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matching research interests between student and adviser


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Hello fellow history students

I am applying to study pre-modern Chinese history and literature in grad school this December and I have a few questions about “fit”. We all know that matching interests between the student and the adviser are very important, but it’s a bit confusing what match means. The student-adviser matches I’ve seen suggest that profs do accept students whose research interests are quite different from their own. For example, Prof. Peter Bol at Harvard, who mainly does intellectual history of the middle period, has taught one of our profs, Prof. Jeffrey Moser, who studies art history of the same period. Moreover, our department chair Prof. Robin Yates does early Chinese history but is known to take students who study later periods. I have heard that it is not uncommon that profs want someone who can teach them something they didn't already master.   

My research interest is a bit unique and it will be hard to find someone who does exactly what I do.  However, there are many profs whose research converge with parts of my research. My B.A thesis will be about the connections between historiography and vernacular fictions in the middle period. It is rare that a prof studies both historiography and vernacular fiction; they mostly do one or the other. Moreover, my knowledge of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean will allow me to study the literary and cultural exchanges among all three nations, but very few profs, especially those who study the middle period, study more than one of these culture. One thing I’m sure about is that I will need a school with a comprehensive East Asian studies department that covers all three cultures to realize my full potential. I feel that the uniqueness of my interests can be a great asset but can also be a bit troubling when looking for an adviser. How did/ will you guys deal with cases like this? Do you think profs have a preference for students whose research interests overlap with theirs more substantially? Do they prefer students whose research incorporates their theories or research?


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The best way to know, really, is to e-mail the professors whom you're interested in working with.  It sounds like you would need a school with a comprehensive East Asian faculty so that you might be able to work in Japanese and Korean (though you will need to explain WHY you have to engage those cultures).  But e-mail the professors and explain your interests and ask whether or not they would be willing to supervise you.


Generally, the key for "intellectual fit" with the adviser is to be aware of the adviser's research interests and questions for the purpose of passing the comprehensive exams.  The adviser tends to shape their comprehensive exam list around their own knowledge and questions with some bits of the student's.  For example, if you have zero interest in the military during the pre-Modern period and you adviser does, be prepared to read a couple of books in that area (or negotiate your way out).  My adviser and I share identical questions and historiographical concerns as well as geographical breadth so making the list wasn't difficult at all (as my other two fields, which has taken some negotiations).  Your adviser holds the pen to signing you off to be an ABD.


(Know this: No faculty wants to talk about something that they don't know about during oral exams.)


Ultimately, the dissertation is YOURS.  You will create a committee where each person can contribute his/her area of strength.  You will make connections with others at conferences who share your interests.  This is where a school with a solid East Asian studies faculty will come in.

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