Grad School: Is It For You?–Choosing a Program

Last week, I wrote about choosing a school. This week, I get a little more specific: choosing a program. This might seem like a no-brainer; I mean, you’re probably not going to attempt an MFA in Puppetry if you just spent four years studying Atmospheric Science, right? Well… you never know. Afterall, Elle Woods went to Law School after majoring in Fashion Merchandising or something. Besides, I can tell you from experience that even if you think you know what you’re applying for, you better double-check.
Case in point: In college, I majored in English, and I was one class shy of earning a film minor. My final semester of college, no film classes that would fulfill my final requirement were offered, and even though I had taken film classes that weren’t part of the minor’s plan of study, they wouldn’t give me the “Film Studies Minor” title unless I took a class that wasn’t freakin’ available. I still get riled up about that, as you can see.
Anyway, I was seeking a Masters degree in English, though I really enjoyed Film Studies as well. Now, when you apply for a grad school program, you might have to choose a field within the realm of your chosen subject. For example, many English programs divide their grad students into Rhet/Comp or Lit majors; my friend is currently getting a PhD in Psychology, but her specialization is Early Childhood Development. So while you may earn a degree in a broad major like Politics, Journalism, or Philosophy, you may have to narrow it down to a specific topic when you apply to grad schools.
That being said, I discovered that North Carolina State had three “tracks” for its English grad students to choose from: Composition and Rhetoric (boring), Literature (why not?), and Film (What?? Film?!? Score!). I hastily applied for the film track, and eagerly awaited acceptance to NC State. I surpassed all of the school’s entry requirements, such as GPA and GRE Scores, and I sent two awesome writing samples, which were essays I wrote that analyzed some classic films.
NC State was my first choice school at the time, hands down. So imagine my surprise when I got REJECTED. I was shocked. I was so surprised, in fact, that I mustered up the balls to write to an admissions rep and ask why they didn’t want me. Where had I gone wrong? Applying for a film track.
I mentioned that many English programs ask students to choose between Rhet/Comp, Literature, or some other derivative of English language. It’s basically a matter of checking a box, so I’d assumed the same was true of the film track. Because I hadn’t thoroughly researched the program at NC State, I hadn’t realized that the film track is incredibly competitive. While I would have been a prime candidate for the literature track, I was trying to compete with kids who had majored in film studies, students who had written, directed, and produced actual films while I was writing about camera angles in Hitchcock flicks.
Reapplying for the Lit track was out, so I blew my chance at studying at my number one grad school, simply because I didn’t know what I was doing when I tried to choose a program. Then, when I finally began my career as an English graduate student, I quickly realized that even the literature track wasn’t right for me. I had loved the variety of English classes available to me in undergrad, and surpassed my minimum credit requirements by signing up for elective classes like “Literature Goes to Hell,” “Fiction into Film,” “Contemporary Irish Literature,” and “African American Children’s Lit.”
My grad school program, however, followed a strict plan of study, and while I thoroughly enjoyed “Modern American Drama,” I absolutely hated reading a 1600-page epistolary novel in my 18th Century British Lit class. Furthermore, I had decided to get a Masters degree with zero intentions of going on to a PhD, and English is the kind of major that people usually study because they want to end up a professor or because they want to do research in the field. That being said, the required “Practicum in Teaching Composition” and “Art of the Bibliography” classes weren’t exactly fulfilling to my interests.
As I said last week, it’s vital that you spend the time to research the schools and programs you are applying for. Look at a sample plan of study. If you want to get a Masters degree in History, but have no intention of studying anything prior to 1965, you might be disappointed. It’s also in your best interest to actually understand how competitive a program is, so you don’t waste $50 applying to a program that you are grossly unqualified for.

The Unbearable Lightness Of Being:  A Heavy, Must-Read
The Unbearable Lightness Of Being: A Heavy, Must-Read
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