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katiearchy

SOPs - Master's program advice

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Hello everyone,

I am in the process of applying for MA degrees in English Lit for Fall 2016. I am having trouble finding appropriate advice regarding SOPs at the master's level; most of the guides and such that I'm finding online are intended for PhD programs. 

For example, how specific should one be about research interests? My intention in seeking an MA is largely to narrow and refine my research interests in preparation for PhD level work, as my undergraduate institution was exceptionally small and thus lacking in many research opportunities. I mention my broad interests (18th/19th c. women writers, with a focus on responses to politics and social institutions of that era), along with my senior thesis topic and faculty members/departmental strengths that seem like they could help strengthen my ideas in my field. Is this sufficient?

What other sorts of things should be included? I am mentioning my desire to gain a stronger foundation across the literary canon and to participate in higher level research (both contributing to my ultimate PhD goal) in most of my SOPs. For schools that offer TAships and such, I am also mentioning how I value this opportunity, as it will give me a leg up in preparation for a university-level teaching career. 

Anything else? I am sincerely concerned that the SOPs are what will make or break my application, so I really want to see what others think. Thanks so much!

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Hey! I had similar questions when I was writing my MA SOP so you're not alone. I ended up writing something that should've been used for Ph.D. apps but it worked out anyway.

As for your questions:

- You seem to be on the right track for research question specificity. You want to show that you have a direction and that you're curious and keen to look into a certain field. I would say that you should at least propose what you'd like to look at in terms of "responses to politics and social institutions" because that's pretty vague. I also think it's absolutely critical to read up on your proposed area of research and find out what the most up-to-date trends and theories are. You don't want to be applying thinking that you're being a cutting edge New Historicist or something.

- It's good you mention that your end goal is getting into a Ph.D. program because that's important (of course, many folks get an MA with the intent to teach in CCs after). I'm not entirely sure I would emphasize wanting to strengthen my foundation in the canon, though. I say this first because I don't think MAs are for widening the scope of one's learning but whittling it down to find a specialty for your Ph.D. program (not to say that you won't be reading widely, but I wouldn't lead with that) and secondly because I find mentioning issues of canonicity to be pretty "out", unless of course your study will be to question or rethink the canon (but even that issue is kind of dated.)

- If you have teaching experience (or any kind of instructional experience), mention it if you're applying for those TAships.

Though you don't really choose faculty that you hope will "adopt" you or with whom you'd like to work in an MA, a fit paragraph is still pretty essential. There's been raging debates on this forum about whether or not you should name professors, so that's up to your discretion but I would absolutely do research on the department ethos, specialties, and focuses so that you can explain in the fit paragraph why exactly you would contribute to the department and vice versa.

Lemme know if you have anymore questions!

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IQ84's advice is spot on, and I'm posting only to add a little bit to what was written in the last paragraph about fit.  Whether you name professors or not, do be sure to read faculty profiles (and ideally work) to get a sense of current research interests.  Do some of those interests appeal to you/fit with your research area?  If so, that's a good indicator that you could fit in the program.  It can also help you use more specific language as per IQ84's suggestion.  Additionally, try to see what other resources are available at the university, especially in regard to research centers.  Many universities have research centers that bring together faculty and students from numerous disciplines to work on a particular topic or time period.  Knowing that those centers exist and what they do and saying how you'd contribute to/participate in center activities in your fit paragraph shows that you've researched the university community as a whole rather than just looked at the department webpage.  

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Hi again,

Thank you for your responses! 

IQ84, I mention my undergraduate thesis, included details of what exactly I wrote on, as examples of the sort of thing I'm interested in. I also express a desire to potentially continue this project (which is true). Do you think this is sufficient? 

Thanks for your further advice as well - I've removed references to the canon and cut down on that whole angle slightly. In SOPs where it's relevant, I mention that I'm a former Writing Center Tutor, my major "teaching" experience thus far; I hope and assume not much more would be expected from someone seven months out of undergrad! :D 

lyonessrampant, thanks for the advice in re: research institutes. I have incorporated that where it is relevant. I did decide to name professors; I find it works well in the context of my writing and SOPs. I have been reading their bios and trying to be as specific as possible.

Just to add a little context about me, I'm coming out of a no-name liberal arts school. My English department was wonderful, engaging, and encouraging, and they gave me all the opportunities they had with their very limited resources. Nonetheless, limited resources are just that, so I don't have major major research outside of my senior thesis and honors project, big name recs, lots of very narrow courses at an upper level, etc. I feel I do literally need an MA degree in order to be successful as a PhD candidate. I have a 3.9 GPA, 90th percentile GREs, and professors who know me very well to write recs, but I still worry about not being taken seriously due to my background. Thus, I see the SOPs as a place to show that I am a viable candidate. I suppose that's another topic in itself; has anyone come from an undergrad background like mine and gone on to graduate school success? What's your story?

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On 12/9/2015 at 6:02 PM, katiearchy said:

Just to add a little context about me, I'm coming out of a no-name liberal arts school. My English department was wonderful, engaging, and encouraging, and they gave me all the opportunities they had with their very limited resources. Nonetheless, limited resources are just that, so I don't have major major research outside of my senior thesis and honors project, big name recs, lots of very narrow courses at an upper level, etc. I feel I do literally need an MA degree in order to be successful as a PhD candidate. I have a 3.9 GPA, 90th percentile GREs, and professors who know me very well to write recs, but I still worry about not being taken seriously due to my background. Thus, I see the SOPs as a place to show that I am a viable candidate. I suppose that's another topic in itself; has anyone come from an undergrad background like mine and gone on to graduate school success? What's your story?

I went to a tiny regional small liberal arts college too, didn't do an M.A. and am in my first year a Ph.D. program right now (provided I survive these first three quarters intact, I'll have an MA in 2016).  My two biggest priorities in applying were to get full-funding and to be in a place where I would be able to pursue my main subject interest but also have the flexibility to fall back on other interests if that were to change.  I ended up -- mostly -- applying to Ph.D. programs.  I decided to apply to grad school practically at the last minute (mid-August), drafted an all-new WS, took the GRE, and applied to 9 schools while working and applying for jobs.  I lucked. the hell. out.  and got into two of my top choices for the Ph.D.  Personally?  I'd say apply to both MA and PhD just because you never know.  For me at least, that was a purely practical decision -- if I couldn't get paid I was going to keep working and eventually go get a professional MA because a graduate degree in the humanities, for me, wouldn't be economically viable at all without full funding.  

My undergrad had limited resources too, but I don't feel like I'm any more or less bewildered or overwhelmed than any of my colleagues who have M.A.s and/or went to bigger schools with more resources (though I'm occasionally jealous of the things they had access to and didn't take advantage of).  This isn't at all to say that it won't make any difference to get an M.A., just that you shouldn't necessarily think yourself "unworthy" to even apply for a Ph.D. simply because you didn't go to a name-brand school.  Your work, your drive, and your self-presentation matter more than your credentials at this point and you should just apply to places that seem like places where you'll thrive.

Edited by mollifiedmolloy

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Plenty of people I know in my MA program comes from schools I've never heard of! I definitely mentioned professors in my SOP for the program I'm in, and I did that partly to show how I wanted to go more in depth in certain areas so that I could choose between several interests I have. We actually read very few canonical works in my program, which is not something I expected. My department has a big emphasis on New Contexts. I brought in my teaching experience, PhD goals, interest in working with people in the department (people will tell you a lot that they've never even worked with anyone they mentioned in their SOP, usually because they go to larger universities, but I've worked with (and loved working with) everyone I mentioned! 

As my advisor would say, your POTENTIAL matters so much. Credentials and present experience matter less.

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On 12/9/2015 at 7:02 PM, katiearchy said:

Just to add a little context about me, I'm coming out of a no-name liberal arts school. My English department was wonderful, engaging, and encouraging, and they gave me all the opportunities they had with their very limited resources. Nonetheless, limited resources are just that, so I don't have major major research outside of my senior thesis and honors project, big name recs, lots of very narrow courses at an upper level, etc. I feel I do literally need an MA degree in order to be successful as a PhD candidate. I have a 3.9 GPA, 90th percentile GREs, and professors who know me very well to write recs, but I still worry about not being taken seriously due to my background. Thus, I see the SOPs as a place to show that I am a viable candidate. I suppose that's another topic in itself; has anyone come from an undergrad background like mine and gone on to graduate school success? What's your story?

Honestly, most English departments have limited resources. Doing a senior thesis AND an honors project is significant humanities research experience as an undergraduate and more than enough to help you be taken seriously by adcoms. You really should be applying to a mix of MA and PhD programs given your qualifications and experience.

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On 12/9/2015 at 6:02 PM, katiearchy said:

Just to add a little context about me, I'm coming out of a no-name liberal arts school. My English department was wonderful, engaging, and encouraging, and they gave me all the opportunities they had with their very limited resources. Nonetheless, limited resources are just that, so I don't have major major research outside of my senior thesis and honors project, big name recs, lots of very narrow courses at an upper level, etc. I feel I do literally need an MA degree in order to be successful as a PhD candidate. I have a 3.9 GPA, 90th percentile GREs, and professors who know me very well to write recs, but I still worry about not being taken seriously due to my background. Thus, I see the SOPs as a place to show that I am a viable candidate. I suppose that's another topic in itself; has anyone come from an undergrad background like mine and gone on to graduate school success? What's your story?

I came from a very similar background to yours (there were nine profs in my undergrad department if that says anything), and I actually think that the learning atmosphere of  your average no-name small school is much more valuable than it's often given credit for. Having profs who still comment on my Facebook posts like proud grandparents is something that I wouldn't give away for all of the Ivy league degrees. I also think that learning how to interact in a small, but tight knit, academic network totally helped me learn how to network as a PhD student in the political landmine of your average R1 English department (I say as someone who genuinely loves my program).

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I remember talking about research topics and questions I was interested in exploring during my Master's program. However, showing flexibility in terms of willingness to learn new things is one thing the admission committee looks for (according to my current adviser). 

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On 12/9/2015 at 7:02 PM, katiearchy said:

Just to add a little context about me, I'm coming out of a no-name liberal arts school. My English department was wonderful, engaging, and encouraging, and they gave me all the opportunities they had with their very limited resources. Nonetheless, limited resources are just that, so I don't have major major research outside of my senior thesis and honors project, big name recs, lots of very narrow courses at an upper level, etc. I feel I do literally need an MA degree in order to be successful as a PhD candidate. I have a 3.9 GPA, 90th percentile GREs, and professors who know me very well to write recs, but I still worry about not being taken seriously due to my background. Thus, I see the SOPs as a place to show that I am a viable candidate. I suppose that's another topic in itself; has anyone come from an undergrad background like mine and gone on to graduate school success? What's your story?

I've been a little silent around these parts for the last year or so but I was in a similar boat as you, Katiearchy.

My UG program had 4 faculty members. It wasn't a liberal arts school but rather a small university that was billed as a way of serving traditionally underrepresented populations. My program had recently switched their identity a bit (away from English as the mothership) so we (students and faculty) were regularly figuring out exactly who we were. I'd like to say that I got a lot of individual attention (plus all the perks that go with that), to some degree I did; however, the faculty there (who are great people) are working under some pretty demanding workloads. They offered me plenty of support, as a scholar and as a person, but we weren't designing reading lists together or talking about recent scholarship and "the field".

I've done well so far. I'm in a funded MA program and I just sent out (what I hope are) competitive PhD applications.

If you're craving more deets - PM me.

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