From the Archives: How to Pick a Graduate Program

School is starting, and many rising seniors are considering whether or not to take their history majors to the next level: graduate school. But how does one choose the best graduate program? What does the application process look like? The AHA has some resources on its web site that are worth considering.

The most useful guide on our web site is “Graduate School Application Process: From Start to Finish” published by the Committee for Graduate Students. It breaks down the application process into two components–the application phase and the decision phase–and offers helpful advice and questions to be asked in each. The application phase “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.” Before applying to any schools, potential applicants should ask themselves questions like: 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? Students should then research departments with their goals in mind. The AHA’s History Doctoral Programs in the United States and Canada web site is a good place to start, as it contains the pertinent statistics, specialties, and contact information for most of the PhD programs in North America and Canada. Students should also check out their history department’s copy of the AHA’s Directory of History Departments, Historical Organizations, and Historians for more statistical information and to research advisors. I used the Directory a lot when I was looking for a graduate program several years ago.

The CGS web page also has some useful advice for making a final decision on which graduate program to addend. It offers, for example, sample questions to ask the director of graduate students, the graduate secretary, and potential advisors on your campus visit. “Don’t be shy,” they say. “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 the consumer about to buy a product (an advanced degree) that is an investment of years of your life.” Also, talk to other graduate students, where the real scoop is. Ask them the same questions you asked the DGS, plus any personal concerns you may have, such as campus social life, the cost of living, the weather in January, and so on.

In my last post on the subject, I recommended Mary Ann Fitzwilson’s survey of the graduate school guidebook literature to incoming graduate students. Fitzwilson’s work is useful here as well. Specifically, she recommends Robert Peters’ Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or a PhD and The Real Guide to Grad School by editors of Lingua Franca, both of which are still available on Amazon.com. “Inscribing Your Future: The Trials and Tribulations of Applying to Graduate School” by John King and Andrew McMichael from the September 1998 issue of Perspectives provides another helpful overview of the application process and offers good advice about picking a school and a new advisor. “The Career Goals of History Doctoral Students: Data from the Survey on Doctoral Education and Career Preparation” by Chris M. Golde examines the career paths graduate students hope to pursue after completing the PhD, while Lillian Guerra discusses some of the challenges faced by doctoral students including anxiety about the tight job market, in "’Dumb Enough to Want to Get a History PhD’: Views from the Trenches of Graduate Education.” Both are worthwhile reads.

A few other publications from the AHA may be worth considering: Careers for Students of History, which focuses on the perennial question, “what can I do with a history degree?”, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century, which looks at the state of graduate education, and Becoming a Historian by Melanie S. Gustafson. See also The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career: A Portable Mentor for Scholars from Graduate School Through Tenure and, as an additional research aid, this prior post on AHA Today.

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