students at both places who are close to my field. Both have a lot of positives, so at this point I'm trying to figure out what problems I'm willing to put up with.

About the commuting thing, I've heard from several people that do it. Also in later years, some people move to New York. The Metro North even stops in Harlem around 125th street if I remember correctly, bringing you fairly close to Columbia.

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