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English PhD: Harvard or Cornell?


lizczard

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Hey all,

I need help deciding between Harvard and Cornell's English Phd programs... i know this is hardly a problem - believe me, I'm through-the-roof grateful I'm in a position where this is my biggest problem - but I'm having a hard time deciding nonetheless, and have found so many of the responses throughout these fora immensely insightful, kind, and well-informed, so I figured there's no reason to make this decision without asking for others' input.

A little about me: Prospective early modernist, with peripheral interests in political philosophy, critical theory, and religious studies.

I know that Harvard outranks Cornell in almost every way (for all of its departments), but I'm not as familiar with the perhaps less quantifiable strengths of Cornell's English department (Harvard's is a bit easier in that respect, since almost every faculty member is something of a rock star in his or her field).

Anyways, any and all comments are very welcome. In return for advice, I'd be more than happy to share whatever "stats" I have with whoever'd like them (I get a sense these are rather popular in this community.. :)

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In a situation like this, I think fit is the most important thing. Have you visited both campuses? Did you have a chance to sit in on a seminar? How do you feel about Cambridge versus Ithaca? At the end of the day, it's ultimately about which offer feels best for you.

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Both are great schools and excellent programs. I applied to Cornell, but decided against Harvard's English program because it seemed much to traditional for my liking. Also, I worried that many of those rockstar professors would be nearly impossible to connect with in any sort of productive way. The latter point was total conjecture, but the former point is, I think, an important one. As someone who is interested in critical theory and political philosophy, where do you fall? Are you more of a traditional English scholar (and I don't mean for that to sound negative) or do you find yourself writing about disabled queers and the confusion of modernist sexualities (just play along...)? The nature of my engagement with critical theory and the sort of work I hope to produce led me to believe that such interests wouldn't necessarily be shutdown at Harvard English, but that they wouldn't necessarily be nourished either. Cornell, I felt (and still do), had an impressive range of professors in every imaginable field and some well-established connections with other programs that allow for a greater deal of interdisciplinarity within the English program. It's tempting to pick Harvard -- and for you, perhaps, it is the better choice -- but Cornell would win out in my book.

One of the most telling things you can do is to access online course catalogs for each of the programs you're considering. Go back through at least the past two or three years and make notes about the classes offered that interest you. Also include a separate list of courses that sound intriguing and are somewhat outside of your current interests and/or comfort zone. Because you'll be spending two or more years taking these courses, because they will help shape and develop your research interests, and because they serve as your primary means of connecting with potential advisors, I think envisioning which courses you would have taken if you had been a student for the past two years might give you a sense of how well a program 'fits' for you.

Good luck! I'm jealous of your Cornell acceptance; rest assured that if I was on the waitlist I would totally be encouraging you to go Harvard. :D

Edited by outofredink
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I agree that you definitely need to consider fit over rankings. When you start talking about top tier schools, you're really discussing peer institutions, and rankings (beyond the fact that they're largely subjective) are a poor way of making a decision.

Also consider who you would work with at each school. When it comes time for networking and finding a job, often your advisor/advisors can make or break you (for example, I know that some of the "top" professors very rarely/never take on students, so if you're going to work with a specific professor, make sure that you would actually be working with them/they are interested and involved when they take on students)

You should also consider the general atmosphere of the program. Do the professors seem genuinely interested in working with students? Does the cohort seem supportive? You seem interested in interdisciplinary topics, are both departments willing to encourage that with opportunities to take classes (or even teach) in other departments? How much guidance would you have from professors? These are all things that you can only learn from visiting or by having some very frank discussions with professors and current grad students.

In any case congrats on your acceptances!

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Both are great schools and excellent programs. I applied to Cornell, but decided against Harvard's English program because it seemed much to traditional for my liking. Also, I worried that many of those rockstar professors would be nearly impossible to connect with in any sort of productive way. The latter point was total conjecture, but the former point is, I think, an important one. As someone who is interested in critical theory and political philosophy, where do you fall? Are you more of a traditional English scholar (and I don't mean for that to sound negative) or do you find yourself writing about disabled queers and the confusion of modernist sexualities (just play along...)? The nature of my engagement with critical theory and the sort of work I hope to produce led me to believe that such interests wouldn't necessarily be shutdown at Harvard English, but that they wouldn't necessarily be nourished either. Cornell, I felt (and still do), had an impressive range of professors in every imaginable field and some well-established connections with other programs that allow for a greater deal of interdisciplinarity within the English program. It's tempting to pick Harvard -- and for you, perhaps, it is the better choice -- but Cornell would win out in my book.

One of the most telling things you can do is to access online course catalogs for each of the programs you're considering. Go back through at least the past two or three years and make notes about the classes offered that interest you. Also include a separate list of courses that sound intriguing and are somewhat outside of your current interests and/or comfort zone. Because you'll be spending two or more years taking these courses, because they will help shape and develop your research interests, and because they serve as your primary means of connecting with potential advisors, I think envisioning which courses you would have taken if you had been a student for the past two years might give you a sense of how well a program 'fits' for you.

Good luck! I'm jealous of your Cornell acceptance; rest assured that if I was on the waitlist I would totally be encouraging you to go Harvard. :D

Thanks for responding! And thanks for the congratulations!

You've actually perfectly articulated my dilemma: go to Cornell and feel like I'd be among more like-minded peers (i.e. queers, pinkos, hippies, etc) or go to Harvard and have my left-leanings constantly challenged.

My hope, were I to choose Harv, is that being thus challenged would prove productive - i.e. force me to move out of my comfort zone and thereby make me a less 'partisan' scholar (not sure if that's the right word..). I got my BA from Berkeley, so my issue with choosing Cornell is that it might mean never having to recognize that not all institutions are as politically hospitable..

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I agree that you definitely need to consider fit over rankings. When you start talking about top tier schools, you're really discussing peer institutions, and rankings (beyond the fact that they're largely subjective) are a poor way of making a decision.

Also consider who you would work with at each school. When it comes time for networking and finding a job, often your advisor/advisors can make or break you (for example, I know that some of the "top" professors very rarely/never take on students, so if you're going to work with a specific professor, make sure that you would actually be working with them/they are interested and involved when they take on students)

You should also consider the general atmosphere of the program. Do the professors seem genuinely interested in working with students? Does the cohort seem supportive? You seem interested in interdisciplinary topics, are both departments willing to encourage that with opportunities to take classes (or even teach) in other departments? How much guidance would you have from professors? These are all things that you can only learn from visiting or by having some very frank discussions with professors and current grad students.

In any case congrats on your acceptances!

Thanks for the advice!

I definitely need to start emailing profs/grad students. I've been a bit shy about it, to be honest. I'll be visiting both schools at the end of the month, although I'm expecting to 'feel good' about both places, especially since I'm a sentimental sucker for any well-stocked English department.

I will try to make a point to be "frank" when it comes to the questions I ask - I hadn't really thought this was a possibility, but I'm thinking now that this might be the only way to get a real sense of what to expect.

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  • 4 months later...

As someone who visited Harvard as a visiting scholar in 2010, I've only gleaned a scant perspective on the general character of each university. So often these take years to properly observe. But I can say that while I'm sure that BrandNewName has captured the political bent of each school perfectly, I can also say that you wouldn't have to look too far to find our beloved queers, pinkos and hippies -- they're certainly there, lurking in the woodwork, away from the marauding jocks. When I was there I took a critical theory class, which had a very advanced syllabus (lots of Agamben, Badiou, Blanchot, as well the bigger French names), and though I didn't get into the Freud seminar with Marjorie Garber, in that one had to read Freud's entire corpus as well as lots of Saussure, Lacan, Kristeva and Zizek, etc. All I'm saying, is that while Cornell is surely substantially better for contemporary critical theory and philosophy, amongst the graduate students themselves, critical theory was hardly a dirty phrase. Good luck and congratulations!

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  • 4 weeks later...

Coming from Berkeley you may also wish to consider the locations. Ithaca is an appealing "college town" in middle of nowhere, and it lacks the diversity and culture of Cambridge. Whichever you choose, you'll be there for a number of years, so quality of life seems like an important factor.

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  • 5 weeks later...

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