如何申請國外的人文研究所

傅雲博 (Daniel Fried) 著

Feel free to distribute this draft, and please consider applying to the University of Alberta. I will also be happy to provide advice to NCU English students

only—you can get my current email from the department office.

Contents

1. 2.

Should you attend graduate school in the humanities? How to select a program Application list TOEFL and GRE Writing Sample and Letters of Recommendation Preparing the statement of purpose Other things to remember After you’re admitted

3. 4. 5. 6. 7.
8.

1. Should you attend graduate school in the humanities?
While there are many people who get graduate degrees in the humanities, and then go on to careers in business, government, or publishing and journalism, humanities graduate programs are primarily intended to train university professors. Those who finish degrees in humanities and then go into fields outside of academia generally do so as a second choice, because they were unable to find academic positions that satisfied them; moreover, you can get a job in all of those other fields without having a graduate degree in humanities. Therefore, before you actually apply to a graduate program in the humanities, you ought to ask yourself: do you really want to be a professor? Is that really the best thing that you can do with your life? After all, the salaries are generally quite low; yet one has to work just as hard as any highpowered business executive. Don’t be fooled by the fact that your professors teach class only a few hours a week and get summers off; besides preparing classes, grading student work, and administering university business, we also have to publish large amounts of research, and this takes up all of our weekends, evenings, and summers. And research in the humanities is basically self-assigned homework. Do you like spending all day in the library doing homework? Do you like reading until you fall asleep at your desk? Do you like writing final papers about your reading? Would you like to write longer papers—and then books? If so, then go ahead and apply to

graduate school; you’ll make a great professor. If not, then you should probably find something else to do with your life. Don’t go on to graduate school by inertia. By now you have been going to school a long time—but it’s ok, you can stop now. It isn’t a horrible tragedy to go get a job; lots of people do it. If you do decide to go on to graduate school, you should be prepared for your workload to increase immediately, not in some distant future after you have already finished your doctorate. You probably think that you study hard now, but you will be asked to do much more in a foreign graduate program. Do not base your expectations on what you are told by friends or older siblings in local graduate programs—they simply are not as rigorous as foreign universities, and do not expect the same workload from graduate students. When professors here try to assign as much work as they can assign abroad, students simply do not finish the work—but this is not the case abroad. If you go into a foreign graduate program, you will be assigned hundreds of pages of reading each week for each class; your classmates will all finish the assignments, and you will have to do so, as well. You should consider carefully what effect such workloads will have on your life: will you have time to exercise and sleep well? Will you have time for hobbies? For MSN with your online friends? For romantic relationships (or even for casual sex, if that’s your style)?

If this sounds scary to you, but you still want to be a professor, you might be tempted to apply for a local graduate program, rather than going abroad. However, this would probably be a mistake—because once you finish your degree, you will be competing for academic jobs with those students who did go abroad. And even a Ph.D. from the top local university is probably only as attractive as a Ph.D. from a merely average foreign university. Hopefully, this will not be the case forever, but it is the case now. Of course, even going abroad for graduate school will not guarantee you a job—every year, there are many PhD’s from the very top universities in the world who have to leave academia because there are simply no jobs for them. Therefore, if you continue down this path, you should expect a lifetime of hard work, and little financial reward—if you can even get a job after years and years of study. The rewards of this work are different: the opportunity to read, write, and think all day and be paid to do so; the satisfaction of teaching the complexities and nuances of culture to engaged, thoughtful adults; the privilege of serving as one of the de facto guardians of civilizational memory. If this is enough to make you happy, then go ahead and apply to grad school.

2. How to select a program
There are thousands of universities in the world, and at least hundreds of good universities. Once you’ve decided to go abroad for graduate study, you will have to find some way of choosing a group of schools to which you wish to apply. First, do not limit yourself by country unless you have some strong reason to do so. Many students only consider applying to U.S. schools, and this is understandable, since U.S. schools are in general both the wealthiest and most prestigious. But this is only a general rule, and there are some very obvious exceptions. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, and Chicago are not necessarily better or more prestigious than Oxford, Cambridge, Sorbonne, Toronto, Leiden, or Tokyo. Even outside those groups of the world’s top elite, there are still many excellent universities in Britain and Ireland, continental Europe, Canada, and Australia. Some of your choice of schools would have to depend on your own interests and abilities: you certainly could not attend Sorbonne unless you can speak fluent French, and you probably should not apply to English literature departments in non-English-speaking countries. But that should still leave you dozens of great non-U.S. programs from which to choose, in addition to dozens more within the U.S. More important than choosing a list of big-name universities is choosing a list of departments that are strong in the field you wish to study. Sometimes lesser schools

have highly respected departments. So, for example: in most fields, it would be useless to have a Ph.D. from the University of Tulsa or the University of Nevada at Reno—but a Ph.D. in Women’s Studies from Tulsa or in Environmental Literature from Nevada-Reno would be very respectable. The same is true outside the U.S.: many people would think it a weird choice if you were to attend the University of Ljubljana, in Slovenia—unless, of course, you could tell them that you went there to study Lacan under Slavoj Žižek. Contrarily, even the most elite schools can have weak areas: Harvard, for example, has no program in Cultural Studies. So you ought to research what schools have the best programs in whatever field you wish to study. Like generations of students before you, you can ask your professors for advice on which departments would be best; unlike earlier ages, you have the great advantage of web access. There is no excuse for not Googling. However, even investigating individual programs is not detailed enough research; you should also think specifically about which professors you would want to work with. This is especially true for students interested in common topics, simply because you will have too many good choices. If you wanted to study Shakespeare, you could go to any English department on the planet. But even if you are a brilliant top student, and can take your pick of getting a Ph.D. in English at Harvard or at Yale, there is a huge difference between studying Shakespeare with Harvard’s Stephen

Greenblatt and Yale’s Harold Bloom. Both are equally famous, but have radically different approaches to the work. Hence, part of choosing a graduate program should be reading the articles or books published by professors in the field—if you find one scholar whose work you love, then you should consider applying to her or his department, even if it is only an average university in other respects. Also worth remembering while investigating specific faculty members is that it will be important to work with a professor who is not just a good scholar, but also a good person. Your dissertation advisor will have considerable control over your life, and could make you miserable if she or he has a mean streak. This information is harder to come by, because it usually circulates in personal conversation (i.e., gossip) rather than in publication. However, you can ask your current professors what they know about whom; you can also try to contact current or former students of the department in which you are interested. Of course, you will also be concerned about selecting programs on the basis of where you think you might be accepted, as well as on where would be ideal. This is a tough choice: based on your GRE scores and your knowledge of your own work, you might be able to estimate your chances, but there really are no easy ways to know where you can get in. Hence, it is a good idea to apply to a range of schools—some top schools, some average, and some “safeties.” It is also a good idea to apply to

more schools rather than less: at the top schools, a department might have fifty truly outstanding applications and only ten openings—as a result, many brilliant, genius students may be denied admission on the basis of the random impressions of whichever faculty are reading the applications. Really average students will never get into the top schools, and really bad students will never get in anywhere, but since the process is at least partially random, you should take as many reasonable shots as you can. Your chances of getting in somewhere are definitely much better than your chances at winning the lottery. Finally, pay attention to how each school structures the relationship between its M.A. and Ph.D. programs. In the U.S., the M.A. is generally considered rather unimportant. Most schools offer an M.A., but they conceive of it as simply a temporary marker on the way to the Ph.D. Some schools have done away with the M.A. altogether, and simply expect students to go directly from undergraduate studies to a Ph.D. program. However, even where the M.A. has been kept, it is merely a formality, and hence, often American schools will not allow students to apply for an M.A. only, because they consider the M.A. and Ph.D. as a single track, and don’t want to waste time on students who aren’t planning to get a Ph.D. Even if a U.S. school does allow you to apply separately for the M.A., it will almost never offer you financial aid to attend—they want to save their money to give to those students who

are committed to becoming scholars. However, this downplaying of the M.A. is most true of U.S. schools; in Canada and Britain, for example, universities often require that students go through the programs separately—apply first for the M.A., and then apply again later for the Ph.D. In these cases, schools do (sometimes) offer financial aid for M.A.-only students, because they know that they are the ones requiring you to get the M.A. first.

3

Preparing the Application
Here is a list of some of the most commonly items which departments will

request that you include in your application. TOEFL and GRE exams, letters of recommendation, writing samples, and statements of purpose will all be discussed in greater detail in following sections.       Application forms Application fees Financial aid forms TOEFL GRE Transcripts  Your transcripts, of course, need to be in English. But you do not just need to translate the course titles, you may also need to translate your scores. For instance, at Taiwanese universities, any grade over 80 is usually considered an A; but in the U.S., a grade of 80 would be considered a B-, and would often be the lowest grade in the class. You should ask your university or your department to supply explanations of the grading standard used at your university.  Sometimes, a university might ask you to provide “course abstracts,” or

short descriptions of your courses. This is somewhat unusual, but if requested, you should ask your professor from each relevant course to provide a paragraph in English about the course.  Departmental summary  This is a one-page description, in English, of your current department, written by the departmental chair. It is not often requested, but you might want to ask your department chair to provide you with a copy anyway. This is especially true if your home department has special expertise in the field you plan to study while abroad; U.S. universities in particular pay little attention to their foreign counterparts, and may not even know which are your top local universities, much less which departments are strong in which fields.  Resume/c.v.  If asked to provide this, you should write one that focuses on your academic achievements and any academic work experience (such as research assistantships, etc.), rather than non-academic jobs.

4. TOEFL and GRE
In order to attend graduate school in the U.S., it is almost always required that you take the TOEFL and GRE; occasionally, schools in other countries may have other national exams that they prefer you would take instead, but for the most part, the TOEFL and the GRE are international standards. Regarding the TOEFL, there is not much to say. You know that it is a basic test of English proficiency, and that there are lots of test prep books and courses that you can take. Honestly, if you are going to go into graduate school in the humanities, the TOEFL should not be a big problem for you—if you can’t pass it fairly easily, then you should probably stop thinking about graduate school abroad. Most universities publicize on their websites what TOEFL scores they expect foreign applicants to receive, and most don’t care what score you get, so long as you pass. A perfect score on the TOEFL isn’t going to matter to your application. The GRE is more important and also used more subtly in evaluating candidates. However, while important, it is not the most important part of your application. This may seem hard for you to believe, since your entrance to college was probably determined entirely by your test scores. But your writing sample and statement of purpose will be significantly more important. A perfect score on the GRE would be nice, and would be noticed more than a perfect score on the TOEFL, but it won’t

guarantee that you are accepted. Usually, the way that universities use GRE scores is to screen out bad candidates, rather than to select from good ones. A good university will often receive four times as many applications as it has open spaces; the very top universities can receive up to twenty times as many. Professors are busy people, and they do not want to waste time reading endless application essays from mediocre students. Hence, they start by throwing out all applications with GRE scores below a certain level—sometimes this is done directly by the department itself, other times by a central graduate applications office, which then sends only the high-scoring applications on to the departments. What is the level that you have to reach on the GRE? It changes every year, for every department. Occasionally, a university or department will tell you that directly on its website, but for the most part, there is no set standard. Instead, a department will simply collect all its applications, and decide to read only the top 30 (or 40, or 50) by GRE score. Once the GRE scores have been used to determine which applications are thrown away, they are forgotten, and the admissions committee will look at the other materials to make the final decision about who is admitted and who is not. The result is that, while good GRE scores cannot get you into graduate school, bad scores can keep you out—and you have no way to know exactly where the

dividing line is between “good” and “bad.” Probably, if you have scored in the 60th percentile or below, you really need to retake the test and get a better score; probably if you scored 95th percentile or above, you don’t. But between those markers, you have to make your own guesses based on the schools to which you wish to apply. If you know anyone who is at the school and can take a survey of their scores, go ahead and ask. Otherwise, guess. While the GRE general test is almost always required for admission to graduate programs, the GRE subject tests are less often required. Departments whose focus is clearly matched by one single subject test usually will require it; unrepresented or interdisciplinary departments often do not. However, this varies greatly by individual departments: some English departments do not require the English literature subject test because they find it too heavily dominated by the traditional canon; on the other hand, some comparative literature departments require that you take the subject test for whichever literature you plan to focus on. Hence, if you really do not want to take the subject test, you can and should search for departments that do not require it. You can and should study for the subject test, just as you can and should study for the general test. However, the method of study should be different. The only way to learn how to do a general GRE is by doing lots and lots of practice exams, studying your mistake, and perhaps memorizing additional vocabulary words. But since the

subject test matters college-level knowledge, rather than college-level intellectual ability, you will have to review your undergraduate coursework, and perhaps learn new material on your own that was never offered in courses. The subject test in English literature covers the whole scope of English, American, and Anglophone literatures from the medieval period through the present—but most English students in East Asia have huge gaps in their knowledge of literary history, perhaps having read nothing before the 19th century but one or two plays of Shakespeare. If you have huge gaps in your knowledge of your subject, then you need to go learn it: in the case of English, this would probably mean reading through all of the Norton Anthologies of British and American literature, as well as memorizing authors, novels, characters, stylistic movements, etc. from an encyclopedia such as the Bloomsbury Dictionary of English Literature or the Oxford Companion to English Literature. And, of course, if you can find some practice tests, go ahead and take them.

5. Writing Sample and Letters of Recommendation
Your writing sample and letters of recommendation are more important than your test scores. They are important and you should put thought into them. First, the writing sample: this should be an example of your best scholarly writing. It should be narrowly focused, make a fascinating and original argument, demonstrate a mastery of both primary and secondary sources, and show deep understanding of relevant theoretical frameworks (though you should not feel pressured to endorse any one theory). It should be written clearly and, if possible, with some attention to good English prose style; and it must use perfect grammar, spelling, and diction. And, by all means, stay within the maximum page limits set by each department. More is not better. Professors who review applications are busy, do not enjoy reading applications, and if they see that you have given them a huge writing sample, they may resent you for it. That does not mean that you should send as short a sample as possible, just stay within their posted limits. Normally, your writing sample will consist of either your bachelor’s thesis (if your department requires such a thing) or, more likely, the final paper which you wrote for one of your courses (or, for M.A. students, one chapter from your M.A. thesis). Do not simply use the paper that you got the best grade on; use a paper that your professor is willing to give you advice on revising, and help you proofread for

errors. You should expect to spend at least as much time revising your paper for applications as you needed to write it for class in the first place. It is also often a good idea if you can submit a writing sample that is related in some way to the particular field you will propose studying in your statement of purpose, but that is not absolutely necessary—it is better to submit a great and unrelated paper than a merely good paper on the right topic. Similar principles apply to how you should choose which professors you want to ask for recommendation letters. Do not simply ask those professors who gave you the best grades, or even those who like you the most (although don’t ask anyone who gave you awful grades, or who hates you). The best professors to ask are internationally famous scholars who know your work—because a recommendation from someone who is known abroad will carry more weight than one from someone unknown. If you don’t have any famous professors, you might want to at least consider asking professors who have connections at one or more of the schools to which you want to apply. In addition to famous or well-connected professors, you should also prefer professors who specialize in the subject matter that you propose to study in graduate school. You might also want to consider asking those professors whose letters in past years have helped other students in your department get accepted abroad.

Of course, whatever professor you ask for a recommendation, that professor has to know who you are. The better a professor knows you, the more detail he or she will be able to offer about you in the letter—and detail is good. Anyone can write, “Amy is a very intelligent student, and she did very well in my class,” but the professor who can write honestly about your strengths and weaknesses, describe your intellectual interests in detail, and the progress of your mental growth will be much more helpful. Actually, this is a great problem with most recommendation letters from East Asia: they are rarely detailed, and rarely candid about a student’s weaknesses. As a result, all applications from Chinese-speaking students are at a disadvantage, because Western departments have learned to ignore all the wonderfulbut-vague recommendation letters they get from Chinese-language universities. Hence your professors will be doing you a favor if they can write (a little) about your weaknesses as well as your strengths, and by all means go into detail. When you have chosen your professors, you need to be very nice about asking them. They are doing you a favor. Hence, ask them a long time in advance—at least a month, maybe more. You should also prepare everything neatly for them: give each one a packet containing the papers you wrote for them in the past, your completed c.v., writing sample, and statement of purpose, all the forms they need to fill out, along with stamped and addressed envelopes, and a neat timeline of due dates for

each school’s letter. If you need to, send a couple of polite email reminders close to when the due dates are close.

6. Preparing the Statement of Purpose
The statement of purpose is probably the single most important part of your application. Because it is your only chance to speak directly to the admissions committee, it is your best chance to convince committee members that you are a smart scholar-to-be, with a sensible plan of research and the determination to finish graduate school in a timely fashion. Moreover, because it is relatively short, the committee will be likely to read it more carefully than your writing sample. You should plan to spend several weeks writing and revising the statement in conjunction with a faculty member whom you trust and who is knowledgeable about foreign graduate programs. Although the statement of purpose is sometimes referred to as a “personal statement,” it should under no circumstances be “personal”. Rather, your tone throughout should be professional and scholarly. You do not want to be confessional or autobiographical. Do not offer inspiring stories of your personal triumph over adversity. Do not reminisce about your grandmother who taught you to appreciate poetry. Do not talk about fulfilling your dreams to be a professor, or about your patriotic dreams to serve your homeland. Do not talk about your own sexual, political, or religious experiences, even if your proposed plan of research involves sex, politics, or religion. Keep everything intellectual. This will be surprising to many undergraduates, since there is a common

assumption that applications to U.S. graduate schools are intended to be personal. Partially, this is due to mistaken assumptions about American university life: since American professors both in the U.S. and abroad are often more relaxed and egalitarian in the classroom than their foreign peers, some students wrongly assume that American academic life is always informal in all respects. However, this assumption has been compounded by misinformation sold in graduate-school guides, both in English and in Chinese. Many of these books are reprints or translations of books sold in the U.S., and uniformly urge students to be as personal as possible in their personal statements. Some books offer dozens of sample essays that got students into Harvard or other prestigious universities, every one of them personal. What you may not realize is that such books are written for U.S. high school students applying to college, not U.S. college students applying to graduate school. This makes all the difference. Undergraduate applications should be personal, because of the nature of undergraduate admissions and college life. An undergraduate admissions office receives thousands upon thousands of applications from students with high grades and high standardized test scores. Since colleges do not expect high school graduates to be intellectually mature and certain of a career path, a high school student can only make himself memorable by giving an interesting personal narrative. Moreover, undergraduate admissions offices are staffed by professional

administrators, for whom managing admissions is a full-time job. The university expects them not only to find a group of intelligent students, but to craft a viable undergraduate community. Since the university knows that undergraduates will be living in campus dorms, they want to make college life as a whole an educational experience, and that means admitting a diverse group of freshmen each year. The admissions office does not just want the smartest students, it wants a balance of smart students from different ethnic, national, educational, religious, political, and philosophical backgrounds. Hence the high school student’s personal statement should really be personal, to give the committee a sense of how he would fit in with life at that college. In contrast, graduate admissions are handled in a much different way, and for a much different purpose. Although a university may direct all graduate applications through a graduate admissions office, all admissions decisions are made by the individual departments. Each department will receive a few dozen to a few hundred applications (depending on the size and status of the program) and the applications are reviewed by a small group of the department’s professors. For them, this is an unpleasant extra chore: faculty consider their main job to be teaching and research, and will want to handle application reviews as quickly as possible. When they do review the applications, these professors are not at all interested in the applicants’

personal lives. Graduate students may live on or off campus, but no school puts all of a department’s graduate students together, and hence no department has to worry about whether its graduate students will form a viable community. Graduate school, unlike college, is not meant as an opportunity for holistic personal growth, but as an intellectual and professional training. Therefore, what the faculty committee does care about is whether an applicant has sufficient intelligence and education to adapt to high-level instruction and research. In addition, they are looking to see that an applicant has a cogent and welldefined intellectual stance, and a clear idea of what sort of research he wishes to pursue. This is not to say that you are expected to know, by the time of application, what the specific topic of your dissertation is going to be. However, you are expected to be able to identify a direction for your research, to explain your interest in a given subject, and to demonstrate that you have a basic knowledge of the field sufficient to begin serious inquiry. Finally, the admissions committee will want to know that you have a research plan which matches their department’s resources. If you know, for example, that you want to research Asian American literature (or medieval poetry, or queer theory, or whatever), you need to make sure that you apply to departments where there is at least one scholar who specializes in Asian American literature (or medieval poetry, or queer theory, or whatever). Otherwise, the admissions committee

may be very impressed with your intelligence and preparedness, but will conclude that you aren’t right for their department and had better go somewhere else. Therefore, your statement of purpose should contain the following elements: 1. A clear statement of research interests, including relevant periods or authors, and theoretical assumptions or planned methodology 2. 3. An explanation of why the research is relevant and important A description of how your undergraduate training has prepared you to begin advanced study and research in your proposed field 4. An explanation of why you wish to pursue this particular program of research at that particular university to which you are applying More detail about each of these is given below.

1. A clear statement of research interests, including relevant periods or authors, and theoretical assumptions or planned methodology

Many applicants to graduate school are applying simply because they enjoy their field of study, and don’t particularly want to get a job, and don’t know what else to do with their lives. This is exactly the kind of applicant whom admissions committees don’t want. It just isn’t enough to enjoy reading literature, or history, or any other

subject, and no matter how well or how passionately you describe your love for literature in general, admissions committees will not be impressed. They are not looking for passion, but for ideas. They want to admit students who have clear ideas of what kinds of problems or issues they want to research, know why they are interested in them, and have enough basic training to begin to approach their chosen subject intelligently. Therefore, you should think of the statement of purpose as a very vague first draft of a dissertation proposal. Obviously, you cannot know before you begin graduate school exactly what the topic of your dissertation will be, and admissions committees will not expect you to make exact or binding proposals. But they will expect you, from the first, to have some idea about what are the kind of topics that you might want to research. In most humanities fields, one normally begins by choosing a historical period in which one is most interested. However, merely selecting a period is not enough. One also has to choose a specific issue, or a set of related problems which are important in that period, and have some kind of idea about what methodologies one will want to use in analyzing these problems. This is not a real research proposal, since a real research proposal would also have to include a clear statement of what the argument of the thesis would be. For the statement of purpose, you don’t have to know what you will want to argue, only what you will want to study.

Therefore, it is not enough to propose: “I want to study English literature.” Nor is it enough to propose: “I want to study British Romantic Literature.” Nor is it even enough to propose: “I want to study issues of gender in British Romantic poetry,” though that is getting closer. You have to make your proposal even more specific, and propose something like: “I want to study the interaction between constructions of masculinity and epic form in Blake, Byron, and Keats.” This kind of statement isn’t a dissertation proposal; dissertation proposals have to be much more specific and detailed even than this. However, it is a very good proposal for a course of study in graduate school, and the first paragraph of your statement of purpose should be dedicated to making and explaining this sort of proposal. But what if you really don’t know what exactly you want to study? Think about which subjects you enjoyed most as an undergraduate, and make your best guess as to what you would like to study. Then write a proposal that sounds like you are reasonably certain of your topic. Don’t worry; all that matters here is getting into the program. Once you are in, you can change your field of research; no one will stop you from changing. Most likely, no one will even remember what exactly it was that you proposed to study in your statement of purpose. Of course, departments make admission decisions in part based on what kinds of research programs they are wellsuited to support. If, once you are in the program, you decide that you absolutely

must study some field in which your department is weak, you might be stuck. But if you are willing to take responsibility for the consequences of your own choices, it is a gamble you may wish to take.

2. An explanation of why the research is relevant and important

When professional scholars make proposals for research funding, they usually spend a great deal of time and space explaining why their research is important and must be supported. For a prospective graduate student, you do not need, and will not be able, to convince a faculty admissions committee that one particular question is of utmost importance to the field. Nonetheless, it is often a good idea to offer some sort of explanation as to why you think your proposed field of research is important. The object is not to convince professors that it is, but rather to demonstrate to them that you are capable of thinking in such terms, that you are aware of the major trends and debates in the field, and have some idea of how your own narrowly-focused research might be related to those large-scale trends. In addition, this gives you a good opportunity to display your understanding of the important theoretical issues currently in favor in your field. You will not be

justifying the importance of a field of research in personal terms (“I need to research this because it will help me to be a better person”), nor in terms of your hopes for a career (“I need to research this because my professor says all the new jobs are in this part of the field”), but rather in scholarly terms that demonstrate the quality of your undergraduate education (“I need to research this because it perfectly gets to the heart of the debate between nativist and poststructuralist responses to colonial aggression”).

3. A description of how your undergraduate training has prepared you to begin advanced study and research in your proposed field.

For the most part, a statement of purpose ought to be about the future, not the past. Your other documents are about the past: your transcripts tell how hard you worked, your standardized test scores tell what language proficiency you have achieved, your writing sample is evidence of your acquired analytical abilities, and so on. The main point of the statement of purpose is to give an admissions committee some idea about what your plans for the future are, after you are admitted to their program. That said, it makes sense if your future plans are built upon a solid educational foundation. If you propose to research the connection between masculinity and epic

form in Blake, Byron, and Keats, then you ought to be able to explain what experience you have had reading Romantic poetry, and how you became interested in this topic. If you have never taken any courses on the subject, admissions committees will either not believe that you are really interested in it, or they will think that you simply don’t have the foundational knowledge of the field necessary to begin a graduate program dedicated to the research project you have proposed. Therefore, after you have given a detailed and convincing explanation of your plans for a research program in graduate school, you should go on to explain how you came to be interested in that topic from your readings and coursework while an undergraduate. This does not have to be long; one paragraph will do. Simply describe what courses you took in the field, and what you read both inside and outside of classes, and how some particular aspect of that material caught your attention. If your research plan continues to develop some theme that you first wrote on for a final paper, then describe that final paper. Explain what your thesis was, how you argued it, and what you learned from the process of research. Finally, turn back to your current project and end with a sentence explaining how your current and future research interests are a continuation of (or perhaps a revision of) your previous work.

4. An explanation of why you wish to pursue this particular program of research at

that particular university to which you are applying

Even if you have proposed a wonderful, complex, and important program of research, and you thoroughly convince an admissions committee that you are a brilliant student who ought to be in a doctoral program, you still might not be accepted. Not only do you have to convince an admissions committee that you belong in graduate school, you also have to convince them that you belong at their university, in their department. So, for instance, if you propose to do research on contemporary Asian-American literature, but the department to which you are applying has no one who specializes in Asian-American literature, then you will probably be rejected from that school—not because you aren’t smart enough, but because there will be no one there to help you do your research. Or if you make it clear that you are very conservative in your approach to literature, you might be rejected from a liberal program (or vice-versa). Or if you propose a very interdisciplinary research program to a department which is not set up to be interdisciplinary, you might be rejected. Or if you propose a research program that will need access to special collections, and the university library does not have the right archives, you may be rejected. If this sounds harsh, remember that the same factors will also help you to be

accepted if you propose something appropriate to a given department. If you want to work on Asian-American literature, and you apply to a department with three top scholars working on Asian-American literature, you will be more likely to be accepted, especially if your research proposal addresses similar issues to one or more of those scholars. If you are proposing a radical research program in queer theory to a department known for its radical sexual politics, you will be more likely to be accepted. If you are proposing to research a certain modern author at a university which possesses all of that author’s manuscripts, then you will be more likely to be accepted. In short, you have to know the resources of the departments to which you are applying, and prove that you would be a good match for them. Ideally, you ought to come up with a research program first, and then choose which schools you want to apply to. Think about what you would need to pursue your proposed research—are there special collections that you would need to have access to? Is it an interdisciplinary project that would need the support of an interdiscipinary program? Is it a highly ideological project which needs to be done in an ideologically supportive enclave? Most importantly, you have to decide who are the best scholars in the field to support your research. To some degree, this is a matter of prestige, and your undergraduate professors can help you to identify who are the most renowned

scholars working in any given field, and what their research is focused on. However, prestige is not the only factor: there should be a good mesh of your interests with the professor’s. If you know that you want to pursue a research program in postcolonial theory, and you apply to Harvard’s English department because you want to work with the highly prestigious Homi Bhabha, you might or might not be accepted. But you will probably not be accepted if you say that you want to study postcolonialism by disproving Bhabha’s theories of hybridity, which you find ridiculous. Therefore, you should also do some research of your own. Hopefully, your undergraduate professors have already made you find scholarly articles on the topics which you have researched for your course papers. Think about what were the scholarly books and articles that influenced you the most, or that you found the most interesting or useful or intelligent. Then look up which departments those professors are in, and apply to them, and in your application make it clear that you know suchand-such a professor through her work, and are anxious for the chance to work with her. Of course, this means that you will need to edit your statement of purpose for each school to which you are applying. Don’t say that you are dying to work with a Harvard professor in your application to Yale. This is especially true if you have chosen your schools on the basis of reputation rather than on the basis of what makes

sense for your proposed research program. If all that you want is to go to a famous school, and you don’t care what you research, then you may have to edit your statement of purpose quite heavily, and not just in the paragraphs about what professors you want to work with. You might have to actually propose quite different (but equally specific) programs of research for different schools. Or, if you are proposing a constant topic of research, you might at least emphasize different aspects of it for different programs. So, if you are proposing a research project on nushu (女 書), you would emphasize the sinological aspects of the project in an application to a Chinese department, the gender aspects to a program in women’s studies, and the oral-formulaic aspects to a program in folklore.

Even after all of this description, it still may be hard to imagine exactly what a statement of purpose should sound like in practice. Therefore, let us consider hypothetical examples of how a statement of purpose ought and ought not not to be written. Imagine a student, Christine Chang, who is a senior in the English department of National XYZ University. Christine has always liked literature, and has always also been good at English. She has been in good public schools in Taiwan from elementary school through high school, and she has attended buxiban and worked

hard. Her parents do not have very good English, or many opportunities to go abroad, but Christine has been able to spend two summers abroad, one in Canada during high school, and one in the United States during university. As a result, she feels comfortable going abroad, and wants to perfect her language and literary skills by going to the U.S. for graduate school. Christine is one of the better students in her class. Some of her classmates have lived abroad and have perfect English; Christine is not quite as fluent as them, but she knows that she is intelligent, and has always gotten good grades in her college coursework. She has taken a number of different kinds of courses in university, but she has liked her classes in English literature most of all. She took one class in Shakespeare, one class in Romantic poetry, two classes in Victorian novels, one class in modern novels, and two classes in film. Of these her favorite were the three classes on novels, which she took with a famous professor who is an expert in feminist theory and made the courses very interesting explorations of gender in fiction. Christine thinks that she might like to read more novels from these periods in graduate school, and perhaps do more with feminist theory, but she isn’t sure. Actually, she would be willing to study anything, so long as she got the chance to go abroad. Here, then, is an example of the kind of statement of purpose that Christine should not write:

I am a free and independent girl, always willing to tackle new challenges and full of an unconquerable spirit. Though I have grown up in a small country, I am filled with eagerness to see the world and to experience the different sights and sounds that various cultures have to offer. Since I have began my life as a student in the English department of National XYZ University over three years ago, I have grown in my experience of foreign literature, and I have also perfected my ability in English. However, in order to take the next step, and to continue growing as a person, it is necessary that I move to an environment where I can interact directly with people of a different culture, and to try new kinds of food and make new kinds of friends. This is the reason why I want to pursue graduate study in the United States, and why in particular I want to attend State University, because I know that your university values diversity. If you ask anyone I know, he or she will tell you that I am a very diligent student, yet one who is very sensitive to the beauty of literature. I have been a devoted fan of literature ever since I competed in a national poetry contest for kindergarten pupils, and won first place. Since then, I have loved to read every day, and sometimes I think that literature is the soul which gives meaning to my life. I continued to be an excellent student in high school, and spent many hours every day perfecting my

English reading ability. Although it was a struggle, I finally conquered all obstacles and managed to get an excellent score on the national college entrance examinations, allowing me to enter the English department of my beloved alma mater, National XYZ University. When I was a freshman, I continued to struggle to get used to university life, but I never lost sight of my goal. I successfully completed the university required courses in Mathematics, Science, and Chinese, and the departmental courses in Freshman Writing and Freshman Oral Conversation. Since I got straight A’s, I was filled with confidence in my English ability, and motivated to work even harder. Eventually, I was able to take several courses in the love of my life, English literature. I took a class in Shakespeare, and though it was especially difficult to understand his antiquated English, I was very happy to at last have the chance to read this very famous poet’s works for myself. The next semester, I took a course in Victorian fiction with Professor Wang, and was enchanted with the many memorable characters of Charles Dickens in Great Expectations and Hard Times, and the skillful irony of William Makepeace Thackeray in his novel, Vanity Fair. After successfully completing these courses, I took other classes in film, modern fiction, and Romantic poetry. Then, during this first semester of my senior year, I had the chance to take another of Professor Wang’s classes, this time concerned with the fiction of George

Eliot. This is a graduate-level class, and I think that it shows my determination to absorb literature at an advanced level. Therefore, to conclude, I am a great lover of literature who has overcome many obstacles and who is determined to succeed. I have graduated from a top university, and am ready to meet the world. This is why I need to come to the United States to attend State University, since I see from your website that you welcome “a community of scholars from many countries and cultures.” This is exactly the kind of community I have always dreamed of joining, and hence I am determined to be an outstanding student who can make many important contributions to your English department.

The English of the above essay is perfect—there are no grammatical mistakes, spelling mistakes, or awkward expressions. But it is an awful statement of purpose. It is vague, trite, boring, overly personal, focused on the past rather than the future, and talks about graduate study as if it were a vacation to an exotic foreign country, rather than as a serious program of research. The statement of purpose tries to be inspirational, but it just ends up being silly and embarassing. Instead, here is the kind of essay that Christine should write:

I am a prospective scholar who wishes to research issues of gender in Victorian fiction. In particular, I want to go beyond simply asking how writers construct discourses of femininity and masculinity, and to inquire how the construction of such discourses is related to the gendered conditions of production and consumption of period fiction. Since the well-known study of So-and-so was published twenty years ago, it has been widely acknowledged that the novel market in mid-19th-century England was still primarily organized around the well-to-do young woman, and that plot, theme, and characterization were adjusted to meet the tastes of the market. Although the gender-bias was not as strongly marked as in the consumption of eighteenth-century fiction, and certainly moralistic and didactic elements were less overtly manifested, it is clear that the propriety of the young gentlewoman’s boudoir was still a main criterion of selection for book publishers, as well as for the literary periodicals. I am fascinated by this process, and think that it must have a direct bearing on the ways in which period norms of masculinity and femininity were constructed through fiction. Such constructions have been examined intensively, of course, since the rise of gender theory in literary criticism; however, it seems to me that such analyses are often not strongly grounded in social history, and treat the individual novelist as an autonomous and unconstrained intellectual agent. In contrast, I start

from the assumption that authors’ choices about gender constructions are determined by their relative position as men (or occasionally women) seeking to market lifelike and moral depictions of gender relations to a largely-female audience. The possibility of performing such an analysis exists with almost any of the major novelists: currently my interest and experience is largely in Thackeray, Dickens, Hardy, and, of course, George Eliot. However, I am also hoping to gain some comparative insight into some of the less well-known authors of the period, especially “ladies’ authors” and lowerclass and religious mass-market fiction. My interest in this field grows directly out of my work as an undergraduate at National XYZ University. While here, I have taken several courses in related areas; but I have especially benefitted from two courses in Victorian literature offered by Professor Janice Wang. For my final paper for the first of these classes, I undertook a research project on Great Expectations, in which I argued that, through the story of Miss Havisham’s molding of Estella, Dickens comes close to acknowledging the constructed nature of gender identity, and only falls short when unable to acknowledge the possibility of self-construction of gender identity. This was a breakthrough paper for me, in that it was the first time in which I not only fully grasped the fundamentals of contemporary gender theory, but also found myself able to apply it to the analysis of literary narratives.

Although I am applying to several graduate programs, the English department at State University is one of my top two programs, because I would love to work with Professor Fictional Name. I first became aware of Professor Name’s work while preparing the research paper described above: her seminal essay “Dickens and Gender” was one of my primary theoretical references in that paper, and I have gone on to read her monograph on George Eliot with great pleasure. Naturally, it would be an honor to study under a scholar who has already helped shape my thinking about these topics, and I therefore sincerely hope that you will give me the opportunity to join your program next fall.

This is much better: it includes all of the four main elements above, it is focused on the future rather than the past, it is intellectual and professional rather than personal. It does not waste time on meaningless phrases, and does not try to be inspirational. Instead, it demonstrates an aptitude for literary study by discussing a specific topic in literature. Perhaps Christine Chang isn’t perfectly certain that the research proposal outlined above is exactly what she wants to pursue. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. If she is admitted, people will remember that she is “Professor Fictional Name’s student,” but they won’t remember exactly what she proposed. And once she’s in, she’s in. Christine can change her focus of research if she wants. She

could switch from gender in Victorian fiction to deconstruction in contemporary Anglophone African poetry, if she really wanted to. The important thing for the application is that you demonstrate that you know what kind of research can be proposed, and that you are able to demonstrate that you have enough background knowledge to be able to begin a course of graduate study. Finally, I ought to note: do not copy the above essay or any part of it. Do not copy any sentence or any part of a sentence. I know it will seem tempting, since I am offering this essay in English as an example of a perfect Statement of Purpose. But don’t do it: that would be plagiarism, the worst academic sin. Moreover, it would be stupid, because you will get caught. Remember that you are not the only one reading this: your classmates are reading it too, and some of them may decide to ignore my advice here, and to be lazy students who will copy phrases rather than compose their own essays. But admissions committees are not stupid, and when they notice a pile of statements of purpose from Taiwan that all begin, “I am a prospective scholar who wishes to research…” they will know that these applicants are dishonest, and they will throw away the materials. Use the above essay as a model, but for your own sake, do not copy so much as a single word of it. You will get caught if you do.

7. Other Things to Remember
Many students wonder if it is acceptable to take a few years off before applying to graduate school. In general, this is fine. It is especially a good idea if you aren’t sure that you want to go to graduate school—much better to try working first for a few years; if you hate it, you can always go onto graduate school later. However, there are a few things you should remember. First, it is easier for you to take time off between your undergraduate degree and your masters than between your masters and PhD; if you do the latter, some schools might wonder why you decided to stop in what they consider the middle of a unified course of graduate study. Secondly, you should think about demographics. Right now, in 2007, there is a wave of high enrollment in U.S. colleges; this means that for the next few years, there will be more and more competition each year for entrance to graduate programs. You might want to think about applying sooner rather than later, to maximize your chances. Finally, you should realize that when you are done with your PhD, it will be easier for you to find a job the younger you are. Age isn’t very important, certainly not as important as which school you attend or the quality of your dissertation. However, it is one consideration, because universities want to hire scholars who have a longer time to build up reputations in their fields. Once you have decided that you want to go to graduate school, it is better to

begin preparing as soon as possible. If you want to go to graduate school directly after you finish college, then you can’t start any later than the summer before your senior year. Besides taking the GRE (studying for which might take you all summer, or longer), you will also need time to research which programs and which professors you would want to work with, as well as writing your statement of purpose and revising your writing sample. All of this takes more time than you think it will, and you need to remember that applications are often due about the same time that your fall semester ends. You might want to try to improve your chances of being accepted by publishing something. Probably, publishing a scholarly article in a peer-reviewed journal will not be possible for you just yet. But it may be possible even for undergraduates to present a research paper at a scholarly conference—it has been done before. And there may be other kinds of professional publication which might look nice on your c.v.—publishing a short story in the student literary magazine won’t be very impressive, but getting one into a professional literary magazine would. Publishing translations might be a testament to your language ability.

8. After You Are Admitted
Hopefully, you will be admitted by more than one university; if so, you will have the pleasant problem of choosing which offer to accept. The most important rule is this: do not go into any graduate program that would require you to borrow money in order to live. Graduate school is fantastically expensive, and you have no guarantee of getting a job when you are done—it is just not worth going into debt for this. Some schools are richer than others, of course, and can offer better conditions. Rich private schools might be able to give you full tuition scholarships plus US$20,000 per year, without doing any undergraduate teaching until you are past your general exams; poorer state schools may only offer you the opportunity to earn your way by teaching classes immediately. But all schools should have some way to keep you from borrowing money, and you should insist on this. There is another good reason to only go to schools that offer you financial aid awards: if the school gives you money, it is investing in your development, and hence will have an interest in your success. Often, departments will admit students without offering them financial aid, thinking at least that the students won’t do anybody any harm. But this shouldn’t be enough for you: you want to be someplace where the faculty is excited to have you there, and believes strongly enough in you to bet their money on you.

Oh, and then, of course, having financial aid will usually make your application for a visa much simpler. Since 9/11, no foreign visa has been very easy to get, especially U.S. visas, and even if you have a full scholarship to Harvard you may get rejected for no good reason. But financial aid helps, because embassy personnel are more likely to believe that you really are a good student, and that you won’t need to try to work illegally in order to have money on which to live. Once you have decided on a school, and accepted their offer (send your acceptance letter by registered express mail!), then get ready to go. Apply for your visa immediately, because it is a slow process even when it works, and buy your airplane tickets early as well. Your school should also have an international student office to help you adjust, know what to bring, how to sign up for dorms and classes, etc.; look for their website or ask the secretary of your new department for help. When you get to your new department, study hard. Get professors to like you (they will have to write you recommendation letters when you look for a job). Start submitting papers to scholarly conferences (at least one per year); then start sending your good seminar papers to journals, and try to publish. Get to your dissertation quickly, and once you’ve gotten to it, try to finish it quickly, because it will be easier for you to find a job if you do. Along the way, apply for every fellowship, every graduate student research program, every essay prize that you can—don’t assume you

aren’t good enough. Dissertation-writing fellowships are especially important, both because they are prestigious and because they will help you finish quickly. The more prizes, the more honors, the more grants you can rack up, the better your resume will look, and the more chance you will have of getting additional money and honor (and job offers!) the next time. Oh, and enjoy your reading!