Or, the elephant in the room: what I’ve really been spending the last three months doing when I’ve been holed up in either my room or the library or UOttawa’s library.
Preparing graduate applications involves pulling together quite a few different pieces, all of which are equally important and necessary … but to borrow shamelessly from George Orwell, some are more equal than others.
For anyone who hasn’t dealt with the grad school admissions process, the list of important pieces looks like this:
2. Letters of recommendation – two or three, depending on the application.
3. CV: teaching experience, research experience, and publications.
4. For schools in the United States: the GRE General test, and the GRE English Literature subject test.
5. A 15-20 page writing sample.
6. The statement of purpose (MA) or research proposal (PhD).
Most of these I don’t have to lose too much sleep over. My transcripts are great, sure, and so are the transcripts of every other applicant. All that’s required here is to remember to order them, and check to make sure they’ve arrived. My recommenders know me and my work well – and I don’t see what they write, so there’s very little point in worrying about it. The only difficulty here is making sure that they get all the information they need: CV, transcripts, the graded copies of the essays I submitted in their classes, forms, and so forth. My CV is, again, respectable, but it’s not likely to make or break my application. Many, many students successfully apply to graduate school without any research or teaching experience whatsoever. My test scores? Well, I wrote the GRE tests halfway through my second year of undergrad, well before starting MA applications, and did sufficiently well that there would be absolutely no point to rewriting them this year. So no headaches on that score!
That leaves arguably the most important entries on the list: the writing sample and the research proposal. For most schools, it would be hard to overemphasize the importance of the writing sample – it’s a graduate program in English, for goodness’s sake, they want to know if you can write. And if you can develop a logical argument and so forth.
But in the case of grant applications, like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)’s doctoral fellowships, an applicant doesn’t submit a writing sample at all – the only sample of the applicant’s writing that the committee will ever see is the two-page research proposal.
In other words, of all the entries on the list, this is the time-consuming one. Which might seem baffling, at first glance. After all, two pages? Single-spaced? That’s only a thousand words!
Well, yes, but in those thousand words you must convince the reader of your own thorough knowledge of all the existing work in your field, establish your credentials to carry out research in this field, describe your proposed thesis, identify how your thesis will extend current knowledge in said field and engage with current questions or debates in the field, discuss your methodology or theoretical approach, demonstrate that you have a clear plan for how you will carry out this research, and make a cogent argument for why this research is so interesting and so necessary that the federal government must provide up to $105,000 worth of funding to support it. It must also, practically speaking, be written in such a way that any moderately intelligent non-specialist reader will understand it, because it could very well be read by committee members who specialize in Chinese history or developmental psychology.
Hence the reason that when I was applying for MA programs, I started work on my statement in April, when it wasn’t due until October.
I didn’t get started quite that early for PhD applications, mostly because I was in Vancouver for most of May and June, but on the other hand I was able to build on the work I’d previously done for the MA applications, so I guess it balanced out alright. My main project, for the last half of the summer, was the literature review: it’s very hard to obtain a thorough knowledge of all the existing work in a field without, well, reading said existing scholarship. Mercifully the University of Ottawa did not cut off my access to their online databases over the summer, which meant I was able to consult articles online without any difficulty, and in early August, I made a special trip to Toronto to get my library card and subsequently to borrow about thirty volumes from Robarts Library. (At last count, I now have just over fifty volumes checked out and piled on my desk.)
… and I’m in a pretty obscure field, as fields go! I shudder to think of what writing a research proposal that had anything to do with Shakespeare would entail.
All that being said, it’s a really useful exercise in terms of focusing a research project – it forces you to clarify ideas, to be concise, and to delve quite deeply into one narrow subsection of a field.
Or, at least for me it has been useful, since my problem with graduate statements has never been that I don’t have ideas for a proposal. My problem has, rather, been that I have far too many ideas, and writing a proposal forces me to pick one, and only one, and focus it down to something that I could reasonably finish in three years.
At the same time, it’s definitely a relief to remember that I’m not setting the next three-to-five years of my life in stone. I am writing an application, and most students will change topics entirely or even change fields over the course of their graduate career. Obviously I’ve picked a project that I’m very much interested in and would like to pursue further; obviously I’ve chosen something that I could reasonably see myself spending three years or so developing into a thesis. But if I decide in six months’ time that I don’t want to write on anything to do with the Old Norse sagas or Anglo-Saxon poetry, and want to switch to American modernism instead, the world will not come to a crashing halt. (Er, that is definitely not going to happen, but the point is still valid!) This is especially true of MA applications, but it’s also true of PhD applications: you’re being evaluated on your ability to research and write an intelligent proposal. No one, apparently, expects you to follow it to the letter afterwards.
It still has to be written. So I am very, very relieved to say that SSHRC, at least for this year, is over.
(Now I just have to rewrite it and tailor it to each individual school and program that I’m applying to …)