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Running Head Start (2016!)


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Hi all~ I've been lurking around this forum for the last few months as I contemplate my future PhD aspirations.  I'm a few years away from applying, but I figure I might as well use this time wisely to help strengthen my future applications as much as possible.  I've got some ideas for how to do that, just from reading through the threads, but I thought I'd put my specific situation out there and see if anybody has any other advice or ideas I hadn't thought of.

 

So, here's some basic background:

~ graduated with a B.A. in English Lit, minor in Philosophy in 2003 from a small, but well-ranked, undergrad-only liberal arts school

~ was tired of school and had little direction so took a few years off, taught English abroad, worked menial jobs, moved around a lot, and eventually got into the field of education

~ earned an M.A. in Education (along with a K-8 teaching credential) in 2011, but now after working as a teacher for a couple years find myself unsatisfied with the field.  I liked studying the theory of education, but in practice it's much less intellectually satisfying and I'm finding that I need that intellectual aspect to feel fulfilled day-to-day

~ just started a 3-year, low-residency MFA in Poetry, which is somewhat fulfilling that intellectual need with the theory/criticism aspect while also indulging my creative ambitions, which I feel like I can do now that I have a "practical" degree and a "real" job

 

With all of this, I'm realizing more and more that I want to continue on to a PhD. After quite a bit of research and thought, I'm thinking that Rhet/Comp just might be my area (though I also continue to entertain the thought of Creative Writing and Education PhDs).  Very broadly, I'm interested in the philosophy of language and how we construct meaning, as well as the variety of "Englishes" in use (and more specifically, Alaska Native English, which I'm not sure is as well studied, but I find it fascinating the particular way Natives across the state seem to use English).  I'm also interested in poetics, and am really drawn to programs like SUNY-Buffalo's poetics program, but that seems a little less useful and may be something I can satisfy through my current MFA. 

 

So, after all that, grad cafe wise ones, what do you think I can do to prepare myself for PhD applications two years from now? Some things I've thought of doing are taking a class/independent study or two with a prof in my current University's English/RhetComp program, making sure I incorporate more theory-type work into my MFA work, going to conferences, writing and attempting to publish a paper.  Any other ideas?  I'm a little worried that my background is too scattered to make for a good PhD app, but I'm hopeful that with the right school/right fit I can have some success. 

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Honestly, I'm starting to feel like having a more diverse background makes you way more competitive.

 

I mean, saying that you have a BA in English/Philosophy, took off a few years where you most likely grew/matured from traveling and having different jobs, and then did the MA in Education, taught for a few years, went back for your MFA and eventually want to get a Phd in something that somehow bridges the gaps between all of your interests, to me, sounds a lot better than "I have a BA in English where I loved victorian lit, then I got an MA which focused on Victorian lit., and now I want to get a Phd that focuses on Victorian lit."

 

It just seems to me that having a diverse background, but still being able to show how your background has brought you to the point where you are ready to pursue your Phd sounds a lot better than someone who has had the same interests for a long time (and I say that as someone who has had the same interests for a long time). I think that people who have "non-traditional (?)" backgrounds tend to feel inadequate/fear looking like they are confused, and people who have "traditional" backgrounds tend to feel less unique. 

 

Maybe the grass is just greener on the other side and the important thing to do is to show that you fit with the programs you are applying to? Here's to hoping that's the case. 

 

Anyways, sorry, that didn't really answer your question about advice for applications. Just really me pondering...but, I guess my advice would be to figure out how your background all ties together and has led you to what you want to study for your phd (as far as what you should say in your SOP). 

Edited by BunnyWantsaPhD
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Thanks for the vote of confidence in my meandering background, BunnyWantsaPhD.  I do worry about whether it would read as "diverse" in a good way, or "scattered" in a "she doesn't know what she wants" way.  Which is why I'm feeling like I should do a few things in the next couple years to show a little more solidity and direction towards the PhD. 

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You’re in a rather fortunate position, in that you have ample time to work with.

 

My two cents:

 

-Do well in your MFA. ‘nuff said.

 

-Find out how compatible your current program and past degrees are with the requirements of the PhD programs that interest you. Take steps to fill any gaps between your experience and your future requirements.

 

-Any and all research experience that you can get in your areas of interest will support your applications. Conferences, papers, RA work, etc., will look good. As you say, these things will show solidity and direction.

 

-Refine your focus. You mention your interest in Alaska Native English as something you might engage in your PhD. Would this research involve travel and, if so, could you begin planning that now? Would this research involve studying languages other than English and, if so, could you begin those studies now? Would this research involve interviewing people and, if so, do you know how to do that? Depending on what you want to do in your PhD, you might be able to begin thinking about questions like these. In the short term (i.e. two years) this will help you prepare a strong SOP. In the long term (i.e. when you begin your dissertation), this will save you time and energy.

 

-Lastly, enjoy yourself and relax while you have some time to spare. Maintain old hobbies, that kind of thing. A PhD can be a bit of a grind. Don’t burden yourself with too much stress at this early stage.

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Thanks for the vote of confidence in my meandering background, BunnyWantsaPhD.  I do worry about whether it would read as "diverse" in a good way, or "scattered" in a "she doesn't know what she wants" way.  Which is why I'm feeling like I should do a few things in the next couple years to show a little more solidity and direction towards the PhD. 

 

I think you've hit on an issue here that you will have to address in your applications. How do you present/frame your varied background as an asset and not as a liability/inability to focus? I think the answer lies in how you present your experience in your statement of purpose and in how well you articulate what you want to study and get from a PhD program.

 

We've actually traveled eerily similar paths, you and I. I graduated undergrad shortly after you did from a small lib-arts school (English lit BA), moved abroad for a bit to work as a journalist, kicked around at some less than scintillating jobs that gradually let me back to teaching. I just finished a lit MA and will start a PhD program in the fall. 

 

When the time came for my PhD applications, I thought for a long time about how to present my background. In the end, it was a minor (very minor) part of my statement of purpose, and I made sure that it connected to my areas of focus. For me, that meant briefly mentioning my experience as a journalist in relation to my desire to see writing as a way to understand contemporary relationships between people, countries, traditions and writing (I promise it was put much more subtly in my SOP). The majority of my SOP dealt with my theoretical focus and research interests, both how they developed in my MA program and how I imaging they'll be pursued at the PhD level.

 

So I think you're in a pretty good spot. The interviews I went to spoke very highly of my varied jobs and detours on my way toward an academic career. If you acknowledge that variety and frame it as something that led you to where you are today, then it shouldn't be a major issue. Plus, the other things you mentioned (bulking up on theory, taking some comp/rhet, engaging in professionalization such as publishing/presenting) will help to solidify (for you) and clarify (for the schools you apply to) your interests as a scholar. If you do these things, then your recent record as a scholar will count much more than your varied past.

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Thanks, Roquentin and somethinbruin, for the advice and especially for the reassurance that a PhD is actually within the realm of possibility for me, even with my meandering past. 

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