How (not) to apply to graduate school


I realize this post is a little late to help anyone who wants to start graduate school in the fall of 2009.  But then, I also realize that most of my readers have either already been admitted to graduate school, or they have no intention ever of going (back) to graduate school.  Nevertheless, Tenured Radical’s post yesterday about how she spent a full hour writing dozens of letters of recommendation for her students (and then some, since it sounds like she tailors each individual letter before she sends it to multiple institutions), and then was rewarded for her industry with grave bodily injuries as she chucked the last of them into a U.S.P.S. mailbox, brought on flashbacks from my experience three years ago as the Graduate Studies chair of my department.

Undergraduate students don’t know how much work most of us poor faculty members put into their educations and advancement through instruments like letters of recommendation.  This post is designed to help prospective graduate students in the humanities avoid the common mistakes I’ve seen in applications, and perhaps to guide advisers of undergraduate students who are applying to graduate school.  Please, students:  put at least as much thought into your graduate application as your poor professors are putting into their letters of recommendation!

  1. Know what you want to accomplish in graduate school and with the degree you will eventually earn.  Students, don’t let your mother call the Grad Studies chair to inquire on your behalf, and mothers, don’t bother calling.  (Seriously!  I speak from unpleasant experience.)  Don’t write in your essay that you’re applying to grad school because as a child you enjoyed watching World War II movies with your grandfather.  (I’ve seen it more than once in our applications.)  Graduate school is not just more college–it’s professional training, and you need to have an end in mind as to what you want to do as a professional historian.
  2. State those goals clearly in your application essay.  See #3 for more details.
  3. And most importantly of all, make sure that the program/s you are applying to are suitable for helping you achieve your goals, and take the time to connect those dots in your application essay.  You will want to connect your interests to individual faculty members, and explain how the only logical next step in your educational career is to come to (for example) Baa Ram U. to work with specific faculty members here.  The graduate program in my department at Baa Ram U. is an M.A. program with historic strengths in public history, U.S. Western history, and an emerging strength in environmental history.  Our website thoughtfully describes all of the faculty and their research and teaching specialties, and clearly states the emphases of our M.A. program, offers checksheets that show the entire curriculum you’ll be expected to complete, and they also indicate the kinds of graduate courses we offer on a regular basis.  Don’t apply to our graduate program if you want to do Classics (Baa Ram U. is the Aggie school, and doesn’t offer Latin, let alone Greek!), medieval European history (again–no Latin or Greek here), or anything that’s not modern U.S. or European history.  There is a comprehensive Ph.D. program up the road–please send your applications there, since it has the language classes, the coursework, and the library you will need to achieve your goals.  We don’t.  (Although the other department has its particular strengths and weaknesses, so take care to tailor your application there too.)

I can say unequivocally that in my year as GSC, we admitted every single student who managed to accomplish steps 1, 2, and 3.

I don’t mean to sound like an old crank (much!) complaining about “kids these days…”  I think in most cases they don’t understand the difference between choosing a graduate program versus college applications, and they have either been poorly advised, or they haven’t bothered to get any advice before sending out applications.  But, I must say that I’m amazed that a generation that’s supposedly so tech savvy doesn’t take advantage of the wealth of information most graduate programs have on the web.  Back in the old days, when I applied to graduate school, we had only the American Historical Association’s Directory of History Departments, which was published annually, and the card catalog in our college libraries to help us find the books published by the faculty we wanted to study with.  (And don’t even get me started about how we used to have to find articles and book reviews, kids!  Don’t wait until next Thanksgiving to thank the god of your choice for JSTOR, Academic Search Premier, American History and Life, Historical Abstracts, Project Muse, History Cooperative, and all of the other on-line services and the databases that connect us to them.)

Here endth the lesson.  Does the spirit move anyone else in the congregation to testify?  What other advice would you faculty offer to students applying to graduate school?  What do you students think would make graduate applications easier and more transparent?  (Tenured Radical’s call for a common grad school applicationand other common-sense reforms looks good to me.)  TR, this Pisco Sour is for you to speed your healing.  Dog bless.

UPDATE, later this morning:  Wow–that was fast!  A reader, “A,” has written in asking for yet more advice.  To wit:  “I read your article today at the perfect time! I am applying to graduate school and law school and wanted to get thank-you presents for the people writing my letters of recommendation (there are a lot of letters). I was considering Starbucks gift cards and baking cookies, but I am not super well-versed in this area of etiquette. Also, since some of the letters are not due until Feb. 15, is it better to gift now (some letters have gone out) or when everything is done? Any advice is much appreciated!”

Are you like me, dear readers, in being impressed by this student’s thoughtfulness?  As to the question–to gift now, or to gift later?–I’d say that it doesn’t matter much.  Coffee and cookies is an embarrassment of riches that would be welcome any time at Historiann HQ, so I’d say don’t worry about the timing.  Just be sure to let everyone know where you got in with their generous assistance, and what your plans are for next year after you’ve considered all of your options.  Good luck to you, A.!  And readers, let us know if you’ve got other ideas.

UPDATE II, March 18, 2009:  Notorious, Ph.D., Girl Scholar has added more don’ts to remember based on her review of the applications she has seen recently.  Check out the comments, too, for more good advice!

49 thoughts on “How (not) to apply to graduate school

  1. Thanks Histroiann! This was really helpful in terms of validation. I have been telling students many of the same things, but you’ve done it more succinctly. Is it OK to borrow this? I am thinking about putting together an advising handout about graduate school for our department.

    Also, I agree with Tenured Radical, a single clearing house for grad school applications would make a lot more sense. I just did a recommendation for a student applying to law school. It was painless, quick, and I could focus on writing a good letter rather than keeping track of eight different forms and rewriting the letter to suit the quirks of eight different institutions.


    Matt L


  2. Hi, Matt–thanks for stopping by to comment, and sure, borrow away. (Maybe your students will finally take the advice if it’s not coming from you, and therefore they can’t write it off as your eccentric hangup? At least, that’s what I think my students must think of me when I advise them. It helps to get outside validation.) Please just include the URL somewhere on your copy or handout for attribution.

    And yes, that Law School letter service is nice. (I haven’t done one in a few years–have they switched to electronic submissions now?)


  3. My advice to people applying to graduate school for a PhD is – Don’t!

    But usually I back into that by way of a series of questions — Are you willing to leave our beloved beach-lined state and move to parts of the country where you don’t want to live? Do you have a field or area of interest, and, if so, why do you care? Do you know that you can make more money by going to law school? What are your intellectual commitments or what questions move you? Have you read those nasty accounts of how universities use graduate students as cheap labor? Are you manic depressive (English) or angry (history)?

    I have successfully nudged several people toward other paths — and those who decided to proceed to the Phd know the challenges ahead and are doing quite well!!


  4. This all sounds good but I wonder: since much of college history bears little resemblance to what professional historians do, how are students supposed to know and then articulate clearly what it is they intend to do as professional historians? If you take the discipline of English, for example, where literary analysis is the tool of the trade, it seems the main difference between college and graduate work is the amount of time spent doing the analysis and the increasing quality of insight. But, in my experience both as someone who went to graduate school right after undergrad and as a TA, graduate-level history requires a new set of skills often not really developed in undergrad. It just seems a bit odd to me.


    • i have had this project in mind, my entire life. however, on coming back to it’s initial idea (idea’s actually, idea’s as free, complex, and irishly diverse as each character, apears then, sturdy as themselves, between the wwII era which claimed the life of my mothers father, and it’s impact on her (m.f.) three daughters – embelished storys that i recall, them telling, about these characters, and the irish american saints that, by true folk tale, they were.

      that’s to begin.
      relativity, a whole different concept.
      would i enjoy a graduate school for this project ( the beggining of a series of)?
      well, i don’t know the answer to that. would a graduate school enjoy, me.
      i would rarely be around, if working on this (seeming mamath) project – which, of. course delves into error, in a very human way, opening on several levels the different ideas of mental developement and youth. Ideas so real, yet so privately difficult, as reality, and so privately american, to the point of a certain distance, not to be ignored, but tossed over, like a football to: that if i did not experience them myself, i would, actually come near, shedding.

      in –
      “hey look, i was thinking about something. yes, i understand the multiple concepts of collabetation, in theory. No, i do not have anything currently completed, in a, uh, physical form currently (like a book, or notes, a a series of photographs, paintungs, landscape’s, excederin), instead, i only have my MIND, faith, shy greating, freindly as a – whatever, to think.
      But, thats as of now. No one, or nothing, is to say that we can’t, physically transfer our idea, in mind, to a solid physical form, to set aside for others – as one idea, reafirming both my existence, yours, and then theirs (whoever, who i generally have found to be really kind, not to bar our use of the word, cool).
      but hey,
      I just rolled this, grape blunt, ealier today, in (suggest a freind, or freindly atmosphere in give someones resteraunt a ***** five star reveiw, if your like us, a city together to gather with, each individual on his or her own time) so, would you like a hit, or more than a few, here, if i light it?

      there is one;
      “yes, i am currently experiencing Greif and would love a new freind, as I no longer have, a few of my old one’s”

      However, there is also my, uh, no.
      that means, no; I really don’t see a point in making that the center of our conversation. they were great freinds and ultimately people – therefore, after we light this, they might come up (or out of my mouth) as some twist, in a humous story, in storys plural – but that’s simply BE CAUSE.

      guess what, weed deal with it.
      or, why the fuck did i write a stranger.

      bored, i guess.
      the e mail is currently tentative.
      might be mispelled.
      i don’t e mail much and the memory i have, creating this one, dreams of –

      wift nicoteen
      cha cha

      i don’t have cash, or a computer.
      so grad school to I,
      is mearly a thought.
      I do think or know that I would not even apply to one, untill I am completely content with how the application would read. Basically, the outline to what would then become a novel, or series of (anything, productive) given the time to, prepare that read – for a future date, which i am pretty sure, would jostle me into, not putting something out, that completely, untill I am totally satisfied with how the entire thing is either read or presented. it’s, a lot, to think to oneself about currently, or you can remove a word from this sentence.

      I don’t know,
      different characters (people); think in different ways all the time.

      I really don’t know if this would help you. It’s just a few thought’s that i was not thinking untill i started writing this here, thought of who would be – cool.

      but look,
      it is beutiful out tonight.
      I am just clearing my mind, about what to do next, while waiting on a call.

      my actual thought about this is:
      if you already have, the bulk of one project in mind, or the ability to switch that to anothet project; then wouldn’t a multi class curiculiam simply become a distraction to one’s original intention.

      (In, Tension – god, would you loosen up my shoulders here, thanks, it only tskes a few minute’s, but now get a perspective on this place).

      the beers arrive.

      So yeah.
      I would think about a grad school; but I really have not spoken to anyone and therefore I don’t actually know the curiculum. one thought would be – look, if your paying for it, then shouldn’t you, ultimatly at least have a (reasonable) but pretty solid (in trust) say; as to what the actually curiculum should or could be, along with you classmates, and prose, and professers, of course. I mean, this is America. Where if a group of us bring ideas to a table, however wild (but legal) they are – then WE (or that group) REALLY SHOULD GET, just what we are paying for, in terms of how different experiences, stumulate learning, either collectively, or – well, there are millions of ideas, that we have been gifted with to think about in this universe.

      enjoy them,
      live in intellectual peace and curiousity.

      no, i didn’t edit this.
      not sure why I even wrote it.
      get something off my mind mind, by doing so, i guess. good luck to you.

      I wish I was in Love; do you remeber how absolutly curious love was, so private, yet to be suprised by someone, so loving, so often, etc.



  5. Historiann, your advice is great. Prospective grad school applicants might also want to identify a professor they would like to work with at each of the institutions they’re applying to; and write to the professor to see if s/he is accepting new students and/or willing to work with the applicant.

    All in all, I agree with Rad Readr: Just say, Don’t! to the bright-eyed students who want to earn a PhD in the humanities. The humanities academic job market is horrible and continues to get worse.


  6. Thefrogprincess: I see what you’re getting at, but I disagree that “much of college history bears little resemblance to what professional historians do.” Our majors at Baa Ram U. are reading primary sources, monographs, and scholarly articles in our upper-division classes, so I think they get a good introduction to the professional practice of history. In my upper-level classes, students write comparative historiographical essays in which they must grapple with arguments, not just “the facs,” and primary-source based essays, and read nary a textbook.

    That said, even our students should seek extensive counseling and advice before applying to graduate school, and for those in less rigorous programs, that goes double. I would think that most students considering applying to graduate school would seek the advice of several faculty before applying, but perhaps I should have made that commandment #1. I’m not suggesting that students should intuit all of this–I’m suggesting that the people they will need to consult for letters of recommendation can guide them, and even (as Rad’s comments suggest) prod them to answer some tough questions that will help them with their goals in the long run.

    Rad–do you know any angry historians? (I know plenty that are probably depressed, but only a few angry ones. There are lots of happy historians, of course!)


  7. Ortho–it’s great additional advice about contacting the professors one might want to work with. This will help in more ways than one. For example: a student of mine did this last year, and the responses he got from the faculty in his field of interest very much guided his decision about where to go to grad school. (He was very talented and fortunate to receive acceptances everywhere he applied, including top Ivy and Big-10 Ph.D. programs in our field. But, one of the people at Ivy League U. he applied to never, ever replied to his e-mail, so although he won a full funding package to earn his Ph.D. there, he turned them down in favor of Prestigious State U., where he is happy and thriving in his first semester of grad school. Quite sensibly, he decided that if someone was too busy to answer a polite e-mail query from a prospective grad student, then ze might be too busy to do much actual graduate advising.)


  8. OK, I admit that the angry historians are part of a local club — and, yes, I also know happy historianns.

    Also, I’m not sure about thefrogprincess’ characterization of grad school in English as “literary analysis being the tool of the trade.” With theory, rhetorical studies, cultural studies, new and old historicism entering the mix, grad school in English can sometimes seem a long way from undergraduate courses in the contemporary novel.


  9. What Rad Readr said about grad studies in English. You can get away with just enjoying reading and basic analysis of literature as an undergrad who majors in English. As a grad student, “loving books” and being an “avid reader who likes to analyze things” will get you absolutely nowhere. (In fact, statements like this can kill a grad school application.)

    Also, a caveat about saying that you want to work with particular faculty members: I think this can actually hurt students who aren’t being mentored carefully by a faculty member (or three) who is really plugged in to what’s going on in the discipline. See, if a student is getting good mentoring, ostensibly their mentor would say, “Oh, So-and-so is at XYZ U and they would be great to work with given what you want to study.” In contrast, a student who is going it alone and who isn’t getting good advice can make the mistake of saying they want to work with Faculty Member Y who “everybody” knows doesn’t actually take on grad students anymore, Faculty Member Z who everybody knows is filled with rage and hate and who refuses to supervise people who want to work on women’s studies things, or Faculty Member X who was just diagnosed with cancer. It can kill an application if you write to Yale and wax poetic about how you want to work with Harold Bloom. Sure, he’s on the website, but that doesn’t mean he works with grad students.

    With that being said, I think the advice about knowing the strengths of the program and highlighting how what the program emphasizes will help you to pursue your professional goals is a good thing. And if you’re going to mention names, either get very good advice from a mentor about who would actually be good in that capacity, or list a handful of people and explain how each would contribute to what you’re trying to learn. But if you say, “I am applying here solely to work with Dr. Who!” and Dr. Who isn’t available, well, your application will be rejected. At least that’s my understanding of how such things often work.


  10. RadReadr and others: what I said about English was certainly a gross generalization from an outsider; my only intention was to try to figure out what separates the kind of thing I experienced in my transition (and that other undergraduate colleagues did in theirs) from what my friends in English departments did.

    Historiann: Discussing this kind of thing is of course subjective; there are lots of things being taught in lots of courses and I have no doubt that you and many others successfully avoid the textbook route. It’s also a matter of what courses student choose to take, since a history major often has fairly loose requirements and few or no required courses. My major, for example, had distribution requirements for geography and time period but it didn’t matter what specific courses one took to fulfill these criteria. Primary sources were emphasized, to the serious neglect of historiography. Historiography wasn’t introduced until the thesis seminar (something only a select few did) but even then, the purpose of reading secondary literature wasn’t fully made clear, or at least I didn’t get it. I was still reading for facts. The problem though is that I went to an excellent university and so I probably had too much confidence in the quality of my education. Or maybe I knew more than I think I did looking back on it several years later.


  11. Hey Historiann, I will definitely include your url on the handout.

    I would like to take issue with some of the comments about discouraging students from taking a PhD. Why?

    Sure, the academia has its downsides, sure jobs can be hard to find and yes, its a commitment. But really, who are we to tell students not to attempt something?

    As mentors, we are responsible for giving students as much useful information as possible. That includes accurately explaining their career prospects as newly minted PhDs. But for someone who has earned a PhD and succeeded in getting a job to say to an undergraduate, “No, do not do as I do, but do as I say,” is more than just a little patronizing.

    When we tell a qualified undergraduate not to get a PhD in the humanities, we are presuming to know what is best for them. They are adults and they should make their own informed decisions about graduate school. As mentors we should encourage their interests and aspirations, not chase them away. (The caveat here is qualified. By no means should you encourage someone who is not suited to graduate study to apply to a PhD program.)


  12. Back when I was applying to grad school, in the years before Jimmy Carter was president, I went to see several faculty I worked with. The first, who had been the placement officer at Prestigious U for several years, just said “Don’t”. And look where that got me. But he and one other faculty member were terrific; they gave me a kind of guide to the field — this person is inaccessible, that person is young and smart and has just started, this one is really nice as well as smart, etc. As a faculty member, it’s something I try to do for students.

    On the technology front, there was also reading the university catalogs on microfiche — of course the catalog might be several years out of date, but it was all you had. I did that before job interviews 🙂

    As to advice to students, making contact with potential faculty is a very good idea. You can rule out schools where Famous Professor doesn’t respond to you at all, or says, “I’m really not interested in your brilliant idea.” So you apply where people are interested and then when the applications come up, and Dr. Brilliant is asked what she thinks about your application, she’ll say “Oh, yes, I think X has some interesting ideas.” (And in many top programs, the faculty you would work with do review the application before you are accepted — it’s not all delegated. At least that is very much the case in history.)


  13. Thefrogprincess–I see what you’re getting at. I think my undergraduate eduation was similar to yours–I didn’t know what historiography was until grad school myself. In this post, I didn’t mean to imply that applicants need to write their applications as though they’ve already been to grad school. I just wanted to emphasize the importance of having and articulating long-term goals beyond “I really like history classes and am a Civil War buff” or whatever. (Kind of like Dr. Crazy’s “I’m an avid reader” applications!) Another way of establishing one’s credentials as a serious prospect is to talk about a major research paper and the fascinating quesitons your research inspired you to consider pursuing in grad school.

    I think the transition from undergrad to grad school is always hard. However, I have more confidence admitting students to our M.A. program who have some grasp of the notion that they’ll be engaged in thoughful career development rather than just taking and passing a bunch of classes at the end of the semester. They don’t have to have all of the answers in their grad application–just a clear notion as to where they want to go with their education and an idea of the right questions to be asking along the way.

    And, Dr. Crazy: smart caveats about naming names in applications. This why consulting with the appropriate adviser, and taking Ortho’s advice of e-mailing a possible future grad adviser, are absolutely critical.


  14. Matt L., I think Rad was joking when he said “don’t!” He just thinks it’s important that people have their eyes opened about the toll that graduate study can take on oneself and one’s family life. As he says, he steers away the people who, upon reflection, come to their own conclusion that it’s not the life for them, and he’s advised others who are in grad school and are happy with their decisions. In this, I think Rad is a savvy and effective adviser–not patronizing at all.

    I tell all of my prospective grad school applicants my story, and while everything has turned out just super for me (great place to live, great job, great family life), that’s not the experience of many people in this line of work. (Regular readers know that my path was rocky in places–and most people I know who are tenured Associate Profs now are on their second or third jobs.) I think it’s good for them to know up front that there are no guarantees, and that pursuing employment in our job market is stressful on partners and families.

    Being an academic is like being a Methodist minister. You’ve got to ride the circuit, and the circuit is hard on you and everyone you’re bringing with you. When the bishop tells you to move to another church, you move. I think it’s only fair to be clear about that.


  15. And, Susan: the first year I was on the job market, the web was very new and most departments didn’t have web sites, so I used those old microfiche catalogs to prep for interviews, too!

    But you tell kids that these days, and they just won’t believe you.


  16. Historiann mentioned (almost as an aside), “But, I must say that I’m amazed that a generation that’s supposedly so tech savvy doesn’t take advantage of the wealth of information most graduate programs have on the web.”

    This is the biggest problem I had in grad school trying to teach undergrads (from frosh to senior). And this is one BIG reason to avoid grad school. Who teaches most of those low-level service courses and/or does the brain-draining grading? Grad students! Evidence suggests the undergraduate population is getting less skilled in math, reading, and writing. And we all have stories of students who can text at lightspeed but can’t format a paper properly; who can download porn, but can’t use the library databases to find journal articles for a research paper. Do *you* want to teach them those skills? With very little training/help?

    Plus there’s the thread amongst the comments that undergraduate preparation for grad school is incredibly uneven. Just how good was your undergrad? Are you sure? You won’t really know until that 1st semester of grad school (which is tough for most everyone anyway).

    One last little bugaboo to toss out (just cuz I’m feeling extra-Grinchy): Isn’t it sort of a professors job to write letters of recommendation? Doesn’t it fall under “service”? I have a problem with students gifting the letter writers for doing their jobs. Do we really know what the profies wrote? Does Professor McScab really deserve a Starbucks gift card if his poorly written letter sent at the last minute because he forgot to write it is what gets you on the waitlist for funding.

    I agree with Historiann, “Coffee and cookies is an embarrassment of riches.” If you feel generous, just give the cookies. Save the cash for the application fees (which are now rapidly approaching $100 at many schools).


  17. The_Myth, I’m not sure I follow: are you advising people to stay out of grad school because students are refusing to use technology properly? (Or is this just a Grinchy complaint about undergraduate students?) I think this is just an unfortunate part of mass education. As I’ve written before, we all know what works in education, but who will pay for it?

    I agree that letters of recommendation are part of faculty member’s jobs. However, it’s always nice to be thanked, and in the case where one or two faculty have sheparded a student through their educations and grad applications, it’s nice to acknowledge that those faculty went above and beyond the call of duty. (I actually read and critique my students’ grad applications. Part of this is mercenary, but I think it’s a pretty big favor to the students as well!)


  18. I have to laugh after reading this-
    I had no idea what I was getting into when I applied to the masters program at Baa Ram U the year you were the Grad Studies Chair- so while I didn’t mention watching WWII films with grandpa, I probably said something similar. My apologies. Thankfully I was accepted! I honestly thought a masters in history meant taking a lot of history classes to learn more history- and had no idea I’d have to think about arguments, sources,historiography etc. I just figured I know more facts and figures- thank goddess I was wrong! I absolutely loved the experience so it all turned out ok in the end.
    In my defense- my undergrad degree was in social sciences and thus I only had 3 upper level history classes- so I wasn’t nearly as exposed as a history undergrad would likely be, to what history, as a profession, is about…


  19. Nicole, you were admitted under someone else’s regime–I was just GSC your first year. I’m sure you talked about your post-grad teaching experience in your application, and your interest in getting an M.A. so that you could continue teaching in secondary schools–which is what you’re doing now.

    So, I’d guess you articulated a clear goal in your application, one that we thought we could meet in our department. You’re a goal-oriented person, and you were one of the best students in your year, so all’s well that ends well, right?


  20. Or you could be going for a PHd in Social Sciences and not plan to teach. PHd programs provide the necessary years of experience needed for most entry level jobs nowadays. They also give the individual the ability to be come sophisticated in their field of study (for instance mine, which is Geography) that undergraduate and even Master’s programs don’t.

    PHd is becoming the new Masters and many of us don’t plan to go to the academic world, but rather take our training into industry or government.


  21. I had a weird experience going from undergrad to grad school – my undergrad actually *did* address historiography, and I wrote a largely historiographical honors thesis. Then I got to grad school and didn’t have any real idea how to conduct sustained historical research into primary sources that *wasn’t* guided by historiographical questions; apart from my honors thesis, I wrote one paper that entailed sustained research into primary sources for my history major, and that was my freshman year. (Of course, this was affected also by spending my junior year in England, taking English tutorial-style courses – I definitely read a lot of primary sources, but they were in aid of answering specific questions set to me by others, none that I had to come up with.)

    So I struggled with that element of grad school, but found that the vast majority of my classmates had no idea what historiography was and really struggled with that transition.

    About naming names in applications – a student entered my grad program specifically to work with Prof X, which I’m quite confident she stated in her application, but no one told her that Prof X retired the year she started. Ouch.

    Oh, and it probably doesn’t need to be said, but there is hardly a market for medieval historians in industry or government, and I’d hazard that this is the case for almost all humanities disciplines. (I know there are historians in the government, but not a lot of medieval ones.) So when I’ve had students talk to me about going to grad school, it has been with the intent of being a professor. So encouraging them to do grad school really is encouraging them to try to go into academia, and I did want to be sure they knew what they were getting into. (I am firmly of the opinion that unless you want to be a professor, there is no reason to get a Ph.D. in history.) But I do realize this is different in other disciplines.


  22. I’ve applied to grad school this fall. The reason I have had a lot of stupid questions is because the grad school website, while chock-full of information, is incredibly difficult to navigate. I can spend thirty minutes following links in circles and pulling my hair out, or I can spend two minutes asking my advisor-to-be for help.

    I think my main pieces of advice would be:
    (1) Start your application more than two weeks before it’s due
    (2) Find a contact at the university whose area of research is interesting to you
    (Being married to a faculty member at your university of choice helps, but is really more of a luxury than a necessity.)

    Regarding A’s etiquette question: I plan on sending a batch of thank-you cookies to my two recommenders in addition to a brief but heartfelt note of gratitude. (Both let me read the letters, and damn am I an awesome person according to them.) I figured that cookies were a personal touch to thanking them; gift cards or such would feel more like “I’m giving you this because I have to” rather than “because I want to”. I appreciate their honest evaluation of me and will take care to let them know that. (As I am typing, Buzz points out that women are far more likely to send cookies as a thank-you gift; male students never sent him anything in thanks for recommendations, particularly not baked goods. Are guys ungrateful twits or something?)


  23. I’m a first year PhD student, so my experiences are still rather recent. The best, by far, advice I got is from my now advisor. She recommended that I visit the universities I was interested in. It’s not enough to email or talk on the phone with a faculty member. Once you get there, talk to other students, engage faculty in healthy discussions in their areas of interest as well as your own. I knew, immediately, whether the schools were a fit or not and applied accordingly (which saved me application fees). Some schools even paid my way to visit them.

    Keep in contact with the people you meet, if you’re interested in the school. Ask them as many questions as you can about funding, insurance, course loads, stipends, etc. When it came down to it, I chose my school because of the people I’d be working with, the placement of graduates from the program, the insurance offered, and the resources available to me on this campus.

    One professor in my Master’s program jokingly (or not) told me to choose a place that I wouldn’t want to live in for the rest of my life. She said this would force me to get done with my doctorate much quicker so I could move on. While I never thought I’d want to live in Minnesota, I’m now enjoying it. So much for choosing somewhere I wouldn’t want to live. 🙂

    I only wish I had thought of the cookies and gift certificate. My profound thanks may not have been enough. I’ll keep this in mind when I need those letters of recommendation for positions in a few years.


  24. re: Cookies & Corporate Gift Cards to Letter Writers

    Call me cranky, or whatever else you would like, but in my opinion, it is unnecessary to give gifts to letter writers. Writing letters of recommendations is part of a professor’s job. A thank you note is an appropriate, kind gesture, but cookies and corporate gift cards are a tad too much.


  25. I’m in the office this very night, writing a letter of recommendation. I hope my student is not going up against one of TR’s, as they sound like *very* well thought-out and formatted letters. Mine are o.k. to well. On the way over to the History Club dinner earlier this evening I stumbled on a piece of uneven sidewalk–no rebar in sight–and somehow avoided a similar catalogue of injuries to hers. I hope she’s “in a recruiting way,” as Elizabeth Drinker used to say.

    On the question of preparation for transitioning from undergraduate to graduate school I think I’d sign onto at least some parts of New Kid’s opinion. I did it in all of the most clueless ways, but ended up thinking that had probably been all for the good in the end. I had a very good and diversified humanities background, but didn’t commit to history as a major until required to choose one in my junior year. I could write my way past a majority of people I encountered, but only just decent enough GPA and GREs. The vast majority of my relevant preparation for interpretive and analytic argumentation drew on a very rigorous program of essay writing at the secondary school level, and was thus not entangled with too many disciplinary particularities, and certainly not very much with historiography.

    A lot of my cohorts had similar backgrounds. The graduate school faculty members were older than us, of course, but mostly much younger than the graybeard-and- flanel liberal arts professors we had been inspired by. We felt very entitled to engage in pushback against the enthusiastical zealotry of some seminar leaders for particular methodologies, schools of thought, or hot books. These episodes were very puerile if not even disciplinarily reactionary, and we had no hope at all of prevailing in any of the skirmishes, but this resistance training was also enlightening and oddly liberating. Most of us washed out, or went elsewhere, as there were no jobs to be had. But I think the survivors emerged with possibly more supple imaginations and operational instincts than we might have had if we had allowed ourselves to be “trained” more effectively.

    I’ve never quite figured out when they stopped calling it graduate education and started calling it graduate *training* anyway Probably when bureaucratic questions like “time to completion” became reflexive initiatives at the deaning level. I quite agree with Historiann’s point in rule number one of the post that the training aspects of the process are indispensable. But I kind of like the anarchy and accident of my era too. I never quite know what to make of it when people are able to answer the two minute elevator drill interview or cocktail question by describing their “work” as being located at the “intersection of [this] and [that]” paradigmatic entity or enterprise. Mine is more often found at the intersection of “what the hell is this?” and “god damn, there’s another one, what’s going on?!?…” and I’ve gotten to like it that way.

    p.s. Who is this bishop, anyway, and how can I contact hir? I went to a Methodist school on the Scioto frontier and am always ready to circuit-ride. Especially if ze says brother, we have to get thee up to Ithaca, or over to Providence, or wherever, really…


  26. I write many letters for many students and do not expect gifts. Cookies are a nice touch but not necessary. A Starbucks gift card is too much like cash–professors are well enough paid that we don’t need a tip.

    What I would really, really like from each person for whom I write: a note after the application season is over telling me what the outcome was. If I care enough to write a letter, I care enough be interested in where the student was accepted and what s/he has decided to do.


  27. I have nothing to add about letter writing but would like to echo what some upthread have noted about the shift in emphasis that takes place in grad programs. I think students who are applying for MA or PhD programs need to be made aware of this shift and the nature of the increased workload. So, undergrad advisers: please discuss this with your applicants! Grad school is not the history channel on steroids!

    I add this because I am also a director of an MA program and I have several students each semester quitting in a huff because our classes are “too hard” and “too much work” and learning historiography is “killing their love of history.”



  28. I wanted to delurk and comment a bit about this topic. I am in literature, but as I am a medievalist, I kinda need the history stuff too.

    I was definitely one of those kids who was told NOT to go to graduate school, and it hurt. Indeed, my then-advisor openly told me he would NOT recommend me for a PhD. (Thanks, asshole!) What I would say about graduate school more generally, and the discussion with students about “whether to go,” is that the stern lectures I received had much more to do with how I wasn’t savvy or smart enough to get into the “best” schools and so I should just give up, due to the horrifying market. I also recall being told that if you wanted to “spend your 20’s in a library [sigh], then graduate school is for you!” As I was just then entering my 20’s, I had no idea what that was even supposed to mean…

    How I got in and succeeded I have yet to determine. I think it has mostly to do with my temperament and my ability to withstand poverty. In the case of my MFA, I think it was also that I was relatively good at turning out a poem and more importantly, more than willing to take out loans to pay the steep price of tuition. In the case of my PhD, I think it was timing and my general ability to figure out what my teachers want and then do it well.

    What I bring up with students is the issue of economics and debt. Since so many of them are already working or indebting themselves or both to pay for school, I simply tell them, “if you want to go to graduate school, cool. But do NOT pay for it.” We troubleshoot it that way. Had somebody, anybody, in my younger days talked with me about it that way I might have made different decisions. Money is concrete.


  29. Mikail, dawn, and Rebel Lettriste (nice name!)–welcome, and thanks to all for your comments. There is lots more wisdom for prospective grad students in your comments. RL, the strategy you describe is what I counsel my students: above all, don’t go into debt for a humanities M.A. or Ph.D. And dawn, your comment about the campus visits is spot on, although I think it’s best to wait until March to see where you got in. As you said, many big Ph.D. programs are now flying folks in for a “preview weekend” to try to recruit their top prospects. I don’t think it’s time- or money-wise to visit every campus you apply to unless and until you see where you’ve gotten in. Even if you have to pay your own way, it will be a small investment to ensure that you’re making the right choice of schools.

    Mikail, your comments about working outside of academia are spot on. Since I’m in the humanities, opportunities are much more limited for me, so that’s why it wasn’t a part of the original post. But, public history is something I think all historians should get at least an introduction to, since it can open so many more doors for different kinds of employment (and with only an M.A. required, too.)

    As for the coffee and cookies dispute: Ortho, if A wants to offer gifts I think it’s nice. As Ruth suggests, it’s certainly not expected or required, but A. may have developed close relationships outside of the request for letters of recommendation with her professors, so she may feel that it’s appropriate to thank them in this way. I think Ruth brings up a good point about the Starbucks gift cards, though–maybe offer to take your professors out for coffee in March when you can report on your acceptances, and seek their advice about where to go, instead of the gift card. That way you’re doing something nice, and it’s a bit more personal.


  30. Oh, and I wanted to say that Erica has good advice, too. The more you know, the more you know and can therefore make a more informed decision when you see what your options are. Good luck, Erica!

    (Erica bakes a lot and has a new MixMaster on her kitchen counter, so she will probably have surplus cookies just laying around the house most weeks.)

    And, I love that “History Channel Majors” line. I think I’ll recycle that (with attribution), next time I have the chance to use it!


  31. Wow. Lots of great advice here. This is one of my pet topics because I was a star undergrad history major, received enthusiastic recommendations and had high test scores. I received multiple offers of full funding from solid programs, went to one of those programs and then distinguished myself among the dozen students in my cohort. Yet I left two years after starting due to a variety of concerns, many of which have already been covered.

    For undergraduates who have had everything go well for them in their first twenty two years (due largely to their intellect and effort, of course), it is easy to think that circumstances will continue to break their way if they continue their good habits. Unfortunately the reality of the job market is that good people do not get jobs, or end up un- or under-employed. I distinctly remember a posting on H-Grad in 1994. The poster said “I did everything right. I went to the University of Chicago, studied with a well-known advisor, wrote a fine dissertation, and am a good teacher. Yet I am teaching at a community college in Miami.” Undergraduates are surrounded by faculty for whom the choice to go to grad school turned out to be a good one, and this can only tend to add a subtle bias in favor choosing to go to grad school. So I think that faculty are only doing their duty to make students think really hard about the choices they are about to make. As others have mentioned, grad students are not recruited solely because a school thinks they would make a fine academic — in many instances they are recruited because the school needs inexpensive labor. Applicants should be fully aware of the market forces at work.

    My undergraduate advisor made it through grad school in a scant five years. My grad school friends spent nine or ten years getting their PhDs and often emerged with families to support. Should the academic career path not work out, they are in a much less advantageous position to retrain for a different career. One is in his mid-30s, living in his in-laws basement with a wife and two kids, working towards a teaching certification.

    With the battery on the laptop dying, I’d better wrap it up. What a good conversation!


  32. Interesting post! When I applied to law schools, I knew for a solid fact that I wasn’t interested in practicing law except maaaaybe international law. I did know that I wanted to do international human rights activism, and that there’s not a specific degree program for that. I picked schools that had promising courses in international law and other programs like a good international law journal or study abroad options. I’ve been relatively happy, though sometimes law school seems like a waste of time. I know I would have been much happier with a PhD (I adore academia and am in love with research papers to a somewhat sick degree) but I also know that it wouldn’t really have helped me with my activist goals.

    Now, I’m at an interesting point, about to graduate this summer at the worst possible time in terms of job opportunities. There’s basically nothing, and one professor has been recommending that I get an SJD (a doctorate in law, basically) or a PhD in law or history in Europe. I’d love to stay in school a little while longer, but that’s a lot of money, and I’m again not sure how well the idea aligns with my goals. I think that if I absolutely cannot find a job and end up working at Panera Bread again by the time 2010 application time rolls around, I’ll consider taking out a loan.


  33. How fantastic of you to post on this topic. It is vital for students to be prepared for the application but to also think about what there intention is for graduate studies.

    I have added your link to my blog.



  34. Hey, don’t underestimate (or in this case, overestimate) your readers… I’m a simple college freshman and yet I read this…

    That said, I’ll be sure to keep this in mind when I do eventually apply.



  35. Wow, Noah–you must be an extremely boring college freshman! (Kidding.) Well, I’m glad Historiann enjoys such a wide and distinguished audience!

    Brett and Judith, thanks for stopping by to comment. Good luck, Judith–but I’m not sure Panera pays well enough to pay down your law school debts! You could do worse than a Ph.D. in legal history–I’m sure your law degree will go a long way towards getting you in the door, and probably with funding, too.

    And Geoff: you started grad school a few years before the job market took off again in the mid- to late 1990s, only shortly after the recession of 1991 put the brakes on hiring until 1994 or 1995 again. Things were pretty good in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when I was on the market for my first and then my second (and current) TT job. I’m wondering if we’re entering another deep freeze for a few years.

    The only good news about the hiring ice age is that for those of us who have jobs we like, we’ll be able to hold onto talented young faculty a little longer than they would necessarily like to be held onto. But, that’s thin gruel indeed for those who don’t yet have TT jobs, or for those who are unhappy where they are. So get comfy everyone–you might be where you are for a while longer than you had planned.


  36. Great advice, Historiann — and I absolutely agree with TR about the need for a common app. The silliest part of it is that most grad programs use one of two software providers, and it would be the easiest thing in the world for those software providers to make applications from different schools talk to one another, so you could just fill out one app per provider. If grad schools did that, I would have only had to write five applications for my thirteen grad schools instead of thirteen different ones — and ditto my long-suffering recommenders. As it is, between separate but identical applications, schools that require separate applications for the Graduate School and the Department, tricky forms that have to accompany college transcripts, and all-around silliness on certain applications (my favorite was when Harvard made me do a detailed and invasive analysis of my finances after I’d already told them I didn’t qualify for merit-based financial aid, and then required that I type in my entire college transcript by hand even though they were going to get the official copy in the mail within a week) — the mechanics of the forms are by far the most time-consuming part of the application, even though they’re the least important.

    I’d give one more bit of advice for prospective grad students: shoot a well-thought-out e-mail to a professor at each school you’re considering applying to. Not because it will help you get in — it won’t — but because if you ask the right questions, it will help you weed out a lot of schools that just don’t fit for you. I ended up knocking out about 7-8 schools based on the useful information I got from the responses: the prof who was rude to me, the one who wouldn’t tell me whether or not he was retiring, the ones that told me they were retiring, and the one that told me his school was no longer admitting any students in my subfield. These contacts saved me a lot of time and money that would have been wasted otherwise.


  37. Historiann,

    i am thinking of applying to a phd program in either history or social sciences. i am more interested in interdisciplinary studies, but isn’t history at the graduate level taking on more of an interdisciplinary form as well?

    also, how can i secure an assistantship or other aid from universities that i apply to? i graduated with honors from an ivy league college, but my gre scores are a little weak. what are the main ingredients (including specific scores and gpa) that would help secure financial aid that does not need to be repaid?


  38. Nerdherd–History departments claim to be interdisciplinary these days–this is perhaps one of the reasons that so many American Studies programs have been eaten up by History departments. But, some are more genuinely interested in interdisciplinarity than others, and some faculty are more interested than others–there’s no one way to answer your question. So, I would explore many different programs and carefully select the ones you apply to.

    As for funding and financial aid: again, there is no one prescription for getting what you want or need. After reading through various grad programs’ web sites, I would contact the graduate studies director (or chair) and ask her or him your questions about interdisciplinarity and financial aid. The more specific you can be about yourself, your interests, and your questions, the more helpful the grad studies directors can be in their replies to you. Their responses–or lack of responsiveness–will tell you a lot about whether or not you’d be a good fit for those programs.

    In general, though, Ph.D. students tend to be better funded than M.A. students–there are some programs that offer TA-ships to M.A. students, but it’s my impression that those goodies (if they exist) tend to be reserved more for the long-haul students. As for your GRE scores–one of the questions you should ask is if there’s a cutoff for a minimum GRE score. (Some large and well-funded departments get so many applications that they may decide that they don’t need to look at anyone with below a 550 or 600 on the verbal GRE, for example.) It might be worth your while to re-take the test, to see if you can get the scores up if you’re at or below the cutoff. Your grades, admissions essay, and letters of rec. will be more important overall, but only if your application gets a look, and it might not if your scores are very low.

    Good luck!


  39. Great thread over here. I was just accepted to the M.A. program at Crappy State University, Large Town USA. My undergrad GPA is 3.3, and my history GPA is 3.4. It’s pretty pathetic, and I’m hoping that decent scores on the GRE will get me into some sort of PhD program down the road. I don’t even care which program, as long as I can verify that I have a chance of finishing it relatively quickly. Torture I can handle, but not exaggerated timeliness.

    I have read time and time again that someone has gotten a PhD from a decent institution, and considers it a tragedy that they are now teaching at some Community College. This is ridiculous. I plan to use a PhD as a way to get my writing published, and on top of that I will be glad to obtain a teaching position at a high school or community college.

    Now, I’m not sure what to write on my applications. Obviously, if I write that my goal is to teach at a high school – well, the committees are going to look down on that. I just write “teaching” because I figure they assume that I am a snotty person that thinks PhDs have a god given right to teach in the university setting.

    Honestly, I just think that I was born to do this. I don’t care what it costs or how long it takes. I want to be a historian of the highest caliber – and believe me, I know all about historiography and the difficulty of acquiring source materials. I am confident that I can do this!


  40. Thank you so much for posting this topic. I’m a college junior, and in the last month have considered graduate school (other than law school) for the first time in my life. This is hugely helpful, considering that I’ve spent the past 10 years rigorously preparing myself for law school applications and have paid little attention to other options.

    After falling in love with literary theory, I’m pretty convinced that I’m going to go for it and at least try out a Master’s before inevitably going to law school. But I do have one question: because my only sincere goal is to pursue academic inquiry for a few more years on a level I know will never afterward be attainable, merely as a brief detour from my eventual goal to practice public interest law, will that hurt my application?

    Also, considering that I have a 3.89 GPA and got a 169 on my practice LSAT, I think I may be insane to bypass this (extremely viable) chance to get into the top law schools in the U.S. But–and this might be painfully idealistic–I think I’ll always regret it if I don’t pursue this.


  41. Pingback: How not to apply to grad school part II: STEMs and seeds edition : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  42. Pingback: Friday food fights! Plus evidence of my evildoing, with links. : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  43. Pingback: So you want to get a Ph.D. in the humanities? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  44. I agree that if you’ll only be satisfied with a tenure-track facutly appointment in an individual academic department at a four-year school, you should probably reconsider getting a Ph.D. But, if you are open to a broader diversity of jobs including in related fields combining teaching, administration, publishing, government, and consulting as a professional in your area, you can build a career that is more satisfying and makes a decent living.


  45. Pingback: Grad school confidential: back by popular demand! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  46. After 36 years as a practicing attorney in family law, I am contemplating applying for a post-graduate program in history which was my major at the University of Michigan. While I was encouraged to apply immediately for a PHD in history at the Michigan, I always wanted to be an attorney. However, even while in law school, we were given an opportunity to take a graduate school elective and I worked with a history professor on a paper on the Israel-Arab conflict and possible resolutions. This was completed in 1978. I have tried to read some historical work every week for the past 36 years mainly on subjects between 1815-1960. I would love to do research from a revisionist standpoint on the Allies of WWII and the inevitable Cold War. Is it too late to apply for a post graduate program at 60 years of age. As an undergraduate, I never saw less than an A in any history course and performed well on AP exams coming out of high school in US History and European History. Thank you. Van A. Schwab


  47. Pingback: Grad school confidential: back by popular demand! | Historiann

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