I Choose You, Pikachu

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.

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23 Responses to I Choose You, Pikachu

  1. Alan Jacobs says:

    Tim, this is almost exactly the kind of thing I say to my English majors. It’s somewhat painful to have to tell extremely intelligent and thoughtful people that “I love reading and writing about literature” just isn’t an acceptable statement of purpose for a grad school application, even when it is extended to several hundred rather eloquent words.

    Another issue: students who talk with me about grad school tend to wonder if they’re smart enough to do well. But that’s usually the wrong question. Of course they’re smart enough. Invariably they are among the best English majors at a highly selective liberal arts college; their native intelligence is rarely in doubt. The more pressing and germane questions involve a student’s temperament. I think many more people have the smarts to succeed in grad school, and in academia as a profession, than have the temperament to do so.

    What is that temperament? Well, I tend to know it when I see it, but it’s hard to describe. Some of the necessary traits are stubbornness in certain matters combined with extreme flexibility in others; self-knowledge; and a highly developed sense of irony. If those are lacking even the sharpest mind might not be sufficient compensation, because academia is a whole culture, not just an intellectual environment.

  2. Jmayhew says:

    I’m interested in what your statement would have looked like when applying to grad school (or did look like) and how close that was to what you ended up doing.

  3. jadagul says:

    Tim: Do you think this applies to all fields, or just to the humanities (or to history specifically)? I’m in the process of applying to grad school in math, and while there are political considerations, I get the impression that it’s not quite as dismal an outlook as the one you portray (in particular, most of the grad schools say that you don’t need to know what area you’d like to go into, although it doesn’t hurt).

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Actually my statement is a good case to look at, Jmayhew.

    I talked about my interest in studying comparative colonial history with an emphasis on Atlantic/African diasporic history. African history was a secondary field of declared interest. I don’t think I said much about my methodological bent, though. As an undergraduate, I had done a huge amount of coursework in what the history department called the “Third World and Imperialism” track, and in my other major of English, I did a lot of courses in crit theory, postcolonial literatures, etc. (But also in Augustan England, survey of the novel, epic poetry–the more “traditional” topics). So I think I was able to pretty persuasive about why comparative colonial and Atlantic history were interesting to me, and about my preparation to do them well at the graduate level.

    But the methodological stuff that ended up being important to me I discovered only after I got to grad school, and I ended up working on African history as my primary field because of various conflicts and affinities with various advisors.

    I think a lot of what I’m saying applies primarily to the humanities and maybe to a few of the social sciences. I think for certain disciplines, they’re less heterodox to begin with in terms of methodologies and subjects of study. I don’t think you have to be as particular or individual in your intent if you plan to study economics, for example, because economics has a much more restrained range of methodological practices. There I think it’s just all about your grades as an undergraduate, the prestige of the school you went to for your BA, and the extent of your preparation. I’m seeing some of this for political science as well–a lot of programs really just want to see if potential grad students have an appropriately high level of quantitative preparation.

    For the sciences, I really don’t know at all how they evaluate applicants. I suspect that whether you’ve done research at a relatively high level as an undergraduate is one of the major keys to whether you’re an attractive candidate.

  5. It’s a bloody miracle that I got into graduate school, apparently, and a fabric-of-the-universe-threatening anomaly that I got into Harvard.

  6. MEHooper says:

    I’m going to link this post to my Historiography class page, to help students discover their own ideas. Thank you.

    If students don’t have a real idea “what it is presently like to be a professional academic historian” does that mean they haven’t been paying attention, or that their professors have been teaching content not profession?

  7. I’m trying to figure out whether this necessity for (over)specificity applies to my field of media studies. I didn’t specify much more than “I’m interested in the relationship between popular culture, theory & politics” on my application, but perhaps things have changed as the field has become more mature. I think younger fields can be more open to applicants having generalized interests, as long as there’s an indication that they understand how the field works and what type of research they might be doing in terms of methodology or general thrust (industrial history, ideological analysis, etc.).

    I would hate to imagine that today’s applying media scholars would have to write something like “I am interested in the representation of masculinity in 1970s cop shows from a Lacanian perspective,” which seems like the equivalent level of detail, especially since many people who go into our field did not major in it in undergrad (where it is often not an option). Such a level of focus before grad school seems to undermine the educational possibilities of grad school rather than enhance them.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    I think some fields come pre-packaged with a kind of overspecificity that’s implicit, and maybe media studies is one of them–it’s a lot harder to have an unformed concept of media studies as an undergraduate considering that to know about it and want to do a doctorate in it, you sort of have to know what it is already.

    I think you could have a great, great undergraduate program in history that was doing all sorts of tremendous things for the students taking the courses and have most of them not have any sense of how to package their interests for a doctoral program. I don’t know that I really want undergraduate programs to be pre-doctoral in that sense, by and large. I only want the students who are thinking about grad school to have access to the resources that might let them sift through their interests in such a way that they can make a narrative about them.

  9. Sisyphus says:

    I think this is great advice and would work for English departments as well. My only caveats would be that I don’t think that even the most qualified or suited prospective grads could toss off a real well-honed sentence about their interests on the first try. If you still can’t get more specific and in-depth than “gee, I love to read!” followed by lists of books after a few drafts and a few hours of brainstorming, yeah, grad school doesn’t sound like the best avenue for you. But I started out just making lists —- two columns: Stuff I Love and Stuff I Never Want to Study Again (column 1 was _way_ longer than column 2, which I think is a good sign for grad school), and then gradually worked up to certain types of questions I tended to be interested in and what type of intervention I potentially wanted to accomplish. (this was a process of about a month of thinking and then going away and then coming back to it though.)

    Second, my fields and much of my interests totally changed when I got to my MA program, and even a bit in my PhD program, and I hear this from grad students all the time. So I would note that prospective grads should have a developed idea bout what grad school is like and what they’d like to do there, but know that there is freedom to change — by quite a lot — and still make it through just fine.

    (Oh, and HI! I wandered over here from Acephalous. Nice to meet you.)

  10. JonathanGray says:

    I think Jason’s comment can fit easily with Tim’s points re: English, History, etc., since they all amount to showing that your interest is beyond the mundane. If I read a letter from a candidate saying they love watching television, or if their letter suggested they were analyzing the media as do most knee-jerk responses, I’d probably look to the next one. Just as a Lit or History prof doesn’t want to read “I love lit/history” but something that shows the writer’s gone beyond a very rudimentary level appreciation of the topic. Jason’s “I’m interested in the relationship between popular culture, theory & politics” uses the buzzwords “theory” and “politics,” rather than just saying “I’m interested in studying popular culture and how much people enjoy watching television” or “and how much television is killing culture”

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    Sisyphus is right that no one is this polished on the first pass. But the first pass needs to be closer to this than, “I’ve always loved history” or “The Civil War is really interesting”. I like the idea of finding this kind of statement by making a list of the courses you liked and the courses that you didn’t.

    Your interests will changes, that’s inevitable: this is just about developing the capacity to imagine what your professional life will look like.

  12. I agree that people applying to graduate school need to have a clearer sense of their interests than just “I love history” but I’m wondering if every talented and capable student is necessarily going to have gotten enough out of their undergraduate career to understand exactly what academia is. I think this might be most pertinent to the subject of history, which, in my experience, is almost completely different on the graduate/professional level than it is on the undergraduate level. I graduated from a great college two years ago but the history department at that institution emphasized primary research and working with documents over analysis and interpretation. When I got to graduate school, I had no idea exactly what it meant to write good history beyond working with sources. For example, in undergrad, I read secondary sources for the information in them and not for the larger argument (particularly when that larger argument didn’t fit into the narrow goals of my papers). Now I know that I might not have taken the right combination of courses and that some teachers must have emphasized this more than others. And many of my colleagues in graduate school now did not come with such handicaps, so in some sense knowledge of the demands of professional history is an individual issue. But at the same time, something must be wrong if a student who took over ten history courses, wrote a history thesis, and got good recommendations from professors gets to graduate school and realizes that she has completely missed the point.

    I guess the question here is how can undergraduate education, particularly in history, adequately prepare the few students who may wish to go to graduate school. Unlike other disciplines, undergraduate history (in my opinion) bears little resemblance to higher levels with its emphasis on facts and interpretation generally flying under the radar. “I love Civil War reenactments” may not cut it for applications and is in fact a red flag for someone who might be best served pursuing another career but some students may not have been exposed to enough in their undergraduate years to be able to understand, even if they write, statements about their commitment to cultural history or the linguistic turn.

  13. sjt says:

    Like jadagul, I am in the process of applying to grad school in math. I’ve spoken with three professors about the statement of interests, exactly because I was concerned by my inability to be much specific than “geometry, maybe convex geometry specifically, but I’m not really sure about that last bit”. They all agreed it would be very rare for a math student to be able to be more specific. The problem is that (nonsuperhuman) undergrads can’t be expected to understand what any given topic of active mathematical research actually *is* without considerable study. There’s no way we can make an informed review of several such topics.

    (It’s the same problem as that which prevents me from really explaining, say, the complex analysis course I took last year to someone who has only high school math. It would take quite a while even to explain what it was that we studied. In history, I imagine you can always at least say what region you’re studying, or what people, or what events, or what aspect of society, and expect the description to be understood by layfolk. Seems it just ain’t so in math… which is an ongoing vexation to me.)

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    I suppose part of my argument is about how badly a lot of undergraduate environments are fitted to what people will encounter in graduate school.

  15. jimhu says:

    I’m not sure if things are really different in the humanities compared to my field (Biochemistry/Biophysics/Molecular Biology) or not.

    I’m pretty sure we agree that it’s a good thing for students to have a sense of what they’re getting into. But I’m curious to know if you really mean what I think you are saying about the need to have such specific research areas in mind. My initial reading was “Wow, that’s really different”. But rereading the post and seeing more of the qualifiers, I’m not so sure. Rambling rumination here

    Given our shared desire to discourage applicants who drift into grad school and stay in a rut until they get shoved out the other end as embittered critics of the academy, l don’t think you’d want undergraduate environments to be fitted to what people will encounter in grad school. After all, most of the undergrads aren’t or shouldn’t be headed there. For those who are, this highlights the importance of undergraduate research opportunities that are as close as possible to the real thing.

  16. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, the key thing about this specificity is that this is not a commitment to what you’re going to study–it’s an indication that you’ve been able to imagine what the end state of study is going to be.

    This is why for some disciplines, it may not be quite so necessary, because some disciplines have a variety of end states–you don’t have to be a professor if you have a doctorate in economics, for example.

  17. Western Dave says:

    Most of the people I know in graduate school who did well had done terminal masters in programs with a fairly narrow specialty and then moved on to the big time of a big 10 program. This approach had several advantages. It let them figure out some specialization, gave them a leg-up in the speed of program wars since they got a new program at their new institution, and really let them see the whole professionalization thing to figure out if they wanted to go whole hog or branch off to a better fit. I highly recommend this approach and probably would have benefitted from it myself. My own pitch was a fairly specialized question (I am interested in intercultural relations on the US frontier pre-Mexican war, approaching them as Diplomatic History) and bore little relation to my dissertation topic (uranium mining in New Mexico) except both were US intercultural histories. My dissertation topic was primarily shaped by hires that took place after I was accepted.

  18. noveggies says:

    I recently wandered over to your blog and have found it very helpful and informative, and a “productive” way of procrastinating from my dissertation research. As a current grad student, I wanted to add a few things to the comments. I took a few years off between undergrad and grad school, and I think this has made a huge difference in my experience of grad school compared with that of my friends who went straight into grad school. I did this in part because my undergrad advisor told me that unless I was so dedicated (or obsessed, let’s face it) with what I intended to study in grad school that I couldn’t think about doing anything else, I shouldn’t go to grad school because the pain wouldn’t make it worth the effort. I was an English major who loved books but wasn’t very interested in theory, so I decided to hold off on grad school until I actually found something I was passionate about. I am now starting my 5th year in history and for the most part enjoying a year away researching my diss.

    I was very lucky in that the job I took during this inbetween time was somewhat academic–assistant curator at a history/culture museum. This happened by accident (and only after slogging away for a year as a phone receptionist–definitely the get one foot in at an interesting place by doing a horrible job and wait for a good opportunity to come around approach). I went to a pretty good liberal arts college, and the horrid phone receptionist job was the best thing I could have done my first year out–very humbling but character building experience. I caught the eye of the head of the curatorial department, and got into that department as an assistant, then was given more and more responsibilities, eventually becoming an asistant curator. This of course isn’t typical, and is as much a result of the size of the institution. But through my job, which involved organizing exhibitions and working with a lot of primary source material, I was able to think through what it was that I wanted to do, as well as what specific issue or theme I was really interested in. And since this job, while interesting, also fell in the category of workiing 60-80 hours a week for a meager income at an incompetent non-profit, grad school in comparison (despite those moments of extreme self-doubt and despair over the job market, etc) doesn’t seem so bad.

    Also, since my work involved regular interactions with academics in similar fields, I didn’t suffer from feeling intimidated by professors to the same degree that many other grad students do, since I had had the experience of interacting with them as colleagues. I realize this approach, especially working in a somewhat academic institution, isn’t available for everyone, but if at all possible, I think taking time off for at least 3 years to do something else and to spend time thinking about whether or not grad school is a good fit is a very good idea. Working in the “real world” forces you to grow up in a way grad school doesn’t, it gives you perspective on grad school once you are there, and in my case, helped me to approach grad school as a kind of a job. I can say with certainty that grad school was the right decision for me, but I don’t think it would have been had I gone straight from undergrad to grad. I think there are only a few instances, at least in the humanities, where it will hurt more than help to wait a few years. You’ll be a little older when you finish, but not by much. Just a few thoughts.

  19. Doug says:

    Noveggies’ comment is a good spur to ask people on the other side of the search committee table: Are there fields in which people should head straight to doctoral programs because institutions want to hire people who are as young as possible? I used to hear this about English, but grad school was a long time ago for me, and conditions may have changed.

    Absent people in particular fields saying yes, the ones who get hired are the ones who went straight through, I would say that Noveggies’ advice is very good. Most people considering the academic life should take a couple of years to sample something else and decide whether it really is for them. I can imagine this is more of a problem in disciplines where skills rust quickly — I’m thinking those that involve heavy doses of math and/or languages — and the personal gains from time outside the academy would be offset by the skill losses. Otherwise, I think that approaching a doctoral program with experience gained outside of school benefits everyone involved, and the candidate most of all.

  20. Timothy Burke says:

    Noveggies advice is absolutely crucial, I think. I worked as a cook for a year. It was an interesting job, a good experience, but it also gave me a sense of why I wanted to be back in an academic environment. People who just shoot straight through often have the most ferocious crisis of the spirit when they get deep into their doctoral study.

  21. noveggies says:

    In terms of skills that rust quickly, in my case, I ended up going into a field that requires a second language, and I used the years between undergrad and grad school to get my language skills to the level necessary to do research. Of course this doesn’t really work for math or science. But in the case of humanities, esp literature and history where most or all of your research requires a high level of competency in a second language, taking a break from school where you also spend time improving language schools can save a lot of time later on. In my case, I didn’t have to take any language classes (at least for my primary language), which shaved off at least a year from my coursework.

  22. noveggies says:

    Whoops–that should read “language skills”

  23. I’ve been thinking about the issue of taking a break between undergrad and grad school for a while now. I went straight through but I think that was less a sense of absolute conviction and more about the fact that I saw it as unacceptable to have decided to do something but to take time off and just fill time doing something else. Looking back, I see this personality trait of mine to “not waste time,” as I put it then, as a flaw. I don’t know that I wish I myself took time off b/c I would have hated myself for “wasting time” but I think I would agree with noveggies and recommend that others do. In addition to the benefits of coming back to academia fully assured that you are not missing something else that you should be doing, I think taking time off allows you (perhaps) to have the kind of cultural and life experiences that you won’t get once you start down the path of academia. And, while most jobs right out of college don’t pay much, if you take time off, you have the chance to build up some savings (and some credit) that will help you financially in graduate school.

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