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Question about my area of interest

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So, here's a little background on me.  I'm a non-traditional student.  I went back to school later in life, and at 35, I'll be graduating in December.  I hate that I waited this long to finish something I should have finished ages ago, but here I am.  In the meantime, I racked up plenty of life experiences that I hope have prepared me for graduate school, if that is the route I take.  I'll have a BA in English with a minor in philosophy from a decent state university.  I have a 3.9 GPA.  I'm also in the English honor society and was able to present twice at the conference last March.


I have a friend in an Ivy League PhD program and who works in higher education already.  He is really encouraging me to shoot for graduate school because he thinks I can do it, but I'm afraid.  I'm afraid of putting all this work into something that will possibly or likely provide no payoff in the end.  For instance, my friend thinks I should go; but he has suggested that my area of interest may not get me anywhere and that I might need to rethink it.  But if I can't study what I love, then why bother? 


My main interest is war literature and the history surrounding it, mostly WWI and WWII literature.  But my interest extends to other periods as well, like the American Civil War.  I haven't been able to find much information on which schools in the US would be a good choice for this focus.  There are plenty in the UK, but I can't find many here.  I would be happy to relocate to the UK, but I'm married, and my spouse needs work, too.  Anyway, is this worth the time and effort?  I love the subject and would be happy to research it for the rest of my life.  But is it a wise choice as far as a career goes?  Would I be better off pursuing secondary education, which is my other option for now?  Right now, I feel like it is a choice between following a real passion or choosing the sensible option that will at least get me a stable career and benefits.  Both have some appeal.


I'll be happy to get some feedback.  Thank you.

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Re finding programs in your specialty: war literature is a pretty niche subject, so you won't find a whole lot of programs advertising themselves as "programs that specialize in war literature." You'll be incredibly lucky to find a program that has more than one person a department specializing in the subject. So you'll need to look for individual people to work with. Try starting here: http://universitypublishingonline.org/cambridge/companions/ebook.jsf?bid=CBO9780511999413.  Most Cambridge Companions include essays from the top people in the specialty. Check out the university affiliations of each of the people listed here, and see if any of the programs suits your needs. 

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Well, there are a few points in your post that, cliche though it may be, only YOU can decide for yourself. "Worth the time and effort" depends on what you find worthwhile, of course, as does the question of "payoff". Presumably you mean a long-term career in academia, and not of the teaching secondary school variety.


All I can do is say this: I'm also 35, and I also just finished a B.A. as a non-traditional student, with a GPA in the 3.9 range. I'm also married...so it seems that you and I are pretty good analogs in that regard. I got into the M.A. program at UMD in February, and while I haven't actually started classes yet...it's already paying dividends. I've always been confident about my academic abilities, but just being in that environment and being taken seriously as a scholar feels incredible. I can't say what's going to happen in two years, when I'm done with my M.A., or six or seven years if I wind up getting my Ph.D., but for the near-to-medium term, I couldn't be happier. And that is saying something. Several years of enrichment is worth something...especially if you're getting a stipend and/or tuition remission.


The one other thing I would say / suggest, is that alt-ac careers are quite viable. If you've had a lot of life experience, you've probably learned the ins and outs of adapting to new situations (sorry to the younger crowd that is reading this, but I think simply surviving and aging is the best way to develop the skill of adaptation). If you wind up with an M.A. in literature that deals with the civil war, or wars in general, there are scads of museums and organizations that you could potentially work for, whether as a curator, docent, director or some other role. You just have to be a bit open-minded when it comes to considering other career options if there are no universities screaming for your talents. The viability of alt-ac careers is a hot topic in the industry these days, but as someone who regularly peruses Idealist.org and other similar sites, it seems that there ARE many options out there. Obviously a career in research and/or teaching at the university level is the ideal, but don't discount the value of working with your interests in a different way.


For what it's worth, I think your research interests do sound interesting...and I haven't come across many would-be academics doing that kind of research lately. That might be a good thing or a bad thing. Ultimately, you'll just have to research the professors that are doing the kind of thing you are interested in...and by all means, reach out with smart, pertinent, honest questions about the field and the possible roadblocks (and ways around them) that would get in the way of your applications.


Ultimately, only YOU can decide if it's worth it, but as someone who was in a very similar situation a year ago, and who has gone through the process from start to [almost] finish, I think it can and will be worthwhile for you if you take the right approach. Good luck either way, and feel free to PM me if you want more specifics about my situation vis-a-vis the process!



ETA: Cross-posted with the always wise, always pertinent Ramus.

Edited by Wyatt's Torch
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Thanks to both of you for the responses.  This is all very helpful.


Going to grad school to study this subject is what I really want to do.  I think it would be fulfilling for me on a number of levels.  After years of working jobs I hate and struggling to get through my BA, I want that intellectual satisfaction.  Right now, I'm leaning in this direction even though I am afraid of the risks.  Teaching secondary school is my second choice, as I said, but not my dream.  Another close friend is a middle school teacher, and while she likes the stability, she says that she spends about 70% of each class period trying to get the students to sit down and be quiet.  She taught reading one year and said that it was a miserable experience because the kids all hated to read; and when they did read, they read sports magazines.  It's an admirable job, but not something I expect will make me happy beyond the steady paycheck and vacation time.


Wyatt's Torch, thanks for your input.  It's good to know that I'm not the only 35-year-old out there who is about to begin this process.  By the time I actually begin a program next fall, I'll be 36.  I feel old compared to so many who are about to go into grad school, but I know that I would not have been prepared for this in any way at the age of 22, or really at any time in my twenties.  I will pm you.


And I guess I should have mentioned that becoming a professor is not necessarily the ultimate goal for me.  I would be happy to find a career in another line of work if it involves the interests that are most important to me.  Working for a museum or some other organization involved in this subject would be fine.  I just really love it.  And that's part of why, aside from the probable rejections I would get, I am not planning to apply to any PhD programs right away.  I want to start with an MA to see where this can take me. 


So, I'm going to look through that Cambridge Companion and see where all of these professors are these days.  And I guess that leads me to another question.  I've never written to professors at other institutions with these kinds of questions, but as you say, I need to reach out to them.  Any suggestions about what exactly I should be asking?  I do feel a bit intimidated approaching them, but I know I need to.  I'm not exactly sure where to begin.       

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Also, are you mostly interested in British lit and WWI/WWII, or American lit - or both? And/or: is it the way literature is a socio-historical, -cultural, -political index of those wars? If so, interdisciplinary programs - like American Studies, for example, if it's American lit that draws you - might be worth investigating.

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I would also chime in to say that you should look for programs in the US that have a lot of modernists, generally speaking. Even if they don't do exactly what you want to do, professors in that general time period will have the background to guide your dissertation, and there are a lot of schools with excellent modernists scholars that you could add to your list. Also, if you do decide you want to be on the academic job market, choosing a time period comes before you choose a specialty (in most cases), so that's something you may want to keep in mind. 

Edited by echo449
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In the "consider modernists" vein, one person to have a look at would be Tom Davis at OSU. He does Marxist aesthetics, mostly, and he's big into the relationships between historical violence (including warfare), everyday life, and form. 

Edited by unræd
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Hey amiinside! I have a couple of people in my list of schools from my application season last fall who focus on the literature of war. I personally am also a non-traditional student and successfully applied with an application that used a writing sample focusing on drama/autobiography/history about war in the 18th C. So it can be done! As for whether or not it's worth it, as Wyatt said, that's completely up to you. That being said though, here is a list of people and where they work that I found in my research for programs that may help you. You should double check to make sure they're still at the schools I indicate or that they even still work in this area as it has been over a year since I put this list together. :)


Elaine Hadley - U Chicago

Rachael Adams - Columbia (she focuses in 20th C)

Sara Cole - Columbia

John Whittier-Ferguson - U Michigan

Roy Scranton - Princeton

Matthew Wilkens - Notre Dame

Rebecca Walkowitz -  Rutgers (20th C)

Douglas Jones - Rutgers

Allison Carruth - UCLA

James Goodwin - UCLA

Alli Johnson - UCLA


I hope this is of some use to you!

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Hey amiinside! Congrats on finishing the BA! Obviously whether you want to pursue graduate studies in a very competitive job market is a choice only you can make, but I feel like you definitely have as good a chance as anybody else, and your research interests won't keep you out.


My application this past year, which I feel was overall pretty successful, was pretty heavily focused on the US Civil War--my writing sample was mostly a close-reading of one soldier's letters home, along with a lot of theoretical background, and I applied specifically in 19th Century American lit. Here are some random thoughts & tips:


1. I've heard from multiple sources that something like 70% of English PhD applicants apply to study 20th Century and/or post-WWII (American and/or British). Since admissions committees usually select candidates in order to balance the various sub-disciplines, this means that WWII (and possibly even 20th Century lit overall) is much more competitive than every other field.


2. This one is based much less on information from professors & current grads, but my suspicion is that applicants who express a strong interest in some transhistorical field--like "War Literature"--might be a tougher sell for admissions committees. While your work during the program might lead you to a transhistorical project (or, alternatively, might steer you strongly in one specific direction), I feel like picking one war (/ one time period) and focusing on it in your application letter and writing sample might behoove you. You can even say that you've got an interest in War Literature more generally, but being clear that "I'm applying to study American literature & culture during WWI" might make you more competitive. Ad-coms still rely, at least in part, on the rules of the market--they want students who will fit into and contribute to existing structures of research and specialization, even as we work to break down disciplinary boundaries.


3. It also seems to me that having a new approach to your sub-discipline is pretty important. You don't have to have all the answers, or have a brilliant new theory, but expressing interest in and familiarity with an emerging field of study that could revitalize your sub-discipline can be helpful. I applied, for example, with an interest in bringing together 19th Century American lit and transgender studies--a classic (but less competitive) sub-discipline with an emerging / hot theoretical approach. I think proposing to work in, like, Critical Food Studies and WWI Literature, or something like that, would be more intriguing to an ad-com than just saying you really like Wilfred Owen. SO, thinking about what specifically interests you about moments and texts of war, or what might be interesting that not a lot of folks have talked about before, could give you an edge (and even if you don't come up with a hot theoretical lens, being more specific will always be beneficial).


4. I just want to say again that what you apply in is not necessarily what you'll wind up dissertating on. While you certainly shouldn't say you want to work on something you're not interested in, you can feel confident that limiting your application to one specific war will not itself prevent you from researching a broader set of texts.


5. My pitch for focusing, at least at first, on the US Civil War: While there aren't many programs that specialize in "War Literature," and even big departments might only have one person who works specifically with one of the World Wars, basically any 19th Century Americanist has to at least be familiar with texts and discourses of the Civil War--and almost every department has at least one or two 19th Century Americanists. For example, while Dorri Beam at Syracuse might not write very much about the Civil War in particular, she'd certainly be able to help you with research and point you to current work in the field. The same might not be as true of 20th Century British Lit folks re: the World Wars.


6. As sort of an extension of the last point, keep in mind that you don't need to find a professor who does exactly what you want to do. If you were studying the differences in environmental writing between World War I and World War II, for example, you might structure your dissertation committee like this: Your Director specializes in WWII and Post-WWII Transatlantic Literature and can help point you in the direction of current work on earlier 20th Century Lit; your other readers/advisors might be a Postcolonialist (who can therefore direct you to critical discussions of the Wars from anti-hegemonic writers) and an Ecocritic (who can therefore help you with your theoretical approach). Or something like that.


Does my application list still show up in my signature? I can't advise on WWI-WWII literature, but most of the schools I applied to would be good places to study the US Civil War. UC-Davis might be an interesting place for you to look into--Beth Freeman does 19th C Am. and queer theory, and both Hsuan Hsu and Mark Jerng are more transhistorical dudes who do 19th & 20th C. Am., along with stuff like critical race theory and ecocriticism, so they might be able to help with both the Civil War and the World Wars. Brown might be good if you chose one specific time period, but I think they might be sort of rigid about that. Rutgers and Fordham are both strong in 19th C. Am. You might also look into Ohio State, Emory, UNC, Iowa, Penn State.


Hope some of that is helpful! Good luck!

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