Wednesday, July 20, 2011

You Ask, I Answer: Advice for a Prospective Graduate Student

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

The other day, I got an email from a prospective graduate student who is in the process of applying to schools, including my alma mater - the University of Virginia. He wanted to know what to expect once he hit the ground (the prospective student shall remain that my colleagues  - one of whom recently described the idea as a suicide mission - don't try and contact him and talk him out of his rather ambitious endeavor).

I answer here in the hope that others might think a little more about what they are getting themselves in to. I will take on - in my own colloquial style - his questions one at a time. Keep in mind that these are my personal experiences and may not necessarily reflect the experiences of all students in grad school. At any rate, the questions are in italics. And best of luck to you, my anonymous friend.

Why did you decide to pursue your Ph. D. in history?

In the abstract, I have been a history guy my entire life...I wanted to talk about it all the time, and so college seemed the logical course to take. For a more tangible reason...I had a lot of questions that were unanswered but did not have the tools necessary to answer them - at least I didn't think so. There is an enormous amount of information out there - both primary and secondary - in libraries, repositories, and on the Internet. This is, of course, both a blessing and a curse. What on earth was I going to do with it all? How was I going to sort through everything and make sense of it? So I came up with the crazy notion that professional training was the answer.

Can you describe a typical week when school is in session?

I am going to go with year one here - because I found that to be the most challenging. Not to say that things got any easier as I went through the program...there are all sorts of hurdles to cross that will put you through changes (specifically....qualifying examinations). Let's just say that my first year was a sobering one. I like to describe it as an effort to take a sip of water from a fire hose. At UVA, first year Americanists (and this is typical for many programs) take a mandatory series of courses that bury students deep deep deep in the literature. Contextualization is the goal - making historiography make sense, I suppose. But a week goes something like this: you read, then you read, then you read some more, then you get in some reading, and when you are all done - you read some. I was assigned thousands of pages each week. So guess what - prepare to get some reading in. Don't take this lightly. It can be (and was for many of my classmates) overwhelming. Keep in mind also, you will be attending classes, writing papers for this primary course load as well as two other classes each semester. Maybe, if you get a minute, you can meet some of your mates for a beer - so you can talk about the week's reading assignments. Did I mention that you will do a lot of reading? Oh, and one other thing. If you do not have one already, first year graduate students at UVA also write their Master's Thesis.

Do you have an extra job besides your full-time commitment to school?

HAHAHAHAHA - but sadly, yes. Most students are assigned graderships in their first year and then teach sections from then on. I also picked up a little gig at the special collections library to fill my "spare" time and make some extra money (turns out, this was a good thing. I managed to simultaneously do on-the-job research for my MA). The University places limits on how many hours one can work each week - the logic being: you will not get distracted by work and will be able to focus on your studies. The reality is that the few hours permitted to prepare for section discussions or even grade a stack of 120 mid-term essays is entirely unrealistic. Do not expect to get much sleep.

Are you pursuing any research-related opportunities this summer? Is this typical?

Dude, my advice to you is to go to Cabo. But since you are a glutton for punishment - as evidenced by your desire to actually pursue an advanced degree in the humanities given the current state of affairs - you won't. Yes, many students, myself included, seek research opportunities during the summer (and holidays breaks as well). There are plenty of them out there depending on your topic, many are funded...some generously (check out Gilder-Lerhman - they made my life very easy when I was researching for my dissertation).

How did you fulfill the foreign language requirement?

At UVA, Americanists are required to "master" one language, Europeanists need two, and the Classics Department insists that you speak and read everything. You will take a proficiency exam your first year, and a mastery exam your second. I dug deep in to the recesses of my mind to recall high school Spanish and the many conversations I had with Latino friends in Los Angeles. Then I studied my ass off to get verb conjugations right (the Spanish Department lets you use a dictionary, so vocabulary is not really an issue).

How much is intellectual diversity explicitly encouraged in the academic community in general and your class in particular? In what ways are certain points of view discouraged within the academic community?

I am going after you on these questions - I give them a C-. Don't take it personally. After all, you are going to have to develop a think skin. Criticism in grad school can be brutal - from all sides - your advisor (if he or she is any good) will hold you accountable for every word you write, your professors will humble you in ways you cannot yet imagine, and your peers will (or rather, will probably) delight in tearing you a new one, so to speak. In short, your questions make grand assumptions. One, that intellectual diversity is explicitly encouraged and two, certain points of view are discouraged in the academic community. My answer to these problematic questions is concise: you will encounter both, neither, or any combination of the two. All of this depends of any variety of factors...egos, personalities, background, name it. My experience, overall, was very good. My professors encouraged me to follow lines of inquiry as I saw fit - but, and here is the real nugget, they insisted I produce the goods. Not a single professor (some of the most prominent historians in my chosen and outside fields, mind you) ever tolerated sloppy research. Even what I thought was on the money was challenged, criticized, and punched squarely in the face. My advisor once made me cry. It was pathetic. Let's just say I went back to the drawing board more than once. But it made me a better historian. For that I am grateful.

Any general advice you wish someone would have told you when you were applying for admission to this program that you would want prospective students to know?

Yes - everything in your life will suffer for this. Your relationships, your finances, maybe even your physical and mental health. On the other hand, you will meet some smart people, develop lasting friendships, and most importantly, you will come out the other end (hopefully) prepared to place your own stamp on the literature - what some smart-ass grad student will come along and destroy in ten years or so.

Best of luck my friend, and always feel free to seek me out if you need further advice!



  1. This is quite good, Keith - thanks for posting. I'm always a little put off by folks in our shoes, some of them our mutual friends, who dogmatically announce that they will stridently discourage every single person who crosses their path from pursuing a humanities Ph.D. It's just hypocritical to be so against people making the exact same choice we made. Give them a realistic assessment of the job market & other downsides, of course. But if this is where their passion truly lies, who are we to tell them that's stupid? This is a great way to answer the question instead, when it inevitably comes up.

  2. Thanks Mel - I tell you, I get these questions all the time. Sometimes I honestly suggest to people that grad school might not be for them. But only after I hear exactly what it is that they are after and what they are will to dedicate. I think just laying the out the realities is the best course of action. Then...if they are willing to take it on, I encourage and support them to the best of my ability. Glad you enjoyed the post. Say hi to Ross and the little one for me - I hope all is well!

  3. Thanks for posting this. I recently completed my undergrad degree and am currently debating the possibility of graduate school, either in the field of Public History or American History. A doctorate is possible in the future, but one step at a time for me right now...

    I'm a little curious as to how the application process goes and would like some more information on it. What is the best possible procedure in order to make a good impression on as many schools as possible, ostensibly in the hope of getting the best possible deal financially and emotionally? Also, should I start applying for schools now, or wait until most schools are back in session around late Aug./early Sept.?

    I'm a new visitor to your site. Keep up the good work!

  4. Hi Nick - thanks for posting. I will give you a little insight on the application process from my own personal experience. Keep in mind that my approach to the whole thing may not be typical - but it wound up working pretty well for me. First of all - the competition these days is very fierce...more so than when I was applying for schools so many years ago. Programs have been cut, funding has been cut, and universities (at least many of them) are admitting fewer and fewer graduate students. will have your work cut our for you.

    I suggest first making sure that you have excellent letters of recommendation from your former undergraduate professors. People with whom you worked closely are the best ticket - those who know you and your work can make a much better impression than those who do not. You will most likely need three letters so you should contact potential writers immediately and "refresh" their memories if need be.

    Next you should carefully research all of the programs to which you will be applying. Depending on what you plan to research - or if you haven't firmed that up yet...what you main interests are, you will want to choose programs that work best for you (and, not incidentally, programs that will benefit from your work). Then you should check out the the professors at the universities to see who is a good fit. You are going to be working with these people very closely for several years so this is important. I am not sure if getting the best possible deal should be at the top of your list - although it is important and should factor in. I personally turned down a better financial deal to go with a program that I thought would be work out in my favor in the big picture - turns out I made a good call.

    You will have to write some sort of statement of purpose. Get started on this right away and have people you trust read it over and offer criticism. I would avoid any sappy stories about family tragedy, some life affirming event, or why you "love" history. Stick to your work, why its important, and how it is going to add to the literature.

    As far as when to apply - well, I suppose it goes without saying that you should check and double-check all the deadlines. I may be way off base here but I would be surprised if anyone on the various admissions committees get around to reading anything early.

    One thing I can say is that even if your tests (GRE) scores are high and you received good grades in college you are going to have to stand out in the crowd. Pretty much everyone who is applying did well as an undergraduate (one would think so, at least). So my friend...what is special about you?

    Good luck and let me know how things turn out.


  5. Thanks for the advice, Keith. I've been researching schools at a moderate pace since the beginning of the year, but it's about to kick into high gear for me now; for the 2012 Fall semester it appears that a lot of schools have their application deadlines around January 2012.

    Within the past year I've gained valuable experience working for the National Park Service, teaching Social Studies in a High School classroom (and receiving my teaching certificate), working in the Archives & Manuscripts division of a research library, and my final undergrad capstone research paper should be published in the fall. I figure this experience in a wide variety of jobs within the field of history should help me succeed in a variety of Graduate programs. We'll see!

    Thanks again for the help.