- Graduate Schools: some questions you will need to ask
A concentration in French & Francophone Studies can provide an excellent background for graduate studies, not only in French, but also in many other fields. Whatever the field, graduate studies require forethought and careful preparation.
Before deciding to pursue a graduate degree, you will probably want to have a fairly clear idea of your vocational goals and of the ways in which the chosen course of graduate study could further them. Because of the emphasis on the liberal arts at the undergraduate level, students can to some extent choose their concentration on the basis of their interests, putting off until later the difficult decisions concerning their life's work. However, graduate studies, even in the humanities, are much more specialized and technical, relating much more directly to the way in which you will eventually earn your living.
If you continue in French & Francophone studies, it is likely that you will be asked to specialize to a much greater extent than you did as an undergraduate. In addition to the traditional training in French & Francophone literature, many universities have developed substantial graduate programs in French language or culture. Within these three general tracks, you may well be asked to specialize further. If you pursue literary studies, you may specialize in a particular period of literary history, or in a particular literary genre, or you may be trained in a particular theoretical or critical approach to literature. If language is your interest, you may be asked to choose between theoretical linguistics (perhaps with a further synchronic or diachronic emphasis) and applied linguistics; other choices include language acquisition or translation and interpretation. Within cultural studies, you may have to choose between contemporary culture and its historical development or between "metropolitan" French culture and Francophone studies. Some departments may offer you the possibility of specializing in French cinema.
If you are contemplating graduate studies in French & Francophone Studies, you should give some consideration to the particular specialization which you might like to pursue, choosing some of your undergraduate courses with that in mind. If you intend to pursue literary studies, it would be extremely helpful to have some undergraduate training in literary theory. If you wish to study the French language, you should take some courses in linguistics. For graduate studies in French culture, some background in cultural anthropology or cultural history would be useful. For any advanced French & Francophone studies, a significant foreign experience, such as participation in a Junior Year Abroad program, is highly recommended. If you were unable to include the appropriate courses in your undergraduate experience, you may find that taking a few additional courses after graduation will increase your chances of being accepted and of succeeding in a good graduate program.
Complementary training is even more important for those who wish to go from a concentration in French & Francophone Studies to graduate studies in some other field. A French & Francophone Studies degree is an excellent background for graduate studies in comparative literature, provided it includes some literary theory and is combined with a substantial amount of work in English and American literature or, preferably, some work in another foreign language and literature. A French & Francophone Studies concentration prepares students for graduate work in international studies or international relations, for students who also have a good background in government and economics. A French & Francophone Studies degree provides an excellent basis for a graduate French, European, or Francophone specialization in many other fields, including history, anthropology, art history, (ethno-)musicology, philosophy, sociology, linguistics, cinema studies, and multi-cultural studies, to name only the most obvious. An undergraduate French & Francophone degree will also contribute significantly to advanced professional training such as an MAT in foreign language teaching, an MBA in international business, or a law degree with a specialization in international law.
Your choice of a field of graduate study and your plans for specialization within that field should be major factors in your choice of a graduate university, since the strength of graduate programs in a given field can vary widely from one university to another. To give some examples in French & Francophone studies, New York University and Pennsylvania State University are well known for their graduate programs in French/Francophone Civilization and Culture, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan have prominent programs in French and Romance linguistics, and Georgetown University has a respected school of translation and interpretation. It would be worthwhile to do a little comparative research on various possible programs, beginning with the advice of your undergraduate instructors, especially those whose field of specialization is closest to that which you would like to pursue. You may be attracted to a given university by the chance to study with a particular professor, by the overall strength of the program, or by the opportunity which it offers to pursue your particular interests.
The best time to undertake graduate studies depends very much on the individual student. Some will want to go directly to graduate school, capitalizing on the momentum acquired in their undergraduate studies. Others will prefer to take a break from study, traveling, getting work experience in the "real" world, or earning money for graduate school. Many graduate programs especially welcome applicants with non-academic experience, finding that they tend to be more mature and focused. However, too long a break from study might make it difficult to readjust to an academic environment.
Having decided on graduate studies, you should begin the application process very early, because it includes several forms and processes, and many universities have early application deadlines (i.e., January or February for admission the following year). Virtually all universities require that students take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), which includes standard verbal and mathematical aptitude tests, as well as specialized tests in various fields including French. If you intend to go directly on to graduate school, you should plan to take the GRE during the first semester of your senior year. The places and times of testing are available at Career Counseling and Placement. You should also write early in your senior year to the universities in which you are interested to request information not included in the catalog and an application form, since the procedure will vary from one institution to another. They will all require letters of recommendation from your undergraduate instructors, to be submitted at the time of the application. You should choose recommenders who know your work well and can describe your achievements and potential as concretely as possible. You should ask them well ahead of the deadline, giving them some information on your accomplishments and plans, so that they will have the time and knowledge necessary to write a strong letter. Career Counseling and Placement can give you advice on preparing a curriculum vitae as well as an essay describing your previous studies, your activities and interests, and your future plans and aspirations. You can keep such documents in a computer file, modifying them to meet the particular requirements of a given application. You will also have to have official transcripts of your grades sent from William and Mary's Registrar's Office and from any other universities which you may have attended. Despite the trouble and cost (typically $50-$75 processing fee per application), it is advisable to apply to several graduate programs, to increase your chances of admission to at least one of them and to compare offers of funding.
Graduate studies can be very costly. However, most universities will help make it possible for students to pay for their education through some combination of grants, loans, and work opportunities. Application for a scholarship or an assistantship can usually be made along with the application for admission. Outright grants are highly competitive, and the repayment of loans may constitute a big financial burden after graduation. A French & Francophone Studies degree will give you an important marketable skill which should not be neglected, since many universities employ graduate students as Teaching Assistants to teach beginning language classes, often waiving or reducing tuition in addition to paying a salary. You may be required, however, to pursue a degree within the department in which you teach (or in a related interdisciplinary program such as comparative literature). Prior teaching experience, such as that of Undergraduate Teaching Assistant at William and Mary, could be an advantage in applying for such a position. For those who have entered the work force, there are some employers who will pay the costs of graduate education for their employees.
You can use several criteria when choosing to request further information from a graduate school, but it is a good idea to consider as many graduate schools as possible initially, since students are often surprised by what they find out once they are in personal contact with the schools they are interested in: their first choice can become their last, and their last become their first. Students may be limited in their choice for personal reasons, but in most, if not all, cases should get initial preference to those schools which are best known and have the best reputation (although the latter can change radically from one year to the next).
Here are some places to start, organized by region. (Note that our colleagues in German, Spanish, English or American literature might compile a very different list--the following is tailored for French & Francophone Studies.) In the Northwest, the Universities of Washington (Seattle) and Oregon (Eugene) are the most established. In California, any University of California campus (they are very different one from another) and Stanford University would be excellent choices. In the Southwest is the University of Arizona (Tucson). In the Midwest there are many choices: the Universities of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Wisconsin (Madison), Illinois (Champaign/Urbana), Indiana (Bloomington), and Minnesota (Minneapolis); and in Chicago, Northwestern and the University of Chicago. In the South, you might consider Emory University (Atlanta), Vanderbilt University, the University of Virginia, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill). In the Northeast, you should keep in mind the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), Pennsylvania State University, Princeton University, Rutgers University (both in New Jersey), Columbia University (New York City), New York University, City University of New York, some of the State University of New York (SUNY) campuses, Cornell University (Ithaca), Yale University (New Haven), Brown University (Providence), and Harvard University (Boston).
Doctoral programs in French & Francophone Studies can be vastly different one from another, so examine them carefully before applying. They can provide an emphasis on literary theory (UC Irvine, Columbia, Duke), on interdisciplinary studies (Emory, Minnesota, Madison, UC Santa Cruz), on comparative literature (Princeton, Minnesota, UC San Diego), on a more traditional preparation (UC Berkeley, Princeton, Harvard, UNC Chapel Hill), on civilization and culture (New York University, Pennsylvania State University), on language acquisition and pedagogy and linguistics (Pennsylvania State University, UC Berkeley, Michigan). The library of the university where the graduate school is located is also extremely important. For instance, if someone is interested in Baudelaire and his times, he or she might want to consider going to Vanderbilt for its Baudelaire Studies Center. Large early modern collections exist at the University of California (any campus) and Harvard. If the school is located in a city with other universities, such as Boston or New York, students may take advantage of all of the other libraries in addition to their own, in which case the specific collection of the home institution would not carry the same importance that it would for a more geographically isolated institution (e.g., the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana or Cornell University).
Graduate students are notoriously poor, but they're usually able to get enough financial support from their graduate school to live independently and still buy books. Students in the humanities may take a summer job as well. Finding out about what the graduate school can offer is therefore essential both when applying and before accepting assistantships, students loans, and, occasionally, research assistantships. (Teaching assistantships are especially valuable, since they can provide you with hands-on experience in pedagogy, besides helping you defray your costs.) Private universities will also often waive tuition. Increasingly, schools are also offering a year in France during graduate study or a special grant for dissertation work in libraries in France or other French-speaking countries, so be sure and ask about that as well. Keep in mind that expenses can vary widely among schools (private or public) and regions (city and state), and that the financial aid package that seems less generous may in fact be better adjusted to actual costs of living and study.
New Ph.D.'s must have had some teaching experience (supervised and autonomous) during their years in graduate school in order to be considered seriously for a teaching position at most Colleges. Try to get some experience teaching first- or second-year French language courses. Other valuable experience would include teaching (or at least TAing for) a literature or civilization/culture course, English composition, and Humanities core courses for freshmen/women. Make sure that the graduate schools you are considering seriously will offer you several opportunities to teach, will provide teacher training for you before you enter the classroom, and is serious about follow-up peer and supervisory critiquing after you have entered it. In addition, find out what percentage of their graduates have gotten jobs and how actively the faculty help their students (as with mock-interviews, for instance).
5. Do I like the area in which the school is situated? Does the program seem like a collaborative environment?
We recommend visiting the graduate school and meeting some of the faculty and students before making a final decision, especially if you have received more than one offer. You want to make sure that you will be happy in this geographic area, and that the departmental environment is supportive and collaborative.
One good place to start, once you are ready to contrast the different graduate programs in French, is the September issue of the PMLA journal, which provides up-to-date information on the existing Ph.D. programs. We also suggest that you contact different faculty members of the French section to supplement your own research on programs that might suit you best.