The Trials and Tribulations of Applying to Graduate School
John King and Andrew McMichael, September 1998
Column Editor's Note: The article below passes along advice from those who survived the transition from undergraduate to graduate school. One of the authors went directly from undergraduate to graduate school, the other spent some time working in between stops. Aspiring graduate students and their advisers will find gathered here encouragement, cautions, and concrete practical advice from the perspective of two who have fresh memories of that prolonged and stressful process of knocking at the gates that admit prospective historians to the apprenticeship. We encourage you to copy and distribute this article.
Applicants to graduate history programs come from a broad spectrum of academic and professional backgrounds. You might have gone directly from high school to college, and are now preparing to go straight to graduate school. Or perhaps you graduated from college, worked "in the real world" for a time, and now have chosen to return to school for an advanced degree. Each type of potential graduate student shares one final trial—the application process. The application process presents a hurdle for every potential graduate student. The process is long and involved, but it is the necessary first step in an apprenticeship that will culminate with employment in your desired field.
Right now the job prospects in academia, as evidenced by many articles in Perspectives and other periodicals, are poor. Over the last several decades, in many fields of history, the number of new history PhDs has outnumbered jobs available each year by as much as two to one. Moreover, the attrition rate for graduate students can be quite high—as much as 50 percent at some institutions. Speaking as graduate students in the job market, however, we could not see ourselves choosing any other course. We are in graduate school because we love the study and teaching of history. The job prospects and the problems we encountered during the application process, although sometimes frustrating, have done nothing to diminish our love for the discipline.
What we hope to accomplish in this article is to make one of the steps—the application process—a bit easier by laying out some of the difficulties we encountered and explaining some of the things we wish we had done better or differently. Keep in mind that the application process is a very real, if early, part of the job search process. The graduate school you attend, who you study with, and what you study will all have an important effect on your quest for a job once you complete your degree. We will try to provide some guidelines that will help applicants complete the process quickly, easily, and with the best chance of gaining acceptance to a PhD program in history.
The application process usually begins in the fall, one year before you wish to enroll. The most important part of the procedure, however, comes well before you even begin collecting the applications. You should already have formulated some idea of what you wish to study in graduate school. Of course, you need not come up with the specifics of your dissertation, but you should know whether you wish to specialize in, say, Chinese or American history. Be as specific as possible. What interests you? What is the topic of your senior thesis? Would you like to make a career out of studying the antebellum U.S. South? Does Brazilian emancipation or religious syncretism sound like something you could spend several years researching and writing about? Which books served as the basis for your undergraduate thesis? What books did you enjoy reading and find influential in helping you choose an area of study? These books, and their subject matter, will help you identify professors you might wish to study under during your graduate career.
How to Find Them
Perhaps more important than choosing a school is selecting a potential adviser. This person will supervise the dissertation, so choosing whom you want to work with is crucial. This might be the person with whom you will work closely for the next five or more years. The cornerstone of this approach, of course, is that you should choose the university you wish to attend by the available faculty, rather than vice versa. Additionally, choose by faculty and reputation rather than geographic location. You could set yourself up for a miserable graduate career if you choose to attend a top-10 university, only to find out when you arrive that none of the faculty specialize in anything that interests you. Better to go to a lesser-known school with prominent faculty who will help you research topics exciting to you and put you in a good position for the job market. At the same time, do not ignore the geographic facet of the application process altogether, but the best approach is to place a premium on faculty above other considerations.
So how to choose someone to work with? The first step is to look at some of the books you have used in your own research or undergraduate classes. Which authors have influenced you? Whose research or writing style impresses you? Whose arguments make sense? Do any of the works make you want to write history in that style or to study that period? Make a list of the historians with whom you are most impressed. Next, speak with your undergraduate adviser as well as with professors whose classes you enjoyed and ask about some of the other historians in your field or fields of interest. Who would she recommend? Your adviser probably knows many of these historians personally and could tell you with whom you might want to work. She could also, more importantly, provide an avenue of introduction. From all of this you should come up with a list of historians who might serve as potential advisers. The next step involves establishing contact.
One way to determine where a particular scholar teaches is to look at paperback editions of the historian's works. Often the back cover will list the historian's institution, although many times these are out-of-date. A more direct way involves the American Historical Association, which publishes an annual Directory of History Departments and Organizations in the United States and Canada. The Directory contains information on most of the history departments in the United States. In the back of the Directory is an index of historians, listing their academic affiliations, as well as e-mail addresses in many cases. Using this you can match your list of historians to their schools. At the same time you can see if the school has more than one person to work with in your field, in case your adviser goes on leave, gets sick, or even if it turns out that you just do not get along. Once you have gathered a list of historians and their schools, it is time to make contact.
The easiest way to introduce yourself to a professor is via e-mail. Many history departments have web pages that list faculty e-mail addresses. If a professor's address is listed on the web page, consider it all right to send him unsolicited e-mail. Keep your initial contact short and simple by asking only a few questions. Introduce yourself, and apologize for the unsolicited e-mail. Explain that you have read one of his books, what you liked about it, and how or why it has influenced you to want to study this period of history. Explain your research interests and ask if he plans to take on new graduate students the following fall. Will that professor go on leave any time soon? Will the university offer classes in your intended field? Remember, just because a school's graduate catalog says that the History of Mexico is taught does not necessarily mean that course will appear in the course schedule any time soon. If you have a topic in mind, ask the professor if it is something that interests him enough to guide a dissertation in the field. How many students does he currently advise? If he already advises several students and you need hands-on advising, you might want to think hard about joining a large cadre of graduate students under one adviser's supervision. Include any other questions you might have, but remember to stick to the basics. If the professor does not have e-mail, write him in care of his department. In both cases you should run your correspondence through a spell checker. There will be more than enough opportunities to look foolish in your various graduate exams—the time to look silly is after you get in, not before they have even received your application.
Another, although less efficient, way to get in touch with a professor is at an annual meeting of a relevant professional organization. Those meetings are also good opportunities to meet historians and observe what they do outside the classroom, rather than simply knowing them through their writing. The largest of these gatherings is the AHA's annual meeting every January; a number of other organizations also meet concurrently at the same venue. You might also be able to make contact at one of the smaller, more specialized meetings: For example, the Southern Historical Association, which meets in the fall; the Organization of American Historians and the Southeastern Conference on Latin American Studies, which meet in the spring; or the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, which meets in the summer. Find out the meeting times of these and other organizations that reflect your interests through the AHA's Directory of Affiliated Societies (available online at http://www.historians.org/affiliates/).
By the time the AHA meeting takes place you will have sent off applications already, but they will not have been processed. So this is a good time to meet the person who might decide the fate of your application. These meetings are an excellent and informal opportunity to talk with historians in a relaxed atmosphere, and perhaps to watch them present their latest research. Everyone wears a badge with his or her name and institution, so do not be afraid to approach a potential adviser and introduce yourself—at a time when you will not interrupt anything. Again, introduce yourself and ask the relevant questions. Of these two methods of contact, e-mail is the most efficient and the easiest in which to carry on an extended dialog. Do not underestimate the AHA's annual meeting, however. A professor's ability to put a face to an application might mean the difference between acceptance and rejection. The annual meeting is also an excellent place to speak with graduate students who can be a gold mine of information about professors, policies, graduate life, the department's pros and cons, and other questions you would never consider; they might even recommend other schools you had not thought of. Spot graduate students in the free food and drink areas.
Choosing Graduate Programs
After making your faculty choices, you need to decide the schools to which you will apply. Your undergraduate adviser and other professors from whom you have taken classes, can offer valuable information. Turn again to the AHA's Directory of History Departments to help you out. Contact the history department, or the graduate school, to obtain an application. At the same time, you need to learn some valuable information about your potential schools, although we encourage you to do as much of your own research as possible prior to making contact. To this end, you should write to either the department chairperson or the director of graduate studies, whose names and addresses you can obtain from the Directory of History Departments. You will need answers to several important questions. Is funding available? Is it guaranteed for four or five years, or is it on a one-year renewable basis? Does it include a tuition waiver? Does the department or institution help graduate students fund dissertation research or travel for presentations? This may be an important factor if your dissertation will require overseas travel. Graduate school can be incredibly expensive and the availability of fellowships could be a deciding factor in where you attend.
What courses are regularly taught? As previously mentioned, the contents of the graduate catalog do not necessarily reflect what gets offered each semester; if possible, have the school send you a schedule of courses for the most recent semester. Are there related programs outside the department at the schools to which you apply? For instance, if you plan to study United States slavery, does the school also have an African studies program that could round out your degree? Many schools will not, but a school that does have related programs might sway your decision. How many graduate students are in the department? A larger department could mean less individual attention, but more freedom to work on your own. On the other hand, a smaller department could mean closer interaction with your cohorts but fewer people in your area to share research. Different people prefer different size departments—figure out what is right for you.
You might want to inquire about less obvious questions in your letter as well. How many years does it usually take the department's graduate students to complete their coursework and dissertation? You do not want to remain in graduate school forever, and a school that has a shorter average completion time will be one that pushes its students to finish and get out into the job market faster. This means harder work while you are there, but it might also mean a better chance of getting hired upon completion of your degree. What are the school's minor field requirements? Some schools require only a single minor field, others require two or three. How closely must they relate to one another? Disparate minor fields can be difficult to complete, but make a more attractive job candidate. Someone with a major field of early U.S. South and a minor field of recent U.S. South will probably have a more difficult time getting hired than someone who has a major field of early U.S. South and minor fields of Chinese history and Mexican history. What are the language requirements? For "Americanists" the requirement usually involves one outside language. Others might have to learn as many as two foreign languages.
Likewise, what are the teaching obligations? A lighter load, or no teaching at all, could mean getting through quicker. A heavier load, or one in which you teach your own classes, will be more difficult but will show up on an application as extensive teaching experience and help you get hired. Does the department expect its graduate students to publish and make presentations at conferences? You should also ask about the placement rate for graduates, as the ranking of a school is not necessarily indicative of its ability to secure jobs for its recent PhDs. What is the department's hire rate? Do students usually get tenure-track or one-year positions? These are intangible questions. This certainly should not be the deciding factor in your application, but a tough-minded appreciation of the answers cannot hurt you, and will help you prepare for the future. Still other, though less important, questions include campus life and what activities are available, computer access on campus, and the office space available to graduate students.
Finally, take the time to visit the schools, if possible. Nothing takes the place of a hands-on tour of the campus facilities, meeting the department's faculty, and meeting one or two of the graduate students. If you make arrangements ahead of time, many schools will help you schedule lunch with a graduate student in your field. At the same time, you can see the department's facilities, explore the library, and look at the housing availability. You might meet other faculty with whom you might like to work, and you will again help the department put a face to your application. The visit could help you make an impression that could boost any weaknesses in your application.
Now that you have decided which graduate schools are best for you, on with the application process. The effort of applying is tedious and can be complicated; it cannot be accomplished on a whim. Collecting materials; requesting recommendations, transcripts, and GRE scores; selecting writing samples; and most of all, writing the personal statement, are all time consuming. Planning and organization are a must. Application deadlines add pressure. The moral here is: make a plan.
Consider first the monetary costs of applying. Fees vary, but $30 to $50 fees are not uncommon. You will also make a considerable number of photocopies in this process: of the applications themselves for your own records; of writing samples (if you are sending off an entire master's essay, for example, you will make a lot of copies just in this area); and so forth. In addition, you will be required to send official copies of your previous transcripts. Some schools charge $2 to $4 to send these out. If you have an undergraduate degree and a master's degree from different institutions, you will pay these fees at both places. Many institutions require written requests for transcripts. This can introduce as much as two to four weeks into the equation, so plan ahead. Finally, you will mail more than simply a letter, so the postage amount must factor into cost consideration as well. Altogether, you could spend up to $75 or more on each application.
Be sure to order the applications in plenty of time, early in the fall at the latest. (That would be right now!) When you get the applications, set up a filing system, with folders for each institution to which you are applying. On the folder make a checklist identifying each component of the application. You will complete the applications in different stages, and not all schools require exactly the same materials, so a checklist will help you keep track of the status of each application. Be sure, for your own reference but also in case there is later confusion, to check items on your checklist with a date so you will know when you completed each step. You may also want to set up a file at your school's career center to help you manage transcripts and letters of recommendation.
The first task after (or even before) receiving the actual applications should be to ask faculty for letters of recommendation. Schools usually ask for three letters, so your adviser alone is not sufficient. Deciding which faculty members to ask can pose a dilemma, but the most important factor in the decision is choosing people you are confident can and will write a very strong letter that will help to distinguish you from the many other applicants. Therefore, try to ask professors who know you well, preferably those from whom you have taken more than one class, or at least who have had you in a seminar-type class that allowed them to get to know something more about you than how well you take multiple-choice tests. Other good candidates are, naturally, your adviser, instructors for whom you have done extensive written work, and to a lesser extent people with whom you have collaborated on some extracurricular activity (an honor society or Alternate Spring Break, for example). Also, it is good to have professors in your proposed graduate field (British history, for example) as recommenders. They can write specifically about the research you may have already done in this field and may know faculty that you are targeting as potential PhD advisers. Do not solicit recommendations from professors who do not seem warm to the idea of writing on your behalf, or professors whom you barely know (professors you had for the first time in the fall semester of your senior year, for example). These people may be willing to write letters for you because they are trying to be helpful or polite, but may not write the strongest recommendation. In an ideal world, a student in his junior year would ask a professor at the end of the semester if she or he would be willing to write a recommendation when the time came. It is crucial that you choose your recommenders wisely and with all the above considerations in mind.
When you have determined whom you will ask to write for you, be sure to approach them early in the process, well in advance of the application deadline, and inform them of this deadline. Most schools require confidential letters of recommendation. There are two ways that schools ensure confidentiality, and some insist on a particular style, so pay attention to the directions in the application. Some may require that recommenders write their letters on forms included in the application, and then sign across the seal of the envelope. In this case, the recommenders will usually give the sealed envelopes back to you, and you then include the envelopes with other application materials that you send off. Other schools prefer that recommenders send letters directly, either on their own or via the career center. In this case, you will have to get recommendation forms from the career center to distribute to your recommenders, and the professor will write the letter and return it directly to the career center. You then give the career center a list of the graduate schools to which you are applying; the center forwards the letters to those schools. Again, these procedures vary from university to university, so pay attention to detail and conform to the particular requirements of the schools to which you are applying and the career center at your current institution
The Personal Statement
The most challenging aspect of the application is the personal statement. This is not usually a fun assignment. It is difficult to decide what to write about, how much to exaggerate your interest in, or commitment to, a particular field, and whether to be whimsical or totally serious. Your best bet is a thoughtful, serious letter that focuses on your historical interests and their origins. Be direct. Remember, the admissions committee reads the statement not only to learn about you as a student and as a historian but also as a writer. While your specific historical interests will comprise the majority of what you write in the personal statement, discussing the broader reasons why you want to get a PhD might be a good way to begin your essay. What are your objectives? Is your ultimate goal a job researching, writing, or teaching in a university? What attracts you to history, rather than one of the other humanities? Tailor your letter both to your job objectives and to the school to which you are writing. Don't write about your desire to work in the business sector when applying to a Research I institution. Likewise, if you are applying to a public history program, emphasize your interest in this area. Such issues can show that you are not simply caught up in your enthusiasm for a narrow field of historical inquiry, but are concerned with your broader role as a member of the academy or whatever profession you ultimately choose.
These broader topics should then give way to your particular historical interests, which will form the basis of the statement. Describe these interests in as much detail as you feel comfortable with; if possible dissertation topics come to mind, mention them. There is no harm in showing the admissions committee that you have thought hard about what you want to study for the next several years and what you hope will come out of those many hours of hard work. You will also want to identify commonalties between your research interests and those of the faculty in the departments to which you are applying. Stating who attracts you to a particular department and why you wish to study with them (or why you think their scholarship will help yours) indicates that your are serious about the undertaking of graduate studies.
Similarly, if you have read a particular book or took a specific class that really turned you on to the intellectual pursuit of history, spend a few sentences discussing them as well. The books do not have to have been written by the faculty at the universities to which you are applying. Any academic works that inspire you will, again, show that you are serious about making a multi-year commitment, in the short-term to a PhD program, and a career-long commitment to history. What facets of these books or classes triggered your interest in the field? Was it the writing style? The methodology? Simply the way the subject matter was dealt with? Part of what historians do is read and review scholarship, so demonstrating, ever so briefly, your interest in this activity can further display your interest and aptitude for a career in history. Most of all, your personal statement must distinguish your application from all the other 4.0 GPAs and Phi Alpha Theta members who are also applying. If you have any outstanding academic credentials or personal experiences relevant to the study of history, play them up. Do not, however, oversell yourself to the point of being outrageous. Remember, these are intelligent people reading your applications. Moreover, these are people with significant teaching experience, which means many years of determining the difference between truth and fabrication in student essays and sob stories! Aggressively promote your application, within reason.
Finally, take a few simple steps to polish your statement. Have a trusted faculty member, your adviser perhaps, give you some feedback on your statement. Faculty members will be more helpful than career center agents. Professors have served on admissions committees; career advisers probably have not. Perhaps most important of all, proofread your statement. You do not want to send out an essay that portrays you as a careless writer or individual. You want to treat the personal statement as another example of your written work.
Most schools ask for a sample of your written research. Try to send something recent, perhaps a senior thesis or senior seminar essay. Send your best work, regardless of its length or subject matter. You want this piece to convey your strong research and writing skills, not necessarily how much you know about the trade networks between India and Southeast Asia in the 16th century.
A final word-about the GREs. This medieval torture is a rite of passage much like the SATs. In addition to the general test, you also have the choice to take the subject-specific history GRE. We suggest that you look through your applications to determine if any schools require this test. Many do not, and for good reason. It is an extremely difficult test that has little bearing on your ability to do anything but memorize obscure facts you may never use again. The questions cover everything from the women of Haiti to Russian serfs to the American Revolution, sometimes one after another. It is a very difficult test to do well on. The catch is that if you take it, all schools will see it, and possibly judge you by it, when you send them your regular GRE scores. So, in short, if none of the schools require this test, avoid it like the plague. If you must take the test, get a history-specific GRE study book to prepare yourself (you should do this anyway for the general test).
If possible, type your application. It isn't a necessity, but for those with bad handwriting, or who are prone to spelling errors, taking the time to align your printer or typewriter for a school's application can be helpful. The final step its to cram all the stuff from your folders into envelopes. Then, take the stuff out, double-check everything, and put it back in. Seal, send, and cross your fingers. Be sure to follow up on your applications. Call each school to see if they have received all parts of the application (refer to the checklist you made earlier). Take this final step even if you get response cards from the schools, just to be sure. You should hear from most of the schools sometime between the beginning of March and the end of April. That two-month window can cause stress, so hang in there and be positive about the process.
Admission to graduate school in history is very competitive (in no small part due to the tight job market for PhDs). We wish you the best of luck, both in getting in and getting funded. If you receive rejection letters, do not take them personally. If you are curious, call the department and ask why the committee declined to grant you admission. This could help with applications not yet sent out, future applications, or simply give you some peace of mind. Keep in mind that a lot of factors go into these decisions. Academic records are important, but so are the compatibility of research interests in a department, the balance of fields among graduate students in a department, and the number of fellowships available. None of these elements are in your control. Craft your application as fastidiously as you can and think good thoughts.
—John King recently completed his PhD at Vanderbilt University and currently teaches at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. Andrew McMichael is working on his dissertation at Vanderbilt University. They can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively.