Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

Archive for the day “May 29, 2011”

Advice for International Students Who Want to Get a PhD in the US

I often get emails from international students who want to do a PhD in the Humanities in the US and Canada. Even for somebody who thrives on being repetitive, like I do, answering such emails is getting a little too monotonous. So I will provide the answers to the questions I receive most often in a blog post. Feel free to ask any questions that I forget to cover, and I will add answers to them.

1. How do I pay for graduate studies? The good news is that you are not supposed to pay for a PhD in Humanities. The university that accepts you will waive tuition and pay you a yearly stipend (between $17,000 and $22,000 per year, more or less.) In return, you will be expected to work as a teaching assistant or teach basic-level courses. If a university accepts you into a PhD program in the Humanities but does not offer a yearly stipend, my advice is: refuse the offer. This school does not really want you and you will get into a huge debt that you will not be able to repay.

2. The date of submission for the application is in December-February, but I will only graduate in May. What do I do? Don’t worry, everybody understands that people who apply don’t have their diplomas when the applications are due. You will be accepted provisionally on the condition that you do graduate when planned and provide your diploma as soon as you get it.

3. What kind of tests will I have to pass? This depends on a specific school but usually an international student cannot avoid TOEFL and GRE. TOEFL is a very basic English proficiency test that usually even people who speak almost no English at all can pass. GRE is trickier. You need to start practicing your advanced English vocabulary as soon as possible to prepare for the GRE. There are manuals that will help you prepare.

4. Do I need to describe my dissertation project in the application? More often than not, telling your prospective university that you already have a topic for a doctoral dissertation will weigh hugely against you. You are expected to arrive at the topic of the dissertation as a result of your graduate studies. Very few thesis directors have any interest in working with students who know what they want to do in advance. Even if you already have a topic you are in love with, just keep it to yourself.

5. Do I need to choose my thesis advisor before applying and get in touch with them? While it is a good idea to research scholars who work at your chosen institution/s, it makes no sense to decide on a thesis director so early. Wait until you get accepted, come to the department, look around, get to know people. Somebody who looks fantastic on paper can turn out to have an impossible personality. You need to be able to make this very important choice based on a very good knowledge of potential thesis directors you might select from.

6. How many universities can I apply to? As many as you want. You can apply to a hundred schools, if that’s what you want to do. Remember, however, that applications are not free. You will have to pay a processing fee to each school you apply to. You will also have to pay for every school that your TOEFL and GRE test scores are sent to in excess of 4 schools. This can turn out to be a costly process, so it makes no sense to apply to places you are not considering seriously.

7. What documents will I have to submit with my application? This varies from one school to another. However, everybody will expect you to fill out their application form (usually provided at the university’s website) and send in college transcripts (which have to be sent directly by your school, not by you), letters of recommendation (again, sent directly by the person who is writing the letter), your CV, and a letter of intent. Leading scholars often have their CVs online. Find one and try to fashion your own according to the same format. You might discover that a North American CV is very different from the ones you see in your country. A letter of intent is aimed at making you stand out and convincing people that they want you as a student. It shouldn’t be too long (usually, the school tells you how long it has to be). Make sure it is direct and personal enough to make you sound interesting and promising as a doctoral student.

8. How do I go about getting a visa? It is the university’s responsibility to get student visas for its doctoral students. In my experience, the visa is the last thing you need to worry about. After you get accepted and accept the offer, you will simply get your visa in the mail. Universities know how to handle visas very well and have attorneys on staff who take care of that.

9. What if I’m married/have a partner? If you are married, your spouse will normally get a visa that will allow them to enter the country. Unfortunately, most universities do not recognize common-law partners and don’t offer medical insurance for spouses. Often, spouses of grad student find jobs at the library, the computer labs, the university store, etc. You will need to explore what options are available with the specific department that has accepted you.

This is all I can think of right now. Feel free to add more questions / suggestions of your own.


One Day. . .

I dream of the day when I will receive the revision to my academic writings and they will not have the word “wordy” on every page of my text.

In order to avoid wordiness, I sometimes resort to short sentences. Which is when I get the second most popular comment: “Choppy.”

“Just write concisely, like you would do on your blog” a desperate reviewer finally wrote on my book chapter. In my defense, I wrote the text before I started blogging.

Soviet Union Is a Diagnosis

The caption to this great poster says: “Soviet Union is a diagnosis.” I couldn’t agree more. It isn’t a country that fell apart years ago. It’s a state of mind, a way of being that is not bound by history and geography. Its symptoms are: a cult of mediocrity and a hatred of everything and everybody that stands out from the crowd, an intense materialism, a dislike of everything intellectual, a corruption that is so wide-spread that it penetrates into every aspect of existence, cynicism, and indifference.

 I found this poster here.

A Color-Changing Dog

The people whose party I visited today have a big black dog. So I’m sitting at the party and noticing that the dog keeps changing color.Sometimes, it’s black, but at other times, it’s dark brown.

“Wow, this is weird,” I thought. “I only had one glass of sangria and already I’m seeing the dog change color.”

Then, I found out that there were two big dogs of slightly different colors at that party, so the sangria was not to blame.

An Unwelcome Discovery

I followed the advice I found on Stupid Motivational Tricks and Get a Life, PhD and recorded everything I did, planned to do, and didn’t manage to do in terms of my intellectual and professional development since the beginning of May. I started a notebook where I made daily plans for how much I needed to write, translate, do research, grade, and read. And then I put little yellow sticky dots next to the tasks that were completed, red dots next to the tasks that were not, and blue next to the ones that were more than 50% completed.

Before you scream “neurotic!” (which this kind of is, I agree), I have to tell you that this system helped me discover some very unexpected things. It turns out – and this is a very shocking discovery to me – that it isn’t the research, the need to generate ideas, or even the writing that trips me up and prevents me from doing as much as I need to. It’s reading. I have no idea when and how it happened, but I started reading a lot less than I used to. I still read more than a regular person, of course, but not nearly at a pace I used to have. So the reason why the writing goes more slowly is not that I don’t like to write any more or that I somehow lost my writing skills. It’s simply that my reading can’t catch up.

I’ve been sitting here wondering why I can’t finally sit down to write the next part of the book. The answer – which I have been refusing to see – is that I can’t write it until I read these three articles that I found. And it would be even better if I could also read one more novella by this author. Normally, I’d do that in two days and never stop to think about it. Now, it takes forever. Or, even worse, never happens.

I looked at the list of books I’ve read this year, and it is, indeed, quite depopulated. As somebody who has been reading non-stop since the age of four, I’m shocked by this unwelcome discovery.

I am now going to a party where I will think intensely about why this happened and how I will work to change it. I don’t want to lose my identity as a reader for anything in the world.


Until five am tonight I entertained myself by calculating expenses. I’m sure everybody has gone through these moments when you are lying in bed, counting money, and arriving at the conclusion that you don’t make nearly enough. I can’t say I have all that many expenses, so after I calculated the ones I do have, I proceeded to make calculations for the future. By 5 am, I got to 2017 and became hopelessly confused. Then, I decided to redo the whole thing but, luckily, fell asleep.

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