Been there, done that.

After six years of grad school, there are a few things I've picked up from personal experience and a whole lot of time talking with other female grad students (AKA procrastinating). I've always wished there had been some kind of handbook about how to handle the whole world of graduate school, so I figured I'd start a friendly place to discuss what it's like to be female in grad school, and maybe pass on some wisdom too!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

How to Pick an Academic Area of Study

One of the questions posed in this past week's discussion with undergraduates has had me thinking for the past few days and I think it makes an interesting topic for a post. This question was framed along the lines of "I'm interested in everything, how do I pick one thing to study?"

My gut reaction to this was along the lines of "are you kidding me?" I mean, I know full well there are major parts of my field that I have absolutely no interest in. But, I got to thinking about it, and within the general framework of my subfield there is a LOT I'm interested in. Actually, almost all of it I find interesting. Of course, that doesn't help when trying to come up with a solid research plan when applying for grad school, where a neat and tidy plan is necessary to demonstrate that you're capable of coming up with one, and of course setting up where and with whom you want to study. It can be a make-it or break-it part of your application. So how do you pick one thing you are wanting to study in school?

Well, there is a big caveats to this. Mainly, what you say you're going to study in grad school in your application more often then not isn't what you end up writing your dissertation on. You're going to need to be flexible (which makes liking a lot of different things very helpful). Your application will more often than not be a kind of guideline than an actual research plan, as funding/resources/samples/etc. will play a huge roll in how you plan your studies. Being flexible is a big part of research, so keep that in mind :)

That doesn't help though when it comes to actually finding something to study. Or at least say you want to study. Or even pick a general area of interest. Say you plan on going into archaeology, with some kind of crazy dream of being the next Indiana Jones (though he was really an art historian, and don't even get me started on this subject...), what part of the world are you going to want to focus your attention? The Maya? The Anasazi? The ancient Egyptians? You aren't going to be able to study them all, and with the way all science is going these days, everything is becoming more and more specialized. I look at my own research and have to laugh--I'm into such a minuscule area that it's almost funny (if it weren't so painful at times). Anyhow, you'll need to pick an area and narrow it down. And then pick a particular topic within that area and narrow that even further. But starting off with the bigger picture, how does someone go about narrowing things down?

Well, this is what I might recommend to those with this issue: make a list. I'm a big fan of lists. What have you studied that you just can't seem to get enough of? Make a list of these and take a long hard look at them. If you can't imagine spending the Rest of Your Life (and yes, that does need caps) studying this topic, move on to the next. Then, start digging. Read some papers. Read some more. If after five or six recent academic articles on a topic (and you'll probably have to go back and find some foundational research to build these on) you're still totally intrigued, keep going a bit. More often than not, you will find that either this is something you really love, or you'll find that the field has moved into an area you're totally not into. I'd use this method to cull through your list and narrow it down to as few items as possible.

From there, well, look at jobs. Let's face it, you're going to have to find employment studying this at some point, so finding out if there are more jobs in a particular sector will be very important. Studying underwater basket weaving probably won't help you much in terms of finding a paycheck. But there are regularly jobs for people in certain areas, so finding out this information at the first can really help. Plus, the chances of getting done and not finding a job (which is quite frankly the absolutely most frustrating thing I've ever experienced) will hopefully be minimized.

Anyhow, from here, narrowing your search will be based on schools an advisers. Finding a good fit for a school you like, an adviser you'll be comfortable working with, and a topic of interest will severely limit your list. If you're still having a hard time at this point, you're going to need to just spend some time thinking about it and what you want out of your life. I know that sounds rather vague and all, but that's something that I think is incredibly important.

Does anyone have any other suggestions?

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