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I'm an English/Philosophy student who is hoping to pursue graduate school. My trouble is that I'm interested in too many things. I've taken classes in almost every subfield of Philosophy and English and enjoyed them all immensely, and I can't imagine picking between them.

My question: is there still room for exploration in graduate school? Could I be in an English program (say) and still be able to study Philosophy, or work in vastly different subfields of English simultaneously? Is one encouraged to 'specialize' right out of the gate?

Edit: I should rephrase my question. I understand the various commitments involved in earning a PhD, such as having to complete specialized research. But is it possible to work in another field simultaneously—publish in that field, especially—or are there professional barriers put up? This applies to life after grad school as well.

Related question: will there be time? Assume I am very motivated.

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Does one have to specialize in graduate school?

If by "graduate school" you mean a PhD, then yes. A PhD is awarded for specialized research. A masters or professional doctorate is often somewhat less specialized.

Is one encouraged to 'specialize' right out of the gate?

It varies, but normally in the United States you can postpone specialization for a few years into a doctorate. In other countries, a masters is completed before the specialized doctorate.

enjoyed them all immensely, and I can't imagine picking between them.

I suggest that you do not need graduate school at all. A PhD is not for learning content. It is for learning to do specialized research that creates content. If you have a bachelors degree, you can, or at least should be, able to to learn on your own.

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  • 3rd point - Yes, the difference between taking classes and doing research is important to understand. But OP was just saying that he/she likes both fields (or all subfields) equally.
    – toby544
    Jan 22 at 15:15
  • @toby544 is correct. Perhaps I should rephrase my question. I understand that you have to commit to a particular project in order to earn a PhD. But is it possible to work in another field simultaneously—publish in that field, especially—or are their professional barriers put up? This applies to life after grad school as well. Jan 22 at 17:31
  • You have to become a world expert on some topic. It’s very difficult to do that in one topic, let alone multiple topics! Jan 22 at 17:53
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    @Cleanthes301: are their professional barriers put up? -- This seems oddly conspiratorially strange to me. There are physicists/astronomers who have written science fiction (Carl Sagan, Fred Hoyle, Gregory Benford, etc.), mathematicians who have published fiction and poetry (Hausdorff, Sylvester, Michèle Audin, Eric Temple Bell, etc.), Erwin Schrodinger published a notable book on the nature of life, Isaac Asimov while still a contributing faculty member teaching biochemistry wrote quite a bit of fiction and popular nonfiction, etc. Jan 22 at 19:17
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It depends a bit on what you mean by "specialize". In the US, at least, one joins a department for doctoral studies. The department is, itself, normally specialized, either English or Philosophy.

There are some exceptions, in which the purview of a department is broad: Cultural Studies, or even Anthropology, which has many aspects.

You also normally work with an advisor who is very likely to ve specialized in their research interests. Some older professors may have branched out a bit in those interests as their career matures. But mostly, there is a push toward specialization.

In math, for example, math isn't enough. Math analysis isn't specialized enough, you have to close it down to get a dissertation written.

Now for exceptions.

It is possible in some places to get a degree that is "multi-disciplinary" but you will need to carefully search that out when you start to apply to grad school. Not everyplace will accept it. You would likely need more than one advisor (each with a specialization) and your dissertation topic would still be specialized in some way though of interest to both fields. Mathematical Philosophy, for example, is recognized, as is the History of Philosophy.

But, even though you may need to go narrow and deep for a dissertation and a doctorate, you don't need to give up all other interests. I know many mathematicians and computer scientists who are also musicians, for example, both classical and (very) hard rock.

But to do the research and write a dissertation you need a strong commitment to something, no matter what it is.

And, if ideas and how they are developed and verified appeal strongly to you then graduate school is probably much better than most alternatives.

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Please come to graduate school — we need students like you.

It's great that you are interested in all the things; you are not alone. There are other graduate students and academics who are interested in all the things, and it is a healthy sign of someone who has a broad interest in their field. Now, you can't really write a dissertation on "all the things", so at some point in your graduate work you are going to have to narrow things down to a topic that is sufficiently demarcated that you can do some novel and substantial research on it. You are going to have to specialise and go deep in your research on a particular topic. But since you are interested in all the things, it shouldn't be too difficult to find one thing that is interesting enough for a program of research.

Depending on the particular university, in a PhD program in graduate school you may or may not be expected to specialise "right out of the gate". At most universities you would do a year where you are either doing broad graduate-level coursework, or reading broadly over your field. In this period you are expected to be on the lookout for topics for a dissertation, but you are not expected to specialise right away. However, as you progress through the program you will be expected to choose a topic, begin to specialise in this topic, and study deeply into this topic in order to make a substantive research contribution in it. There are some universities where you will be expected to give a PhD proposal at entry and in this case there may be an expectation of earlier specialisation. If you're unsure, talk to the graduate coordinator at the university you are interested in and find out the process they use.

As to whether you can simultaneously study other fields, yes you can, but your time for this will be limited. Doing research in a field takes quite a lot of discipline and effort (particularly when you are first learning it) and so you may find that your spare time for studying other fields gets squeezed down a bit. Ideally you can progress your PhD research in a specialised field while also having some time available to learn about other things. (In fact, the latter can be a good way to take a break when you need it; do specialised study in some subfield of English, and then take a break by reading a philosophy book you're interested in.) Note that even once you have chosen a topic for your dissertation, you will specialise in this topic during your PhD candidature, but you can move into other topics later. If you've read widely this will help you to get research ideas on all sorts of topics in your later career. There are many academics and other researchers who have done a PhD dissertation in one topic/field, but then moved away from that or branched out in their later research.

There is absolutely room for you people like you in graduate school. In fact, I would say that it would be lovely to have more students like you. Please try your best not to lose that broad interest and love for multiple fields of inquiry, even if you spend years forced to specialise in particular topics. I'm a fellow "jack-of-all-trades", and I'll be honest that it does make it harder to advance in academia. (Academia primarily rewards high levels of output in a specialised subfield.) But it's certainly not impossible, and it's sometimes nice to be that guy with very broad knowledge across multiple fields.

As a caveat on the above, I suppose I shouldn't be too gung-ho on you coming to graduate school, since I don't want to ruin your life. Graduate school can be difficult for many students, and a graduate degree in English/Philosophy is arguably a terrible career move compared to entering the workforce. Moreover, there is a fairly substantial overproduction of graduate research students at the moment, which bodes poorly for future job prospects and social stability (see e.g., here and here). Nevertheless, if you love your subjects enough, and are prepared to make less money and have worse job-security than your peers, then by all means come on in.

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    Seems far too hung-ho. Doctoral studies, at least, is all about specialization. I think the exceptions are rare and far apart. You don't need to "be narrow" for ever, but you have to "go deep" for purposes of a dissertation. I have a lot of interests, but my dissertation was only of interest to half a dozen or so mathematicians at the time, and I knew many of them. For masters level study this is less true.
    – Buffy
    Jan 21 at 21:26
  • @Buffy: I agree with your observation on the need to specialise and "go deep" for the PhD. (I've now edited the answer to be more explicit on that.) I think you can be gung-ho and still also recognise that a period of specialisation is necessary in a PhD.
    – Ben
    Jan 21 at 21:32
  • And parts of this answer (not expected to specialize right out of the gate) are incorrect in many places. True in the US, but unlikely to be true in Germany. Facile answers don't help the OP. The world isn't all roses and violets.
    – Buffy
    Jan 21 at 21:35

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