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Addressing Fit: scope & No. of POIs


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1. Let's say you know what you want to focus on for your project and have identified some POIs that would be great to work with or learn from. But, you're also drawn to this university or department because there are scholars that are working on areas that also interest you greatly, but not ones that you want to work on for your project. We all have other areas we're drawn to after all, that are not relevant to our projects. Do you mention these people? My first thought was that you should because you are going to have to take courses on a variety of topics anyway, so identifying scholars that might be teaching courses on areas of interest is relevant. However, since they are not relevant to the topic, perhaps departments don't see the point (i.e. you will be expected to open yourself to a variety of fields, not just the ones you are previously interested in) or worse yet, find this to demonstrate a lack of focus or that your project still isn't narrowed down.

Thoughts?

2. Let's say you know what you want to focus on for your project and have identified some POIs that would be great to work with or learn from. However, rather than finding 1-2 that align greatly with your interests, there are a handful of scholars who are interested in authors or areas that are more tangentially connected to your project and learning from each could help shape in which your direction the project winds up going (e.g. you are interested in 19th century British, and though no one is working on the approach or perhaps even the key authors you planned on dealing with, separate scholars have worked on Dickens, Austen, Shelley, respectively). Again, we face the issue of accepting the fact that your project will change after you take your courses, and you want to explore different approaches/authors within your field to guide you. Again, the question is whether this might be interpreted as lack of focus. The question is, where is the sweet spot in terms of the number of POIs you mention, and how much should they align with your project? After all, if you focus on very few scholars, you run the risk of seeming inflexible or that these scholars might leave or not be interested. Yet the more scholars you try to fit, the harder it becomes to place them within the context of a single project, as very few scholars actually work on the same approaches/authors within one department, so you will need SOME openness.

More thoughts?

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Mentioning POIs in your statement of purpose is (like the lit GRE) one of those things that gets a lot of attention here in the fora because it offers the illusion of a degree of control that is obtainable if only you'll research enough, which is a predictably attractive thing for people with excellent research skills but who find themselves in a situation (graduate admissions in literary study) where they have almost precisely zero control, ceteris paribus, over the outcome of the process. It also often seems like the only way applicants have of addressing "fit" (it isn't), which can otherwise appear wholly inaccessible and mysterious -- in addition to being ultimately up to the school in question to determine (it is).

The fact of the matter is that you can get into programs of all kinds by mentioning professors you want to work with, but you can often get into those same programs without mentioning any professors at all. Yes, on the balance, it's usually a good idea to indicate who you would see yourself working with, and why -- but that's not a laundry list of people you might want to take classes with; to the extent that it signals anything institutionally, it's a list of potential dissertation supervisors. But at the same time, programs know that people change, and that for all intents and purposes (at least in the US) no one ends up actually pursuing the course of research outlined in the SOP, and there's no expectation that they do so -- people even change historical period, much more often methodological approach, and even more often the actual topic! There's no magic number above which you'll seem dilettantish and unfocused and under which you seem inflexible and not able to work with anyone else. It really boils down to: if you can make a solid, well-researched case for a substantive connection between a professor's work and your own, make it; if not, don't.

(But, real talk, more than three is probably excessive, and the norm is closer to two.)

Edited by unræd
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I would just be concerned about how much space I'm using in my SOP for POIs. You don't want to spend 450 words out of 1000 explaining why you want to work with those professors. Well, I can imagine a few situations where this might work, but your SOP is about you so make it about you. Personally, I let it happen organically. There are some schools I'm applying to that have familiar names. I refresh myself on their writing and mention them in my SOPs. Some programs have no professors I recognize, so I use that extra space to talk about the strength of their program, job placement, yada yada.

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Thanks for your comments. Unraed, what are some of the other ways you would argue for fit? POIs have dominated the conversation, and then there are library resources. Beyond that I am struggling to think of ways considering that most teaching opportunities are generic.

Edited by WildeThing
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8 hours ago, unræd said:

 people even change historical period, much more often methodological approach, and even more often the actual topic! There's no magic number above which you'll seem dilettantish and unfocused and under which you seem inflexible and not able to work with anyone else. It really boils down to: if you can make a solid, well-researched case for a substantive connection between a professor's work and your own, make it; if not, don't.
 

This really resonated with me (as did most of @unræds post). I had written an SOP with two possible research approaches in it (separated by about 50 years), and a POI and a top institution told me to pick one even though they liked them both...they said that reviewers know that your approach will change, and even your topic will change, what they want to see is that you can craft a well thought out question that is framed in a way that fits with the department generally and your POIs more specifically.

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I am really confused by this thread. Some of you might have gotten in even though you hadn't mentioned any POIs in your SoPs-- however, every time I asked the grad offices that specific question, I was given the same answer: yes, you have to mention potential advisors...

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6 hours ago, WildeThing said:

Thanks for your comments. Unraed, what are some of the other ways you would argue for fit? POIs have dominated the conversation, and then there are library resources. Beyond that I am struggling to think of ways considering that most teaching opportunities are generic.

So much of it is holistic, and is shown in broader strokes through all your application documents (writing sample, SOP, letters) rather than in a paragraph tacked on at the end of one of them. What sort of scholar are your materials suggesting you want to be? What critics and intellectual/theoretical traditions do you engage with? What's your methodological approach? What sort of texts do you see yourself working on? You have an identity as an applicant, and it should be visible as a thread running through your application.

But honestly, I also think the whole idea of "fit," at least as it's usually discussed on GradCafe as some magic and mysterious key that links singular applicants to singular programs through an alchemical configuration of shared interests and opportunities, is overrated. People who do well in a given application season tend to do well in a given application season. The fact is, strong applicants will tend to be picked up by multiple programs, irrespective of those programs' differences. If you've applied to programs sensibly, choosing ones with faculty that are more-or-less open to your interests, chances are you could do the work you want to do at any of those institutions.

The other, nasty, undiscussed part of the equation, though, is that "fit" includes all kinds of institutional things that really are opaque (or that can be) to applicants. The department's not taking a Victorianist this year, because two of last year's Romanticist admits shifted period. An Early Modern prof is going on sabbatical, or nearing retirement, and won't be taking on new students. There isn't a medievalist on the committee this year to argue forcefully for the relevance of a writing sample on 12th century Anglo-Norman diplomas to literary study. There are (this is always true) just too many twentieth century applicants, and while a great many are excellent on spec, there just aren't the spaces for them, even if they all "fit" the department. Prof A got an email from an old student of theirs, Prof B, who's now the undergrad advisor of an applicant to Prof A's school, saying to keep an eye out for that application. 

2 hours ago, Quickmick said:

This really resonated with me (as did most of @unræds post). I had written an SOP with two possible research approaches in it (separated by about 50 years), and a POI and a top institution told me to pick one even though they liked them both...they said that reviewers know that your approach will change, and even your topic will change, what they want to see is that you can craft a well thought out question that is framed in a way that fits with the department generally and your POIs more specifically.

This is exactly it. The purpose of the research question articulated in the SOP isn't actually to outline a course of research, even though we all write/wrote as if it were, and even though when you go on visit weekends profs will nod their heads sagely as you all discuss it. It's there to show that you know what a long-term research question looks like in literary studies -- what sort of things are asked in the field, what aren't, how they're situated, etc.

2 hours ago, Yanaka said:

I am really confused by this thread. Some of you might have gotten in even though you hadn't mentioned any POIs in your SoPs-- however, every time I asked the grad offices that specific question, I was given the same answer: yes, you have to mention potential advisors...

As I said, it's usually a good idea to. My point was that it's not strictly speaking necessary, nor worth forcing or worrying about overly much. The SOPs I wrote for two of the programs that I got into didn't mention POIs (although it was clear because of my historical period who I'd work with), and I know students at my current institution (UC Berkeley) who didn't mention profs in their Berkeley SOPs. 

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Thanks for your comments. I agree that with what you said, although I thought you were talking about explicit declarations of fit, whereas I would characterize most of what you described as markers of potential. I.E. demonstrating your ability to do the work will show your fit in that specific program more indirectly, and showing what areas you can work with will show the committee whether you fit or not, even if you have no real idea if they will and can't tailor to that.

I don't know about others but for me the issue of establishing fit became a major concern because the first program I looked at in depth was Stanford MTL, which explicitly tells you to state why your program would only work within that department. Also, international scholarships like Fulbright and others require a statement on why you choose a specific program to work in and they give a lot of weight to this matter, which conditions you to make this issue of demonstrable fit (worse yet, in many cases a matter of why ONLY these 1-3 departments will work) a key focus.

Note that I do not disagree with any of your points, although you are making me worry about my prospects as a 20th centuryist!

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