Carnegie Mellon University
April 26, 2017

First Person: How My MA Unexpectedly Inspired My PhD

Sarah Idzik is graduating this May with her masters in Literary and Cultural Studies.Sarah Idzik is graduating from the masters in Literary and Cultural Studies program this May. She recently wrote about her experience at Carnegie Mellon and how it has prepared her for the PhD in Rhetoric she will be pursuing this fall.

I returned to graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University after a long hiatus from school, including five years working in higher education in Chicago. My MA in LCS was meant to be something of a last academic hurrah before I continued pursuing a career in education or nonprofits, but as happens when something great comes your way, those plans changed: I felt so invigorated and so at home in the program that I decided to pursue further graduate study by applying to PhDs. The disciplinary shift to Rhetoric was almost accidental; I discovered rhetoric here at CMU, by taking first a course on propaganda with John Oddo, and then a course on contemporary rhetorical theory with Andreea Ritivoi. Rhetoric completed the shift I was already experiencing in my academic interests, away from the literature focus of my undergrad to discourse as constitutive of knowledge, power, and social formations, with cultural studies—the study of cultural practice and their social and historical contexts—providing the crucial bridge.

Though my dissertation topic is, of course, subject to change, right now I’m interested in national anthem performances at major American sporting events, particularly since 9/11, which was the topic of my final seminar paper for Rich Purcell’s Foundations in Cultural Studies course in the fall. I’m interested in the ways in which this genre of entertainment married to ritual patriotic practice constitutes or enforces a sense of national identity by naturalizing nationalism.

Why come to the MA in LCS program at CMU?

I chose the MA in LCS program at CMU because I wanted to push beyond my English literature background into Cultural Studies and critical theory, without losing the opportunity to still study literature. I was interested in cultural criticism at the time, and wanted a much wider and deeper background in cultural and social theory. It was also a great opportunity to come back to my hometown after a long time away, and to get to know Pittsburgh again.

The program really has been all of this and more. The MA in LCS program is a rigorous, serious graduate program, and it has pushed me, challenged me, and delighted me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. It changed my trajectory, nudging me toward academia, and introduced me to some of the most incredible, smart, interesting, and supportive people—colleagues and faculty alike—with whom I’ve ever been fortunate enough to find myself in one place.

How has your masters in Literary and Cultural Studies prepared you for a PhD in Rhetoric?

My experience in LCS is the entire reason I’m pursuing a PhD in the first place. I didn’t originally intend to pursue further graduate study, but half a semester of coursework here was enough to convince me that an immersive and intensive academic environment like LCS was exactly what I wanted. My classes were challenging, exciting, and unexpected; my professors supportive, engaging, willing to push me to engage new material and ideas, and encouraging of my development into a more mature, confident graduate student. I gained an astonishing amount of knowledge in a year, without which I would not have made a compelling PhD applicant, but I’ve also gained the focus and confidence to seriously and intentionally pursue graduate study. The opportunity to take Rhetoric courses within the department was a turning point for me, and the ability to work within both LCS and Rhetoric, and to see and develop the connections I saw between them, ultimately motivated me toward the Rhetoric and Public Culture program at Northwestern.

Which professors have influenced you most?

I wouldn’t know anything about rhetoric at all if it weren’t for Andreea Ritivoi and John Oddo, and I am indebted to them both for that felicitous introduction and for their encouragement. The seminar paper that Rich Purcell helped me to develop introduced me to my dissertation topic, without which I would not have been a successful PhD applicant. Jeff Williams (re)taught me how to write, and has generally been a great source of support and advice to me this year. And the incredible generosity of Peggy Knapp taught me that there are always new things to learn and delight in in a text, no matter how many times you’ve read it or how much you may initially resist.

What does it take to be successful at CMU?

I’m sure every student would have a different response to this, and I can really only speak to what has worked for me. My strategy for classes has been to learn to read carefully and to have confidence in the classroom. I had to push through a steep learning curve at the beginning of the year to get more comfortable reading large volumes of theory every week, so that was also a part of my process. I also think one of the great advantages of the MA in LCS is the ability to get to know the faculty, who take the time to do the same; it’s a small department, which means that even though we’re only here for a year, there are a lot of opportunities to form genuine professional relationships. To me, being “successful” in the program means feeling like I’ve made the most of my time here and have gotten as much out of the program as I could. To that end, absorbing as much of the readings as possible, developing new ideas with my colleagues and professors in class, and forming strong relationships with my professors has helped me to feel I’ve done that.