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Letting Your Interests Change

It is easy to come into graduate school thinking you know what your interests are. After all, we're all required to specify our interests in our personal statements then have to recite them endlessly to each other every time we introduce ourselves. When I came into the MA at PSU, people often said that my interests will change. But I never believed them--not because I didn't think they would but because I couldn't imagine how or what my "interests changing" might mean.

Then you start taking graduate seminars and your brain is put on light-speed for a few years. At the end of each semester you look back and see that most of your concerns, worries, and thoughts from last semester were vague, misguided, irrelevant, confusing, etc, etc. As you stick with it, the good thoughts and ideas--the ones that you find yourself returning to and getting excited about--these rise up naturally through the process of blasting through stacks of books, presentations, and response papers.

This is what people mean when they say that "your interests will change": you just don't know where you are right now or where in the wild academic terrain you'll find yourself once the dust of coursework settles and you find yourself putting your list together for your comprehensive exam. Even if its precisely where you started (I came in wanting to study rhetoric of technology, and still do) the terrain looks entirely different out the other end.

Given this inevitable shift caused by the MA/early Ph.D process, you should keep yourself open and set aside some of the expectations and categories that you may be tempted to adopt like a name-tag ("Theorist", "Modernist Poetry"). More importantly, give yourself space to try different name tags (one semester I played political theorist, another, a Whitman scholar).  Doing so will actually teach you far more than you can anticipate. You might realize that your project has unforeseen political implications, for instance, as I did when I took a fantastic seminar called "Justice and Inequality" (co-taught by John Marsh (Engl Dept) and John Christman (Phil Dept)). Or you may find that you have a greater interest in theory, disability studies, science, or feminism than you had thought.

From this angle, you can also try to take advantage of the diversity requirements of the MA. Make these work for you to continue to diversify your knowledge and see what floats up. At worst, you'll learn that you don't want to work in that area. At best, you'll find terrific projects that round out your dissertation or provide fodder for future projects. For one of my pre-1800 courses I took a seminar by Carla Mulford on "Science and Empire" and ended up writing a paper on Newton. Sometimes you'll find that what these requirements yield is the sense that your interests are shared even by scholars not working in your field. My other pre-1800 was Garrett Sullivan's course on "Humanity and its Discontents in Renaissance Lit". Even though I'll never do anything with the paper I wrote on Marvell, I learned an amazing amount both about Renaissance science and its literature and found a shared interest, passion, and language with colleagues in another area.

Perhaps I was fortunate to have these courses pan out in the way they did. But there always seems to be a diverse enough course offering that you should be able to find something even tangentially related to what you're interested in (for the moment). And sometimes, because it's a good practice as a scholar, you should hop into something completely unfamiliar and let it see where it pushes you.