Interview with Maxime Foerster
“If you are going to write a dissertation, choose a subject that you are passionate about because you are going to spend many years working on it. Don’t choose a subject because it was imposed upon you by your professor or because you think the job market will be responsive to it.”
Graduate School – Application Process
How did you select your graduate school and program?
I chose to get my PhD in French literature at University of Michigan because I was fortunate enough to meet a few professors who taught at the university while they were visiting Paris. I am an international student from France, and so I was lucky to have the chance to meet my future professors in person. I also knew about the quality of the faculty at University of Michigan because I had read some of their books.
What did you do to prepare yourself for graduate school?
I prepared myself by for graduate school by conducting research as an independent scholar. At the time that I applied, I was experienced in academic research and writing since I had already published a book in France. By the time I was accepted, I was ready for PhD-level scholarship.
After acceptance, many professors told me to be ready for a substantial psychological change when I moved from Paris to Michigan. They were worried about my adjustment in terms of the differences in culture, the weather and the scale of the city. But in the end, it worked out very well. I had already adjusted to America because I held a teaching position at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill a few years ago. Moving to Michigan was an exciting experience.
Did your application requirements include standardized test scores?
Yes, the application required 2 standardized tests. I had to take the GRE exam, like most graduate students. Since I am a French student, I also had to take the TOEFL, or the Test of English as a Foreign Language, to prove that my level of English was adequate for graduate study.
What kind of information did you include in your personal statement?
In my personal statement, I included specific information about the kinds of projects I would be working on. I wrote about my future dissertation and discussed my motivations for entering a doctorate program.
For me, the hardest part of the personal statement was perfecting my English, so I wrote it well in advance so that I would have time to edit it.
How did you choose faculty to approach for letters of recommendation?
I asked American faculty and scholars to recommend me. My French professors were not familiar with the American convention that requires recommendation letters to dramatically emphasize a student’s personal qualities in addition to his scholarly ones. The first person I asked was a professor of French at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill whose research interests were similar to mine. I also asked a friend who is an independent scholar in San Francisco to write a letter because he was familiar with my book and my research. Finally, I asked a professor from Texas whom I had been in touch with while I lived in Paris because I really liked her work.
What types of questions were asked in your admissions interview?
I went to admissions interviews after I had been accepted to multiple schools. The purpose of my admissions interviews at both the University of Michigan and City University of New York were to convince me to choose that particular school. I talked to the chairs of the departments at each school, mainly about the amount of money that would be available to fund my doctorate program.
Do you have any other tips for a student who is considering applying to graduate school in French literature?
I would advise students to apply to a handful of schools. If I had to do it again, I would apply to many more than just the 2 schools I did. Out of curiosity, I would have liked to apply to some Ivy League schools and some others around the country so I could assess how good my application really was. So if a student applies to many schools, they will be able to see where they stand in comparison to other students in their field.
I also suggest that students visit the campuses because it is crucial to feel comfortable on campus and in the city. I was living in Paris at the time of my application, so I didn’t make a campus visit. But if it is possible, a student should go to the campus and form his or her own opinion about it.
My last piece of advice is to start doing your research in advance. Research is a nice way of selecting some readings and creating your own bibliography so that you are better prepared. It also helps you to ease into the intellectual environment of graduate school and increase your appetite for scholarship.
Graduate School – The Program
How long is your program and how is the curriculum distributed?
My doctoral program in French literature typically takes 5 years. It is divided by our work before the preliminary exams and our work after them. Before the prelims, we attend many seminars with other graduate students. All of the seminars that we take in these 2 or 3 years help us determine our dissertation topics and professors we would like to work with. After we complete the seminars, we take our prelims.
The second half of the program is more individualized, since we are writing the dissertations independently. At this point, we have to give birth to something substantial and original which will be our academic signature. This independence causes anxiety for some students, but it is also the best moment of the PhD experience because we can finally produce original work that will contribute to our fields.
What is the focus of your dissertation research?
I am working on a dissertation about the way that heterosexual couples formed new standards for gender and sex practices after the French Revolution. At that time, there was an attempt by heterosexual couples to reinvent love rather than imitating the standards set by their parents in terms of parenthood, gender divisions and displays of affection.
My broad interest is queer studies, so I knew I wanted to write something about sexuality. I thought it would be interesting to focus on what is problematic within heterosexuality, since it is supposed to be normal. I decided to focus on 19th-century French literature after I took a seminar with Professor Mich?le Hannoosh. I really liked the serious and professional way she handled teaching about that time period.
Can you describe the process of researching for and writing your dissertation?
The research portion is a very long process. I spent a lot of time establishing a bibliography, which is a process that basically never stops. It is a humbling and paradoxical process because the more you learn, the more you realize what you still need to learn. It is excruciating, humbling and stimulating at the same time.
Writing the dissertation requires a lot of discipline and respect for both your professors and yourself. Sometimes it feels like a relationship because you have to be very passionate, focused and faithful to this project. Until you defend your dissertation, you are not done with it.
If you are going to write a dissertation, choose a subject that you are passionate about because you are going to spend many years working on it. Don’t choose a subject because it was imposed upon you by your professor or because you think the job market will be responsive to it. Your dissertation must stimulate you so that you can approach it energetically.
Also, don’t panic if you think that you haven’t read everything there is to read about a subject. It is not possible to do so. You only have 24 hours in a day and life is short. Instead of panicking, it is better to be realistically ambitious. Know that your project, while significant, is only a small contribution to a very large field.
How is the dissertation process different from working on a masters thesis?
The biggest difference is that the bibliography required by your dissertation is much more demanding. Your project cannot simply rephrase what has been studied before, so you have to take your research as far as you possibly can. Even though I have already written a book, writing my dissertation feels like the first time I have realized my own potential. It feels like I have stopped being a promising student and become an intellectual.
Graduate School – Paying for It
How much does your PhD program cost?
I don’t really know how much it costs because it is taken care of by a scholarship.
How are you funding your education?
All graduate students are offered the same fellowship of about $16,000 a year for 5 years. I can rely on this fellowship to cover tuition and provide health insurance as long as I teach 2 French classes each year. However, I have to pay any costs that are not covered by that fellowship, like food and travel expenses.
Graduate School – Living Life
What are the time commitments for a PhD in French literature?
My time is divided between writing my dissertation and attending to the class I teach. I spend about 25 hours a week working on my dissertation, although it is difficult to quantify that amount of time because I am always thinking about it. I have a lot of free time, but it is not really leisure time since I can’t stop thinking about my project.
When I am not working on my dissertation, I must prepare for the class that I teach. Teaching does not require too much of my time, but it is a very interesting and valuable experience because it gives me a clear idea of what to expect as a professor.
How has graduate school affected your personal life?
Graduate school has greatly affected my personal life, especially since I am an international student. The experience has given me a a different perspective about my own country. I feel like I am both at home and a foreigner in both France and America.
I have also discovered the joy and pain of thinking in a different language than the one that I write in. I don’t think in English, but I have to write in it. That makes for a thinking process that involves lots of misconnections and reconnections. It has forced my personal identity to evolve through many stages. But overall, it is been a wonderful and extremely stimulating experience.
I would caution students that although graduate work takes a lot of time, they should stay calm and make sure to leave some time for themselves. PhD programs can be very stressful and high pressure, so you should not be ashamed to spend time doing something outside of studying. Even though becoming a scholar is extremely exciting, you have to be comfortable having a private life outside of scholarship.
Graduate School – After Graduation
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
In 5 years, I would like to still be in the United States because I believe that working as a professor in the American university system would be extremely stimulating. I am already applying for academic jobs so that I can stay in America.
Graduate School – Advice
What insights can you offer a student who is interested in pursuing a PhD in French literature?
I would caution international students to be ready for discovering a new way of discussing and learning new material. I wasn’t very familiar with the American way of learning in seminars. In France, I was used to sitting in class while the professor shared his knowledge through lectures. So I was a bit confused at first because American students seemed to control the classroom by having open discussions about what they had read. At first, I was disturbed by the system, but I adjusted.