Transitioning to a New Field of Study in Grad School
I have identified with the term “writer” all my life, but I haven’t always had the credentials to prove it. Though I was at first a physics major, then a philosophy major and classics minor, then a customer retention representative, one thing has remained constant throughout my various daily routines: I always left time for writing. When, at 24, I decided to attend graduate school, I knew it had to be in fiction writing.
As much as I loved Socrates, Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer, I didn’t think I had as much to contribute to the philosophical community as I did the literary world. My passion lies in advocating for diversity. And as a writer, the most effective way I could advocate for diversity was through storytelling. So I began the daunting process of applying to creative writing graduate programs.
The process was daunting because I had very little formal background in creative writing. I remember people telling me along the way, “Oh, don’t worry, you don’t need to go to grad school for the same major that you got your degree in.” No matter how many times I heard this, I didn’t believe it. I was sure that maybe this was true for rare exceptions, but that I would have to put in a ton of work to prove my worth in an entirely new field.
Once I was accepted to Ball State and began my master’s degree in creative writing, I began to see a very different side of the story I had been telling myself. Here’s what I’ve learned
- You will need to do some catch-up work, but so will everyone else.
There is no “traditional” graduate student. People find their way to graduate school through many different paths. Some come straight from their undergraduate institution, but many people may be coming from a long-term job, an experience abroad or previous graduate study in a different field.
What this means is that when you’re sitting in class debating whether or not to ask a question, someone else is likely wondering the same thing. Whether it’s been a few years since you’ve cracked open a textbook, or you never had time to fit a particular class in your schedule, there is no shame in asking what may feel like a foundational question. Especially at the beginning of a new program, many people may be glad someone else asked for a refresher.
- You can learn a lot from socializing with your peers.
Everyone likes to feel smart, and the easiest way to make someone else feel smart is by asking for advice. If you are a student who switched fields when coming to grad school, you are in a perfect position to make friends by asking for help from those around you.
Within the first two weeks of my program, I heard people mention they were submitting their poetry and fiction to literary journals. I had barely heard the phrase “literary journal” before, let alone submitted to one. One day at the library, I asked a friend in my program if he could walk me through the process of submitting to magazines. He showed me everything: how to write a cover letter, find magazines I liked and submit to contests. Though artists have a reputation for being competitive, I think most of us realize that we are not competing for America’s Next Top Fiction Writer, and that there is room for all of us at the top. In my experience, the joy of seeing a friend published is just as gratifying as being published myself. While I can’t speak for the atmosphere of every academic field, I have always found people supportive and happy to lend a hand.
- Your previous degree may actually make you a more valuable applicant.
If I could go back in time, I would never choose to do my undergraduate in the same field as my graduate study. Coming from a different field of study has helped me in ways I never could have imagined. Especially in the arts, I sometimes wonder what people write about if they have only ever studied writing. My philosophical background appears in my fiction all the time; in fact, I am rarely thinking about writing without thinking about philosophy.
A professor once told me that she loved how I could make connections between any two subjects. It took me a while to understand why she thought that was an important skill, rather than just a reflection of my jumbled brain. But eventually I realized she was talking about audience. Having a deep connection to more than one field of study (whether through a major, minor or hobby), meant I could connect to more people when I explained my thoughts. With my classics minor, I can make metaphors that make sense to archaeologists, but also linguists and historians. I can draw connections between Wittgenstein and Hemingway, or between Dungeons & Dragons and composition pedagogy. This has shown up most in my teaching, where I feel it helps my students better understand the material in my classroom.
In short, if you’re like me and are hesitant about switching majors from undergraduate to graduate school, know that it is far more common than most people think. Sure, it may take a little extra effort once you arrive in your new program, but in my experience switching my field of study has been an incredibly affirming, positive experience.
This post was written by Graduate School Recruiting Ambassador George Hickman. George is a graduate student in English with a creative writing focus.