Finding Your Focus

Finding Your Focus

Preparing for your studies at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center may seem intimidating - throughout the application process, and even after, you are asked about your research interests, focus, and career path. What if you are interested in many things? How do you find your one true passion? Or perhaps, how do you bring all your interests together and look at them through a truly interdisciplinary lens?  Rebecca Ash-Cervantes shares her experience. 

If you’re perhaps an undergraduate student studying Chinese or language education –or someone with work experience aiming to pivot into international relations, I have some good news for you: Making the change from language studies and/or language education to international relations and economics isn’t the most obscure of transitions. If you look at the resumes of many HNC alumni, you’ll see English teaching and language tutoring as reoccurring themes, either in jobs they’ve held, or volunteer positions. Turns out a passion for language and culture leads to international relations - who knew? 


But the similarities end there, as the path that they take after making the transition is widely different. From government foreign service officers to the World Bank; from private sector consulting to NGO work, there are several places in the world that an international relations major can take you. So many options that it can feel overwhelming. So how do you find your focus, be it your professional focus or an academic focus? In my first semester at the HNC this has been a central question that I’ve asked myself.


At the beginning of the Fall ’21 semester, I wanted to focus solely on migration at the intersection of macro-level country relations and how that trickled down to the micro-level migrant outcomes and experiences. It’s how I wrote my application for the MA-portion of my program plan, and at the surface-level appeared to be the natural progression to my research. I completed my first master’s thesis and my undergraduate research looking at issues of migratory populations, analyzing rural-urban dialects in Beijing and the perceptions associated with them, and analyzing the intersection of wage and language for immigrant and first-generation bilingual Latinos in Los Angeles. With these studies as well as my general interest in the topic, I was pretty convinced migration was the direction I wanted to go. So, I focused every class paper on some aspect directly related to migration, to emulate what a future studying the topic might look like. 

And I found myself unsatisfied at best, and spending frustrated evenings forcing words onto the page for topics that I had committed myself to writing the day before they were due, at worst. Midterms and preliminary research for my final paper topics had painted a pretty clear picture for me: Migration studies isn’t something I can just immerse myself in. It’s sad, heart wrenching, filled with corruption and managed with little thought given to migrants themselves. The idea of being filled with so much anger and sadness every day for 40-hour weeks made me reconsider my research interest, as 3 more semesters of such feelings was far from an attractive idea, and one semester of such a deep focus left me exhausted.

So, I took what I had done, what I was learning, and started an analysis of my own interest. When something in class caught my eye, I interrogated why it was interesting, and how that interest tied into my past research. I reassessed and broke down my past research into its core parts. Through that process, here are some of the common themes I found (aka yes, I did use qualitative methods to conduct an analysis for my future research direction, here’s what a small part of that looks like):


Farmers vs Urbanites
Migrants and immigrants vs nationals
Language dynamics (accepted vs alienated)
Accent bias 
Cultural burden
Under-compensation and value dictated by the majority


Majority vs Minority 
Discrimination affecting integration and opportunity
Core Theme
Power dynamics


And all that led to the core idea of “power dynamics,” a distillation that all of my past research and course interests hold in common. I like studying the underdog. Now, what am I going to do with this newfound information? Well, with a Spring ’22 research internship coming up, I’m going to investigate to what extent I like studying the broader idea of power dynamics. Having studied them on the micro, anthropological and sociological levels, now I’m going to see if my interest extends to the macro level and the interactions of developing and emerging markets with developed and more powerful ones. I’ll still study migration (it aligns perfectly with my research interests), but within the larger framework of my broader direction, as a component, rather than a focus.
Hoping to report back some interesting findings by the end of the semester~