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Researching Programs: Profiling Your Research Interests

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Another piece of the graduate school application puzzle, and of picking the right schools/programs for you, is knowing your own research interests. It's important to have a grasp of your own research interests and to be able to talk about them with others in some meaningful way. One way to do this is to create a profile of your own research interests.

Profiling Research Interests

One's research interests are generally a combination of two factors: what is studied (subject and data) and how it is studied (methodology and theory). As an undergraduate, choosing the right subject is often enough. In choosing a graduate program, however, you need to recognize that some theoretical approaches and methodologies will interest you more than others. You want to choose a program that is not only knowledgeable in your chosen field, but also one that is invested in the theories and methodologies that allow you to ask the questions you think are most important. For example, almost any English literature program will have a scholar who specializes in Shakespeare. However, Shakespearean scholars might be interested in the ways Shakespeare treats gender and sexuality, or in the ways that Shakespeare treats issues of class. Some scholars see Shakespeare as an insightful social critic and will explore topics that are still relevant to our world today. Others will see him as the product of a specific historic time and place and will therefore research his biography and the politics of Edwardian England.

Most journals are partial to some methodologies over others. That means that you need to read articles from different journals, not just articles on different topics. You also want to look for special editions, which will help you see the many sub-fields that develop in every topic.

As you read, keep a columned list of scholars’ names and key terms from your readings. It might also be helpful to keep track of some of the following questions:

  • Who studies topics that interest you?
  • What kinds of questions are they asking and what kinds of arguments are they making?
  • Are there people who study the right topics but seem to be asking the wrong questions?
  • Are there people who ask interesting questions even though you don't find their subjects that interesting? Read the footnotes and citations.
  • Who are the influential scholars in the field?

Also keep a look out for controversies. They may not always be obvious, but the more you read, the more you'll see lines being drawn and authors picking sides. Understanding the state of the field, and knowing where particular scholars fall, can give you some idea about the attitudes that a particular graduate program might hold towards possibly contentious issues in a field of study. However, keep in mind that programs often have many faculty members, some with disparate opinions.