Graduate School in History: Application Advice

Part two of our collective interview with three Bethel History alumni who have gone on to doctoral programs in history. Today, Noel Stringham ’07 (doctoral student, University of Virginia), Katie Thostenson ’05 (doctoral student, University of Edinburgh), and Ben Wright ’05 (PhD, Rice University) discuss advice they received — and what they wish they’d heard — about the application process.

What was the best advice you received as you prepared to apply to and/or to attend graduate school?

BW: “Don’t do it.” I emailed a number of grad students at institutions where I planned to apply. The resounding response was “Don’t apply; find something else to do.” The time, expense, and job prospects associated with earning a PhD should be prohibitive to all but the most psychotically dedicated. Having these expectations helped me to avoid a lot of the disappointment and existential angst some of my colleagues suffered.  

KT: Dr. Gehrz once told me and some other history students interested in graduate school, “Don’t go just because you don’t know what else to do.” This was sound advice: graduate school is a huge investment—of your time, your resources, and even your emotions. If you do not have a strong sense of purpose for being there, you might find the cost is more than you are willing to pay.

NS: As far as getting in, apply to many programs as possible and go meet in person as many of the faculty you’re applying to work with. UVA accepted me before all of my application materials had even arrived because I hit it off with my adviser… a relationship that matters because your adviser controls your graduate school career almost entirely.

Also, 5-7 years of your life is a huge time commitment, and it comes right at the age when many Americans get married and/or have their first child. So you ought to consider how your academic life is going to mesh with your personal life.

What advice didn’t you receive — i.e., what do you wish you had known about graduate school before you applied or arrived?

KT: I was probably told and just didn’t listen, but I wish I had had a better idea of the sacrifices required to attend graduate school. As I said, graduate school requires a lot of time and resources and can often be physically and emotionally draining. Not that one can entirely plan for such things, but in the very least it helps put them into perspective–if you know these sacrifices are commonly experienced by graduate students, you are less inclined to view them as personal failings.

BW: I was pretty headstrong and likely ignored a lot of advice I did not like (unless it was drilled into me, like “don’t apply”). I’m sure someone made this very clear to me somewhere along the way, but it’s worth remembering that the academic culture of liberal arts colleges like Bethel is very different from the culture of graduate education. At even the most nurturing of graduate programs, your adviser will be spending at least 70% of their time, energy, and attention on their own scholarship. Your ability to get accepted and earn the attention of your adviser will be directly proportional to your ability to produce quality research on your own. It’s a pretty isolating experience, but that isolation can also be richly rewarding and intellectually invigorating (as well as intimidating). Developing intellectual self-sufficiency and pro-active entrepreneurial instincts distinguishes thriving graduates students from their struggling peers. 

KT: I also wish I had been more well-informed about the realities of the academic job market. [ed. more on this in part three of this series] Though my plan is still to pursue an academic career (I have not yet completed my doctorate), I am trying to face the reality that it may never get off the ground. If I had known then what I know now, I would have been more intentional in researching and seeking out experience for alternative careers while in graduate school so I felt I had more options when I graduate.

Photo of Noel Stringham
Noel studies African history, with particular interest in religion and gender in the history of South Sudan — University of Virginia

NS: My dissertation topic — I could have started my Arabic and Nuer language training faster and made better use of my course work research papers. That said, if you don’t know no one can tell you, you’ll just have to learn enough to discover what it is that is important enough for you to pursue… at least in your own opinion.

What other question should Bethel students who are interested in graduate study of history be asking (of themselves or others)?

KT: Generally, I think students should try to unpack their motivations for going to graduate school—if it is to pursue an academic career the reality is many will never achieve it, or will never have job security if they do. Do they still feel graduate study is something they want to pursue if it not does not translate into an academic career? Are there other things they wish to pursue instead? Graduate study can often be all consuming, and it can be difficult to find time for family and friends, let alone other hobbies or passions. Would they be willing to make sacrifices for their studies? Are there other careers they could pursue which would utilize their unique gifts and they would still find fulfilling that do not require graduate study? What do they find appealing about graduate study? Can those appealing aspects be found somewhere else?

BW: Do I really love to research, or do I just love to learn about history? Graduate school is not a place to “learn about history.” It’s a place to gain training in how to research. Successful graduate students will spend exponentially more time triangulating historiography and learning how to produce new knowledge rather than absorbing historical knowledge. If your primary motivation is to learn about history, you are better off getting a library card than a PhD. But if you want to produce new knowledge, come and join us!

NS: Bethel students are not going to be PhD students in institutions committed to Christian faith, much less a Pietist tradition. In fact you’re generally not picking an institution at all but just two or three scholars who you want to work with (and who have enough clout in their field that their letters of recommendation might mean something). Ask other graduate students how these prospective advisers treat their graduate students.

KT: Though of course it is a personal decision, when possible, I think students should also seek the advice of trusted professors and family or friends who know them and their work well about their aptitude for graduate study. These might be difficult conversations, but we all have blind spots when it comes to ourselves, and whether positive or negative, it is better to make a decision once you have looked at it from different perspectives.

<<Read the first post in this series               Read the next post in the series>>

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