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Applying for 2021...So Many Questions...


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Hi all,

I'm graduating from a MFA program in Architectural History next year (spring 2021) and have been seriously considering applying to PhD history programs, most likely for admission in fall 2021. I'm an older student (late 30s) and my career has been focused in architectural history up to this point. I love research and writing, and have done a significant amount of it in my career, but I've lost my interest in the built environment. I've always been an amateur social and cultural historian and want to focus on that in a professional capacity. It seems that going on for my PhD is a means of achieving that. I do have a strong desire to educate; I'm very into public history (researched and developed my own historic walking tour, started a history podcast, etc.) as I feel it is integral to making a traditionally stuffy topic more accessible to the general public. To that end, I'm flexible about how my future career takes shape. I understand that history teaching positions are drying up, so I would be equally happy in a museum setting.

I'd like my primary field to be women's history (late 19th and early 20th century America and Britain), with secondary fields in social and cultural history (American, British, European). Primarily, I've been looking at schools with women's history faculty. I have a running list of programs and the professors that I would want to work with, and general idea of the requirements. But am I wrong to assume that getting into a top 25 program is an absolute necessity for obtaining a teaching job (if I were to pursue that route)? I've been using US News' list of top history PhD programs to do my research--is that list valid? Right now, my top choices are Johns Hopkins (my professor "spirit animal" is there) and UNC-Chapel Hill (all around strong women's history program). I know University of Wisconsin is known for its women's history program, but I have been a little reticent about that due to the location. I'm on the east coast would prefer to stay there or at least be able to fly back and forth regularly. Are there other programs I should be considering?

Now that I've read some threads on here, I'm definitely more nervous about applying. The only way for me to do this is to be fully funded (tuition waiver and stipend). My undergrad GPA was 3.45 (3.8 major), which I thought was good, until I read on here that it might not be? So far, my GPA in my masters program is 4.0. I should note that the school that I'm doing my MFA at is an arts school that is well regarded...but it's an arts school. I haven't taken the GRE yet (it wasn't required for admission for my MFA) and I'm terrified. Honestly, I'm a terrible test taker and know that my math scores will stink because there is a giant black hole in my brain where anything beyond basic math skills should be. My verbal should be good. I hope to take and pass the reading exam for French before applying. I've presented a paper at one conference and am applying for others--will that help my application? Any other suggestions for ways to improve my chances at acceptance? Do I need to start reaching out to the professors that I would like to work with? It seems that gaining their favor also improves acceptance chances?

I feel like I'm very prepared for all this but then some days, I feel like I've got a blindfold on. Any advice and/or suggestions are appreciated.

 

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Hello,

Thoughts numbers aside, have you done any primary source research? What are you doing for a capstone project for your MFA? Would you be able to take a graduate-level historiography course in the fall at your current institution? A historiography course will give you a better sense of what it means to practice the discipline of history that will be different from art history (You could transfer that credit but whether it'll help you opt out of the PhD program's historiography course is highly subjective)? Do you have French or German reading knowledge?

Museums are also very difficult to come by-- getting a job in a museum is highly dependent on your network connections. You'd need to find a way to fit in an internship in your extremely busy PhD program to get your foot through the door if you haven't done one already. You'll want to look for a program that has a public history as a field so you can devote some time to reading relevant literature and learn how to communicate with a public audience while most of your coursework revolve around high-level academic conversations with more jargon.

JHU and UNC wouldn't be the first place I'd think for women/gender history at all.  Rutgers, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin definitely do come to mind.  Madison is truly a lovely place to live (though very cold!) with a direct bus ride to Chicago O'Hare or MSP airports. @gsc can give you more pointers as her interests overlap with yours.  Read books and articles on topics of your interest-- where are the scholars based?  Where did they get their PhD from? That's how you develop a list of schools to apply to, not the USNWR, which is outdated.

My $0.02.

 

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If it makes you feel better, my GRE math scores were...sad, to say the least, yet I still got into good programs. I know with some programs GRE scores can impact funding from the overall graduate school but it didn't with mine (though I did compensate with high verbal and writing scores). I recommend Magoosh, reading things like Scientific America, Arts & Letters Daily,  writing summaries of the articles you read, vocab flashcards and putting to use the new vocab. For me, with dyscalculia, there was only so much I could do with my math score, so I just tried hard to get really really good verbal/writing scores and then reviewed some math so I could get a better-than-130 (0) score.  That being said, if any of your schools have the total GRE score tied to funding, more math study would probably be good.

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The most important parts of the application:

1. Fit (this is how you figure out where to apply)

2. Statement of purpose that demonstrates fit, engagement with relevant historiographies, the ability to conceive a dissertation-worthy project, evidence of previous research experience and generally showing you understand what a history PhD is all about. For the SOP to be successful, your project needs to be narrow enough to be a dissertation. From what you've described, I have no clue what your project is about. All I know is geography, time period and the very vague umbrella of "social and cultural history." So you need to really think about the specifics before you can even approach an application. I do, however, recommend demonstrating a level of flexibility; your project will more than likely change as you proceed through the program, and your adviser will more than likely not want to deal with someone who is incapable of accepting that change. This could be as simple as discussing how you started a research project expecting one thing, but the primary sources led you to another thing--as they should! Could also be along the lines of expressing that you look forward to working with Professor Awesome on X method to explore Y and Z and how that may impact your project.

3. Writing sample based on original primary source research, preferably using the methods and tools of the history discipline. I have colleagues and friends who used writing samples in related disciplines because they didn't start out in history. If you do this, you need to explain in the SOP how your experience will elevate/inform your research as a historian. Since you're interested in public history, this should be an easier selling point for you.

To figure out fit, which is central to every application, you need to know the departments to which you apply inside and out. Find 2-3 scholars in the department with whom you could work, whether they are thematically, geographically, methodologically in line with your research interests. You need to show why these scholars make sense as potential committee members. TMP gave great advice on how to find such scholars.  Moreover, you need to show what you bring to the department. How will your research add to the intellectual environment? It's a good idea to consider what resources the university has--any collections in the library that are pertinent to your research? Archives nearby? Also consider what other resources the department can provide. Funding, placement record are very, very important. Any department that won't tell you their placement record is suspicious. You don't want to go somewhere that uses you as cheap labor and is incapable of placing their grads in jobs inside or outside academia. 

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On 5/23/2020 at 9:56 PM, oldhousejunkie said:

Any other suggestions for ways to improve my chances at acceptance?

I recommend that you develop a compelling narrative of  your journey to the craft of academic history that is significantly different than what you presented in the OP.  Candidly, I don't think that you will do yourself any favors by saying that you have lost your interest in something you've been doing for a while and now you want to study history. The signs indicate that the 2021 application season will be ferociously competitive. What can you write that will draw attention to your potential that can set you apart from applicants who have have been majoring in history since middle school?

  • What are your research interests? I think that writing about what you are going to do will serve you better than what you would like to do.
    • What kinds of scholarly works do you envision writing? 
    • What types of source materials will you use?
    • How will your work help to bridge the gaps and strengthen the bonds among social, cultural, and women's history?
  • Is it accurate (much less wise) to refer to women's history (or, for that matter, any other field) as "traditionally stuffy"? 
  • Will the gate keepers of the profession find sustainable your balance between your goals and the needs of the profession?

 

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Thanks everyone for weighing in. 

@Sigaba I absolutely would never write in a SOP what I wrote in my OP. My post was a brain dump and not an indication of what I would write or how I would write it. My job is 75% persuasive writing, but I can always improve. I will look to do that and consider the questions you posed. Essentially, it seems that I'm writing an application for funding, not just admission. 

@ashiepoo72 I was being a bit vague about my interests because I like to play close to the vest. I already have two potential dissertation topics in mind, both of which have not been explored as far as I can tell. Thus the secrecy. 🙂 

Finding a good fit is definitely my preoccupation right now. I have a little book of schools along with the professors and their specialties which match my own. I just wanted to make sure I was uncovering all the options for schools with professors specializing in women's and social history.

@starshiphistory Thank you for the positive remarks! My verbal scores have always been high but it makes sense to lean in more on those to get them as high as possible.

@TMP I have absolutely done primary resource research. That's the other 25% of my job; researching census records, historic newspapers, city directories, and historic maps are something that I do regularly. I will be taking a research methods course in the fall, so I'm looking forward to further polishing my skills in that arena. As for a historiography course, I will be taking one during our winter term. My thesis will be on the history and architecture of residential hotels for women. I've obtained a grant to travel to New York and Chicago to conduct archival research. 

I'm working on my French and German reading knowledge. My grad school can administer the test; in fact, my thesis advisor has encouraged me to do it, but will the results be accepted wherever I attend?

I will be doing my externship with a local museum this summer, so I'm certainly building connections.

Also, regarding JHU and UNC, they floated to the top via my research on professors. JHU has two professors that would be a great fit for my interests. I've identified a couple of professors at UNC does as well but in addition to that, they have a strong working relationship with the university's women and gender studies program. I looked at some of the schools you suggested--Rutgers was the only one that I found with a professor matching my interests. I have been reading books and articles of interest, and then checking out where the authors teach. Unfortunately, a lot of them are retired or are preparing to retire.

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1 hour ago, oldhousejunkie said:

Thanks everyone for weighing in. 

@Sigaba I absolutely would never write in a SOP what I wrote in my OP. My post was a brain dump and not an indication of what I would write or how I would write it. My job is 75% persuasive writing, but I can always improve. I will look to do that and consider the questions you posed. Essentially, it seems that I'm writing an application for funding, not just admission. 

@ashiepoo72 I was being a bit vague about my interests because I like to play close to the vest. I already have two potential dissertation topics in mind, both of which have not been explored as far as I can tell. Thus the secrecy. 🙂 

Finding a good fit is definitely my preoccupation right now. I have a little book of schools along with the professors and their specialties which match my own. I just wanted to make sure I was uncovering all the options for schools with professors specializing in women's and social history.

@starshiphistory Thank you for the positive remarks! My verbal scores have always been high but it makes sense to lean in more on those to get them as high as possible.

@TMP I have absolutely done primary resource research. That's the other 25% of my job; researching census records, historic newspapers, city directories, and historic maps are something that I do regularly. I will be taking a research methods course in the fall, so I'm looking forward to further polishing my skills in that arena. As for a historiography course, I will be taking one during our winter term. My thesis will be on the history and architecture of residential hotels for women. I've obtained a grant to travel to New York and Chicago to conduct archival research. 

I'm working on my French and German reading knowledge. My grad school can administer the test; in fact, my thesis advisor has encouraged me to do it, but will the results be accepted wherever I attend?

I will be doing my externship with a local museum this summer, so I'm certainly building connections.

Also, regarding JHU and UNC, they floated to the top via my research on professors. JHU has two professors that would be a great fit for my interests. I've identified a couple of professors at UNC does as well but in addition to that, they have a strong working relationship with the university's women and gender studies program. I looked at some of the schools you suggested--Rutgers was the only one that I found with a professor matching my interests. I have been reading books and articles of interest, and then checking out where the authors teach. Unfortunately, a lot of them are retired or are preparing to retire.

Depends.  I wouldn't place my bets on getting automatic exemptions from language exams at your new PhD institution.  Each adviser is different in their standards. My adviser made one of her former advisee re-do an exam because their language exam from their MA institution used an academic journal article and my adviser wanted them to translate a primary source from the time period of their research (from mid-20 century).  My adviser wanted the same for my exam for one of my languages and also accepted a summer intensive course for another language. 

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20 hours ago, oldhousejunkie said:

I'm working on my French and German reading knowledge. My grad school can administer the test; in fact, my thesis advisor has encouraged me to do it, but will the results be accepted wherever I attend?

No, they won't. Certain advisors have different approaches to language proficiency. My colleague's first advisor (who took medical retirement, otherwise I would've worked with him too) required his students to translate Foucault from the original French, in front of him. Others require their students to take the university-offered courses.

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"I'm working on my French and German reading knowledge. My grad school can administer the test; in fact, my thesis advisor has encouraged me to do it, but will the results be accepted wherever I attend?"

I agree with TMP and psstein that language exemption depends on the particular program.  In my case, I took a French graduate reading course during my MA program.  When I requested exemption at my current PhD program, the graduate director requested I submit the graded final exam (based on translation of a Foucault passage) for approval.  The director determined that the exam was rigorous enough for exemption. 

 

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2 hours ago, psstein said:

No, they won't. Certain advisors have different approaches to language proficiency. My colleague's first advisor (who took medical retirement, otherwise I would've worked with him too) required his students to translate Foucault from the original French, in front of him. Others require their students to take the university-offered courses.

Eh, mine did.

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23 hours ago, oldhousejunkie said:

Thanks everyone for weighing in. 

@Sigaba I absolutely would never write in a SOP what I wrote in my OP. My post was a brain dump and not an indication of what I would write or how I would write it. My job is 75% persuasive writing, but I can always improve. I will look to do that and consider the questions you posed. Essentially, it seems that I'm writing an application for funding, not just admission. 

It's not just about what you write or what you say, it's also about how you think that will make impressions on academic historians. Right or wrong, perceptions can quickly become the reality of how professors and other graduate students view graduate students. (Disclosure: it took a while, but I learned that one thinks in "brain dumps" at one's peril given the short distance from the brain to the mouth.)

In your OP, there are indications that you are at least as interested in what you are not willing to do to get into a program as what you are willing to do. How well will that approach work if you are competing against someone like @TMP and @telkanuru who have walked through fire to get to where they are now? How will you fare against true believers who have been working towards graduate school since high school?

The point that I'm making is that academic history is very competitive. In its best form, the competition centers around the current boundaries of historical knowledge and the individual limits of each historian. What can you do to show how competitive you are now and how hard you will compete if admitted to a program? 

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Thanks to you all for weighing in on the subject of taking my foreign language exams before I graduate. It sounds like I should definitely ask for guidance from the schools I intend to apply at before spending the time to take the exams at my current institution.

@Sigaba

Brain dump is a struggle for me because I have ADHD. I often get caught up in describing a situation and lose focus on the reason I spoke up in the first place. Some professors appreciate that I know so much and have a passion for what I'm talking about, while others just want me to get to the point. Though I will say, I've been approached by many of my peers who say they appreciate my thoughts because it makes them think. Nonetheless, I've been trying to work on being more succinct in my communications because I do understand it can be a liability.

I appreciate your willingness to level with me about the competition. I would argue, however, that knowing my own mind does not put me at a disadvantage. I'm 38 and coming to this path late. I have the additional "complication" of being married, so I have to determine the best route for accomplishing my goals without harming my spouse. My commitment to him comes first, but that does not mean that my commitment to other areas of my life is lacking.

Am I willing to walk through fire? The answer is 'yes' because I'm already walking through it. I have to work 30 hours a week at my job and have a 4 hour round trip commute to school. I spend the entire day in class because I can only afford to be on campus twice a week. I'm told that this is impressive, but I still push myself further. With very little help, I've established a chapter of a major national architectural advocacy foundation in my state. I've presented programs and papers at national conferences. I've accomplished all of this while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. When the time comes to enter a PhD program, I'll give up a good paying job and benefits. None of this is easy, nor will my path forward get any easier. But I do it happily because I want to make significant contributions to the field of history.  

Thanks again for your thoughts and insight.

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