>If you were interested in literary theory, where would you do a Ph.D.?

>Hey everyone, thanks for all the comments, suggestions, and good wishes in the last post. I’ve been meaning to respond but, as you might guess, I’ve been busy putting out fires. I’m hoping to write a follow-up post on issues raised in the comments and also at other people’s blogs, especially on the point of who we should (or shouldn’t) be encouraging to go to grad school in the humanities (or whether we should be encouraging at all).

Anyway, in the meantime, I’ve got a query from a smart undergrad student who came to one of our recent “applying to grad school” workshops (to those commenters who suggested doing this: we were already in the process of doing this — great minds think alike!). Actually, it’s two queries. The first one is the question in the post title: if you were interested in literary theory, where would you apply to do a Ph.D.? I can think of some places off the top of my head, but they’re all pretty competitive big guns, so ideally I’d like to suggest to this student some smaller programs that have maybe a 1 in 4 acceptance rate, rather than a 1 in 10 rate.

And here’s the related question: do you think a student who started at a community college and then went to a regional public 4-year university is handicapped when applying to Ph.D. programs? This student is whip-smart and I have no doubt that he’s got the chops for grad school, but I wonder if snob factors will hurt his chances. That’s why I want him to apply to a range of programs.

And I’d love to hear narratives or be pointed to blogs from people who started at CCs and now are in grad school or beyond.


14 thoughts on “>If you were interested in literary theory, where would you do a Ph.D.?

  1. >I came from a nowhere undergrad and go to (probably) one of the first names that popped into your head when you hear “theory.” In fact, I think some of the faculty still think that I went to the bigger school in the same city as my undergrad. If the student’s writing stands out and rings a bell with the faculty in some way, he/she can get in. I know that in my department, at least, the committee is usually interested in people who hail from places outside the norm.

  2. >In my field it doesn’t seem to have any bearing on whether they get into grad school or how they do in grad school — I know two successful academics who started out in community college. I know another who was a flight attendant for years before going to grad school. But I’m not in the humanities, so there may be a different vibe in your discipline than mine…

  3. >I would first want to know what sort of theory interests the student. If s/he is interested in a particular approach or set of approaches, my advice would probably be different than it would for ‘theory’ in general. I’d also want to know what his or her secondary interests are since almost everyone I know is doing a different dissertation than what they thought they would be doing when they arrived at grad school.

  4. >Hi, I don’t think I would advise anyone to go into literary theory–at least not unless it’s done as part of a study of a historical period as well. It used to be that people published books on Foucault or Derrida or what not, but no longer. But if your student is looking for a smaller, less competitive program, I would look at my department, actually. If you look at our website, you’ll see that we have a good number of people who do theory, including a couple of fairly big guns in theory (I won’t name them or give any identifying info here but if you want to know more just email). The younger faculty also do a lot of theory (poststructuralist, marxist, etc).As to your second question, I suppose anyone who didn’t go to all the right schools (the right prep school, the right Ivy college) are handicapped. I am of course speaking as one who is handicapped that way. But that can be overcome, and I had a prof who is a big name in her field (a full prof at a major institution with big impact books) who started out at a CC.

  5. >To piggyback on what K8 just said, My sense is that there is a limited job market for simply “theory” these days, and that theory in many grad programs is being used to enrich other kinds of period/regional concerns. Also, having now served on a PhD admissions committee, I would say that the two biggest factors were the writing sample (by a mile) and a strong focused statement of purpose, which is to say, did the student have a realistic sense of what s/he wanted to study, and what faculty would actually help. That is, does the student have a sense of “fit,” and a reasonably interesting basis for a project that would take advantage of that fit?As for “theory” schools, then, my suspicion is that the big names (the Dukes of the world) are among the few that really cater to theory as an end in and of itself…

  6. >Yeah, to Feirefiz’s comment, I saw about 3 jobs for “theory” this year and another 2 or 3 in last year’s JIL, and all the jobs predominantly being broken down by region and time period. A strong program should have a bunch of faculty who specialize in a theoretical approach or two along with their historical focus. I’ve heard from top schools that they accept people from very diverse school backgrounds; our dept, which ranked very low, tends to exclusively take SLAC and ivy undergrads (with a few exceptions like me) — the less prestige we have, the more we are interested in boosting it through the names of our faculty/grad students.Just a different thing to consider.

  7. >I would definitely suggest UC Riverside for a school for a person who likes theory. I got my master’s there and there are amazing people in just about every time-period that incorporate theory very convincingly into their work (e.g. George Haggerty, John Ganim). UCI is great as well, but is probably a bit harder to get into.

  8. >Hey, thanks everyone! A lot of you confirmed what I was already thinking, but I needed to ‘hear’ it from others to make sure it wasn’t idiosyncratic to my experience/knowledge. It’s especially good to hear our good students aren’t necessarily handicapped.I actually don’t know what kind of theory this student is particularly interested in, or if he has a historical period in mind, because I had him in a sophomore/junior level course. But I really should ask, shouldn’t I? Duh! He’s our department’s work-study student, so I have lots of opportunities to chat and will do so.Negativecapability, I may e-mail you to ask where you are, if you don’t mind revealing that to me privately.And Feirefiz, thanks for suggestion your own institution, since I don’t think I would’ve come up with that on my own!And Morgan, yup, UCI was one of the first places I thought of, but I hadn’t considered UCR — I’ll let him know.Horace, I’m going to repeat what you said at our personal statement workshop!Thanks to all! (And to future commenters, keep it coming!)

  9. >I can’t really comment on your first question. Though my impulse, from a historian who reads a lot of literary theory, and at the risk of repeating, would be to apply to department in a geographical/historical field the student is interested in that is open to theory. The best recent literary theory, it seems to me, is that done by scholars of a particular subject (Proust, say), and the theory comes from that. Though in the case of queer literary theory, things may be a tad different and coming here to Michigan wouldn’t be a bad idea. I could make some other suggestions if its queer theory the student is interested in (though I bet you wouldn’t have specified 😉 )Regarding the second question: there wouldn’t be any problem. My best friend here went through a community college and I know a few others. It doesn’t seem to be a handicap.

  10. >Not being in English, this may be a really dumb suggestion, but the most theoretically-savvy person I knew in grad school (who WAS in English) had done an MA at Bucknell, and my sense was that was where they’d got all their theory stuff. (Okay, this was probably 10 years ago, but I thought I’d throw this out there.)And that’s the other thing I’ve seen suggested if you’re not sure about getting into a top Ph.D. program – do the MA somewhere else as a prelude to getting into a really hot Ph.D. program. FWIW, at my program there were people from all kinds of educational backgrounds. I’m told that’s narrowed a little, that there are more students from name places, but I think a great student from anywhere has a good shot. I think snob factor might be more of an issue for the Ivy League than the Big Ten, but I could be wrong. Finally, Anastasia and Scrivener both went to CCs before grad school.

  11. >I think it’s possible to get into good programs from a cc background, but not easy. In my experience, there’s a bias in PhD programs towards students from elite educational backgrounds.I know some folks who had good experiences at Purdue, but that’s 10 years ago now.

  12. >My program is fairly theory-intensive (we have a mandatory first-year theory requirement and exam), and attracts a lot of students who are interested in theory without necessarily focusing on it as their principal dissertation topic. However, it’s not strictly an English department and has a fairly low (I think) acceptance rate — email me if you want more/more specific info.

  13. >Again, it probably depends on what they are interested in… but, I would suggest UC Berkeley’s Rhetoric department since they do have the big guns and as far as I know have a really good placement record for their grads who do theory… of course, a lot of this placement often happens to be in gender/queer theory for Women’s Studies departments. Oh yes, I have seen a lot of theory jobs in more interdisciplinary departments like Women’s Studies. Those jobs have been asking mostly for a theory specialist who does gender/queer/transnational stuff. I hope that helps.

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