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Long-time lurker, first-time poster. I figured it might be worthwhile to get a reality check from some of my peers on here, as you all would know better than many of the real-world people I know about the MES world and what their admissions processes look like. I could really use some perspective and context about this matter, so some feedback would be greatly appreciated.

I am in an unconventional situation where:

a) I am adamant about transitioning into academia/the humanities to study the Middle East with a focus on the intellectual history of the Levant and Ottoman Empire.

b ) I have a B.Sc. in Business Administration from a top 50 public school in New England, where I double concentrated in Finance and Production Operations Management, and double minored in Statistics and English (GPA 3.20).

c) my work experience in the four years since graduation has been at a tech start-up that has no relation to my academic interests.

d) I do not have a thesis or any worthy research papers to provide as writing samples, (although I do have some critical analyses from somewhat pertinent (i.e. post-colonial studies) classes that I could tidy up and submit instead).


On the other hand, these are the merits and motivations that compel me to pursue education in MES:

1) I quit my job a few months ago to focus on making this transition and explore my academic interests. That has involved me traveling throughout Turkey and the Arab world, as well as studying a lot of pertinent academic and literary texts on my own (Said, Massad, Ahmed, Soueif, Saleh, Hafiz, Darwish, etc).

2) I speak (and write/read, to a lesser extent) Arabic fluently, having lived in Jordan during my high school years (although US born, I am of Palestinian origin). I am currently in Palestine volunteering on a construction project, but my intention in the next few months is to relocate to Turkey (after finishing up with grad school apps) to learn and experience the Turkish language/society.

3) The more I study, the more interested I become in understanding the world through the intellectual lens of the Arab world, as reflected and informed by its cultural artifacts, society, and intellectual history.

4) I have long been interested in (and intermittently engaged) in the politics and affairs of the Arab world (ex: I founded and led a Students for Justice in Palestine coalition on my campus, attended the international Arabic debate tournament in Qatar on behalf of my university.)

5) I am privileged in the exposure and access I have been afforded in the Middle East over my lifetime: I have spent extended periods of time getting to know many villages/communities throughout Palestine, I know Amman and its society extremely well, and I have lived in two different emirates in the UAE. I have read literature from all over the Middle East.

6) I am in a fortunate situation where I do not need to go into debt to pay off a terminal MA

7) I have somewhat compensatory LORs in that they come from my more academic literature/humanities professors, and not from my quantitative/Business professors 


So, considering all of the above, what I need help figuring out is:

1. Considering my irrelevant academic and professional background, not to mention relatively low GPA, do I even stand a chance at getting into a reputable program in the US? From my research it appears that most academic (as opposed to security/intelligence)-focused programs are housed at the nation's most elite institutions, and thus I am looking to apply to the following programs (Columbia MESAAS, Harvard CMES, NYU, Princeton, UChicago)

      - Am I missing any programs, particularly ones with easier admissions? Are British universities (SOAS, Oxbridge, King's) more merciful in that regard?

2. Is there anything in particular about my profile that I should emphasize in my SOP - anything I already have that grad school admins love to see?

     - The way I see it, I am lacking in GPA (taking the GRE next month) and academic background (save for my English minor), but I do have the language skills and the regional experience in addition to a strong personal interest in the academics of it all (enough to be making a deliberate career pivot, as I am). After all, this is a passion-driven endeavor I am undertaking. Are any of these points particularly valuable?

3. Is a college essay entitled "The conflict of Afro-Islamic Spirituality and Western Modernity as depicted in  Ambiguous Adventure” going to cut it as a writing sample? Considering I do not have a mentor/professor to advise on the process, would it still be better if I wrote something more pertinent/up-to-date from scratch?

    - Frankly, I just do not have many papers from my undergraduate that are in excess of 10-15 pages, let alone ones that are of material relevance to the programs I am applying to. My hope was to edit this paper thoroughly and use it in lieu of a research paper or thesis.

4. Can my unconventional background as a Business major and tech industry member be regarded as a positive? If not, are there any obvious ways in which I could spin it as such?

   - I worry that I was incorrect in my early assumption that my background is not a serious hinderance to my prospects, and that it might in fact help me stand out as a truly interested/invested candidate. Is that baseless? Looking at this forum and the MES/poli sci undergrads wielding 3.8+ GPAs, three languages, and highly relevant experience... I begin to doubt the value of my earnestness to these grad admission boards.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for reading all of this. I look forward to getting some guidance from any fellow hopefuls or admittees  - any context/perspective will help me evaluate how to best allocate and apply my efforts. Your responses are greatly appreciated!






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I have friends and colleagues who transitioned into PhD programs from Georgetown's Arab Studies MA program and UT Austin's Middle Eastern Studies MA program, so perhaps those schools will be of interest?

For PhD programs, the recommendation usually is that the writing sample supplements one's stated research interests, but I don't know to what extent that matters for MA admissions. My only concern with your stated writing sample is that it might not demonstrate your language skills nor your growing familiarity with the Arab World. I don't think a writing sample needs to be in excess of 10-15 pages; actually, that range sounds about right for MA applications. Are there other, more relevant papers that you might be able to revise?

Best of luck with your transition!

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You sound well qualified to begin an area studies or history master's degree. Your Arabic will help you a lot. My question: have you learned any Turkish yet? Do you know how much you want to focus on "the Ottoman Empire" vs. "the Levant"? Which period are we talking: sixteenth century, nineteenth century, TBD? Focusing on the Ottoman empire requires, I am pretty sure, both modern and Ottoman Turkish. I don't actually have the knowledge to say how different they are—I had a friend in college take a couple years of Turkish and then struggle mightily with her first course in Ottoman Turkish, but I was unable to ascertain whether her difficulties were because Turkish is itself difficult or because Ottoman Turkish was even more difficult/distinct from what she had learned already. Depending on how different they are, you may want to emphasize attending a program where you'll have at least some kind of access to Ottoman Turkish. That may not be formal courses, but maybe there are courses you can cross-register for in a nearby university, or there's an academic on the faculty who could help you out occasionally as you self-study...

Anyway, I find myself focusing on what you want from your program, rather than what you should do to get into a program, because I think you should be able to gain admission to several high-quality master's programs. Just make sure to define your research interests well in your SOP, and at one degree more of specificity than "intellectual history of the Levant and the Ottoman Empire." Give a time period: early or late should be plenty specific for this purpose. Pick examples of some concepts you might want to study in intellectual history—are you interested in Ottoman discourses of imperialism...? In the work of a couple Ottoman intellectuals in particular...? "Women and intellectual history"...? You don't have to stick to any of those ideas at all, but throwing them out there shows that you know the kinds of ways in which academic work can narrow as your research progresses. If you write such a description successfully, it will function as a code that says, yes, this applicant may not have a degree in history or whatever, but he (she?) gets what our kind of graduate research is about. Your background in tech/business will only be a liability if your research interests seem wild or unfeasible or otherwise off the mark...but those are application-killers for people who do have the right formal background, too. I am not sure anybody is likely to see the business administration stuff as a very large positive, but if you write a decent SOP I also can't see a way for it to be interpreted negatively. I imagine it should be neutral at worst, and a slight plus at best. People switching fields and learning more intensively about the new one is what master's programs are for!

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@hj2012: Thank you for recommending those programs - I am going to look into them and see how their faculty's research aligns with my interests. Hopefully there is a match. As for my writing sample - you are right, 10-15 pages is within the range for most MA programs I am looking at, but unfortunately I do not have any other papers of higher relevance that I could revise for this purpose (I have scoured my hard-drive for more relevant material, to no avail.)

I think my best bet is to revise the aforementioned essay as I do not think it is realistic for me to write one from scratch at this point, considering all of the other outstanding application items I have yet to get to once this skatepark project ends (Oct 20). Hopefully I can convey my Arabic skills and familiarity with the region through my resume and SOP - I would hope that the seven years that I lived in the region would speak for themselves, not to mention my participation in an Arabic debate tournament.

@hats: I am truly affected by your encouragement, I am all the more convinced of this pursuit and its attainability thanks to your response. I agree that I need to give my research interests more thought - I am not quite there yet but I believe that it will only have to do with the Ottoman Empire peripherally where it concerns the Arab/Muslim world's negotiation of liberal and conservative ideologies in the 19th and 20th century with a focus on the Levant (does that sound better?) My goal of learning modern Turkish is more out of personal interest, but I am sure it will prove useful to my studies nonetheless. I have no communication skills in Turkish at the moment, and to your suggestion that I register in Turkish language courses, I plan to do something like that after I have submitted my applications and relocated to Istanbul.

 I totally see how a well-defined research interest can really tighten up my application and dispel any liability in my unconventional background - thanks for that advice. I will be certain to compare the questions I come up with with those already posed by former/current MES students.

Do you have any thoughts on how a moderately off-topic writing sample will be viewed considering my background? Does the same principle (re: research interest) apply, where the critical approach and style matter more than the topic itself?


I appreciate your thoughtful responses. Forgive me for the delayed response as I haven't had much laptop access during the construction phase of this project!


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  • 2 weeks later...

Hi Tahinist,

Work on a good SOP, demonstrate your potential and how you developed your research questions and apply to MA and Ph.D. programs to see where can you get in. Regarding the Levant and Ottomans, my department (NES, Princeton) has many experts of this theme. Good Luck.

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