picking a program

As the title suggests, I want to offer some tips and insights when it comes to choosing between different types of programs. How many different types of programs should you apply to? Do you know what kind of program you’re looking for? Should you be looking into social science or humanities programs? What about interdisciplinary programs?

Picking a program is a very big deal. This is one of the first steps in your process: deciding in which field or sub-field you and your research will belong for the next several years. Do you and your work belong in philosophy, art history, film studies, sociology, psychology, literature, women’s/gender studies, performance studies, ethnic studies, political science, comparative literature, romance languages, history, anthropology, area studies, or what?

Your decision on this front should be made through a close look both inward and outward. By inward I mean, where do you think you belong? And by outward I mean, based on the state of your field of research and what is currently being published on your topic, where does the academy think you belong? If all of the research you’re interested in is being produced in English departments and you think you belong in Sociology, you will either have to make an airtight case that you’re really a sociologist (unlikely), or you will have to rethink your strategy (which you will do several times over anyway).

This means you need to develop a sense before you’ve finished your statement of purpose what your research question will be, what your project will be, what methodologies you will employ, which venues and journals are publishing the work you’re doing, where you might do fieldwork or which archives you will be working through, and what types of training will you still need (language skills, lab skills, math skills, research skills).  Without knowing these several things, you won’t know where you belong in the academic milieu, or whether or not you’re trans-disciplinary or simply confused.

Or suppose you’ve earned your degree in Sociology and you really believe you belong in an English department, even though you haven’t done any coursework in English. You should probably consider an MA program if you’re thinking about switching to a field in which you don’t have the requisite training. But what if you want to try both Sociology and English? This brings us to the first point:

You can’t pick every field your heart desires

Are you caught between doing your research in Political Science and English, or between a professional Education program and Sociology and Classics? Then you don’t know what you want to do well enough for a PhD program to take a chance on you.

When graduate programs receive your GRE score reports, they also see the other programs to which your scores were sent–this is their trick for figuring out where else you’ve applied when you don’t tell them directly through their application.This was an issue with my first attempt at PhD applications–I had applied to several programs in Political Science, but also programs in Literature, American Culture, Liberal Arts, and Modern Thought and Literature. According to a MAPSS faculty member with whom I discussed my application, this told my application readers at UChicago that I didn’t really know where me and my research belonged, and that I could use a year (and a lot of loan money) in their MA program to figure it out.

So you should settle on one scholarly discipline and/or one interdisciplinary field in which to apply. This rule shifts when you’re applying primarily to interdisciplinary fields, in which case you should apply to reasonably similar fields–so I applied to programs in American Studies, Ethnic Studies, and African American Studies because they are comparable programs, and at several institutions they cover the same ground and house faculty members with similar research agenda.

On this score, though, remember that you’re looking for faculty members just as surely as you’re looking for programs. Indeed, you’re looking for the programs that house the faculty members you’re interested in. When you scour all of the literature relevant to your (sub-)field, you must take note of who is producing it and where. Where are the conversations you want to participate happening and who are the participants? This should be the guiding impulse in your search for MA and PhD programs.

You still have to figure out where you might want to belong, though, so here are some questions to consider:

Humanities or Social Sciences?

This can be a tough question if your background is interdisciplinary like mine was coming out of undergrad. When I was applying to PhD programs the first time, I had an honors degree in Political Science, focusing in Political Theory. But I had also majored in Women’s Studies and African American Studies and almost all of my work was in the Humanities rather than the Social Sciences. At the time, it seemed more prudent to seek disciplinary training than to work in an interdisciplinary field.

This is a common concern because inter-disciplines are still relatively new and scary–discussed as recently as 2009 in the pages of Critical Inquiry–and it’s hard to know whether individual programs will even exist much less whether they will lead to job offers. And it doesn’t at all help that the crisis in the Humanities and the crisis of public education–discussed in journals like Representations and South Atlantic Quarterly–have given birth to a new age of academic precarity.

With that said, the question of whether you should be in the social sciences or humanities can, for all intents and purposes, be reduced to the question of whether or not you can figure out math. If your research requires any amount of math or statistical analysis (or is in anthropology or qualitative sociology) you belong in a social science program. If the idea of doing any amount of math is as frightening to you as it is to me, then make your way to the humanities.

While it is true that you can do social scientific research without doing work in statistical analysis–if you’re a political theorist, for instance–you will still be expected to complete coursework that engages these math-based social science methodologies. Moreover, most of the sources of outside funding in the social sciences expect for your research to have some quantitative element to it. To paraphrase Foucault, disciplines are regimes of truth. That is, they have particular standards for what constitutes evidence, what constitutes research, what constitutes an argument, what is recognizable as a scholarly endeavor, and what deserves funding for meeting the above criteria. In the contemporary social sciences, which emphasize their science-ness and objectivity above all else, this means arguments are proven with recourse to the scientific method and statistical analysis–which is why Political Theory has long been the black sheep of Political Science.

On the other hand, you’ll be hard pressed to find a bigger mountain of required readings than in the Humanities. You’ll quickly begin reassessing your ‘love of reading’ when you’re required to complete multiple novels/scholarly monographs and secondary readings on a weekly basis, only to have tepid conversations with a room full of people who either skimmed the readings or are teaching the course and are mildly to extremely disappointed with how it’s turning out.

Disciplinary or Interdisciplinary?

This is a big question on par with whether or not you belong in the Humanities or Social Sciences. Some things to consider when decided whether or not to apply to interdisciplines are your preferred methodologies and objects of study.

As I developed my PhD application project, I realized that it built on methodologies including intellectual history, political theory, literary criticism, gender/sexuality studies, and Black studies. In many ways, a project like mine–which studies the autobiographical writings of Anarchists like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman and members of the Black Liberation Army like Assata Shakur and Kuwasi Balagoon as texts that are simultaneously literary, historical, political, and theoretical–wouldn’t be possible in traditional disciplines. It would be constrained by the epistemological limits of those fields.

Furthermore, because my objects of study require that I work through feminist theory, queer theory, and Black theory, interdisciplinary fields like American Studies, Ethnic Studies, African American Studies, Gender/Sexuality Studies, and similar programs would offer a space that, unlike an English or Sociology department, wouldn’t necessarily attempt to invalidate my work at every turn. Programs like Ethnic Studies and Gender/Sexuality Studies are important because they’re more likely (though not guaranteed) to believe that women and gender and sexual minorities (who are white or people of color) are producers of knowledge and subjects of academic inquiry. Choosing such a program can mean not having to always convince your peers and professors that women of color matter, that racism and heterosexism exist, and that they all warrant serious thought.

I really can’t overemphasize this point: if your work is radically-oriented, if it is explicitly pro-Left, pro-Black, pro-feminist, pro-queer, pro-trans*, etc., seriously consider an interdisciplinary program. Not because they’re already a space where this work can be conducted, but because as more people become involved in these programs the stronger they become. As recent work by Roderick Ferguson (University of Minnesota) has shown, strength has both promises and perils as security and stability breed conservatism, but it is nonetheless necessary to try to cultivate pockets of resistance within the academy–as troubled as they are.

With this said, make sure you do the research necessary to know whether the African American Studies program you’re interested is based in Africology (Temple University) or Critical Black Studies (Northwestern), whether it is more orientated toward the Social Sciences (UCLA) or the Humanities (UC Irvine), and so forth. That is, there are issues of political, epistemological and disciplinary orientation that arise when looking at any interdisciplinary program. So you will want to research these programs to see the backgrounds and current work of the faculty, the program’s mission statement, and the research interests of the current grad students. (For a recent study of dissertations produced by graduates of programs in Women/Gender Studies, which is also a thorough and insightful state-of-the-field, see this article from Signs by Sally L. Kitch and Mary Margaret Fonow [both Arizona State University].)

Another important point to consider is that the idea that disciplinary training is somehow more ‘stable’ or ‘safe’ than interdisciplinary training doesn’t necessarily pan out in real life. Programs like Ethnic Studies at Berkeley, History of Consciousness at Santa Cruz, and History of American Civilization at Harvard have all been home to cohorts who have been surprisingly successful on the academic job market. Indeed, Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies department has had, in recent years, a much better placement record than their disciplines. It’s hard to say for certain what accounts for this phenomenon, whether it’s because interdisciplinary graduates are better, there are fewer of them, they’re flexible, or what. But don’t be discouraged by folks who disparage the reputation of interdisciplinary research as though it is somehow less serious; interdisciplinary graduates are plenty competitive on the job market.

What about Boutique Programs?

Finally, here are some things to consider if you’re interested in ’boutique’ programs–hyperselective programs that admit a couple students each cycle and produce cutting-edge research. These are programs like English at Duke, Rhetoric at Berkeley, History of Consciousness at Santa Cruz, Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford, or Culture and Theory at UC Irvine (there are more, of course). These programs can admit as few as two or three in each cohort and receive hundreds of applications. Here are two points of advice if you’re interested in going this route.

First, be sure to apply to several normal-sized programs in addition to these programs. It’s never a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket, and it’s a horrible idea to put all your eggs in this small of a basket. Diversify your eggs.

Second, consider applying to a different program in the same school and then transferring within the institution to your desired boutique program. You should never tell the program you do apply to that this is your plan, that would be stupid of you. But this is a possible approach–it’s easier to move horizontally than to move vertically in an institution.

On a final note, and this is true for all interdisciplinary and boutique programs: make sure your desired faculty member is actually a member of the program you want to join. If they are listed only as an ‘affiliate’ of the program they won’t actually have any say in who is accepted to the program and won’t be able to take on students through the program. Make sure they are either principally or jointly appointed in the program you’re interested in. Otherwise those eggs from your basket will be all over your face.

Oh, and make sure the faculty members you’re interested in are still at the school you’re looking into. This can change as late as the Fall, when you discover that radical historian Dayo Gore has moved from UMass Amherst to UC San Diego or that legal scholar Dorothy Roberts has moved from Northwestern to the University of Pennsylvania. This is one of those points that seems obvious but can easily derail your process.

  1. Desirae said:

    Do you have any suggestions for the initial email inquiring into a department? I’m starting to look into programs, and I’m going to be in California this summer. I’d like to start a conversation with my first choice department and possibly do a campus tour, but those initial emails are always so awkward. Any tips? What sort of information should be asked before a dialogue is even opened?

    • Hi Desirae,

      Thanks for the question! I was actually halfway through a draft of a post on this very topic, which is now posted on the site. To answer your questions briefly, you’re probably better off getting in touch with current grad students than the department itself. If you’ll be doing a campus tour you’re better off doing it informally. I haven’t seen many schools that were eager to get to know prospective students before they become admitted students. From their perspective, that’s what the application packet it for.

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