According to the American Historical Association, a PhD in history usually takes 5-9 years to complete. Upon completion, the job market for history professors is highly competitive and may ultimately determine where you live.
Graduate work is a huge commitment of your time and energy. You should ask yourself if graduate work is right for you before beginning the application process. Don’t treat graduate work as something to do while you’re figuring out your life; it should be the next, necessary step towards your goal of becoming a professor, archivist, public historian, or author.
Some of our current faculty members have offered the following advice to students considering graduate work in history:
- Passion is the most important qualification! Passion manifests itself in loving to talk about history, reading historical literature outside of normal coursework, and feeling like history really matters to you.
- Academics live and die by what they write. What makes a historian is not only reading the scholarship, but writing it. Graduate school, as opposed to undergraduate coursework, is a world focused on literature rather than oral engagement.
- In order to move from being a lover of history to a historian, you need to produce original research and be equally attentive to the research of other scholars. You should spend time on your own defining what your contribution is going to be and think: “I want to write my OWN book.” Many undergraduates get good at tearing arguments apart, but you also need to be good at building them. Start by writing an undergraduate thesis.
- Only apply if you love learning and cannot think of anything else you would rather be doing.
Being an academic is not a 9-5 job; you are thinking and being inspired constantly. There is no set rhythm to the work.
- You should have a thick skin, a persistent attitude, and the capability to work independently.
Working on Graduate School Applications
Graduate programs have slightly different application processes and requirements. Go to the history department website for each school you’re interested in and search for prospective graduate student information.
With that in mind, the advice posted below generalizes the application requirements of many competitive History PhD programs within the United States.
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Find Programs and Establish Contacts
Publications like U.S. News and World Report can give you a general idea of the reputation of a program, but this ranking does not indicate whether or not that program will be a successful match for your research interests and lifestyle.
Deciding where to go to graduate school is a personal and introspective process. Ask yourself a lot of questions: How competitive is this program? Who do I want to work with? Will I like living there? What kind of budget will I have? UW Career Services has compiled an excellent list of questions to consider:
- To find potential advisors, think about what books or articles you’ve read that have inspired your approach or informed your research topics. Check if and where these authors are faculty members.
- Think about what concentration(s) interest you the most and then talk to a faculty member who specializes in that field. He or she can advise you in what courses to take for preparation for graduate school and what programs you should consider.
- Create a list of 7-10 (or more) graduate schools that you’re interested in and the faculty you’d like to work with at each one.
- You should make sure that there is more than one faculty member with interests that complement (but may not be exactly) your own—you want to be part of a community of scholars who can help you with different aspects of your research.
- Send each professor an email of introduction and interest. Ask if they are accepting graduate students for the upcoming academic year for your field. (Some applications have spots for listing the people in the department that you’ve spoken with. Contacts are always a plus!)
- If possible, have a conversation with your potential advisor over the phone or in person in order to get a sense of their personality. Can you imagine having a close working relationship with him or her for 7-9 years? Personalities are important in making or breaking these relationships, so consider this issue seriously as you make your graduate school decisions.
Letters of Recommendation
Most graduate programs require three letters of recommendation. Choosing your recommender carefully is essential for an effective letter. Before your senior year, try to acquaint yourself with your professors through office hours and active participation in class discussions. If you are taking time off, you should still ask for letters of recommendation before you leave school!
Who should write my letters?
- At least two of the letters should come from history faculty or a faculty member in a history-related field.
- The best recommendations come from thesis advisors, History 600 seminar instructors, independent study supervisors, and faculty who have led your discussion sections. These are people who can attest to the quality of your work and the capability of your mind.
- If you cannot think of any faculty members who know your work or personality in depth, it’s not too late to start going to office hours (most professors’ office hours are under-utilized). Also, think of Teaching Assistants with whom you’ve worked closely.
How do I ask an instructor to write one?
- Recommenders should be contacted well in advance (more than a month) of application deadlines. As deadlines come up, gently remind your recommenders to submit their letters.
- Set up a time to talk to your potential recommender in person, so you can remind him/her of who you are and what class you had with them. Get a feel for how enthusiastic they are about writing one—it’s a good indicator of the quality of the letter.
- When you meet with your recommender, provide the following materials to help them write a detailed letter (pdf):
- Personal Statement: This can be a rough draft, but needs to succinctly describe your experience and motivations for pursuing graduate study.
- Curriculum Vitae or Resume: A C.V. is an academic resume that includes research, academic service, and language qualifications. For an example, see: Cynthia H. Wingfield C.V.
- Writing: If you have saved papers that you’ve written for your recommender that they have corrected, provide them for review. If you don’t have an original, try finding the file and printing out a new copy.
- List of schools you are applying to with instructions and deadlines for submission: Let your recommender know if the forms are online or hardcopies, provide the web and street addresses for each institution.
- Stamped, addressed envelopes if recommenders need to send letter by mail.
Remember to gently remind your recommenders of deadlines well in advance of due dates! You are ultimately responsible for whether or not they get in on time.
Interfolio offers a secure, confidential and efficient way to submit and manage recommendation letters. Visit the “Letter Writer” section of Interfolio.com to learn more about submitting letter.
Prepare your Writing Sample
Most graduate programs require that you submit a writing sample, which can be anywhere from 5-30 pages, depending on the program.
- The writing sample should be a demonstration of your research skills, especially how you work with primary sources.
- It is also beneficial if the writing sample is on a topic related to the field you want to study in graduate school (remember that your potential advisor is reading it!). History 600 seminar papers or senior theses are good foundations for writing samples.
- The writing center is an excellent resource for helping you with the editing process of both your academic writing sample and your personal statement.
A professor at the University of Michigan writes: “The most important thing with a sample is (a) the clarity of the argument, (b) a facility with primary sources and their interpretation, and (c) the luminosity of the writing. A small essay is often as good as a long one, as long as it has those three things.”
Write your Statement of Purpose
Although you can’t change your grades or GRE scores, you can choose how you present yourself through your personal statement (typically 2-3 pages or under 1000 words). This may be the most difficult—and rewarding—part of the application.
- Be professional: show that you have thought about graduate school seriously and are ready for the work and commitment.
- Be original: You will get lost in the shuffle with banal statements like “I love history” and “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” You have to give the admissions committee a reason to pick YOU in particular.
- Be demonstrative: don’t just repeat everything in your resume, tell them something about your intellectual abilities that your jobs and scores cannot.
The UW Writing Center’s page on Application Essays has helpful tips and exercises for writing personal statements as well as the current schedule for its free class on writing application essays.
Accepted is a commercial service that offers personal statement and application essay editing and admissions advice—the page on Graduate School essays has links to several sample essays.
Take the GRE
The GRE is a standardized test that attempts to measure your quantitative, verbal, and analytic writing skills. Many graduate programs require you to take the General Test (few programs require the subject tests; check before registering).
- Studying for the GRE in advance is important. It is possible to raise your scores by learning vocabulary, reviewing math, and taking practice exams and test-preparation courses.
- For more information on the GRE and to register to take the test, visit www.ets.org/gre
- Take the test before the November of your graduate school deadlines!
Visit your advisor, teaching assistants, and faculty members; they can help with many different aspects of the application process. Establish a mentor, someone who has applied to graduate school and is willing to help you as well.
For students interested in entering a graduate program directly after their undergraduate careers, the following is a suggested timeline for the application process:
As Soon as Possible
- Take challenging history courses, particularly research-orientated seminars
- Most graduate programs want you to demonstrate foreign language competency for your field of interest, i.e. if you’ve decided that you want to study Russian history, start taking Russian!
- Take advantage of internships, clubs, research apprenticeships and jobs that will give you experience in “doing” history.
- Register for the GRE and start preparing! Buy practice books, enroll in a prep course, or find a study buddy!
- Research potential graduate school programs and faculty you are interested in working with.
- Take the GRE! Taking the GRE during the summer will be a lot less stressful than during the academic year. You’ll have more time to study and you won’t be as mentally fatigued from your other courses. Plus, if you aren’t happy with your scores, you have more time to retake it.
- Create a “wish list” of about 10 programs and start gathering more information on each.
- Keep updating your Resume or Curriculum Vitae (C.V.s are academic resumes). They are required by some schools. Example CV
Senior Year- September
- Contact faculty at each program on your “wish list” (either the person you want to work with or the graduate program coordinator/advisor). Let them know you’re interested, ask whatever questions you have, and find out if they are accepting PhD students in your area of specialty.
- Ask your three recommenders if they are willing to write you letters. Provide them with your Resume/C.V., a rough draft of your personal statement, papers you’ve written for their class, and any other information that will help them write a detailed letter.
Senior Year- October
- Finalize your list of programs and start the applications forms (online or paper).
- Work on your personal statement/statement of purpose. Attend workshops or schedule appointments with the writing center to help you move through drafts. Revise, Rewrite, Edit, Repeat.
- Edit your writing sample. Even if you got an A on the paper, polish it or rewrite it as necessary. Prepare your Writing Sample
- If you have not taken the GRE already, you need to do it now.
- Send your GRE scores from ETS (Educational Testing Service) to each of your programs.
Senior Year- November
- If you are working with December 1st deadlines, you’ll need to finish your applications by mid November to ensure that everything that needs to get mailed gets there in time.
- Send gentle reminders to your recommenders that the deadlines for materials are approaching.
- Send transcripts from each of your undergraduate institutions to each graduate program.
- Finish paper or online application forms!