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Let's Talk About Fit


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Seeing as this current admissions cycle is winding down for most of us (congrats to all admits!), I think now's a good a time as any to have a frank discussion about "fit."  

 

What does fit mean to you? Does it mean the same thing to you now as you make your final decision as it did to you when you began the application process?  Do the ways that we talk about fit, particularly the value we should place on it when evaluating graduate programs,  in the abstract, with our peers, and our advisors match up with the ways we think about fit when alone with our thoughts? Does fit really trump all? Does fit really mean anything?

 

These are just a few questions to get discussion going.  Feel free to disregard these if you feel they're suckish and to pose/answer some of your own.

 

Cheers!    

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"Fit" more often than not means that you're not going to rock the boat, challenge prevailing orthodoxies and cause trouble (which usually means "more work") for people.  It also often means the ability to be a grinning blank slate that faculty can reproduce their own ideas upon rather than showing an annoying proclivity for thinking for yourself.

 

ETA: I didn't see this was a history thread, but I think these short observations about "fit" are normative for most departments.

Edited by gr8pumpkin
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Wow, that's very cynical and ... I don't think particularly accurate.

 

Fit in my book is that you work has the support within the department to mature and advance.  If you are a historian of early modern Swedish hip hop, with a particular interest in the cultural exchange with Namibian biochemists than fit would mean that the department has a Scandinavian historian, someone who knows something about early modern popular music, an Africanist and hopefully a historian of science.  That all of these people are open to helping students who do not replicate their work exactly.  Because frankly there is probably not room in the world for a transcultural comparative for 15th century Scandinavia and Africa.

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To me, fit also means the culture of the department and school. This may mean very little when you are applying, as you don't know them and they don't know you - at that point it means that the department has scholars doing work of interest to you and somewhat similar to your own - but it can make the difference when choosing between schools. Good question!

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For me, fit meant more than demonstrating it in a two-page SOP.  Because my POI gave me an interview that lasted well over an hour, I was able to demonstrate to him that my specific research interests in late antiquity focused on the same languages, similar historical phenomena, and would be of benefit to the department. Given that he is very flexible about specific emphasis and does not want to reproduce a replica of himself, I think the interview also demonstrated that I would not be a problem to work with.  At the places where I was rejected, the lack of an interview reduced my ability to demonstrate fit.  I'm so glad this unforgiving process is over.  

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Wow, that's very cynical and ... I don't think particularly accurate.

 

Fit in my book is that you work has the support within the department to mature and advance.  If you are a historian of early modern Swedish hip hop, with a particular interest in the cultural exchange with Namibian biochemists than fit would mean that the department has a Scandinavian historian, someone who knows something about early modern popular music, an Africanist and hopefully a historian of science.  That all of these people are open to helping students who do not replicate their work exactly.  Because frankly there is probably not room in the world for a transcultural comparative for 15th century Scandinavia and Africa.

 

 

This. 

 

Gr8pumpkin's post seems to have nothing to do with fit, and more about teenage rebellion.  Fit means being able to have a dissertation committee and hopefully a few grad students who you can discuss your work with.  It also means having a department that broadly speaking supports the type of questions you are asking.

 

Another type of fit has to do with culture of the department, in terms of personalities and social life.  This is much harder to determine, and honestly has to do with luck of the draw.  Do people like to drink? Are the students workaholics?

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Wow, that's very cynical and ... I don't think particularly accurate.

 

 

Regarding the first part, you say "very cynical" like it's a bad thing.  Regarding the second part, well, loathe though I am to make an argument by authority, I've been in academia for 23 years on both sides of desk as student and faculty and then student again, but you believe what you want.  Faculty idealistically want to think they want challenging and stimulating innovators as students in their department, but at the end of the day, they want *less work* more than they want challenging and stimulating innovators.  CASIs create *more work* because they are, well, challenging, stimulating, and innovative.  They also have an annoying tendency to show up faculty, which faculty never smiles upon.  The game of "fit" is striking the right balance: making it *sound* like you're a CASI but assuring the faculty with a wink and a nod that you won't actually be too much trouble.  There is, if not an art to it, at least a craft to it.

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Gr8pumpkin's post seems to have nothing to do with fit, and more about teenage rebellion.  

 

Believe what you want.  I've been around the block more than once, you whippersnapper.  Now get off my lawn!

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Regarding the first part, you say "very cynical" like it's a bad thing.  Regarding the second part, well, loathe though I am to make an argument by authority, I've been in academia for 23 years on both sides of desk as student and faculty and then student again, but you believe what you want.  Faculty idealistically want to think they want challenging and stimulating innovators as students in their department, but at the end of the day, they want *less work* more than they want challenging and stimulating innovators.  CASIs create *more work* because they are, well, challenging, stimulating, and innovative.  They also have an annoying tendency to show up faculty, which faculty never smiles upon.  The game of "fit" is striking the right balance: making it *sound* like you're a CASI but assuring the faculty with a wink and a nod that you won't actually be too much trouble.  There is, if not an art to it, at least a craft to it.

 

 

You may have been "around the block," but not in our field. So.. when it comes to fit in HISTORY, yeah, we know more than you.

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Regarding the first part, you say "very cynical" like it's a bad thing.  Regarding the second part, well, loathe though I am to make an argument by authority, I've been in academia for 23 years on both sides of desk as student and faculty and then student again, but you believe what you want.  Faculty idealistically want to think they want challenging and stimulating innovators as students in their department, but at the end of the day, they want *less work* more than they want challenging and stimulating innovators.  CASIs create *more work* because they are, well, challenging, stimulating, and innovative.  They also have an annoying tendency to show up faculty, which faculty never smiles upon.  The game of "fit" is striking the right balance: making it *sound* like you're a CASI but assuring the faculty with a wink and a nod that you won't actually be too much trouble.  There is, if not an art to it, at least a craft to it.

 

CASI? 

 

Playing academic politics (assuring faculty, etc) isn't the same thing as having the faculty who can support you in your given areas of interest. 

 

What does fit mean to you? Does it mean the same thing to you now as you make your final decision as it did to you when you began the application process?  Do the ways that we talk about fit, particularly the value we should place on it when evaluating graduate programs,  in the abstract, with our peers, and our advisors match up with the ways we think about fit when alone with our thoughts? Does fit really trump all? Does fit really mean anything?    

 

That said, I think fit was the most important thing to me. My biggest mistake was listening to an assistant professor I didn't know well who suggested extra schools not on the basis of fit. I had a list of strong fitting schools that was about 4 schools long, and got talked into applying to way more that I don't think were "perfect fits".  At the end of the day, the programs I thought were best fit were programs I got into. I based it off of places where I could find one or more POIs who did research in the same areas I was interested in. Looking back at the SOP I used for the school I'm enrolling in I addressed fit based on a few things:

 

  • My time period of focus
  • My geographical focus(es) (I have transcultural considerations to make)
  • The specific things I study within that time/geographical period
  • My methodological goals/philosophies 
  • sub-focuses/minor subject area
  • Additional faculty who I thought would support my research beyond a single POI/advisor (e.g. the rest of my department-based committee) 
  • departmental support in my career goals (which in my case is not academia/becoming a professor)

I laid out very explicitly what I was interested in, what I wanted to do, who I hoped to work with/learn under, etc. I don't see this as being a clone stamp of the professors I'm choosing to work with - I don't do 100% of any one thing they do, but I also don't see how or why I would be considered troublesome unless I didn't actually fit with the department's scholars in terms of what I want to study. ETA: obviously I'm an art historian, but believe there are plenty of similarities in what we consider when talking about specialties/fit.

Edited by m-ttl
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This. 

 

Gr8pumpkin's post seems to have nothing to do with fit, and more about teenage rebellion.  Fit means being able to have a dissertation committee and hopefully a few grad students who you can discuss your work with.  It also means having a department that broadly speaking supports the type of questions you are asking.

 

Another type of fit has to do with culture of the department, in terms of personalities and social life.  This is much harder to determine, and honestly has to do with luck of the draw.  Do people like to drink? Are the students workaholics?

 

This.

 

Just a few more things:

 

Academic fit also means having alternatives. If, say, your primary adviser leaves.. would that mean you cannot continue? If so, the program was probably not a great place to be. The days of faculty getting a tenure-track position and staying there until they died in their office are long gone.... professors move, especially those who are mid-career. My adviser left after my first year because "life happened" (in other words, I don't blame this person one bit for leaving and it was not planned), but I have three other faculty in my field that I was able to choose from to continue. I would not go to a program that only has one person working in my field.

 

There's also politics (and I don't mean department stuff). If you lean a bit conservative, a super-left-wing department might not be a great place, especially if you work on, say, United States history... and viceversa. Unless you like arguing a lot... 

 

Finally, there's the department culture. Some departments are very collaborative and collegial, others are super cut-throat (especially when grad students have to compete for funding). 

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Wow, that's very cynical and ... I don't think particularly accurate.

 

Fit in my book is that you work has the support within the department to mature and advance.  If you are a historian of early modern Swedish hip hop, with a particular interest in the cultural exchange with Namibian biochemists than fit would mean that the department has a Scandinavian historian, someone who knows something about early modern popular music, an Africanist and hopefully a historian of science.  That all of these people are open to helping students who do not replicate their work exactly.  Because frankly there is probably not room in the world for a transcultural comparative for 15th century Scandinavia and Africa.

 

Thanks, Nat. You just described my thesis.

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Believe what you want.  I've been around the block more than once, you whippersnapper.  Now get off my lawn!

 

Yeaah, I wouldn't assume you've been around more blocks than I have or that you have more varied experience in the academic world.  I'll take that bet, and I have the advantage of being a historian and knowing this field thank you.

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Wow, that's very cynical and ... I don't think particularly accurate.

 

Fit in my book is that you work has the support within the department to mature and advance.  If you are a historian of early modern Swedish hip hop, with a particular interest in the cultural exchange with Namibian biochemists than fit would mean that the department has a Scandinavian historian, someone who knows something about early modern popular music, an Africanist and hopefully a historian of science.  That all of these people are open to helping students who do not replicate their work exactly.  Because frankly there is probably not room in the world for a transcultural comparative for 15th century Scandinavia and Africa.

 

This is quite possibly the most apt definition of "fit" that I've ever seen. My interests are a tricky fun-bag of many different things -- I've only ever found one (yes, one) scholar who shares all of my geographic, chronological, and thematic interests. At the program I'll be attending, I will need to mix-and-match different advisors with different areas of expertise in order to get the training I want.

 

"Fit" more often than not means that you're not going to rock the boat, challenge prevailing orthodoxies and cause trouble (which usually means "more work") for people.  It also often means the ability to be a grinning blank slate that faculty can reproduce their own ideas upon rather than showing an annoying proclivity for thinking for yourself.

 

ETA: I didn't see this was a history thread, but I think these short observations about "fit" are normative for most departments.

 

Although I haven't been around the block as often as anybody, this isn't the impression I've gotten at all. Among all of the professors I've worked with, virtually every one has been relatively open to my ideas. I've had disagreements over small, petty things (phrasing and syntax within individual sentences), but nothing that made me feel discouraged about thinking for myself. And at both of the graduate programs I considered, I got the impression that my work would be supported.

 

Admittedly, I've worked for research centers where I would have liked our projects to go in a different direction, but, in that case, it's somebody else's funding and somebody else's research, so I've got no right to complain.

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Reading many of these definitions of fit really could have saved me some time and a lot of agony during the application process.  I thought of "fit" as finding a professor who does almost exactly what you want to do, and didn't spend a lot of time, initially, evaluating departments as a whole for their ability to work with me as my interests inevitably change.  When I went on my visits I heard this holistic approach to fit over and over again, so it's the way I've come to see fit now. I just wish I thought that way when I started this thing! 

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Yeah, I would say that people overestimate the important of your adviser having to do exactly what you do. My adviser works on a different time period and country, though same general region,and we have different thematic interests. And you're right, your interests are likely going to change... I would say that of the people I know, about 2/6 are doing exactly what they set out to do, 3/6 have stayed in the same general time and/or region but changed interests, and 1/6 have made dramatic changes (like Europe to South Asia, or 16th century to 20th).

Edited by CageFree
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Yeah, I would say that people overestimate the important of your adviser having to do exactly what you do. My adviser works on a different time period and country, though same general region,and we have different thematic interests. And you're right, your interests are likely going to change... I would say that of the people I know, about 2/6 are doing exactly what they set out to do, 3/6 have stayed in the same general time and/or region but changed interests, and 1/6 have made dramatic changes (like Europe to South Asia, or 16th century to 20th).

 

Yes, my adviser does something very different from me overall.  As a professor at a different university from my own told me, you will have many advisers throughout your career.  Yes your departmental adviser is important, but they are not the only person whose help you will need.  This was said as encouragement, since my work (history of Med) does not traditionally fit well in my department, although I have been able to compile a committee where each member's expertise is able to speak to a different field that my work fits into.

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There was no clear "fit" between me and my advisors (or other faculty members) at my department when I started here four years ago. Yet I have had a very rewarding, productive experience, and cannot imagine receiving more practical and fruitful help from other professors, even if their research interests corresponded more closely to mine. My point is that we shouldn't overhype "fit," however you define it. 

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  • 3 weeks later...

Fit, at least in my opinion, was the reason I got into the school I will attend in the Fall. It was the best fit out of all the places I applied. I had a good GPA, average GRE scores, what I assumed was a good writing sample and solid letters of recommendation. I don't think though, that any of these factors would have separated me out of the pack of applicants to a decently competitive program and an excellent program for my field. I found 8-10 historians in the department whose research intersected with my own and of those historians, an advisor who was very enthusiastic about my research (It didn't hurt that he used to teach where I am getting my MA and knew all of my recommenders). I was able to make friends within the department and established my fit within the faculty as well.

 

To tell a quick story of why fit is incredibly important. There was a guy who applied to get his PhD during the last application cycle where I am getting my MA. From what I heard, he had one of the best all around application packages including a very high GPA, great GRE scores, and solid letters of recommendation and an excellent writing sample. But he did not even get an interview because he had no fit within the department. He wanted to focus on the American West and Environmental history but my school does not have an American West or Environmental historian. Fit the standard through which a department is able to measure your potential growth as a Gender, Diplomatic, Medieval, African, etc. historian. If they don't have someone in your field, it is hard to determine how you will prosper as a historian in your field.

 

Also, it is important to match up your research interests with the department's strengths. If you're able to fit within a field that the department considers itself to be strong in, then your career and networking opportunities will be much better.

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New England Nat nailed it, but I'll throw my two cents in anyway. 

 

Fit is not only your qualifiers but whether the school feels that it can adequately support your topic.  You can see what happened to me in my sig -- rejected from all North American schools, got into a top 5 world school AND a top 100 world school.  WTF.  Well, I do medieval death stuff.  Americans honestly tend to feel icky discussing the nuts and bolts of death.  That's a cultural issue; I'm a second generation American whose immediate forebears were grave diggers -- death is what it is, and it's not THAT scary.  The US also doesn't have many medieval graves lying around; you can have museums full of reliquaries and stained glass and even farming implements, but graves -- unless they are fragments of the tombs -- aren't common.  So fit, in part, is the school's ability to help you help yourself. 

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