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Determining Specialization


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I was wondering if anyone has any suggestions for clarifying an area of specialization. Because it looks like I'll be doing an MA before my PhD, and I want to make sure that I'm wise in selecting courses/an adviser.

 

Currently, my specific research interests are intersections between lit & spirituality in 20th/21st century American literature. The way I see it, I could strengthen my foundations in 3 ways: regionally (ie. focus as an Americanist), temporally (ie. focus on Modern & contemporary lit), or thematically (eg. focus on religion and lit in various settings).

 

Of course, I could also sample each of these areas -- but I do want to be somewhat intentional in shaping my course of study. My current inclination is to choose a primary field of focus (eg. Modern American) and also a secondary (eg. Transatlantic Romanticism). I guess I would then look for a common thread (eg. as related to lit & spirituality) within my actual coursework.

 

For those of you who have done an MA before PhD, what has been useful for you? Are there particular "angles" on specialization that PhD adcomms or (even further down the line) hiring committees find particularly attractive?

 

Thanks!

Edited by erosanddust
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A question for you lit folks: the lit professors I know are often talking about moving beyond the division of lit studies by time period. Is this a "thing" and has anyone tried to portray themselves that way in their SOP/writing sample?

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I actually have different advice for an MA program: be open. Take classes that interest you. Write seminar papers that excite you. See where you end up.

 

I started my MA thinking I would study one thing (20th century American literature and feminist theory) and ended up studying something completely different (feminist rhetoric and disability studies). I'm so glad I took classes that sounded fun and explore different fields in English studies during my MA program. 

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A question for you lit folks: the lit professors I know are often talking about moving beyond the division of lit studies by time period. Is this a "thing" and has anyone tried to portray themselves that way in their SOP/writing sample?

It is a thing, but, as far as I can tell, it's not a thing you are particularly encouraged to make your profile. The market, after all, is still divided by geography and time period, and if you are unable to fit easy into a single category, then you've made your job search a lot harder. In places where creatively interdisciplinary/cross-temporal work is encouraged, as at one of the schools that accepted me, you are encouraged to still have a "main" area as it is typically defined so you are not floating, lost, once you get on the market. 

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I had an eye-opening experience during my application process regarding specialization:

 

I marketed myself as an Americanist, and all of my interesting research ideas are in American literature. One application asked me to organize all of my UG classes by period, and I realized (to my legitimate surprise) that I had taken something like 6 American lit classes (including 2 seminars). In every other period, I had taken one or (rarely) two classes. Correlation does not imply causation, but my takeaway from this is that I am so interested in American literature because I have knowledge in that area (duh.) It is also overwhelmingly the type of literature I read for fun.

 

I am going into my MA with this in mind. I still plan to take American lit classes, but I am going to see what happens when I take courses in other periods and geographical locations and keep an eye out for research opportunities.

 

After all, I had a professor who taught and studied Victorian literature, but took exactly no pleasure in reading from that period. She had a real passion for modern British drama, but almost never taught it. "I don't mix business and pleasure," was what she told me about this (to me) weird choice. It should be added that she just published a book on Victorian lit and is a respected scholar of that time period.

 

tl;dr: Keep your options open!

Edited by ToldAgain
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I agree with the folks saying to be open during your MA. Of course you'll want a proposed specialization for your SOP, but you needn't be an expert already when applying to PhDs. Have fun, take interesting classes, and the rest will sort itself out.

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Thanks so much for your helpful responses, everyone! I'm the type to pick a direction, make a plan, and pursue it intently, so it's good for me to hear that sometimes it's best to wait and feel things out. :)

 

And I suppose that even if my specific interests do persist through to my PhD, taking a wider variety of courses that interest me may allow me to discover new intersections that I wouldn't have otherwise considered (or even a gap in existing studies that I'm eager to fill).

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A question for you lit folks: the lit professors I know are often talking about moving beyond the division of lit studies by time period. Is this a "thing" and has anyone tried to portray themselves that way in their SOP/writing sample?

The way this was described to me at the school I'm about to start attending (which is super interdisciplinary) is that specialization matters, as echo449 pointed out, but that one shouldn't get so "siloed" into one little niche that you can't be in dialogue with people of other specializations/disciplines since most of the people on a given hiring committee won't be studying the same field as you. echo449's point matters -- it's still how job postings work and people with, say, English degrees have a slightly easier time finding jobs than people with, say, Medieval or American Studies degrees, but I'm under the impression that having some flexibility matters.  You need to be able to have a productive dialogue with your colleagues and also be able to teach general classes outside your field.  I can also say this from having teachers of various fields -- the teachers who had super specialized educations were terrible at teaching less general, but required, classes.  Even if you are a super well educated, old school medievalist, you'll still have to teach Hemingway to first years or still teach lit theory even if you don't like/understand those things.

 

And erosanddust, I also make such plans, but intellectual itineraries can benefit from diversions and distractions in my opinion. 

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A question for you lit folks: the lit professors I know are often talking about moving beyond the division of lit studies by time period. Is this a "thing" and has anyone tried to portray themselves that way in their SOP/writing sample?

This is a thing, but as far as I can tell it's also a privilege given to tenured scholars. The pattern seems to be that you train as a 20th century Americanist, Victorianist, Miltonist, etc, get a job and tenure, and then publish your magical treatise on Shakespeare and Toni Morrison.

I don't think it's harmful to gesture towards interests that are less period bound in a SOP, but the reality is that hiring is very much tied to periodization. When you go on the job market, you'll be applying for positions that fit your period "slot." Even if scholarship is pushing the boundaries of periodization/genre/temporality, it's a situation in which the material reality of the job market hasn't caught up with/doesn't reflect this scholarship. 

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