Some students seem to be born knowing what they want to do. We all know students like this – Perhaps you sat next to someone in your high school math class who announced that they were going to be a doctor, applied to and was accepted to a college with a good premed program (where they majored in biology or chemistry) and who is right on track to take MCAT’s and apply to medical schools by his senior year of college. Maybe you yourself are such a student.
Or perhaps you’re the other type of student – Maybe you were a late bloomer who fell in love with development economics when you took a junior year abroad in Greece or maybe you were one of those people who has too many interests to ever choose just one. And now, as you contemplate graduate school, you may be wondering if it’s even possible for someone to apply for graduate school in a subject they didn’t major in and may have only recently discovered. Perhaps you have a general idea of what you want to study (public health or international relations) but feel intimidated when you talk to other students who seem by now to have honed in on very specific interests (the politics of AIDS in Africa, or the Reagan Doctrine and its effects on Latin America, for example).
The secret is that there is no one right way to apply to graduate school or to be successful once you arrive there. Some students do indeed have a very clearly defined interest and they might even apply to a program in order to work with a specific individual (the world’s foremost expert on the politics of AIDS in Africa, for example). In this case, it is indeed appropriate to contact a particular professor and to let him or her know of your interest in writing a Master’s thesis or completing a dissertation with this individual.
Others might simply want to choose a well-regarded program in the subject that interests them and expect that during their initial coursework they will be able to narrow down their specific interests. They too may find that they ‘click’ with a specific professor once they have a chance to take a seminar or visit with that person. They may discover that they have a hidden talent for survey research or statistical analysis which they haven’t yet tapped as an undergraduate.
As you make choices about graduate school, one thing to remember is that the best-laid plans are still always subject to change. You might choose a graduate program based on your hopes of forging a relationship with an individual who is currently there and later find that this person is on sabbatical or has even moved on to another university by the time you arrive. He or she may not be taking on new grad students. Thus, if you do wish to work with a specific individual, it’s appropriate to ask about his or her availability and willingness to work with new students.
The next thing to remember is that no matter what your major is, you will still have certain skills that you bring to your graduate school application. Perhaps you speak a foreign language well, are an excellent writer and did well on your standardized tests. Perhaps you have worked for a professor who is willing to write you an excellent letter of recommendation. Not everyone who enters a political science graduate program will have majored in poli sci as an undergraduate, and not everyone who becomes an economist will have majored in economics.
Indeed, the admissions committee sometimes appreciates the diversity which those from other fields can bring to a discipline. They may bring a fresh perspective and a new way of looking at the literature. (I was an undergraduate Russian major who read a lot of work by dissident poets. At some point, I realized that many of these poems were political and it was the politics which fascinated me as much as the language and literature. I was able to make a strong case for why I was a good fit in a political science graduate program. Someone who majored in biology might find that they are actually interested in the politics of genetic testing and also wind up in a political science program. The possibilities are endless.)
But regardless of whether you are as focused as a laser or somewhat less so, you will find that a strong liberal arts background will provide a good foundation for graduate school in many fields, provided that you learn how to write, think and research.
Mary Manjikian, Ph.D., is Associate Dean and Assistant Professor at Regent University’s Robertson School of Government. She is a former Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State. For more information about the School of Government, please visit this site.
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