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greenfrogs

Deciding on a writing sample

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Hey everyone! It's me, a restless 2020 applicant back with more questions. I'm trying to decide between two writing samples, and I'm really torn between what my head and my gut are saying.

I'm deciding between two research papers, neither of which really shows off my language skills. My field of interest is modern European military history, specifically World War II Italy, with a focus on the intersection of technology and society. 

Paper 1 is about Italy, which better showcases my research interests. The content is there, but the writing needs work as I wrote it about a year ago. Additionally, it isn't my strongest use of primary sources--I'd say it's a 50/50 split of secondary and primary sources at most. I would plan to add another primary source viewpoint in the revision.

Paper 2 is more recent and definitely my better work. This paper is focused on Eastern Europe, so I'd have to make the case for my focus on Italy in the SOP. It's very primary-source heavy because that's what the assignment asked for, though I engage with a few modern historians. It definitely relates to my research interests, but doesn't present them in the same way as the first paper.

In my case is it better to use a stronger paper which is less related to my field of interest, or a paper that really lays out my interests but will need significant work to bring it up to my current levels of writing and historical understanding?

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Edited by greenfrogs

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Without seeing any of the papers, I'd suggest that you choose your strongest one - which should be engaging with primary sources and secondary sources when needed. There is no golden ratio. I applied to study Eastern European history in macro, but my paper was rather micro and its repertoire of primary sources was a single journal. 

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Sounds like #2....   the keys are: 

For SOP: Demonstrate your awareness of the historiography in your areas of interest in Italy and science/technology

For Writing Sample: Demonstrate that you can skillfully engage both primary and secondary sources (the latter being historians' points and arguments).

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12 hours ago, greenfrogs said:

neither of which really shows off my language skills. 

I'm sorry, but this is not something you'd want to have to say about your writing sample.

As I see it, the most important function of the sample is to show that you've got the necessary skills to begin your dissertation. In your case, it seems like you need to master Italian and have at least some experience working with archival documents. If you want your application to be competitive, showing the AdCom and your PoI that you have these skills is crucial. If the SoP is the place to say you have the skills, the writing sample is the place to prove it.

I'd recommend using your first paper as a draft for a revised paper, most of which will discuss and analyze primary sources in Italian - referring to or arguing with relevant secondary literature.

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I would recommend option 1 with an augmented use of primary source material in Italian and a demonstration of familiarity with secondary works in Italian.

I would also recommend that you figure out how your interest in European military history is going to fit into the departments you'd like to join as a graduate student. If your approach is more "war and society" than the traditional strategy/operations/tactics, this exercise may be slightly easier.

IRT the languages, it may serve your interests to understand the requirements/offerings of each program for which you seek admittance and who might administer the language examination. You want to know if the test of your proficiency in German is going to be a discussion in German of translations of Clausewitz into Italian.

FWIW, were I in your shoes, I'd make sure that I had access to/an understanding of...

  • A copy of The Command of the Air <<link>> in English and Italian, as well as
  • The Cambridge History of the Second World War;
  • Relevant titles in the Cambridge military histories series (maybe this work);
  • Relevant works by John Gooch;
  • Relevant works by MacGregor Knox;
  • Michael Geyer's essay in Makers of Modern Strategy;
  • Relevant works written or edited by Williamson Murray;
  • A working familiarity of the tension between the RMA debate and the historiography of the military revolution;
    • Works that will help you stave off the attractions of presentism.
  • A working familiarity of the "total war" debate (maybe use the Publications of the German Historical Institute series);
  • A strong understanding of the similarities and differences between Italian fascism and Nazism; and
  • A strong understanding of the historiography of the relevance of military history.

If you're very familiar OR unfamiliar with the references above and/or they're not relevant to your interests, you can cover the ground in your footnotes. I am merely suggesting that you demonstrate that you're up to speed, if not yet actually high speed.

#HTH

 

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