Graduate School in History: Strengthening Your Application

In part three of our interview about grad school, Bethel alumni Ben Wright ’05 (PhD in American history, Rice University), Noel Stringham ’07 (doctoral student in African history, U. Virginia) and Katie Thostenson ’05 (doctoral student in classics, U. Edinburgh) address the transition from Bethel to bigger schools, acquiring foreign languages, whether or not to start with a master’s program, and the growth of the digital humanities. Click for parts one and two of the interview. We’ll save one last question for a final post tomorrow…

It’s often difficult for students from lesser known colleges and universities to gain admission to a doctoral program in a research university. What can an undergraduate can do during their time at Bethel to strengthen their grad school application?

KT: I think it is important to get to know your professors and get experience (outside of your normal coursework) that demonstrates your ability to conduct independent historical research or related work —e.g., being a TA, working on a research project with a professor, or getting an internship. Universities are looking for students that are self-motivated and capable of doing higher-level research.

NS: UVA was very interested in my GRE scores in analytical writing. In my on campus visit they didn’t ask me any questions about qualifications except that score….

KT: In the end, you need to distinguish yourself somehow in your application, because almost everyone applying will have a good GPA and GRE scores. This I think is actually the benefit of attending a smaller university like Bethel — students have more opportunities to get involved and know their professors.

BW: Here are a few ideas listed in descending order of utility:

  1. Publish an article. Write research papers in all of your classes (whether they are required or not), and after making extensive revisions, send your paper to an undergraduate journal. I was shocked by how many of my grad school colleagues had published as undergrads.
  2. Conduct archival research at a regional archive. Including specific details about your archival experience in your application letter will prove that you have the skills to succeed as a graduate student.
  3. Develop a relationship with a scholar outside of Bethel and get them to write a letter on your behalf. There is a complicated wooing process to pull this off, but doing so will set your application apart.

(Disclaimer: I did not do most of these, but several of my more successful colleagues did)

How important is it to have knowledge of other languages?

NS: There’s a big divide between historians of the US and most of the rest of the planet. I needed to pass exams in French right away (which fortunately wasn’t an issue) and needed to study additional languages as I went on, while any language requirements for the Americanists were a mere formality or a token gesture.

BW: Consider picking up a reading ability in a few foreign languages. The transnational turn in scholarship means that language skills are becoming increasingly important, even for us Americanists.

NS: Depending on their research area, most of my colleagues spent their first few summers in these intensive summer language programs here; for a few thousand dollars, you can cram in four semesters worth of language study for easy European languages (Spanish, French, etc.) or two semesters worth of difficult languages like Mandarin or Arabic. Basically, it’s hard to do good research on South Asia if you can’t read Hindi, or write about the Romanovs if you can’t read Russian, though you’re also probably going to have to read French and/or German to do the Russians … and so it goes. Of course, sometimes you can get away with only having reading skills (Classical historians working with Greek and Latin being the obvious case) and in those cases it’s much easier.

Should our students consider starting in a master’s program, as a springboard to a doctoral program?

KT: I went the master’s route, but in the UK this is actually required. However, I think it has many advantages. First, it gives you a chance to specialize and decide what specific topic you would want to pursue in your doctorate, which is necessary for writing solid research proposals in a PhD application. A liberal arts program like Bethel’s gives you an amazing general foundation, but little opportunity for specialization. For instance, I had only taken two ancient history classes before starting my master’s in ancient history, and really had no notion of what constituted a feasible topic for doctoral research. Also, having a more evolved research proposal strengthens your PhD funding applications, which is a definite advantage.

Photo of Ben Wright
In addition to his faculty position, Ben is the managing editor of the “Teaching United States History” blog

BW: I applied to many PhD programs straight from Bethel, and I received zero acceptances. I was, however, accepted into an unfunded MA program at Columbia University. One year later, I applied to nearly all of those same institutions, and I was accepted into all but two. My application was nearly identical, but my academic affiliation had changed from a regional liberal arts college to an elite research university. I learned exponentially more while at Bethel, but the academy remains lazily elitist. If you’re going to go the unfunded MA route, I highly suggest you target programs from prestigious institutions. These programs exist. They are nightmarishly expensive, but they will open doors for you that other programs cannot (and their acceptance rates are surprisingly high). I’m sure there are more, but the MAPSS program at the University of Chicago is a great example.

KT: Finally, doing a master’s degree gives you an opportunity to experience graduate-level study and research without the longer-term commitment of a PhD. Some may find they thrive doing advanced research and therefore have more confidence in pursuing doctoral work, while others might decide that graduate study is not something they would like to pursue further.

NS: Basically grad programs have been moving toward accepting less students (but actually paying the ones they take in enough to survive on) because this allows them to be more selective and have a better chance that their graduates get jobs afterword (which make the universities look better). I think the best bet would be to apply to both PhD programs and particularly reputable master’s programs, realizing that you might have to take the later if you can’t get the former.

Has digital history — or the digital humanities more generally — been a significant component of your studies? Do you see technological innovation, new media, open source/access, or digital skills like coding reshaping the work of historians in your field?

BW: Absolutely. But not in the ways you might expect. The digital humanities has the potential to explode the way we research, publish, and teach. But that’s not what’s happening. The conservative bent of our discipline is really strong, and dh is rewarded most heavily when it’s siloed through traditional measures of achievement — a.k.a. publishing research. So gaining digital skills that will enhance your research will open the most doors.

NS: This is an exceptionally trending vein that definitely makes you more marketable, especially in US history. Most historians of Early Africa aren’t too into it yet because we’re so obsessed with languages that only Africanists have even even heard of and stuff like historical linguistics and archaeology. That said, this is definitely the future of a lot of the modernist archival work and even pre-modernists are really getting into digital mapping.

<<Read the previous entry in this series               Read the final entry in this series>>


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