Graduate School Application Process: From Start to Finish
The United States is home to more than 150 history Ph.D. programs. Each program offers something unique, whether it's a specialized course of study, strength in a specific field, a professor who shares your research interests, or exclusive research facilities. Before making the decision to apply to a particular college or university, you should learn as much as possible about the history program. Begin your research here at the History Doctoral Programs in the United States web site, and then look for more detailed information on individual departmental sites. The following advice offers suggestions about things you will want to consider as you look for, apply to, and decide on a program that fits your scholarly interests and career goals.
The Application and Decision Process Includes:
- Ask Questions of faculty and DGS of the program
- Ask Questions of Graduate Students in the program
The application process combines a mixture of reflection about what you want out of your pursuit of a graduate degree in history and a preliminary effort to identify schools and faculty that can help you achieve those goals.
The reflection stage is crucial in helping you think about what kinds of programs and environments best suit your interests and goals. Answering these questions will help you narrow your list of schools to apply to as well as help you prepare a stronger application.
Questions to think about:
- Why do I wish to pursue an advanced degree in history?
- What do I want to study?
- What kind of additional preparation might I need before starting a program (e.g. intensive language study, experience living overseas, etc.)?
- What might I want to do when I graduate?
- Where do I want to live for the next 2 years for an MA and/or 5-8 years for PhD while I pursue my degree?
- How comfortable am I pursuing a highly independent process that can be quite solitary?
- What characteristics am I looking for in program? In an advisor
- What does the job market look like? What are the employment outlooks in my field of interest?
The first place to start is to consult with professors at your undergraduate institution; they can help suggest programs that would be appropriate. Then search the AHA’s database and carefully review history department web sites of schools to which you think you might apply. Consultation of these sites will enable you to get a sense of program basics, degree requirements, the interests of faculty and current graduate students, admission requirements, and application procedures. Not all sites will be equally informative, but it is important to try to cull as much information from them as you can. At this early phase, it is particularly important to pay attention to faculty profiles. The faculty, and especially your advisor, have an enormous impact on your professional training so the importance of finding someone appropriate to work with cannot be emphasized too strongly. Most faculty members only accept students whose interests are relatively close to their general area of interest. Take some time to read something written by your potential advisor so that you can articulate in your correspondence and application why you think your intellectual interests are a good match for this program and advisor. It is advised that you write to a potential advisor before you apply. Describe something about yourself and your research interests and inquire politely whether he or she might be willing to supervise a dissertation in the subject (but take care not to be too wedded to a specific question or approach because professors want to know that you are open to learning more). Contacting your potential mentor gives them an opportunity to tell you if they are over committed supervising other dissertations, if they are planning an extended sabbatical, or perhaps that they are planning to retire. Things to look for when researching schools:
- What is the program's mission statement and/or list of goals?
- Does the department list their specific program focus and training philosophy?
- What makes the program distinctive? Is it a specialized course of study, a particular research focus, or perhaps a description of unique opportunities and/or priorities that make the program stand out?
- What kinds of classes are offered? [If this information is not available on the departmental web site, check the course catalog and/or schedule of classes on the main web site]
- Does the university have several faculty members who work in my field in history and/or across related disciplines?
- What is the school’s reputation in your subfield?
- Does the program offer a range of classes in your area of interest?
- How many students are enrolled in the program?
- How many new students are admitted to the Ph.D. program each year?
- How many are admitted to the M.A. Program?
- Does the department maintain any institutionalized outlets for extracurricular intellectual engagement? Is there a regular program of guest lectures, student-faculty seminars, discussion groups, film series, or student colloquia?
- What kind of funding options does the university provide? And how many years is funding generally guaranteed for?
- What kind of jobs do recent grads of the program get hired for?
- What are the requirements for completing the program?
- What are the foreign language expectations and how are they to be fulfilled?
- What are the examination and dissertation procedures?
- How long does it typically take students to complete the program?
- What are the costs of tuition and fees? Housing and other living expenses (including medical insurance)?
- What, if any, funding packages are offered?
- Does the university offer room and board options for graduate students?
- Look for information about funding for research related travel, conference participation, or specialized training in languages, statistical analysis, or computer applications.
- Look for information on required transcripts, Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores, and Recommendation Letters.
- What is the application deadline and fee?
What are graduate programs looking for in candidates?
- Intellectual flexibility: Take care not to be too wedded to a specific question or approach-as teachers, they want to know you are still open to learning more.
- Are you a good fit? Remember that selection committees are not just evaluating your potential. They also want to be sure that they have the intellectual resources to help you succeed.
- Will your chosen advisor(s) be available? Your potential mentor may be overcommitted supervising other dissertations, planning an extended sabbatical, or preparing to retire.
There's no single, simple answer to this question. Some factors that enter into the admission considerations include:
Once you have been admitted to a program, you typically will have the opportunity to visit the departments/campuses and learn about programs on a whole new level. During the course of the campus visit, ask all the questions that are on your mind. Don’t be shy. This is your opportunity to really get to know the ins and outs of a particular program – what will be expected of you, what the intellectual and social environment is like, what you can expect financially, etc. You are consumer about to buy a product (an advanced degree) that is an investment of years of your life.
It is important during this process to talk to various people – faculty with whom you think you might work, the DGS and/or the Graduate Assistant, graduate students in the program (and if possible a recent graduate or two), and to other resources in the field (e.g. your undergraduate advisor, etc.). Ask some of the same questions to each of these different constituencies. You can learn a lot from asking the same question to different parties (and you may be surprised by divergent responses). Below are some suggested questions for conversations with different parties.
The key here is to spend time talking with the DGS and the faculty to get a sense of what they are like to work with and to get a deeper sense of the program. There is no perfect description of a potential advisor or of the perfect History Department. The important thing is your advisor’s style matches yours and that the Department’s culture makes for a good fit.
Questions for faculty, and especially for a potential advisor:
- What is your philosophy in terms of mentoring graduate students? How frequently do you expect to meet with your students? How heavily do you expect to be involved in the creative process?
- How willing are you to advise projects not directly in your area of expertise?
- How many students are you currently advising? Can you help put me in touch with them?
- What types of dissertation projects have you supervised in the past?
- How many students have you successfully seen to tenure track positions?
- Do you encourage a politically inflected approach among your students?
- When are you planning to be on sabbatical? What arrangements are made for mentoring your students when you are on sabbatical?
Questions for faculty or the DGS about:
- What is the intellectual community like? Are there reading groups, student-faculty seminars, etc.? How does the faculty interact with the graduate student community?
- In what ways, if any, do graduate students participate in the governance of the Department?
- What percentage of students who start the program finish the program? What types of jobs do they get? Where in the process do students tend to leave/drop out?
- In the past what have been the patterns of those students who have been asked to leave the program?
- How long is the average time to degree completion?
- How soon is the decision about the advisor made? Is there flexibility to change advisors?
- Is it possible to switch fields?
- What opportunities are there to take course work in other departments? Or at other universities? How frequently does this happen?
- How are language classes factored into the graduate study course load? Are the participants in these classes graduate students only?
- What are the program’s methodological strengths?
- How are research methods taught?
- What are the department’s standards and practices in terms of the administration of exams/ expectations for student performance?
- Who selects the dissertation committee and how does this process generally proceed?
- How is professional development addressed?
- What sort of career development resources does the department offer?
- How does the program assist graduates in preparing for the job market?
- Does the department or university offer a formal program for preparing college teachers?
- Are there opportunities to gain teaching experience?
- Where have other graduates been placed? What percentage of students have received academic positions?
- How many graduates got history related jobs outside of academia, in government or the private sector? How many are employed in other fields?
- Does the university offer classes or seminars in preparing for the job search? Are there workshops for practicing job interviews, preparing a resume or writing a cover letter?
- If you are open to careers outside of academic, look into school-sponsored internships. Does the school or department have a formal internship program for students interested in public history careers in museums, libraries, or non-profit organizations? What about internship possibilities in government or business?
- What types of responsibilities are associated with TAing or teaching one’s own course?
- What is the graduate student teaching load like?
- Are there opportunities in the later phase of graduate school to teach your own seminar or lecture course?
- How does the Department train its graduate students to be teachers?
- What is the balance for students between time spent teaching versus pursuing their own work (either coursework or research)?
- Does the program offer multi-year funding packages?
- How are the funding packages distributed? What are the criteria for obtaining either multi-year or annual funding? Is it possible to get funding for later years if one is not funded during the first year?
- Is there money for pre-dissertation summer research travel or summer language study?
- Is your school eligible for Foreign Language and Area Studies money under Title XI?
- What kinds of funding are available through the University for students at the dissertation level? What happens to students when they exhaust the funding provided (if any) in the initial funding package?
- In return for funding, what are the teaching expectations?
Take advantage of the opportunity to talk at length with graduate students currently in the program. They will undoubtedly have opinions about what the professors and the graduate program are really like. Ask about all of those things. Graduate students at different phases of the process will have a different take on the experience so, if possible, talk to students at different stages – those still completing coursework, those working on dissertations/heading toward the job market, and recent graduates. Many of the questions listed above are worth also asking grad students; sometimes faculty and student perceptions of a program differ. Grad students are also an excellent resource for information that may be important to you personally – recreation, off-campus life, housing, religious or political communities, health insurance, cost of living, childcare, what the weather is really like in January, etc.
Questions for graduate students currently in the program :
- Is there any formal process for representing grad student concerns to the department’s faculty?
- What is the department’s intellectual community like? Are there reading groups? How does the faculty interact with the graduate student community? How tight knit is the graduate community?
- In the past, what have been the patterns of those students who have been asked to leave the program?
- How well is the faculty able to cope with the personal concerns of graduate students?
- How many hours a week do you work on your own research? On your teaching?
- How rich do you find your social community?
- What kind of lifestyle can you expect on your stipend?
- What, if any, hidden costs are there? (e.g. health insurance, fees for sending out job letters, etc.)
- Are there any combinations of faculty who do not work well together?
- How many students would you expect to teach in a given year?
- What has been the attrition rate for your cohort?
- What kind of jobs have recent grads of the program taken?
- How diverse is your student/faculty body?
- What is the program’s greatest strength?
- If you could change one thing about the program what would it be?
Updated by Elise S. Lipkowitz, chair of the AHA’s Committee for Graduate Students
Last Updated: February 22, 2008