Should I Go to Grad School in History?
What Happens Once I Get There?
A Guide to Applying to History Graduate Programs

Dr. David. R. Stone
Professor of History
Kansas State University
Email: stoneATksuDOTedu

copyright 2004, revised 2007

All the information I give here is solely my informed opinion. My views do not necessarily represent the views or policy of my colleagues, the History Department, or Kansas State University.

 This essay is intended to answer questions I commonly get from students considering grad school in history.  This includes whether grad school is a good idea, what's involved in applying, and what the experience is like.

 It's written with history students and history programs specifically in mind. Much of what I say, though, should be applicable to other fields in the humanities and social sciences: English, philosophy, political science. Much of it will be completely irrelevant for the natural sciences and engineering. 

Is going to grad school right for me?
Do I have what it takes?
What can I do to prepare myself?
Where should I apply?
The application essay
How should I decide where to go?
What can I expect in grad courses?
What will grad school feel like?
I am X. Will that make grad school harder?
Preparing for the job market
Other Resources

Is going to grad school right for me?

I went to grad school and got a Ph.D, and I'm glad I did. I love my job. I can't imagine a better one for me. That said, there are lots of people who think being a history professor would be a great job. We don't, however, need that many history professors. Since more people want to be historians than possibly can, grad school can be tough to get into, and tougher to get through. Precise figures vary, but something like 8,000 people start history masters in a given year; 1,000 earn a Ph.D.  Now, some of those masters students might be teachers or others who have no intent of getting a doctorate, but the attrition rate is still quite high.

Grad school involves an immense amount of work. As part of getting a Ph.D, you will essentially write a book based on long months or years spent alone with primary sources, perhaps in a foreign country.

Once you get through, there's no guarantee of a job in your field, or at a school you like, or in the part of the country where you want to live. You need to be aware of that going in.  

 You should also be aware of the career you're headed towards. Most grad programs in history are designed to prepare people for teaching jobs. Museum, library, and archival work, also known as public history, tends to center around specific programs in those areas, though there's nothing that prevents people in a traditional program from doing those jobs. Many historians work outside of academia, but most traditional graduate programs send most of their people out for teaching jobs in colleges and universities.

If that's NOT what you want to do, think carefully about which programs might be right for you. In particular, most historians make their living teaching. If you don't want to teach, you need to think early on about your options in public history and plan accordingly.

 Do I have what it takes?

If you can face the prospect of not getting the job you want after long years of hard work and low pay, along with the questions from family and friends wondering when you're going to get a life, and if your idea of relaxation is kicking back with a good history book, than grad school might be for you.

 More practically, you need a good undergrad GPA and a very good GPA in history. Many grad schools have explicit policies against admitting students with a GPA below 3.0. Indeed, if your overall GPA is below 3.0, or your GPA in history is below 3.0, you should ask yourself why you think your performance will be better in graduate school where the standards are higher and the workload is far greater. There might be reasons, but they'd better be good ones.

You don't need to be a history major, though, if you can make a good case for why you want to switch from another field to study history in grad school. In that case, though, you should be prepared to do some catch-up. You should have a decent GRE score, especially on the English section. You should have professors whom you've impressed and who can say specific good things about your performance. If you haven't impressed any professors, consider doing something else with your life. In particular, if a professor hasn't given you an A, why ask that professor for a recommendation? As above, there might be reasons, but they'd better be good ones.

You also need to take an honest and serious look at your strengths and weaknesses as a student and a person.  It's possible to get good grades in an undergrad class based on test-taking ability, while not being an especially good writer.  Test-taking ability is utterly irrelevant in grad school.  Being a good writer is essential.  If you have trouble writing, try something else.

Your character matters too.  Getting a Ph.D is a matter of endurance.  If you lack serious task commitment, try something else. 

Keep in mind that most historians make their money by teaching.  If you're pathologically shy or incapable of speaking in front of an audience, try something else. 

Finally, in my own idiosyncratic view, a fantastic memory is an important asset.  This is not for purposes of memorizing names and dates, which matters less than you might think.  Part of being an historian is making connections--seeing how an idea or piece of information found in one place fits with an idea or piece of information from another place.  There's no substitute for having lots of those pieces lodged in your brain.  Several of my own publications have come directly from noticing that a reference in a document fits intriguingly with a bit of evidence that I saw elsewhere (sometimes years before).

What can I do to prepare myself while I'm still an undergrad?

Obviously, you should take lots of history courses and do well in them. Writing is the most important skill to develop. Test taking ability is nice while you're an undergrad, but not especially relevant to what you'll do in grad school. Learn to write well and grammatically. If you already think you write well, learn to do it better. Start with Strunk and White's Elements of Style and tune up your skills. You should also internalize George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language."

 After that, the most important thing to do is to start learning languages. This is especially true if you plan to do non-US history. It is impossible to do a respectable Ph.D in non-US / non-British history without knowledge of the relevant languages, and you need to start learning them before you go to grad school. Even US and British historians need to study foreign languages, though the requirements tend to be less onerous. Good programs won't even consider your application if you haven't at least started on your necessary languages. The less language you know when you get to grad school, the more time you waste on that instead of moving ahead with your graduate program and the rest of your life.

 There is nothing sadder than a student who finds a genuine passion for a particular subject, but is a graduating senior with none of the requisite language background. START EARLY ON YOUR LANGUAGES!

 Not knowing a foreign language well limits you to American history and some eras of British history. That's fine if American history is what really interests you, but bad if it's your second choice. Life is too short to go to grad school to work on something that isn't a passion. You should also be aware that the surplus of Ph.Ds over jobs they can take tends to be worse in American history. The September 2002 issue of Perspectives (newsletter of the American Historical Association) pointed out that one-third of all Ph.Ds are done in twentieth-century American history, but only one-ninth of all faculty jobs are in twentieth-century American history. Do the math: there are a lot more twentieth century American historians being produced than there are jobs for them to fill, making for a glutted job market. There's often a surplus of historians of Britain for the same reason.

 Aside from history courses and languages, take courses in the literature and geography of the place and period that interest you. Make sure you've got a good grounding in the development of Western thought. Philosophy or political theory courses, as long as they're historically-based, are nice to have. A surprising number of methodological issues in history are actually grounded in philosophical questions--specifically, epistemology.  

Where should I apply?

Short answer: you want to apply to a place with a good program in history and a good program in the specific subfield you're interested in. The two categories may or may not overlap.

 Finding the good overall programs is easier. The magazine US News and World Report ranks grad programs; you can find that elsewhere as well. Generally, a top university will have a top history program, though there are always exceptions. US News' 2001 ranking of history programs had the top programs in this order: Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, Columbia, Chicago, Michigan, Harvard, UCLA, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Penn, Brown, Duke, Northwestern, Virginia, Indiana, Rutgers, Minnesota, Illinois, Texas. Those rough rankings are remarkably stable over time.

That isn't enough, though. A university's general reputation doesn't mean much when looking at narrower fields of history. Cornell, for example, has probably the best program in the country for South-East Asia. Great universities might have very weak programs in the specific area you're interested in. No school can offer strong programs in EVERYTHING: precolonial Latin America, American military, modern South Asia. There's a lot of ground to cover.

 You need to talk to your history professors to find out which programs are strong in the subfield you're interested in. Going to one of those programs will mean not only that you'll be a better candidate for a job when you come out, but that there will be multiple faculty members with whom you can work. Check websites: departments normally are pretty clear about their strengths.

 Graduate admissions is much more individual than undergraduate. Often, the key decision will be made by one person--the professor in your chosen area. Don't apply to grad school by saying you want to study history. Have a pretty good idea where you want to focus: colonial US, medieval Europe, modern Japan. If a department doesn't have a professor in that, it shouldn't and probably won't let you in. You can always change your mind about your specialty once you get to grad school--I did, and so did my wife--but that's risky and not always possible.

 Don't be afraid to ask for grad schools for information. Your application, otherwise good, might be rejected because the professor in your field is close to retirement and no longer taking students. The only way to know that is to contact the department (the Chair or the Director of Graduate Studies) and ask questions. You shouldn't be afraid to contact individual professors with whom you might want to work. You should be polite, GRAMMATICAL, and make sure you're not asking questions easily answered with a look at the website.  The people you talk to should be eager to give you information. It wastes everyone's time and energy if you apply to a place not suited for you. If professors aren't willing to take five minutes to help you figure that out, do you want to spend five or six years working with them?

 I ended up applying to eight grad schools. You should apply to at least a half-dozen. One of them should be your in-state state university; the rest you've found by doing the research mentioned above. Take these applications seriously, and don't make grammatical mistakes.

A note on non-US programs: many students are interested in Ph.Ds from foreign, English-language universities.  In general, I recommend against this.  English universities, and those throughout the world that derive from them, differ sharply from the American system.  Undergraduates specialize in a particular field, far more than American undergraduates who take a much broader distribution of courses.  As a result, English-system Ph.D programs don't have much coursework, since they can take for granted a level of preparation that American programs can't.  In addition, English-system dissertations tend to be shorter.  This may sound quite attractive--less coursework and a shorter dissertation.  The problem, though, is that English-system Ph.Ds look worse on the American job market.  They've had fewer courses, less teaching experience, and dissertation that will require more work to convert into a book. 

What should I look for in a graduate program? What questions should I ask?

Programs differ in all kinds of ways. They call their courses by different names, require different kinds and numbers of courses, and structure their programs differently.  For example, Harvard and Yale give you a masters degree as a pat on the back at the half way point of the Ph.D program; the masters isn't really a separate degree. At most other places, the masters and then the Ph.D are separate programs with separate applications. While finishing up the masters program, you apply to a Ph.D program (at the same institution or a different one).  Ask about whether you can apply to the Ph.D directly with only a bachelor's degree, or if Ph.D admission is hopeless without a masters.

 Coursework requirements differ widely as well. At Harvard, for example, a total of nine courses are required for the Ph.D. Yale requires twelve. Here at Kansas State, the masters and Ph.D programs put together require eighteen courses.

 Programs differ in the comprehensive examinations you take after your courses are done and before you write your dissertation. Some places have written and oral exams; some have oral only. There's an immense variety in what you're tested over.

 Perhaps the greatest variety comes in financial aid. You may be offered no financial aid. You may be offered a partial or full waiver of tuition. You may be offered a stipend to cover living expenses. Any and all of that may or may not be linked to specific work requirements. You may get the financial aid with no strings attached, or it may come with a requirement to teach (independently or assisting a regular member of the faculty), or with a job as a research assistant. Don't be afraid to ask questions about what kind of aid is typical, what sort of work it's linked to, and whether aid differs for masters and Ph.D students.

 Don't assume that you cannot afford to go to graduate school, even grad school at a big, famous, private, expensive university. Many programs offer tuition waivers and living stipends that make grad school feasible even without lots of savings. Sometimes the famous and expensive universities, thanks to famous and expensive endowments, can work out to be cheaper if you get in and get aid.

 For the actual workings of a program, don't simply rely on university handbooks and departmental websites.  Grad students in a program will often have a very clear understanding of the unwritten rules of the system--ask them how things work.  They will also, however, generally believe that those unwritten rules are designed to oppress them, which is usually not true.  Often, though, the departmental secretary or administrator is the best source. Treat departmental administrators with the respect that their immense power demands.

The application essay

A good chunk of your graduate school application will be straightforward.  You report your grades, your GRE scores, and other information about yourself.

The application essay is much less simple.  It's extraordinarily important, and you should spend time and care on it, letting others read it and doing multiple drafts.  In this essay, usually called a personal statement, you need to explain why you want to go to grad school, and what you want to do once you get there.  Those reading the essay will be looking for several things.  One is perfection with regards to spelling and grammar, as well as a basic ability to write.  Another is a reasonably clear statement of what you want to do.  No one expects a potential masters student fresh out of college to have a well-formulated dissertation proposal, but your readers will expect you to say what general field of history you want to do, why you want to do it, and what qualifies you.  The standards are higher for Ph.D applicants than for masters.  If you've already completed a masters, admissions committees will rightly expect you to have a fairly clear idea of the sort of dissertation you plan to write.  You can always change your mind, of course, and lots of people do.

Admissions committees want more than just "I want to go to grad school because I like history."  Lots of people like history--after all, there is no "Sociology Channel" on basic cable.  Just liking history is not enough.  If you like history, you can always get a real job and read history books for pleasure and skip the work and poverty of graduate school.  Admissions committees want to see some sign that you understand what's involved in becoming an historian, and that you have a fire to teach and root around in archives and present what you find.

How should I decide where to go?

In general, you should go to the best place you get in and can possibly afford. While you might like to stay close to home and friends, or close to a beach (or skiing, or good bagels, or whatever), that is not normally the best move. A better university or a better financial aid deal will be better for your career in the long run. If skiing is higher on your list of priorities than studying history at the best place possible, that's a good sign grad school isn't for you.

One rule of thumb: keep your debt under control. Lawyers and doctors can reasonably expect to be able to pay off large debts thanks to the incomes they receive after professional school. It doesn't work that way for Ph.Ds in history, so keep your future debt load in mind when comparing programs.  If you've accumulated a lot of debt going through undergrad, grad school may not be financially feasible.  That's not fair, but it is the way of the world.

What can I expect in grad courses?

The history you study in grad school will be very different than the history you studied as an undergraduate.

First, you may think you work hard as an undergraduate. You may even work much harder than your classmates. You should still expect a major upgrade in the amount of work you're expected to do in graduate school. A standard work load is reading a book or more every week in every class. Often classes will require a 20-25 page review of four or five additional books, or a 20-25 page research paper based on extensive work with primary sources, perhaps in a foreign language. You should expect a reading load, while taking three courses a semester, of at least 750 pages a week. That's in addition to any language courses you may need to take. If you end up in a grad program that's less work than that, you're in a sub-par grad program.

 Next, the way you study is different. As an undergraduate, you assimilated and learned the material presented in books and lectures. As a graduate student, you will additionally be critiquing and questioning that material in a much more systematic way, while at the same time still being expected to learn it. In effect, you go behind the curtain to see how history gets produced, not simply looking at the finished product.

 Graduate classes are not centered around a professor lecturing, or at least they shouldn't be. Instead, every graduate class you take is likely to be an exchange of views over the books and articles in the week's reading. If you dread participating in class, you need to get over that as soon as you get to graduate school. For one, the only way to make an idea truly your own is to formulate and express it. For another, the only way your professors and fellow graduate students will come to value you as a scholar is if you formulate good ideas and express them well.

There are two basic types of history graduate courses. They go by different names at different institutions, but here I will call them seminars and reading courses. In a seminar, the goal is to learn the methods of doing research and the primary sources available in a given area of study. Although a minority of your graduate courses will be seminars, they are the closest thing to the work you will actually be doing in writing a thesis or dissertation: formulating a good research topic, working through primary sources, and presenting them in written form. As such, they are VERY important. It is in these you learn the nuts and bolts of being an historian.

 The other type of course is a readings course. In this type, the focus is NOT on primary-source based research, but instead in reading and analyzing a sample of the books and articles on a chosen field in a small-group setting led by a professor. This has two goals. One is to give you a better sense of a specific area to enable you to teach it more effectively. The other is to help you understand what research is being done, and what research remains to be done. Ideally, this sort of course will show you where and how your own research fits into the issues and debates raging in your field. You want to be sure that the research you do is relevant to the other people in your field, or they won't care about it or you.

 In doing your course work, be more organized and systematic about keeping notes than you think you might ever need to be. Read a book right the first time, taking good notes, and you won't have to read it again later, using time that you might be spending on something else.

What will grad school feel like?

As suggested by what's above, grad school is very, very different than your undergraduate experience. It will bring with it a large number of psychological shocks that you should be prepared for.

 First, you should expect after you arrive at grad school to feel terribly ignorant. Almost everyone does. Those who DON'T feel ignorant are generally delusional. If you want to go to grad school in history, you probably find (or SHOULD find) yourself to be among the best students in the undergraduate history classes you take (if that's not the case, why are you going to grad school?). When you arrive in a graduate course, though, you will be surrounded by people who in many cases have been taking graduate classes for two or three years, and are far ahead of you in the amount of work they have done. EVERYONE in a graduate class was once a top undergraduate.

Next to them, you will probably think that you are very ignorant, and you will be right. That's normal. Remember: unlike stupidity, ignorance is curable. You just have to do a lot of reading.

 The process of learning should feel like you're doing more reading than you ever imagined possible, like drinking water from a fire hose. If it doesn't feel like that, you're not doing it right.

You should be prepared for a workload that seems and sometimes actually is unmanageable. If you don't like that, you can always leave. There's nothing wrong with deciding that your life would be better spent doing something else. You shouldn't feel like you're being picked on because you're being worked hard as a graduate student. The demands on your time won't go down if you get a faculty job. If you hate the kind of work you do in grad school, that's a sign that you should find a life better suited to your talents. Reading and writing and talking about history are what historians do, and if that's not what you want, you need to find another career.

 Next, you're on your own. An undergraduate class meets two or three times a week, and you've got twenty or thirty other people doing the same readings and taking the same exams. Grad history classes meet once a week, and involve large stacks of work that you'll be doing alone. You need to be much more self-motivated and self-disciplined than you were as an undergraduate.

 For that reason and lots of others, it's important to connect with your classmates. Different schools have different cultures, some more collegial and some more competitive. Whatever the atmosphere, you need to make sure you connect with some of your fellow grad students, inside and outside history, to keep yourself grounded and build a support network.

 I am black, a woman, gay, a white male, Latino, Asian, conservative, anarchist, evangelical Christian, Catholic, pagan, married with kids . . . Will that make grad school harder?

The venerable job hunting guide What Color is Your Parachute? handled the question this way: in each case, some people may hold that against you.  In each case, most won't.  In each case, the coping strategy is the same: work hard, produce good scholarship, build relationships, and keep your eyes open.

Preparing for the job market

You want to find a job at the end of grad school.  The beginning is not too soon to start thinking about that.  Your performance in courses matters.  Your professors notice, and so do your fellow students.  You should select your courses not simply because they sound interesting or fun, but because they help you achieve certain things.  You want preparation to write your dissertation, so you need courses to give you exposure to the geographical area, chronological period, thematic emphasis, and historical methodology you intend to cover. 

You also need your courses to give you the necessary background to teach.  It's often said that any history Ph.D can teach anything, given time to prep, and that is true.  It's much easier, though, if you've had some formal training.  Coursework also gives you a credential.  It's one thing to tell a search committee that you can teach African history.  It's another to have a grad course on Africa in your transcript, and a set of lecture notes from auditing an undergrad course. 

Since coursework matters, you need to be thinking in your first year or two of grad school how you want to present yourself, and what fields you want to claim the ability to cover.   As a grad student, you should be reading Perspectives (newsletter of the American Historical Assocation) for the job ads well before you intend to start applying.  You need to have a sense of what departments are looking for, what fields are in demand.  For students of European history, it's quite clear that some additional expertise in non-Western or world history is a real plus on the job market. 

You also need to think like a search committee.  The nature of job searches in history is that there are dozens, sometimes hundreds of applications for a single job.  That means that search committees have to cut that down to a more reasonable number for closer consideration.  That means you have to avoid giving them reasons to toss you.  No teaching experience?  Out.  Boring dissertation topic?  Out.  Misspelled name of committee chair?  Out.

So, you need to have some teaching experience.  Lots of experience isn't necessarily better, but you need some.  You also need to have a dissertation that sounds interesting to people outside your field.  Remember--if the department had somebody expert in your field, they wouldn't be hiring you.  Your dissertation could be absolutely fascinating to the ten authorities in the world on ancient African trade networks, but unless you can explain to those outside your field why what you do is interesting and relevant, out you go. 

Other Resources

Thomas H. Benton, the pen name of Hope College professor William Pannapacker, has written extensively on academic life.  Three very good (albeit pessimistic) pieces about going to grad school are:
So you want to go to grad school?
If you must go to grad school . . .
The five virtues of successful grad students

There are lots of places to go on the web for information about grad school admissions. You'll find a short guide to the admissions process here, and a more formal guide from UPenn here, as well as advice from the American Historical AssociationScads of thoughts here, though not particularly contextualized.

Hints on how to do well in grad school once you're there are here, here, and here.

There's good job market advice here.  For job talk advice, try this.  There are some excellent suggestions off-line in NewsNet 44.4 (American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies), August 2004.

There are a number of places with commandments on historical writing, but this one has them in one convenient place.