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Question for current graduate students


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Hi all,

Current undergraduate here and a prospective grad school applicant. Recently, I've been thinking about my professional experience thus far and my academic preparation for graduate work. I feel as though I am somewhat unsure what things I should be doing—outside of the obvious—to distinguish myself as a solid candidate in the future. I've had a few internships, I'm developing my language competencies, am in the process of pursuing an honors thesis, but my experience doesn't really extend much further beyond that.

I'm aware of the heavy weight placed on drafting a solid writing sample/personal statement, and I'm working constantly to refine my academic writing skills. How else can I present myself as a candidate with a sound research background? What were some things you did during your time as an undergraduate that helped you land a spot in your preferred program(s)? I'd be curious to hear about some of the things you might have included on your CVs, or any general advice you might have for building a strong profile for myself. I want to ensure that I'm being judicious with my time and pursuing experiences that will show my commitment to research/the field. 

If it's any help, my planned area of focus is early modern Europe, particularly 16th-century Italy. 

Thanks so much!

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The main thing that admissions committees ask themselves is this: is this person ready to do high level research? How do you show that you're ready to do hight level research? Excellent grades, for one. If you want to go straight from undergrad to a PhD program, this is particularly important, and it helps a lot if these excellent grades come from an elite school (not fair, I know, but this is the way of the word, especially the academic world).If you've garnered a prize or two for your excellent work in art history or another humanistic field, even better. You need to stand out as one of the best, most promising students in your major. 

That's only the beginning, though. Language skills are key. Fluency in your main research language--Italian in your case--will really make you stand out; even better if you've had a start on German or Latin, too. Are you writing a senior thesis? If it's possible, you must. And it also has to be top notch. What does that mean? It means that you've chosen an appropriate, manageable subject; asked an interesting, relevant question that shows awareness of major debates in the field; drawn on a wide range of primary and secondary sources, some of which should be in your main research language; integrated sophisticated formal analysis; advanced a relatively original argument; and written the whole thing in clear, logical prose. If your advisor can write that you've done all that, and the committee can verify it for themselves in your writing sample, you will be golden. What better way to show that you can do high level research than to have already done it? With your excellent grades and thesis, you will have hopefully cultivated good relationships with a few professors, who will be willing and able to speak to your potential in their letters. 

After that comes the application itself. Your personal statement is your opportunity to narrative your experiences, to bring it all together, and use them to demonstrate that you know what kind of questions you want to pursue in grad school and why they're important.  Do you have a coherent, interesting, well thought out research agenda (not too general or too specific) and do you have enough experience to carry it out? Do you know why you want to go to the grad school you're applying to and study with the people you propose to study with?

Extracurricular experience, like museum internships, helps, especially if you're able to articulate how they've helped prepare you for grad school; even better if you're able to integrate your experience into your thesis research somehow. But it's not the most important thing. If you haven't made the experiences meaningful, and you don't have the record of academic excellence to back it up, you'll have a hard time convincing committees that you are, in fact, ready to carry out high level research. You can try to speak at conferences or publish something, but this is not at all necessary--professionalization is not what's important at this point--and I think, for various reasons, that it can do more harm than good at this point in your career. The point is, applying to a PhD is not like applying to any other job: racking up experience does not matter nearly as much as evidence of a quality mind and strong discipline. If you don't yet have enough research experience or the grades or the languages, an MA first is not a bad idea. Above all, talk to your professors--not only about if you're ready and where you should apply, but why you want to go to grad school in the first place. The job market is truly miserable and only getting worse. Being an art historian can be a wonderful life, but you will have to make frequent, serious, and sometimes painful sacrifices along the way, both during grad school and especially after. You need to go into this with open eyes. Too many people don't and regret it down the line. 

Edited by Bronte1985
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