Publication Date

April 20, 2023

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Graduate Education

Successfully entering a history PhD program requires a breadth of institutional knowledge that privileged applicants easily accumulate from connections, mentorship, and support. Students without those opportunities often face significant barriers to entry, not just during the application process but for years following enrollment. While history departments cannot change the historical and contemporary circumstances from whence the relative lack of diversity in history graduate programs emerges, they can identify and target specific hurdles that students of such backgrounds face at all phases of graduate school. One such effort is the pipeline program—a short, funded seminar series that provides training and guidance to PhD hopefuls who might otherwise lack the privileges that help many applicants succeed. Although the basic outline of a pipeline program is fairly simple, building one has proven to be nuanced and complex.

A large pipe cuts through snowy woods.

For undergraduates who do not already have familiarity with graduate education, applying to and succeeding in PhD programs is a daunting task. Pipeline programs like the one at the University of California, Berkeley, seek to close the information gap. Brian Cantoni/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Since the spring of 2021, the history department at the University of California, Berkeley, has been hosting such a program. Now entering its third year, our program annually admits 15 students from across the country to a 10-week sequence of weekly remote seminars. These meetings cover a variety of topics regarding entering graduate school and succeeding within it. It concludes with a one-on-one mentorship phase in which fellows are paired with graduate students and faculty to workshop application materials or discuss their plans in more detail. While we continue to iterate and improve the program, what follows are some of the major design goals and challenges we faced in its inaugural run.

For a program intended to mentor students on successfully entering graduate school, the first challenge lay, somewhat ironically, in its own applications and admissions processes. Considering resource constraints and the importance of providing ample space for participants’ voices, we needed to limit the number of students in the program—but we also needed to be careful not to replicate in our selection process those same barriers to entry the program was designed to diminish. After extensive outreach to diverse colleges and universities across the country, we settled on the following requested materials: a writing sample, a statement of personal history, and a short piece on books or courses that had inspired them. The intention was to first establish an applicant’s potential for graduate admission, and then to determine the depth and earnestness of their interest in it. The goal throughout was to find an ideal middle ground—regrettably, we could not accommodate many capable students who didn’t seem to have given sufficiently serious thought to a history PhD, or some of the most impressive applicants, those who seemed motivated to take every possible opportunity to increase their chances of admission but were already well prepared.

In the end, we were overwhelmed by the response. The program had just 15 positions—a number that we felt would both enable a sense of community to emerge and assure participants the individual attention they deserved—but received 74 applications. Although the volume of applications was in part a result of our commitment to keeping the process accessible and undemanding, it serves dually as a testament to the demand for such programs that exists today.

We needed to be careful not to replicate in our selection process those same barriers to entry the program was designed to diminish.

The unanticipated need to select just one in five applicants presented another host of challenges. After an initial vetting, a committee of history faculty and graduate students made the final determinations. These were extraordinarily tough choices; our committee came to the selection meeting with independent rankings of the applicants, and some varied widely. There is no best practice here, but we think that pipeline programs run best with motivated students who readily demonstrate transparency in their uncertainties. Our priority thus lay in admitting sensitive, reflective, and passionate aspiring historians who showed both deep interest in pursuing graduate school and some form of trepidation about the process.

Those selected found that the pipeline program curriculum covers a wide variety of important topics. Some sessions focus on the more strategic elements of constructing a personal statement, requesting letters of recommendation, and introducing oneself to potential advisers, while others emphasize the importance of managing one’s mental health as a graduate student and developing techniques for dealing with imposter syndrome. This balance between guidance on entering graduate school and guidance on success following enrollment was crucial to our design team. The seminars are led by a rotating cohort of department faculty, staff, and graduate students, based on their expertise in each facet of the curriculum. The program is necessarily a collective effort of our entire department community.

This brief survey of our program’s design and aspirations understates the impact that working with our cohorts of fellows had on us in the past two years. Learning was not unidirectional. The team learned from weekly interactions with these aspiring historians, many of whom faculty usually only get the chance to meet through application packets that don’t always do justice to the sophistication of their historical voices. It’s been an enriching and humbling experience, one that program co-lead Waldo Martin perhaps best relayed by regularly referring to our Saturday-morning sessions as “going to church.”

This balance between guidance on entering graduate school and guidance on success following enrollment was crucial to our design team.

Feedback via anonymous surveys provides a measure of our success. Our fellows found the program to be an “invaluable experience” that “answered so many questions and relieved many anxieties” about the prospect of graduate school. Two other fellows independently described Saturday sessions as “something to look forward to each week” and as “the highlight of [their] week over the last few months.” Those words helped to strengthen our resolve to follow another fellow’s simple suggestion: “do not stop doing this program.”

Though fellows from our inaugural cohort have since enrolled in PhD programs at institutions including Princeton University, Stanford University, Brown University, and Northwestern University, we’re dually proud that the program has helped other students pursue a wide variety of career paths. More still have yet to apply: some of you serving on graduate admissions committees may see our fellows among your applicants this year. We here at Berkeley hope to see fellows from your undergraduate programs in the future.

The Berkeley History PhD Pipeline Program is one of many approaches to invigorating the historical discipline. Does your department or institution have a program that you think Perspectives readers might want to hear about? We welcome pitches on all aspects of the practice of history. Email with your ideas and questions.

Jordan Thomas Mursinna is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. He has served as a program coordinator for the Berkeley History PhD Pipeline Program since 2020.

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