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Statement of Intent for English PhD- HELP! 
1st-Dec-2007 02:47 pm
Hi All,

I am new to this forum, and it is a real relief to find a community like this, since information on how to apply is so limited. I am looking for advice on my Statement of Purpose- would anyone be willing to read it  (tailored for Columbia's program) and give me feedback? If so, I would greatly appreciate it and am happy to reciprocate!

“What we accept in life we cannot accept in story,” protests J.M. Coetzee’s Susan Barton, the heroine transcribed from William DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe into J.M. Coetzee’s Foe, one of the many novels I analyzed for a graduate seminar thesis entitled “Mut(e)ilations: The Loss of Voice and the Voice of Loss in South Africa,” which earned me a 2004 writing award at the University of Cape Town and a 2005 Award by UCDavis’ English Department. I describe Susan’s remark as a “protest” deliberately; Foe is Susan’s dissent against the grand narrative of Robinson Crusoe, a text she decries as Defoe’s attempt to create an anesthetized legacy from her witness narrative. From my examination of Coetzee’s literature, my experience living in the South African society left as a consequence of apartheid, and my study of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I argued that to begin a process of healing in post-apartheid South Africa and indeed, the many histories of national trauma in the 20th century, the country must memorialize and inscribe within its national canon its history of forgetting people; and must reveal instead a story of disappearance and a disappearance of story, a tale of lost tales.

Living in South Africa and studying its literature has led me to consider the use and misuse of language to represent silence in traumatic histories. Those familiar with DeFoe’s original text will remember the slave Friday, literally rendered speechless by the text. Transplanted into Coetzee’s text his mutilated tongue alienates him from communication, his consequent silence subject to wanton interpretation and mistranslation. I found this act of interpreting and assigning meaning to the silence of the victim as much an act of violence as denying the victim expression through language altogether and decided to probe it further in other literary contexts.

My experience exploring the violence of both muting and assigning a ventriloquist to silenced victims drew me to a course in Holocaust Literature. My senior thesis explored how the stories told through children’s Holocaust literature has and will construct Holocaust memory for upcoming generations.  Here, I found myself again surrounded by attempts to fix meaning to a silenced people. In my senior thesis for this course, I argued that much of Holocaust knowledge comes to us filtered through literary fiction written about it, its narrative reinterpreted through modern politics, cultural attitudes, motives and agendas. While doing so keeps the history interesting for and relevant to modern audiences, it is also a ventriloquist’s act. I maintained, as I did in my study of South African literature, that the literature of traumatic cultural memory must acknowledge the essential ambiguity of the victim’s story, the history of silencing and the silences in the historical narrative, and the capacity of language to both give voice and to subvert it. I concluded that we must recognize in the subaltern story its essential ambiguity and our inability to fix meaning to it; that our only recourse is to eulogize and memorialize the trauma and the loss. We cannot and must not attempt to recover an irretrievable language. 

In pursuing my PhD, I would like to consider the issue of how to tell the tale of a silenced witness, how literature grapples with the problem of the untold stories in global postcolonial and postmodern literature, and our motivations for interpreting told and untold stories as we do. My knowledge and interest in 20th century literature has been informed by an array of courses on contemporary literature and history (I was a history minor with an emphasis on Judaic studies), and during that time, I cultivated a sensitivity how the witness narrative has become as much political and diplomatic task a factual one.

After leaving my work with the Memorial, I accepted a research position with the IJCR, a think tank devoted to social and demographic issues. Here, I consider how and why textbook publishers choose to incorporate versions of post-Holocaust history into their texts. Surveying varieties of historical accounts reminds me once again that history is more a discourse than a reality, a myth imbued with the political, social, and moral agendas of the people who tell it. Working at the Institute has allowed me to hone my research skills and, critically, confirmed my ambition to pursue further academic scholarship. It has given me distance and perspective on career goals, allowing me to enroll in Hebrew and German courses, which will allow me to access primary documents in my chosen field. I have taken a distanced and analytic view of my two theses, expanding upon and reconsidering many of the initial concepts, arguments, and conclusions I originally asserted. I have determined that I not only wish to pursue this study, but that I can best do so within the framework of Columbia’s English PhD program. In my quest to better understand the violence imposed by silence and silencing the witness, I found myself greatly influenced by Professor Spivak’s work on the subaltern and by Professor Damrosch’s study of literary allusions to antecedent texts in order to create new layers of narrative meaning. Significantly, my thoughts on using literature as a means through which to bear witness have been heavily influenced by Professor Hirsch’s preoccupation with the limits of language to represent traumatic memory.

I do not suppose that as a PhD, I will understand or explain the episodes of trauma and violence in history, or the massive effect it has on the way we construe ourselves and construct our surroundings. I do, however intend, as a graduate student, to understand how and why our society is compelled to bear witness, and to project a theory about what type of story we, as witnesses, will tell. My wish is to research, document and influence the texture of that memory, to become a witness and a storyteller myself and to help weave the narrative that will pass on to the next generation.
1st-Dec-2007 11:10 pm (UTC)
Please use a cut.
1st-Dec-2007 11:29 pm (UTC)
I can't read past the first sentence because it is WAY too long. Cut it down. You can end the first sentence after J.M. Coetzee’s Foe (thought should Foe be capitalized? I'd think it'd be foe). Then start the next statement, "his/her novel entitled " " was one of the many novels..."

Random other things...watch your commas (under and over use). Also, avoid negative language (I do not suppose as a PhD...you can cut that entire sentence and just state "As a graduate student at University A (Columbia I suppose), I intend to understand..."

I hear others mention you should take out any and all indentifying information (University Names, professor names etc). Some admissions people will search for passages in your SOP and find you posted it here, and then find out other information about you that you may not want them to know (they can then access your journal, possibly find out where else you are applying and evaluate your application with this information in mind).

Also, use the "cut" feature. Makes the front page more user friendly.
1st-Dec-2007 11:35 pm (UTC)
I forgot to mention, make sure there are no other run on sentences...especially if you plan to go to grad school in English (unless English isn't your first language, then they will probably be a little more lax, but still parse long sentences down).

I think you're paragraphs are out of order. You should combine your last paragraph and your fourth paragraphs as one last paragraph.

You mention about leaving the Memorial, but you never touched on beginning work there. The sentence is out of place, and makes the reader say "Huh? What?" and have to go back to see if they can find the original reference.

Also, you don't need to mention that you were a history minor etc, they can see all that on your transcript. Or, if you feel compelled to explain, make the sentence say something along the lines of "In my history minor with a focus on Judiac studies, I ..." This will make it read better.
2nd-Dec-2007 12:16 am (UTC)
Hi! I'm also an English PhD applicant, and I found this really interesting. A few points, though:
First of all, you need to cut A LOT. Columbia has a 500-word limit, and while going over a bit isn't a problem, you should definitely cut this to 2 double-spaced pages, and it's currently more like 2 single-spaced pages. The changes that need to be made will help with this to some degree, but you also have a lot of extraneous material here. Anything that references something noted elsewhere in your application can be cut or referenced in passing ("In my current work at the IJCR..." can replace the whole opening of that paragraph, for example). Also, cut anything that doesn't directly move the piece forward or which can be restated in a simpler way.
Your opening is really convoluted. Use shorter sentences and make each part more clear, because it's hard to see what you're saying.
In general, you want to try to make this flow better. Your ideas seem to jump a bit, even when they follow a fairly natural progression.
Your use of the term subaltern seems forced and awkward - like you're trying to connect to a Columbia prof's work. You note your interest in that later; it just makes the reader trip when you use it here.
You should go over this carefully, too, for grammatical and syntactical errors. It will help the piece to flow better, and it's important to show adcoms your grasp of the rules of language when you apply for an English PhD.
If you want any more specific advice (or just to chat about some of these ideas and the English PhD application process), feel free to friend me. :)
Good luck!!
4th-Dec-2007 05:35 pm (UTC) - Thanks!
Hi there,

I just wanted to get back to you and let you know how much I appreciated your feedback. It was awesome to hear from a fellow applicant, and I would love any other advice you would have. How is your process coming along? What are you hoping to study?

I took your suggestion and cut the statement by about 800 words, made sentences shorter, etc.

Glad to find a friend out there on the web!

2nd-Dec-2007 03:35 am (UTC)
Spivak is in comp lit, so you might want to indicate (if you want to work with her) how you might get around this/ or integrate your program?
2nd-Dec-2007 02:16 pm (UTC)
Columbia's program is English and Comp Lit combined. So you can work with profs from either.
2nd-Dec-2007 05:34 am (UTC)
the direction of your research looks fascinating: where else besides Columbia do you intend to apply? doesn't cornell also have faculty working with problems of witnessing?
4th-Dec-2007 05:52 pm (UTC)
I'm applying to UCLA, Cornell, UMass, Brown, Brandeis, NYU, U Washington in Seattle, and a few others. I'm glad to hear that my research is interesting to others- are you also applying? If so, where?
2nd-Dec-2007 07:50 am (UTC)
If I received this statement I would throw it away immediately after reading that first sentence that goes on and on and on and on.
4th-Dec-2007 05:53 pm (UTC)
Thanks for that- I changed it. It would be great if you could add some positive feedback or criticized with some suggestions though!
2nd-Dec-2007 05:56 pm (UTC)
I think that this statement has great content, which is the most important part. (Clearly, you are not padding your resume, and you have a lot of experience/sophisticated insights, which will be invaluable in grad school.) The trick is, however, to make sure that the adcomms will see it. I agree with several of the above comments regarding sentence length and grammatical/punctuation errors, which might distract your readers from the awesome content you have. (For example, you need to insert a comma after "Coetzee's text" in the second paragraph--it took me a couple of read-throughs to understand what you meant to say.)

I am also wondering if it might be helpful to say what IJCR stands for. I am unfamiliar with the acronym, so I do not know if your adcomm would recognize it either. Of course, if you address your work at the IJCR sufficiently in your other application documents, perhaps this is unnecessary.

One minor thing (and it really is minor) is that, in the third paragraph, you mention how Holocaust literature "comes to us." I am not really sure what "us" means--does it mean the reading community as a whole? Americans? Later generations? Those who have not experienced the violence of the Holocaust directly? Using the term "us" seems to me to draw a distinction between "us" and "them" (which I don't think you want to do, given your research interests), and is also unclear in any case. You might want to rephrase that.

Good luck with your revisions! I know it is brutal to cut your SoP (I just finished cutting mine), but it does actually improve the final product, believe it or not! You really do have a lot going for you in this statement, and I think with a little tightening up it will be spot-on.
4th-Dec-2007 05:55 pm (UTC)
Hey there,

Thanks for the post. I'll definitely make the changes you suggested and would love to hear more from you. I posted the updated version with some changes, and it's good to hear someone else say that they think I have something going on that would be of interest to an English program.
4th-Jan-2011 08:34 pm (UTC)
Three years later, where did you end up attending; how is it?
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