Jump to content

Lessons Learned: Application Season Debriefings

Heimat Historian

Recommended Posts


The purpose of this thread is for those who applied in 2015 to graduate programs in history to do some chalk talk. What would you do differently and why? What parts of the process did you nail? Did you take any risks and how did they pay off? Were you surprised by any hidden fees? What role did campus visits play in making decisions on where to apply or where to go? Did you apply to too many programs, too few, or just the right amount?


Because many are still learning where they've been accepted, if you post in this thread, please provide a "snap shot" of your current status. Perhaps the easiest way for many to provide this snap shot is to copy and paste the biographical information from your signature. Or, you could employ a short hand to indicate the number of schools to which you applied, the yesses, the nos, and the wait and sees.


Here's the deal. Year after year, many aspiring graduate students come to the history forum of the GradCafe and ask a lot of questions and provide a lot of blow by blow details of the process. Year after year, many aspiring graduate students stop posting soon after getting offers of admission and/or letters of rejection. When they leave, they take a treasure trove of useful information and invaluable experiences. The aim of this thread is to provide an opportunity for a cathartic "exit interview" of sorts so that future members of this BB can use it to build tool kits to use when they apply.


For those of you who have not had as much success as you would like, it may be especially difficult to share your experiences. But I say if you did the best that you could under the circumstances, you should be proud of the hard work you've done. Hold your heads high and tell us what you have learned.


If this concept has legs, perhaps down the line there will be additional lessons learned threads that will run almost hand in hand with other annual threads.


A caveat. Many of you may be emotionally raw right now after years of very hard work, months of highs and lows, and weeks of checking your email every five minutes. Please do what you can to manage those emotions if you post in this thread. Do not betray any confidences. Do not do too much venting. Do not post anything that you would not be willing to say to a DGS or any of the other Powers That Be at any institution you would like to attend as a graduate student.


Ideally, among the first respondents to this request for information will be the lurker

the highly respectable telkanuru.




@Heimat Historian's original post: 

I think this is a fantastic idea.   Once I've made decisions I'll be happy to post my experiences. 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Shit, I'm respectable? Gotta fix that right quick. But yeah, flattery will definitely get you what you want from me!


I have no idea what (if any) of what follows actually got me in, but I'll put it all down here any way. Caveat emptor.


Not only can I talk about what I'd do differently, but I can talk about what I've done differently. This is the end of my second cycle. I currently hold offers from Ohio State and Brown. I have received a rejection from UCBerkeley, and presume rejections from Harvard and UChicago. My application to UToronto is still outstanding. In my first cycle, I applied to Harvard, Harvard Divinity (MTS & ThD), Yale, UChicago, Notre Dame, UMinn, BC, and BU, all for history. I was rejected from all PhD programs, but accepted to the MTS at HDS with a 3/4 scholarship and the MAPSS at Chicago with a 1/2 scholarship.


There are two major reasons why I was forced to take an MA, I think. First, I was a problematic undergraduate. It took me 9 years to finish my BA, a process which started in the mechanical engineering program at UMass Amherst, involved failing out of that school twice and then working in a grocery store for 6 years, and finished at Harvard Extension (i.e. Night) School. Taking a PhD student is a risk, and the MA constituted penance for my previous sins. Second, although I very clearly knew that I wanted to study medieval history, focusing on gender and monasticism, I hadn't moved much beyond that idea. That is, I had energy, but I lacked intellectual maturity. Looking back over my old writing sample and SoP, I was a disorganized but enthusiastic mess. This is made particularly clear in my choice of schools in my first round. Yale, BC, BU, and the HDS ThD had more or less nothing to do with my areas of interest. They had strong programs, but were not strong matches.


I took the MTS offer from HDS. It meant that I didn't have to leave my wife for 9 months just 2 months after our wedding. This has, of course, vastly strengthened my application. If you spend two years at Harvard doing graduate work and don't have a radically stronger application at the end, something clearly went very wrong. More than that, though, when it came time to apply again, I didn't have to just page through programs hoping to find a professor who had somewhat similar interests. I knew who they were already. 


For my second round I cut the four programs above immediately because I knew they didn't work. I also decided to only aim at the top tier of programs because I felt (and still feel) that where I get my PhD is much more important than if I get a PhD. I wasn't willing to settle just to make sure I got in somewhere, and in this job market I think that is fantastically good sense (if I do say so myself). I cut Notre Dame because I'd visited South Bend. Also, they were really slow sending out rejections in my first cycle and I'm pretty petty. UMinn got cut as well, since my interests had shifted away from gender studies (which was their strength) to monastic history more generally. Harvard and Chicago I kept, although neither was a good fit, to be perfectly honest. But I knew and liked the professors at Harvard and their interest in digital projects (which I share), and I was moderately in love with UChicago after my MAPSS campus visit.


To these two, I added Berkeley and Brown as clear matches within my area of interest. Toronto went on the list after one of my LoR writers suggested it, and a professor at OSU convinced me to apply when I met her at a conference. 


As I said, my application was stronger just by the fact that I had been at Harvard for 2 years. All my LoR writers knew me well, and each had supervised aspects of my research. Plus, one of them was a Big Name - that doesn't hurt. This isn't really useful to anyone else, though, so I want to focus on my writing sample and SoP.


My writing sample was very short, about 2500 words, with as much again in footnotes. However, it was not some long, meandering senior thesis, a document only seen by the author and the grader, as my first had been. Instead, it was a paper I had written for a seminar, presented at a conference, submitted for publication, and received a revise & resubmit with substantial feedback. So, it was short, but really, really solid. Well, it's at the reviewers again, so I hope it's really solid. The paper itself was highly technical, a codicological study of a 12 c. manuscript, which showed off my paleographic and Latin skills. I also made sure that my footnotes were (somewhat unnecessarily) filled with German and French sources, to demonstrate that I could read and incorporate scholarship in those languages. Thus, I tried to ensure that my sample was not only a good example of my intellect and writing, but also of my technical skills, demonstrating that I could put what I claimed on paper to practical use.


With my SoP, I made sure that I not only outlined what my interests were and why, as I had done in my first season, but also where I thought these interests might lead and how I thought I might get there. I found a what (monastic communication) and a how (social network theory) which addressed what I felt to be a gap in the scholarship, but left the other details vague because they should be vague. The result was an essay which showed where I'd been, what I am (reinforced by the writing sample), where I wanted to go and how I wanted to get there, and, most importantly, why I thought the program would get me to that goal.


Apparently it worked.


If I were forced back for a third try, what would I do differently? I would be more brutal with my school selections (sorry, Harvard and UChicago). I would continue to revise and hone my writing sample, throwing it at as many critics as would read it. I would acquire new technical skills and ensure that I demonstrated those skills practically in my application materials. I would revisit my writing samples to draw even clearer lines between my academic path and the institution to which I was applying.


Hope this helps.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Though my POI have mentioned some of the things they liked in my application, I find it difficult to conduct a post-mortem on my season. For privacy's sake, I'm hesitant to specify the programs I applied to, but I was accepted at three of the five schools I applied to (and every program I applied to was in the top 15, regardless of what ranking you use). I'm inclined to think that this fortune is the result of sheer dumb luck or the inane superstitious things I did to get me through February (I started seeing signs in the crossword puzzles I did to relax). But here are the things I think helped my case:


1) I started the process by skimming every essay I wrote for my history classes in college. I took some time off after college, so this helped remind me of who I am as a historian and my academic trajectory. I know that being able to articulate the evolution of my academic interests (both within history and without) was key to one of my acceptances. For those of us with manifold and divergent interests, knowing who you are and being able to tie this interests together to construct an image of yourself as a complex and dynamic scholar is very important. I suspect one of my rejections was in part a result of waffling about where I fell temporally. (I also used this as a chance to reflect on my potential as a scholar. With one eye on my grades, undergrad institution, and GRE score,  I asked myself honestly how competitive I would be. I guessed that I'd pass the first raw numbers cut, and took my chance applying to only top programs.) Furthermore, returning to your own essays allows you to systematically create a list of scholars you want to work with.


2) To create my initial list of programs, I went back through all of the important readings I did in college, compiling names from footnotes. I thought about whose work was important in my field, who was everyone talking about/citing. I looked at journals in my field. All of this legwork was helpful when contextualizing my own work in the field as it stand right now. Especially for people with only a BA, like me, you have less of an opportunity to think about trends in history and historiography so you have to do that legwork on your own. With those 25-30 names I found out what schools they worked at. I also looked at various rankings and added those schools for good measure. Most importantly, I talked to my advisors, one of whom was a relatively recent graduate in my exact area of interest. Their suggestions ultimately proved the most useful. After eliminating schools without graduate programs and schools in Europe, my list was about 20-25 school long.


3) I don't think I really understood fit until I started anticipating rejections and acceptances. The schools I was most nervous/excited about were not necessarily the schools with the highest ranked program or biggest name, but schools were there were a plethora of people working on projects I found very interesting. I made the mistake of not underestimating how narrow fit can be, especially in a well-established subfield. The way I see it is that there are four types of fit: temporal (do you study the same time period?), geographic (are you focused on the same country/region?), type of history (social, cultural, political, military, religious, intellectual, etc), and their individual interests/perspective (the topics they find interesting and they way they think about those topics). You need to find a POI who fits at least three of these forms of fit. There also have to be two or more POI at that school who satisfy at least two other categories of fit each (including the missing category from the primary POI). Determining fit is the hardest part of this process and the area where we're most in the dark. I poured over professors' webpages, I skimmed multiple articles and introductions to their books (if not the entire book), and I looked at the classes they teach. Sometimes a professor's interests develop or are not explored in their published work. I ended up only applying to places where I thought professors there in my field were asking similar questions to those I want to ask and where there were 2+ professors I was eager to work with. My two rejections were schools that were a good fit on paper (with two of the biggest names in my field), but my POIs there only satisfied 2-2.5 forms of fit. The programs I got accepted to were the schools I was most excited about. 


4) I'm a procrastinator so I didn't get nearly as much feedback on my essays as I would have liked to. I've come up with probably about 10 different ways to write my SOP over the past four years, all of which perfectly encapsulated my intellectual interests and trajectory at that time and which I forgot when it came time to write my essay. Thus, I was quite blocked with trying to write my SOP. All of the perfectly crafted sentences I wrote in my head while walking to class had vanished. Consequently, I wrote and wrote. Most of it was crap. I wrote whole essays that never made it into anything I submitted. (Plan ahead for this!) But all of that intellectual work was key to getting my brain in the place where it needed to be to write my SOP. Every iteration of my SOP started with an image of me engaging in historical inquiry. It felt forced and hokey, but I guess it worked. I jumped straight into the action and maintained a sustained focus on the types of questions I ask, how I read sources, and the research I've done in the past. When I mentioned my post-collegiate work, I folded it into an intellectual narrative. I let me CV and GPA speak for themselves and used the SOP as an opportunity to let them peak inside my head and see what ideas and questions get me excited. FWIW, one of my POI commented that my application stood out for it's excitement, curiosity, and energy. I struggled to be specific and concrete in earlier iterations of my SOP. Actually, I thought I was plenty specific, but my professors told me to suggest possible avenues for exploring the ideas and questions that interested me. I hinted at possible projects and ways I would research those projects. (I had one interview and in that interview I was asked what sources I might use. I didn't talk about my future project at length in my SOP, but I had given it a lot of thought. I knew what kind of debates it would speak to and what my basic game plan would be for approaching it. Of course, all of this will shift and mature as I learn more, but I did the best I could based on where I was.)


5) I got really obsessive and strategic when tailoring my SOP to fit each school. I googled the f*ck out of this website, the chronicle's forums, and the rest of the internet to glean any insight into how programs make their decisions. I don't know if any of it helped, but it calmed my nerves. I did my best to figure out who was on the admissions committees at each school, and when I couldn't really figure that out, I wrote my SOP in a way that would appeal to as many professors as possible while still maintaining my focus in my field. In the end, my SOP had to convince me that I should definitely go to that school. If you can't convince yourself it's a perfect fit, how will you be able to convince the professors who read it?


6) In terms of writing POIs and other forms of contact, I didn't do it for every school but I did it for every school I was accepted to (but not all my POIs). I stressed over these emails and sent them later than I should have (October, November, and in some cases December), but they didn't really help me either way, I think. Everyone I spoke to was super encouraging, but they hadn't seen my credentials at that point and their encouragement shouldn't be taken as a sign that you're a viable candidate or that you should even apply. I got some useful info about fellowship funding from one school, but otherwise, I don't think these emails made a difference either way. That said, one the professors writing me a recommendation knows two of the professors at one of the schools where I was accepted and another professor at a second school were I was accepted well. He's not a big name (yet), but he's a wonderful guy and I think those connections did benefit my application. Applicants can't do anything about this, but academia is a small community and I'm convinced that these networks make an impact in this process. Nevertheless, I also got into a school where I had no connections.


7) If you have an interview, reread your application and the work you've done that influences your thinking. Otherwise, DO NOT REREAD YOUR SOP. I forgot a period at the end of a paragraph amongst the various errors I made (including mistaking the location of one of my programs). Somehow, I still got in but rereading my SOP added greatly to my stress level.




Here's some of the insight I've gotten from professors at specific programs during this process:

1) USE PRIMARY SOURCES IN YOUR WRITING SAMPLE. This really should just be a baseline, but apparently, not all applicants do it.

2) Taking time off from school is a good thing, especially if you can use it to reflect thoughtfully on why you want to go back to school.

3) Princeton's PhD is very quick and they are looking for applicants who can "hit the ground running."



Ultimately, you do all you can do but a lot of the results come down to chance. This process requires you to both be obsessive in your research and learn to let go. Remember that neither acceptances nor rejections are referendum on your value as a human being. And most importantly, get some lucky shampoo.


Just my two cents.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I'll give an answer since Telks and I may be colleagues next year :) .

I'm currently standing with a Ph.D offer from Brown, a Funded Masters from Yale, A rejection in hand from Johns Hopkins, and presumable rejections from UPenn, NYU, Vanderbilt, UT Austin and Harvard.

This is my second application cycle; I graduated from UChicago last year and was fairly certain I wanted to do a Ph.D for the specific questions I was asking, if nothing else. I had done my thesis in my third year so I could get at the Ph.D colloquiums and seminars offered during my fourth year. I applied using my B.A thesis to five schools: Yale, Brown, Johns Hopkins, Columbia and Rutgers. I got rejected across the board, with Yale moving me into a Masters pool, before I got rejected there.

I think there were a couple of things I needed to improve. First, one of my LoRs came from a big name in my field, but he was someone with whom I had taken one class–the fall of my fourth year–when he wrote for me. So, even though he was willing, I don't think it was the best letter I could've attained. I took a second class with him during the winter so he got to know my interests and my writing much much better over that period of time. Further, I got a fourth LoR from the Ph.D Seminar I took during my fourth year. So now I had three faculty members who knew my writing on a very close level, and a fourth letter from a large name in my methodological interests.


Second, my writing sample: I mentioned I used my B.A. thesis. I didn't mention that rather than taking a section of it, I had tried to fit it into a 25 page sample. Bad idea. Bad. Bad. It was clunky and didn't really do much. The second cycle, I took 20 pages from the Ph.D seminar paper, and presented that at a conference, then used the feedback to re-work it. 

Third, I had never been abroad. I'm proposing to work broadly in 16th century Atlantic World Empires, specifically with the relation between colonial order, modes of Indigenous and African labor, and the development of identity politics. Having no experience with archives in Spain or France or in the Caribbean was marked as a red herring at a couple of schools. So I obtained funding and took a two month trip surveying the AGI and bibliotheque nationale in Spain and France respectively. A lot of this archival work (besides showing basic paleographic competency and language training with French/Spanish/Latin) helped make my case that I took my research seriously and was willing to engage all sorts of experiences to get it done. Plus this trip was awesome.

Finally, I didn't have time to do this last cycle, but this cycle as I was reformatting my list I took time to meet every faculty member I wanted to meet. This was made easy by the fact that I lived on the East Coast and could travel reasonably well to each school. And I think if you can meet the faculty who'll be advocating you in that room, it makes the entire process much easier for them because they've got your face, and know you're engaged about what you want to do.

I reworked my list a lot too, and made it a lil more open to my range of schools: Brown, Harvard, Yale, UPenn, NYU, Vanderbilt, UT Austin and Hopkins. 

Since I'm relatively young (I dunno about you, but I'm feelin' 22!), if I'd gotten rejected I would've seriously re-evaluated how important were the questions I'm asking: I would love a tenure track position, but given the current job market, I'm trying to look at this as an opportunity to expand my research horizons and interests in a lot of ideas that I like, and then use those interests in either mainstream publications, editorial positions, maybe work for NGOs etc. As such, what was driving me to do the Ph.D was my deep love of the historical circumstance and sources with which I was working. That being said I sort of put my life on hold this year in order to make this possible; and I don't know if I could've done another year like this hoping for admission.

If I'd wanted to continue, it would've been more of the same. Aggressively pursuing funded masters and abroad masters programs (couldn't afford to do a standalone masters without funding); working faculty at varying schools I'd met at conferences and the like to learn about their thoughts on admissions. I'm also very isolated when it comes to sharing *my* written work, so I think I would've employed more people to read my stuff and give more advice. As it is, I'm incredibly lucky it came out as it did this time. 

Edited by mvlchicago
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I'll be quick, because I've written something similar somewhere else on this board recently.


This is my second cycle. Five years ago I was rejected across the board, but offered the MA at Chicago, which I did, incurring a significant amount of debt.


I moved abroad after that and have spent three years learning my second (and much more difficult) foreign language.


Essentially, this time around I had a better CV, a master's from a widely recognized top-10 institution, well known LOR writers who offered to write strong letters, a writing sample based on primary sources in a foreign language, a language certificate to vouch for the new language I have been learning, and the required GPA and GRE scores. All things I don't think I had the first time around.


But all this won't get you in unless you can articulate a specific question in the SOP. I could, but it wasn't easy and I stressed out about it for a few weeks. I made every word count. Name archives, frame the question around the scholarly debate that does exist, start from the big picture and how your work relates to that, progress toward the details in the next two paragraphs, and then show them that you are ready to tackle this problem because you are so well trained. If you aren't able to show them that, the rest of your application better be something.


Definitely reach out to the professors beforehand. I don't care what anybody says. Do it - it helps you get your name in the heads of professors who will be involved in the decision making process. Some will be really appreciative and helpful.


Now I'm sitting on offers from at least 6 (maybe seven schools), out of the 11 I applied to. Three are in the "top-10", another three in the "top-25", and another one is not far off. The places I was rejected from did so most likely because they weren't accepting so many students this year, or they didn't have the faculty to support me, or because I fucked up really badly on the interview - which only happened because I suck at interviews and this one occurred at least two hours before I would normally be awake (remember I'm in a foreign country).

Link to comment
Share on other sites


But all this won't get you in unless you can articulate a specific question in the SOP. I could, but it wasn't easy and I stressed out about it for a few weeks. I made every word count. Name archives, frame the question around the scholarly debate that does exist, start from the big picture and how your work relates to that, progress toward the details in the next two paragraphs, and then show them that you are ready to tackle this problem because you are so well trained. If you aren't able to show them that, the rest of your application better be something.



This is really, really true. Your SOP should be about your research. It can include other things, but the heart of it should be about research. You want to draw a clear line between what you have done in the past (your writing sample, research you've done previously, any relevant experiences like studying abroad) and what you want to do at the school you're applying to.  


I applied straight from undergrad, so I felt like I had my work cut out for me in showing an adcom that I was ready to pursue graduate work. For me, that meant I wanted to make three things clear: first, that I could think critically about the field I wanted to enter; second, that I could do research and write well; and third, that I was going to work really, really hard if they gave me the chance to come to their school. 


So, the first was covered in my SOP. It was five paragraphs long. The introductory paragraph talked about the thing I did (working in an archives) that made me want to study thematic field X. Then in the next paragraph, I mentioned, very, very briefly, that I had first studied region Y as a study abroad student; the rest of the paragraph was about how I had researched region Y (but NOT thematic field X) in my senior thesis. Those were my relevant past experiences -- three of them, and one of them only got one sentence. Then I spent the next two paragraphs talking about how I wanted to bring my insights from thematic field X to my studies of region Y. I finished off with a paragraph about how the school was the best place for me to pursue this project. It came out to around 700 words. So even though I couldn't talk about methodologies or even scholarly debates, I could articulate what I wanted to do and how I saw my work bringing together my experiences. 


The second was covered by my senior thesis. I sent in the first 20 pages (this came out to the first case study) as my writing sample. If you're coming out of undergrad, write a thesis. It's the only chance you'll get to do sustained, self-directed research; the 8 page term paper you wrote for American History 202 won't cut it. Make your thesis your writing sample. If you can get funding to go do research abroad or what-have-you, do it, not because it will impress adcoms (I'm not even sure I mentioned getting funding in my SOP, although my recommenders might have), but because it'll make your paper better and that will impress adcoms. Because I spent a summer in England, I had better sources, and because I had better sources, I wrote a better, more compelling paper. 


The SOP shows what you want to do. The writing sample shows how well you can do it. They should work in tandem. An adcom should be able to put the documents side-by-side and see how they fit together.


The third thing was a little more personal and harder to pin down. It's really a matter of show, don't tell, and if anyone's doing the telling, it's your LORs. But for me, it was important because I wanted to make clear that what I didn't know (coming straight from undergrad, probably a lot) I was willing to learn. 


All in all, I think it worked. I applied to nine schools, and so far have gotten into 5, rejected at 1, and waitlisted at another -- so not half bad! :) Hope this helps!

Edited by girlscoutcookies
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Lurker mmehistorian here. I applied to 6 PhD programs in American history. I have been accepted at 5 (University of Minnesota, University of Indiana, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania). I have not heard anything of the 6th, UNC.

I surely did not expect to get in these places, really. I was in the middle of sending MA applications when acceptances began coming in. I am currently an undergraduate in psychology with a history minor. I've been doing original research for a few years and have come across some interesting things that have been neglected in the literature of my field. It is for this reason primarily, as well as strong letters of recommendation from my very dedicated & selfless mentor, that I was able to have success, I think. I can't say that I applied too few or too many, as that's a hard hindsight bias, but I do know that it was extremely difficult for me to pay for those applications. I would advise future appliers to start saving soon, because the application fee ($45-100, mean ~$85 for me) plus GRE scores ($27 ea) plus actually taking the GRE, plus transcripts ($15 ea for me), it really hurts. I had friends who could loan me money, but that was really one of the most difficult parts for me.

In terms of applications: pay attention to what they want and how you fit. No one can tell you enough how much "fit" matters. You can be brilliant in modern German history, the top of your field; that doesn't mean the early Americanists at William & Mary give any bothers about you. Find the scholars who wrote the books that rocked your world, and see if you can be where they are. See if that program is near your sources. See if they have a few complementary people for a committee. Mention these things in your SOP. And don't get personal on your SOP unless they specifically ask you to. They want your intellectual journey as a historian, not your whole life story.

Also, if it's possible, go to conferences and speak with your POIs. Engage them and let them at least acknowledge you, have a conversation if appropriate, and email them later to thank them for their time & to check if they're accepting students next entrance period. The woman I wanted to work with at UNC isn't accepting students this semester, but I couldn't contact her beforehand because she was on sabbatical. She totally deserves the time off, but this is just an example of why brief, polite contact with your potential advisor is important.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

My first cycle as a PhD applicant hasn't gone well (rejected from 2/3 places I applied to and am awaiting the 3rd), but I've certainly learned some lessons so I thought I would share. 


I'm going to echo mvlchicago and say that if you're applying to a Latin American/Asian/Atlantic World/etc. program but have yet to step foot in your proposed country of interest you're going to have to be spectacular in all other aspects of your application. I was forewarned by my adviser and one of my POIs that it would be difficult to be accepted without this experience. Aside from not having done archival research in these countries, there is also a fear that students have a romantic or idealized view of what these areas will be like and when it doesn't live up to that expectation they will drop out of the program. (I'm speaking in terms of Africa here but I'm sure it applies most everywhere.)


Archival research. One of my LOR writers told me that I would struggle because I did not have archival research experience. Although others told me that it shouldn't be that big of a deal, I'm realizing now that it actually is. If your university is like mine and doesn't really have archives you will need to find a way to get to the archives that are relevant for your topic. Apply for funding, couch surf, whatever it takes.


Making your SOP too personal. I talked with one of my LOR about my personal reasons for pursuing history and my path to getting where I am today. He suggested I include it in my SOP and I'm no regretting my decision. I should have focused more on academics and only talked about my personal life when it came time to explain a two year gap between undergrad and my graduate program. 


Choosing a sample that showcases your foreign language ability. My paper used primary sources but they were all in English, (which was relevant to the topic) I should have chosen one that showed I could read another language. Also, submitting a sample unrelated to your field or area of interest. I should have submitted my prospectus or a chapter from my unfinished thesis. No, I haven't passed my defense but if I want to study something on the Atlantic world, I should probably not submit something on the Japanese empire. I didn't follow this advice because I didn't want to I didn't want to submit something I felt was "incomplete."


If you cannot avoid this, say you are switching topics, make sure your sample shows your strengths as a researcher. (Neither of the above are my topics but just examples.) One of my LOR did this, he switched from studying something like Ozark folk music to the emergence of radio in the Mexican revolution. He was able to do this because he had a strong writing sample that showed his skills in archival research, but also because he built a relationship with his potential department. Additionally, he took a chance on an up and coming Latin American department and it worked out extremely well for him. (He has 2 articles just published, a book coming out next year and another in the works. Additionally he procured a TT position right out of his program.) 


Lastly, don't be discouraged by a bad cycle. There are always things you can do to better yourself. Apply for funding so you can complete research in your field. If your university doesn't offer these or you find out too late, apply for Fulbright's program to teach English. I didn't find out about a middle eastern studies grant offered by my university until last semester. Instead of defending over the summer I've decided to defend in the fall so that I can be eligible for the grant. If this doesn't happen I'm considering applying for a Fulbright (it will be the first year we have one up and running at my current school). The point is that if you really want this, you should constantly be working towards it. Don't take the year off as a vacation, take the year off as an opportunity to put all available effort into bettering your application, and building a relationship with your prospective departments by going to conferences and reaching out. As I said, I haven't had a good cycle but I've learned a lot. Academia is tough and rejection is a natural part of it, you just have to grow thick skin and keep on going. 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I've had a surprising season, not least of all to myself, so I thought I'd share what I think made a difference for me.

1. Take your time. Start thinking about where you want to apply well in advance. I started researching potential advisers about 10 months before I actually submitted applications. I made a pretty detailed spreadsheet (must say I'm pretty proud of it haha) that listed the program, it's rankings (NRC and US News), and at least 2 people I could see myself working with, including their contact info. I wanted to make sure at least 2 people in my subfield that I could work with were accepting students. I nixed programs that only had 1. Get in contact with grad students as well--they can dish about stuff that professors might not know about, like the details about living in grad student housing, stipends, TA responsibilities, departmental drama etc.

2. Obsess over fit a little bit (or a lot). I spent so much time contacting POIs, seeing what they were working on and if they were interested in what I want to work on. I looked at entire departments--if I felt I couldn't be supported by the department (because let's be honest, most people don't have advisers that encompass everything you want to do) then I didn't apply to those programs. Look at the university resources--are there amazing special collections resources? A good university library? Centers and institutes that you could use? Area/language studies that would help your project? Then I recommend going beyond the school and looking at the state/surrounding area itself. Any good presidential libraries around? Archives? Depositories? Historic sites? Think about methodology. Do you want a department that supports interdisciplinarity? Comparative history? Strength in ethnic studies? Gender? You should go through a laundry list of questions to really determine fit, and only apply to places that have that fit. I'm convinced that the main reason I've been accepted to a bunch of programs was all the time I spent thinking about fit.

3. Agonize over your SOP. And I mean agonize. Rewrite it a dozen times, get at least 2 professors to edit it, send it to your trusted family and friends. I've reread my SOP several times and haven't found a mistake because I went through it over and over and over and...you get the point. I read other people's horror stories and looked for those mistakes in every SOP, not just my "general" one. And as a sub-point, try to really tailor your SOP to each school. A lot of mine was the same--my "hook," research experience and interests. But I went through and included fit details throughout, as well as a fit paragraph at the end (and I think the end is the best place for the fit paragraph because that's the impression the reader is left with...I recommend any "extenuating circumstances" information to be buried somewhere after research experience and interests, but not at the end).

4. Think about what you want to do research-wise. I mean, really think about it. Read secondary literature and pull the bibliographies. Allow yourself room to change and grow. This will help you choose programs. My initial list was vastly different than my final list of programs because my research grew in slightly different ways, and I had to admit that and cut programs I initially felt excited about from the list.

5. Make your writing sample tight. Intro, historiographical review, clear thesis, and strong primary source research with good engagement with secondary sources. Write a compelling conclusion, but don't drag it on and on. Make sure your citations are pristine (go over this a lot. I found mistakes after 3 read-throughs and ended up doing like 6-8). Make an impeccable bibliography. I highly recommend sitting someone down and reading the entire writing sample aloud to them. You'll pick up on awkward spots and mistakes, and they can tell you if something doesn't make sense (I'd pick an intellectually-engaged non-history major).

6. Start on the nuts and bolts of the application ahead of time. I had all biographical data/other information, transcripts uploaded (if applicable), etc done wayyy ahead of time so when I finished my writing sample and SOPs I could quickly upload them and click submit.

7. Plan money-wise for application fees, transcripts, GREs, etc. don't be caught without enough money at the very last minute.

8. Think beyond the application--like best areas for you to live as a grad student, housing costs, if you have a kid start researching schools and daycare etc. This helps you figure out if stipends are sufficient when you get accepted. You'll probably have to set up your living situation pretty quickly after you get accepted and choose a program, so looking into this ahead of time is just good research that'll make your life easier.

9. Enjoy the process. Get excited about your future plans, programs you're applying to, research you're thinking about. Be confident in your abilities and your preparation. At the same time, don't let the process consume you. Do normal things with your friends, don't let coursework fall by the wayside if you're applying while in school, and spend quality time away from applications.

Best of luck!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I want to reiterate ashiepoo72's emphasis on clean citations. Several professors have told me they view the quality of a person's footnotes - including their adherence to the style guide - as an accurate reflection on that person's attention to detail and thus the overall quality and reliability of their scholarship.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The point ashiepoo72 made about finding two POIs at each program is crucial. I was denied from two places this year because the POI with whom I wanted to work couldn't take students (for separate, understandable reasons), but then I had no chance. I marketed myself to the individual so strongly that when they were out, it looked as if I had no fit whatsoever. I'll likely be reapplying next year due to personal reasons; however, I'll be able to compile applications far superior to what I submitted this year.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Right when I was beginning to start my applications, my advisor gave me two pieces of advise: don't contact POIs, and to limit the number of programs I applied to because he thought my application was very strong.  I struck-out, 0/7. I found out after the fact that one of the POIs I put in my SOP is no longer taking students.  


I will be contacting POIs next year, though I am not sure how much of a difference that will actually make, but at least I won't apply to work with people who are unavailable. I will also apply to more programs next year.  I have multiple research interests and several possible projects that I can describe in my SOP, and I will tailor each application and project specifically to the school and the POIs that I am interested in working with.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I deliberated for ages about contacting POI's and the advice on message boards as well as from former advisers was inconclusive.


I decided to start emailing the academics I knew have expertise in work I wanted to work in and got some great replies. Going into this process, based on the replies from those POI's I thought I had a decent (not assured by any means) chance of getting into the three programs I did. I was advised by one to broaden my research focus, while another advised me to apply for the MA instead because of my language proficiency with indications re it being funded.


I also didn't waste my time with a UC Berkeley app because the POI, who was lovely and gave a long detailed email, told me my research area wouldn't fit into the department but told me what departments he thought I would be a decent fit in. 


Some didn't get back (Michigan, Cornell and Wisconsin, for example) which was disappointing, and a couple of others were very positive about my research area but I ended up getting rejected at(IU and UW), but I know that happens to many people. These responses were positive but I never got any indications that they were trying to tell me I was in or anything, whereas responses from UCSB, UCLA and UNC were far more detailed with regards to their interest in my research topic.


I wish I had written to the other programs I applied to (Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford). I may have gotten an indication re their interest.


So from my experience at least, it certainly did help. 

Edited by Gambaosaka1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I was advised to contact people only if I had a substantive question about the program or about the professor's work. All of my committee said that random emails to introduce yourself were ineffective at best and annoying at worst. I did contact one POI prior to the cycle and also met them at a conference (which I think helped more than the email.) I was waitlisted at that program. For the programs I was accepted to, I did not contact anyone prior to applying, but I was familiar with their work and tailored my SOP's project description to pique their interest.


I also second listing multiple POIs and highlighting points in your research that map to things they're working on. It may not be specific geographic area or time period. I also looked at methodology or theory and talked about how that professor (or that program in general) would give me a good general background to approach my project. My project proposal section of my SOP was fairly detailed, not just on topic, but also on methodology and historiography, which I think helped me hit a little above my weight when applying.


Looking at the SOPs I sent, in almost every one of them, my research discussion (both proposed and background) is around half the word count of most of them. It is greater than half of the word count for every successful application. The shortest research description was submitted to one of my rejections. The description of my research that I like least, and, looking back now, reads as most vague, accounts for another. Comparing it to my other SOPs, I can now clearly see that that program was the one I had the least fit with.


I got a lot of feedback from my thesis committee on my research direction, where I see my thesis going and where I see myself evolving over the course of my PhD. I think that really helped me in two ways. First, I was able to clearly articulate a proposed project that was interesting, relevant and executable. Second, I was able to situate the project in the discourse and say clearly why I was interested in working with each scholar and within each program. 

Edited by Fianna
Link to comment
Share on other sites

While I certainly wrote about my research interests, I had no idea that I was supposed to be writing a research proposal. While that is something that I can clearly improve upon, I am still having a bit of difficulty trying to figure out how to combine an explanation of a rocky start in academia 10 years ago with my current research. My masters dissertation is also fairly unrelated to my previous research (it's still in the same field at least), but my current focus makes it difficult to create a cohesive narrative showing my academic trajectory. Looks like it's time to go back to the drawing board.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I heard three ways of handling that (I have a really spotty undergrad record). First one is let your recommenders handle it. The second one, (which applied for me) is to just let it go if it was a long time ago and you have a degree in between (I have an MS in MIS and I'm working on an MA in history and those grades are fine). The third one, which is what I chose, was to briefly acknowledge it because there's a positive reason - I helped build a start-up company that I've worked at for 10 years. I have a few sentences in my opening paragraph that explains the gaps in my transcript, the unrelated MS and my desire to pursue a PhD in history on a full-time basis.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I second Fianna's suggestions. If you need to discuss any spotty grades or rough patches on your transcript, do it in a positive light. I took two quarters off of undergrad to have my kid so I felt that I had to explain the gap. I took one line in my SOP to say that despite having to take time off, I completed my BA on time. I'm pretty sure the adcomms could read "single mom" between the lines without me having to use that as an excuse. I don't view it as a negative anyway, because having my daughter made me strong. Don't come off sounding like you blame anyone or anything for your peccadilloes--show how you grew from them, that you take every hardship as a learning or strengthening experience.


If you're far removed from undergrad, I wouldn't even address bad grades. I didn't bring up the biological anthro class I failed in my first quarter--the class that got me on academic probation!--because no one cares. If I failed the capstone history course, that'd be a different story.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I thought I'd chime in on this thread now that my dust has settled and I've got a bit of a clearer head about the situation.  


I applied at 5 schools (UVA, Columbia, Princeton, Harvard, and Chicago) at the suggestion of my adviser and recent research that suggests that the majority of tenure track jobs currently and in the future will continue to go to Ph.Ds from top 10 and top 20 programs.  I struck out at all five schools (Except for Columbia, which offered me an unpaid MA that would put me 200k in the hole) and was severely disappointed.  I think it may be useful for future applicants to see my academic profile and overall strengths/weaknesses:



-MA in History, 3.91 GPA and graduated with "high honors" by acing my comps.  

-2 BAs in History and Philosophy, both with honors from a small liberal arts college

-4 years teaching experience (one overseas in my research area, two as a teaching assistant, and one as an adjunct professor at the University I graduated from)

-Master's Thesis using only untranslated primary source documents as the basis (obviously secondary historiography as well)

-Language proficiency in Japanese and Chinese (both are my subject area)



Things that seemed to be going well for me :

-High GPA and GRE scores (167written, 161quant, 5.5 essay)

-Language experience

-Excellent thesis (My contact at one of the schools I applied at asked if he could share my thesis with his other Ph.D. students)

-Teaching experience

-One very good letter of recommendation 



Things that seemed to go against me : 

-I never contacted any of my potential POIs at the schools I applied at, per my adviser's suggestion

-Two of my recommendations were from professors who were not in my main field, as my small University did not have a large staff of orientalists

-All of my degrees came from the same, not-prestigious school

-My area of research is not in the forefront of the discipline at the moment.  (I study pre-modern border conflicts, whereas the trend today is towards modern/20th century)

-I don't have publications in major journals



So that's my situation.  Reading other people's admission stories seems to suggest that having good contacts, networks, or at least dialogues open to your potential POIs matters a great deal.  Additionally, and this I suspect is my biggest failing, my degrees were all from the same non-prestigious University.  This hurt me in two ways : It immediately hurts my resume compared to applicants from Ivy Leagues and other schools on name alone, and I didn't have the adviser pool at my school to really get targeted recommendations.  My suggestions to those starting out in the future is to focus on those things first and foremost, and make those personal connections count!  Good luck!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 weeks later...

Now that the dust has settled on a surprisingly good application cycle, there are three things I would say:


1) Numbers matter less than we think they do. They get your foot in the door (past a certain cutoff), and then no one ever pays attention to them again. My undergraduate GPA is mediocre, my GRE great, my history course-work again mediocre in undergraduate and great in my MA. Both of my degrees are from large public universities with middle-of-the-road reputations.


2) When it comes to the purpose/personal statements and writing samples, it's not what you say but how you say it. Many people change their projects after applying or don't have a specific idea in mind. Reading other posters' comments made me nervous because I didn't talk about the major authors in my proposed research area in my purpose statements. The feedback I received from those who read my application was that I conveyed interesting ideas and research skills, but also that there was a sense I didn't entirely know what I wanted to specialize in for a dissertation (true, at least at the time I completed the applications). This seemed to be a draw, rather than a setback, as I think they want students who are still teachable. Similarly, when it comes to my writing sample, the feedback was that I had interesting ideas and solid mechanics. The paper was not a finished product, but showed that I can do the work and drew from primary sources in a key language for me.


3) Contacting POIs seems to have had at worst no impact on applications and at best serious positive impact. I exchanged lengthy emails with my POI at my top choice and then met her at a conference. She barely remembered the emails, suggesting that she gets a lot of them and doesn't assign much weight to such contact. However, we stayed in contact after our face-to-face meeting and I think this made a big difference when it came time to read my application. It is clear that she made the case for me with her peers.


Best of luck to all who are still waiting or are gearing up for next year!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

That face to face contact sounds like a key to your acceptances, JayRay.  It may be a good suggestion for those going down this road to find an opportunity, before application season, to meet with professors if possible face to face.  That personal touch may mean all the difference (assuming nothing else rules you out)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The two short and sweet things I would add are:


Fit is everything and can outweigh coming from a non-prestigious university (at least for MA).


The entire application process is horrendously expensive, stressful, and time consuming.


Between the GRE, 5 applications, and Open House visitations to UCLA and UCSD I will have spent something like $1,600 on applying for my MA.

Edited by twentysix
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think I'll throw myself into this mix, now that the dust has settled and I'm off to make my decision between two excellent schools very shortly. Long story short, I have quite the non-traditional background coming into being a historian, so I'm happy to share.


I finished my undergraduate as an English literature student. But my thesis work was far from just literary--I got travel grants to do archival work across the Pacific, and while I had wanted to dig up early literatures of the American occupation of the Philippines, it led me to learn all about migration and labour history in the long 20th century. Got more funding to learn ethnography and oral history on a beautiful Pacific island.


My first round of applications was just not meant to be. I tried to fit in what I felt was an eclectic but exciting set of interests in to English and American Studies, but I didn't have a strong enough application to do so. But just before I graduated, a dear mentor (and an accomplished historian and high-level academic at my school) directly took my under his wing and introduced me to a new research centre under the history department. I got to know a historian of empire and slowly, through a series of not unfortunate events, was introduced to the biggest names of the subfield in which I currently work. I finally found the words for what I had stumbled upon as a bumbling English lit student, and all these sets of words end with "history."


This second round, I applied to three schools (Harvard, University of Washington, and University of Toronto), and got into the latter two. I had planned to work in an application to Brown and NYU, but simply could not afford them. International application fees were the death of me, and not to mention that just a couple of weeks before I geared up to compile applications, I had to get a new phone.


All that verbosity aside, here are my pieces of advice:


1. Write your SOP as professionally as possible. Especially for folks with less-than-stellar backgrounds in undergraduate or masters history (or, for that matter, neither an undergrad nor a masters in history), you want to make up for these check-box deficiencies by showing exactly how you can conduct yourself in the field. Lay out your project with sharp, clear prose, allude to previous literatures if necessary, and really piece together a narrative that makes you as irresistible as possible. I applied to Harvard "just to see," but also because a there was a scholar there who really wanted to work with me. Unfortunately, the overall narrative didn't pan out as well as it could have with Washington and Toronto.


2. Leverage as many connections as possible. My current advisors and mentors are quite connected, to the point where a POI in both schools into which I got accepted are dear friends. One recommended the other, and they speak highly of each other all the time. Furthermore, you never know what kinds of political battles are behind the scenes. From the little sprinklings I've been told, at one of my schools, the decisions were made very difficult because of my nontraditional background. But once again, connections helped everything along.


3. Don't be afraid to write a totally new writing sample. I used my undergraduate thesis (in English lit) for one application, because it was strong in cultural analysis, and my POIs worked in those kinds of methods anyway. For my other application, I audited a course in the precise topic I wanted to pursue, and used that class to write a second sample from scratch. I echo what others have said above: use primary sources, and flex your language skills. I deployed both Tagalog and Spanish in that particular writing sample, on both primary and non-English secondary sources. 


4. Numbers only matter as much as you let them. My senior year undergrad GPA was a 4.0, but I never took a single course in history all my life. My GRE scores were not anything spectacular, either. The things I could control much better--writing samples, statement of purpose, and good choices for LoRs--really, I think, shaped the meat and potatoes of the application.


5. Most importantly: surround yourself with positive energy and wonderful people. This has been the most stressful time of my life so far. And so, I made time to check in with my closest friends for coffee, beers, and long walks in our big city. I've made sure to do some physical activity. My girlfriend was--and remains--nothing short of incredible, for all the love and support she gave me to pull me through this time. When I got my acceptances, rest assured that she was the first person I freaked out to. 


I am now deciding between two amazing Direct-Entry PhD programs. I've been told by many mentors and friends (and Jiminy Cricket) that neither decision is a wrong one. I am deciding between two very correct, but distinctly correct choices. It's a wonderful place to be in, and I really wish for the best for everyone else. Abbracci!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 weeks later...
  • dr. t pinned this topic

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.