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PhD in French Studies / Comp Lit / French Lit


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Hi there,

So I currently attend a small LAC that does quite well in placing students in graduate school, including in French Lit/Studies, but obviously I am aware of the competition and the need to be very good and have matching research interests with potential schools regardless of my school. I speak two non-European languages in addition to English and French, and want to get a PhD in the theme of French studies. NYU in particular is very appealing to me. I really like the period of modernity generally but am also broadly interested in 19th/20th century literature, particularly in travel literature (like Loti) and French colonization of the south of India (here's where my linguistic training will be useful). I will spell out more specific research interests and research programs more deeply once I start applying (probably for the Fall of 2019/2020, depending on my master's program).

But I have two issues: I dillydallied around choosing my major for a while and did poorly in one particular course in mathematics during junior year. However, I have good grades in French language and literature courses, and in the social sciences and the humanities, and will hopefully continue that trend next year. I was wondering what advice you all would have for me. My professor recommended that I go to a general literature program at a school like Northwestern or Chicago, and get my masters and further literary training there before applying to PhD programs. This is, however, out of financial reach for me. Even then, I'd rather go to Université de Strasbourg or Université de Montpellier and get a masters in letters (comparative lit) or a social science discipline like sociology (if I decide to go a more interdisciplinary route) because there is little to no tuition, and it would give me the opportunity to perfect my French in ways that Chicago couldn't. 

I'm also not sure about what kind of people I will be competing with; I have 0 research experience, and probably won't until I finish writing a thesis next year, which is somewhat in the lines of research experience. So I also don't have any conference presentations and things like that, but maybe I can manage something in the next few years. The only thing I know is that I love French, and have developed a strong desire to continue studying literature. I also like the idea of doing comparative literature, but it seems like a long degree that isn't quite favored by hiring committees in 'national language' departments. I'd like to set myself up, from the beginning, to get jobs outside academia if that doesn't pan out (which it doesn't for a lot of people I suppose). In any case, I don't want to go to a school if it's not a top school with good placements (like Columbia), so I was wondering what y'all think about me even trying this path. I'll have excellent LoRs but my academic background isn't spotless, but maybe a master's degree in France and my coursework in literature could help.

The alternative would be to get a data science masters from a business school in France or even a general university and put my literary ambitions aside, and do that instead. Probably more practical, and somewhat appealing and a worthwhile investment, but not nearly interesting as going to graduate school and teaching. I'm also thinking of public policy work instead, and working in the domain of public policy looking at immigration in France and Europe generally. Again, more "practical", but hey I couldn't care less about haha.

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It's unclear to me what year in school you are but... I'll try to address some of your post.

1) If you're waffling between data science, literature, and public policy (or maybe sociology, as you mention that too) then you aren't really ready for grad school yet. What is it that draws you to the study of literature? Could you be just as happy reading French lit on your own, without being in a classroom? What draws you to pursue data science other than the possibility of a well-paying job afterward? Why are you interested in public policy and immigration more specifically?

2A) What's your preparation for graduate study in French? How many French courses have you taken? Have these included broad surveys in French literature as well as more narrow classes focusing on a specific time period or author? (What I'm really getting at here is your skill and comfort reading, writing, speaking, and listening in French.)

2B) What's your preparation for graduate study in data science? Have you taken computer programming/science courses? You mentioned that you did poorly in a math course so it's worth asking yourself why you did poorly in that course. 

2C) Same thing as above but for public policy. Have you taken any relevant courses (or even a political science course)?

3) Don't worry about your competition because it's outside of your control. Instead, your focus should be on the things you can control like your research experience, language knowledge, writing sample, etc. But, before all of that, you really need to figure out what you're interested in because it seems like you don't know. I recommend internships, jobs, and more courses so you can figure out what you do and don't want to be doing.

3A) Writing a thesis should help you figure out at least some of your interests. Take the research process seriously and be willing to read things that don't immediately seem relevant but which may prove to be in the future.

4) Money and practical things are nice but, it's up to you to decide if that's the most important thing to you. For some people it is. For others, they want the intellectual fulfillment of studying and doing a particular thing. No one here can tell you which group you fall into but it's worth figuring it out.

Hope this helps!

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Hi, @rising_star, thanks for the note. Of course, it definitely looks like waffling (I am a rising senior), but if I decide that a PhD in literature isn't for me, what I'm generally looking is going into non-profit work, particularly on the research side. This means I need a degree in something like economics or sociology with a heavy side of statistics (so my French lit degree is not of much direct use). I did an internship in this domain of work and really enjoyed it-- with the caveat that I was lost with the regressions and other statistical work. The theme of this internship was in the issues of immigration in southeast Asia, so my work there has definitely rubbed off on me. I also attended Sciences Po Lille for a while, where I studied under a well-known expert in French migration. So even in literary studies, I try to look for this theme of writing.

Unfortunately I do not have as much as is required for a statistics grad program, so I am looking into data science programs (what I've found are data science programs applied in the social sciences) instead. I have taken several courses in computer science and have done fine in them, so the programs I've investigated are ok with my profile. That math course... it was just far too theoretical for my taste (using the pullback and differential forms to explain integral calculus is just ... no), and in the world of math, I'm a programmer. 

I guess the point of this thread was whether going to grad school in French lit would still be a possibility if I take the steps of getting a master's degree in lit and focusing my interests clearly. I'm just unaware of what the level of competition is (it looks fierce!) so I'd rather back off if it's impossible for non 4.0 students with multiple publications and double lit major degrees. I have time, and that is what I'll use to figure out what I want to do. I have like taken several courses in each of these disciplines (poli sci, econ, french, comp sci), and public policy research seems like a good intersection of them all, but I do really like literature a lot and would like to continue it at the graduate level, as what I like about them most is the discussions I have in my courses and the papers I produce.

As for my French preparation, I'm on the point of passing the DELF C1 examination. I've read a wide range of authors in my classes, from Balzac to Proust to Sartre to Ionesco to Cixous, and will take more courses next year in 19th century poetry, 20th century fiction, the Middle Ages in France, and literary theory.

Edited by frenchlover
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I was an exchange student at UMass during my senior year as an undergrad. Since foreign language was my minor, I looked at the French program there. Included within the French dept were a number of French lit classes, and it seems their grad program was pretty strong. UMass also had a comp lit program. The French professor I worked with at my undergrad school, received her master's from a university in France and her PhD at UT-Austin. So there are strong options for you in the field at some big state universities.

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How much time have you spend in France/French-speaking countries? My sense is that for foreign language departments time abroad is, if not a prerequisite, then at least highly desired. One option, as you mentioned, is to do an MA abroad, which can also be helpful for clarifying your research interests. However, given your uncertainly, I might suggest finding a way to spend some time abroad in a less academic setting. I think spending some time away from academia can be a great way to figure out what it is that really interests you and you'd be willing to pursue in something as intense as a graduate program. One way to do this is to teach English abroad. For France there is both TAPIF and Fulbright, which would give you an additional year to consider your options. So, I'd suggest taking a look at these programs as well as the graduate programs you're looking at.

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Where you have been/lived is not that important in my experience, nor is the level of your language proficiency, given that your written application submissions are excellent academic language (in your target language). For me, the bigger factor was ability to articulate a research interest that has something in common with a professor on the admission committee, which is what got me admitted to a top-50 worldwide program.

That was my experience a couple of years ago.

Anyway, I did have a lot of Spanish-language country living, so perhaps I am being one-sided. If you want to reside in France for a while, it certainly can only help! 

My point is don't be so hard on yourself, do what you want and aim at want you aspire to. You will succeed if you keep at it, probably sooner rather than later!


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