I’ve been exchanging emails with a couple of people who are contemplating graduate school, something I’m always happy to do. Contrary to my advice in “Should You Go to Graduate School”, I’m often completely ok with helping people figure out how to apply, where to apply, and even encouraging them to go ahead and apply if they’re sure they want to–as long as they grasp why it is that my initial advice to most people is that grad school may not be a good idea.
One question that I get a lot is, “How should I choose the programs to which I’m applying?” Another is, “How do they choose the students they admit? How can I make a strong application?” The best answer to both of those questions is closely tied together, and is often the key to whether or not applying to a graduate doctoral program is a good idea in the first place.
For programs in the humanities and most of the social sciences, the major professional outcome of a doctorate is a job in academia. I’m completely ok with the folks who are trying to get Ph.Ds to consider other careers, but the fact is that most of their suggestions are things you can do without incurring the high opportunity costs of 6-10 years in graduate school. In a few cases, the Ph.D may actually get in the way of those careers. Among the many really interesting revelations at Ph.D in History’s blog is the extent to which a Ph.D in history often makes someone surprisingly ill-suited to do public history. That’s not the way it should be: it’s got nothing to do with the intrinsic nature of graduate training, and everything to do with the attitude of faculty in graduate programs and the curricular choices that are driven by those attitudes. But that’s the way it is for the moment.
So choosing where you apply, and being chosen by the programs to which you apply, has a lot to do without how successful you are at imagining and describing the kind of scholarly profile you would like to develop for yourself once you’re a professor.
Let’s say you want to be a historian. Sit down and write out two or three sentences describing what kind of historian you want to be.
If what you get out of that exercise is, “I really enjoy the study of history, particularly reading old documents” or even, “I’m fascinated by American history, particularly the Civil War”, do yourself a favor and give up any ambitions to do a doctorate in history. Not because there is anything wrong with either of those statements, but because you don’t have a sufficiently specific sense of what it is presently like to be a professional academic historian. That’s one of the major points of my “Should You Go to Graduate School”: grad school is not an exploratory kind of education. That’s bad, in my view, but that’s the way it is. Period.
If you have to study and read in order to come up with a more specific statement, you may also need to forget about grad school ambitions. To some extent, that statement of interests needs to come to you fairly naturally, as a result of study and thinking you’ve done as an undergraduate. If you dive into historical scholarship looking for a persona you can adopt, and then memorize it like a spy’s cover identity, you’re probably not going to convince anyone. You can hone some of your ideas with reading as you prepare an application, but you need to have some sense of what’s out there beforehand.
Here’s some sample statements that would be a good sign that you can make a successful application:
“I plan to study early modern Mediterranean history, with an emphasis on northern Italy. I’m primarily interested in cultural history and urban history.”
“I plan to study American diplomatic history, with an emphasis on the antebellum period. I’m especially interested in how the United States integrated itself into the evolving interstate institutions of the early 19th Century, both before and after the Napoleonic wars.”
“I’m interested in the comparative study of imperial frontiers in early modern world history”.
“I’m interested in modern China with a strong emphasis on economic history. I’m particularly interested in the internal economics of China before and after Communist rule.”
“I’m interested in precolonial African history, especially West Africa in the era of the slave trade. I’m open to a range of methodological approaches.”
“I’m primarily interested in radical approaches to global labor history and global capitalism in the 20th Century.”
“I’m interested in the history of the book and publishing. I’m fairly open to period and location, but I find 19th and 20th Century approaches to copyright especially intriguing”.
“I’m interested in the history of indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin, particularly after 1600.”
“I’m interested in the theory and philosophy of history, particularly in the consequences of the “linguistic turn’. I would like to think about how to move beyond certain kinds of relativism and return to more grounded conceptions of historical truth.”
The reason these are successful beginnings is first, they can communicate clearly to potential advisors that an applicant already has a good sense of what a scholarly historian does and a developed sense of their own intellectual identity. Second, and more importantly, these statements are a guide to where you want to be applying. As you develop a statement like this, it should point the way to programs that have strong support for that kind of study, and even to specific advisors whose professional identity closely matches an applicant’s stated ambitions.
These kinds of commitments aren’t a contract signed in blood. You can start graduate work and find that there’s another methodological style you like far more. (In fact, I think that’s what ought to happen in most cases, as your own practices evolve and become your own.) You may find a topic you didn’t know about, that no one really knows about.
But if you sit down and write a statement that is as general as, “I like history, particularly social history” or “I’m interested in World War II”, that’s a bit like sitting down with a med school application and realizing that the most you can say is that you were really fascinated by frog dissection when you were a senior in high school. It means you’re not ready to apply, and maybe that you’ll never be ready. That’s not a knock on you: it may mean, in fact, that your intellectual engagment with history is more lively and flexible than that of many scholars. Finding history interesting is not enough to sustain you through the twists and turns of doctoral study, though.