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Advice on how to take broad interests ---> specific project proposal?


lylark
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Hello all! Found this forum a bit late, but it's been very helpful so far. This is my first application cycle (finished my undergrad this May), and the whole thing currently feels very overwhelming. I think my quantitative stats are decent (3.97 undergrad GPA, 169V, 164Q, 5.5W GRE). I'm pretty confident in my writing sample and letter writers, and do have somewhat relevant independent research and teaching experience (honors senior thesis, NSF funded REU, and currently working as a research assistant in medical anthropology setting and part time as a secondary level writing instructor).

However, I do not have a MA. While from what I've read that doesn't preclude PhD program admittance, I think I am at a personal-statement disadvantage in that I don't feel ready to propose a narrow and well-defined dissertation project without more advanced coursework. I can articulate broad interests (language/discourse as vehicles for power, social theory of objectivity and knowledge production, China, social media, science and environmental studies, technology and politics), but most of the example statements and advice I've read suggest that the ideal personal statement is an extremely narrow and specific project description akin to a baby dissertation proposal. I'm really struggling to write something which looks like that, given that I think it would take more coursework before I could know what questions need to be asked. I know that I wouldn't be bound in any way to what I propose there, but it feels disingenuous (and is probably a bad idea anyway) to just make up a topic that I'm not fully committed to. How do people do this before starting PhD level work??

The obvious answer here would be to pursue a MA before starting a P.h.D, but for many reasons (e.g. funding, the dearth of programs even offering stand-alone MA programs, timing, the fact that my end goal has always been a PhD) I'd prefer that MA to be a step within a PhD program. So--is it possible to write a successful statement elaborating my prior experiences/preparation for graduate work and potential future areas of research without going to that specific level? Would I be better off waiting a year to keep working at what I am doing, hoping that my interests will magically coalesce into something more concretely definable? In case it's relevant, so far I've had the most positive response from contacts at Brown, UMichigan, Notre Dame, and UTexas Austin, though there are also other schools on my list I've yet to reach out to. 

I'd really appreciate thoughts or advice from anyone also struggling with this or who has successfully navigated the process already. I'd also love to exchange personal statement drafts with anyone willing. 

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If you don't mind, let me just direct you to this other post on this subject I wrote: 

 

This idea seems quite specific to anthropology (my field of comparison includes sociology, linguistics, and many humanities: other disciplines I can't say)—that your SOP should be a mini dissertation proposal. I think this idea is a) pernicious and b ) incorrect. I suspect it's fed mostly by the fact that the best/only anthropology sample SOPs available on the internet are the ones from Duke, which shared only essays from applicants with master's degrees. Those essays are really good! It's great that Duke made them available! But that they're only from applicants with master's seems to distort how other applicants picture what they should be aiming for. Your interests as listed above are somewhat too broad, yes; you'll want to make them more specific for your SOP, as I'm sure you know. 'Miniature dissertation proposal' is, however, not the correct standard. (It's not even the correct standard for the NSF GRFP research statement, which asks for a longer and more detailed attempt at defining your research project than do regular applications; there are a lot of winners who acknowledge uncertainty about their projects, even while they propose a compelling, narrow-ish set of questions to investigate.)

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I agree with Hats' post above. [Edit: Just read Hats' original post and it is excellent! Most of what follows here is a sloppier version of that]

I think that more than having a hyper specific project in mind, a SOP should try to demonstrate how you can formulate questions of anthropological interest and why the program you are applying to will help you develop those questions into a project that will produce new knowledge. Based on what you've said your broad interests are:

"(language/discourse as vehicles for power, social theory of objectivity and knowledge production, China, social media, science and environmental studies, technology and politics), "

You've got a region identified: China. You've also got some theoretical areas identified: Language and Power; Politics of Knowledge, Social Media, STS, and Environmental Anthropology. For your SOP try to identify what intersections of these areas you want to explore more and why. That could be specific enough of a project pitch at this stage so long as it is well articulated and matches up with interests at the universities you are applying to. Maybe its something about how language and social media platforms  are involved in disseminating and producing knowledge about climate change in China. I have no idea and am making something up based on..well, nothing... but I think that is the type of leap you want to make. You want to situate yourself as having the potential to do something new and interesting while also showing connections to existing areas of scholarship that the department is already working on. 

The faculty know you're project will likely change. They want to see how you think. 

I don't know if this helps. 

Edited by daykid
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