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Hello everyone! I've been stalking this fora for a while, and now I'm coming out! I am applying for PhD programs in Rhetoric and Composition for Fall 2013. Because I'm a little bit anal, I've already started writing my SOP. I know it's early, but I wanted to give myself lots of time for revisions. Also, I'm getting married this summer, so as the big day approaches, my free time with start to disappear. So here I am!

I'm curious about how specific I should be when describing what I hope to research at the PhD level. In the SOP fora, many posters have advised applicants to be as specific as possible about what they want to research. However, I'm not sure if that's applicable to the Rhet/Comp field. I spoke to my POI at my top choice school over Skype; when I asked what I should stress in my SOP, she replied that I should be clear that I'm open to new interests and discoveries. She said that students rarely ever write a dissertation on what they thought they would when they started the program. Her advice makes sense to me; after all, most rhet/comp professors I've talked to have a myriad of academic interests. However, she is just one professor. I'm curious about the expectations of the field as a whole.

I have explained that I am interested in feminist disability studies, new media studies, and composition pedagogy, and specifically, how they overlap. In my SOP, I have detailed how I came to discover those fields and my past research in those areas. Honestly, I'm not sure what I want to do for a dissertation quite yet, and because there are very few undergrad and MA programs in Comp/Rhet, I think many of the PhD applicants probably aren't 100% sure either. Buuuuuuuuut I don't want to seem fickle or not ready for PhD study. I know it's only April, but I'm already ripping my hair out trying to figure out the right balance between mature and flexible. What do you think?

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The point of an SOP-- in rhet/comp and elsewhere-- is not to decide what you're going to spend a career studying (because nobody knows that yet and it will change) but to demonstrate that you know what an academic project entails. It's a signalling mechanism, and what is signaled is not "I already know who I am as an intellect and scholar" but rather "I know what academics do, I know what an academic career is like, and I'm someone who will one day responsibly make knowledge in the field."

I would suggest that there is perhaps an added impulse in rhet/comp. As a young field, one that had to fight to achieve disciplinary recognition, and one whose worth is still contested, it's important to demonstrate that you have an idea of what rhet/comp is and what we value. That doesn't mean trying to show off; we're all learning what the field is, and defining it still. It does mean demonstrating why rhet/comp is a separate field from literature, without being disrespectful towards literature.

Also-- and I'm not scolding, at all-- I would be careful about saying things like " I'm not sure what I want to do for a dissertation quite yet, and because there are very few undergrad and MA programs in Comp/Rhet, I think many of the PhD applicants probably aren't 100% sure either." It's true that applicants don't know what their dissertations will be yet. I certainly don't! But that's because you spend your grad years figuring that out, not because of rhet/comps relative size.

Hope that's helpful.

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Thanks, ComeBackZinc, for your response. Seriously. I think I was getting hung up on the general SoP advice, which tends to be directed at the sciences and not relevant to the humanities. And I do appreciate the note about rhet/comp's size. I think my irrational panic triggered some defensiveness, which led me to justify why I didn't have a dissertation topic in mind yet. In my current SOP, I explain my current interests, but I also stress that I'm excited to see how they overlap and discover new interests. I need to remember that it is only early April; I have plenty of time to freak out , so I should conserve my anxiety for the waiting period next year!

I see you're in the Purdue program: PhD or MA? That is one of my top choices for PhD!

Edited by proflorax
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You're fine! Just be honest about your interests. The SOPs a delicate dance and nobody could every blame you for being being anxious about it.

I'm a PhD student. I happen to adore it here. Let me know if you have any questions, about Purdue or whatever.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I'm in the same boat, proflorax! Applying to writ/rhet PdDs for fall 2013 and beginning the process very early. My neuroticism in this respect is I think from hearing from English/lit applicants how random the application process becomes with so many qualified applicants. I hope our field is still growing, to the point that we don't have to worry about this quite as much.

Here's what my undergrad advisor (director of the writing department) said to me when I asked her the exact same question about dissertation/research specificity in SOP:

"You absolutely don't need to know what you want to write your dissertation on before you get into a program; in fact if you did, you should hide that fact. They do want to teach you something, after all."

Do you have a concrete list of places you're applying yet?

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Hey KendraA! It's nice to find another rhet/comp applicant on this board. It's also nice to hear that we are receiving consistent advice! Like you, I've started early. I already have a SoP draft and have my LOR writers ready to go. It does seem like we are going into a growing and in-demand field (especially when schools like Purdue have a 100% job placement rate!), so that's reassuring! Still, I have a feeling this process is going to make me more and more neurotic as the deadlines start approaching. Yay?

I have a working list: UNC--Chapel Hill, Purdue, University of Arizona, Penn State, Arizona State, Ohio State, UT Austin, University of Maryland, Miami University, and a few others on my maybe list. What about you? I imagine some of our schools will overlap! Also, what are your interests in rhet/comp?

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The job placement rates are great- it seems almost every well-known school that offers a PhD boasts 100% placement! I'm perfectly happy to bounce around at community colleges for a while, but when the time comes, it's nice to know we'll have a good chance of sticking around somewhere. I hope it stays like that for at least the next decade. I keep freaking myself out by reading too many grim admission and job statistics for English PhDs.

I will definitely be applying to UT Austin (for their Digital Writing and Research Lab), and many of the schools you mentioned are on my "do more research" list. I'm still honing my interests within rhet/comp as well; I'm planning to take some courses this fall to help me with that, since I come from a broad writing background rather than a focus in rhetoric. What draws me to the field is the ability to look at seemingly anything, from pedagogy to pop culture and social issues, through a lens of writing and teaching writing. My undergrad major was “creative writing for contemporary media” with an emphasis on social/political creative non-fiction. My thesis was a multimodal writing project about how women act as agents of resistance using elements like appearance, performance, lyrics, protest rituals, and independent media like zines within radical subcultures (such as punk and radical political communities). So I'm assuming my research interests in grad school will fall in a similar field. I'm especially interested in the ability of the rhet/comp field to produce books like Whistlin' and Crowin' Women of Appalachia: Literary Practices Since College by Katherin Kelleher Sohn, and Angel's Town: Chero Ways, Gang Life, and the Rhetorics of Everyday by Ralph Cintron. I hope to end up doing work similar to theirs.

Sorry for the long post! It's exciting to find someone on the same path. How did you choose the schools on your list, and what are your interests within the field?

Edited by KendraA
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What draws me to the field is the ability to look at seemingly anything, from pedagogy to pop culture and social issues, through a lens of writing and teaching writing.

Well said! I feel the same way; additionally, I'm attracted to the field because of its seamless fusion of theory and practice. My BA and MA are both in literature, and while I loved literary study, I realized that I wanted to have more discussions about pedagogical practice and rhetoric outside of the academy. Then, I started teaching writing and reading at a community college. I discovered that I freakin' love teaching. Unfortunately, at the community college level, there aren't many opportunities for theory or research here. So, a rhet/comp program seems like the perfect place for me!

My academic interests are feminist theory, disability studies, and new media studies. I'm interested in the body's relationship to the act of writing, especially in online spaces and in the classroom. When I started compiling my list, I first looked at places my fiance and I would want to live and schools that are driving distance to an airport. (Since he's coming along with me, I want to make sure we don't end up in a place where he's miserable!) Then, I looked for faculty I'd want to work with. I spoke with a few POI's over the phone and Skype, and they answered questions I had about the culture of the institution and the department. And wa-la! I had a list. Funding and placement rates were also, of course, major factors as well. Let's be friends and keep each other motivated through this process!

And thanks to you and ComeBackZinc for the book recommendations! My reading list keeps growing and growing and growing and growing...

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I don't want to chime in and be contradictory- and I definitely don't disagree with ComeBackZinc, but I did want to share for a moment, since the responses I got from schools were surprising. I was seriously considering bot UT-Austin and Indiana U. I visited the schools, and both mentioned my dissertation project (I sketched a very rough outline) and implied that they chose their students based partially on that aspect. While I was visiting UT, the grad director pulled me aside specifically to discuss how the school would find the archival research I want to do and to touch on how my interests would be handled at Austin. In fact, when my SO, too, got accepted to UT, the grad director scheduled a phone call with him to talk about his intended project. Anyway, I am sure that, like everything else, this varies by school and by person, but I thought I would add my two cents. I didn't give a chapter-by-chapter summary or anything, but I did sort of define my field and explain what I thought I would need to do to accomplish it. I'm sure that this turned some schools off, but at those two, it did seem almost expected.

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Hi aeplo! Thanks for chiming in with your experience. It's good to hear from lots of perspectives in this process! Out of curiosity: are you pursuing graduate study in literature or rhet/comp?

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