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A little help for a newbie please.


Rosenphelia Godot

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OK my main area of interest is early-mid 20th century US history. The problem is that while I like this area a lot as of now, what if I realize another area is more interesting to me later? Regardless of this, what I want to know is the "best" programs for this field but also good and above average ones. I have made a preliminary list with a prof I know. Admittedly, he is rather old and even said he could be wrong as many of the people he knew are either dead or retired so...are these good?

Boston U.

Penn State

University of Virginia

UConn

WashU

American U.

Are these OK? What other schools can you recommended. Here are my "numbers", the are not very good: 3.85 GPA with a 3.9 GPA in just history classes. So far, I have an A in all of the honors college courses in my school. I know I can get at least one very strong and one strong letters of recommendation(One from the assistant dean of my school's honors college and one from the academic director of the said college). While the academic director has a Phd in history the assistant dean does not. So I will need a letter from my history department but I feel only one prof. there can write a letter for me and it may not even be that good. My GRE scores are abysmal too :( 570V 520Q 5.0AW. I really believe in my writing sample though. Also, I am fortunate that I have done and am doing a good amount of research in my general area. I have done a short research paper last semester about the U.S. politics of lend-lease and am doing a thesis over this semester and next about Cordell Hull, Joseph Grew and Japan(I do not want to go into details now).

Ok so what should I do? What are good programs and schools? Should I even waste my money on one Ivy? Thanks so much and don't be too harsh on me! I am so happy to have found a forum like this!

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Except for the GRE score, I don't see what's wrong with what you have. Not all, but some, schools have an unofficial GRE cutoff of 1200. But it's October--you have plenty of time to take it again before most app deadlines, yes?

As far as subfield goes: it is *usually*--not always, but usually--possible to switch subfields once you get to a school, if there is no one there working on your new interest enough to advise a dissertation, you might be out of luck. (Someone else is going to post on this thread about how there are ways around that. This is true, but they are often complicated and it may not work out in the end).

Letters of recommendation...it doesn't matter all that much what department your profs come from (um, within certain limits). What's important is that you get profs who know you and who will write you stellar LORs. If the prof is a Big Important Name in her field, it will help at some schools.

To look for programs, a good way to start is to look at what recent books and journal articles have inspired you. What book do you wish you had written? Which articles? Who are the most important scholars in your sub-subfield? Find out where those profs teach! (Google is your friend). That's the program you want to be at, not a random Ivy just for the name on the diploma.

Also, consider applying to a few MA programs as well. PhD admission rates in the humanities suck in general. If this truly is what you want to do with your life (...with every second of your caffeinated, stressed-out, haven't-slept-more-than-4-hours-a-night-since-undergrad, life), hedge your bets.

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Let me add to what Sparky said. Gee, Sparky, we've become veterans... do you think we should get Purple Heart or something from AHA? ;)

To OP,

First of all, change your attitude about the numbers. Once you're in the PhD program, nobody cares. Unless you're surrounded by people who only make a 4.0, your GPA is comparably very high and just right in the barrel. I'm jealous, honestly. Your GRE scores are decent and should at least keep you within reach for departmental funding.

Second, you do need to choose ONE geographical field. That means if you pick US history (the most competitive), you should really stick with it. You can switch thematic issues (political to cultural) or time periods (say to 18th century if there's someone doing colonial America), not geography. However, if you're concerned about switching over to Europe, definitely apply to American, they train everyone to deal with both fairly equally, and don't really care.

Third, unless you truly are an amazing writer, I would A) polish your most recent research paper (with primary sources!), not your still-working thesis or B) Put off a year and submit your highly polished, "I need sunglasses" shiny thesis if you feel very strongly about using your thesis. I say this because writing sample is, if not the most important, is one of the top 3 factors in determining admissions. They look for excellent writing, strong use and analysis of primary sources, and originality of the topic and approach. They are all signs of a potential scholar.

Fourth, as of your list of schools, I noticed that they all seem to center around mid-Atlantic. Why? Is that your personal preference? I'm also guessing it has to do with your current undergraduate's location. Departments tend to know each other regionally, not so much nationally because of regional conferences. You'll want to do more research to diversify your list a bit more and make sure you're not leaving out any other schools that are going to be great fit. Ivies might not be good fits so don't do it just for prestige. Look all over but use Sparky's suggestions to look up historians who have inspired you and where they got their PhD from, not just where they're currently teaching. In academia, it's about lineage.

Fifth, LORs. It's about connections and how well professors think of you as a potential scholar. A big name who's just a professor in the department is better than a little-known name who's the dean. Start making friends with professors now in courses you've done well in and who came from graduate programs that you're interested in applying to, especially for US history. Be warned though, they'll tell you that US historians, along with modern Europeanists, have the worst job market and that either you shouldn't go for PhD just to be in academia, or keep your eyes WIDE open and be open to all possibilities that one can do with a history PhD. (American University and GWU would be excellent for opportunities beyond academia because they have a lot of connection with the government in DC for fantastic research opportunities.)

I'm just a little worried about you rushing into all of this as it seems like from the way you wrote your post. As Sparky said, you're welcome to try for PhD this year but if you're determined to go to grad school next fall, apply for funded MA programs.

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Except for the GRE score, I don't see what's wrong with what you have. Not all, but some, schools have an unofficial GRE cutoff of 1200. But it's October--you have plenty of time to take it again before most app deadlines, yes?

As far as subfield goes: it is *usually*--not always, but usually--possible to switch subfields once you get to a school, if there is no one there working on your new interest enough to advise a dissertation, you might be out of luck. (Someone else is going to post on this thread about how there are ways around that. This is true, but they are often complicated and it may not work out in the end).

Letters of recommendation...it doesn't matter all that much what department your profs come from (um, within certain limits). What's important is that you get profs who know you and who will write you stellar LORs. If the prof is a Big Important Name in her field, it will help at some schools.

To look for programs, a good way to start is to look at what recent books and journal articles have inspired you. What book do you wish you had written? Which articles? Who are the most important scholars in your sub-subfield? Find out where those profs teach! (Google is your friend). That's the program you want to be at, not a random Ivy just for the name on the diploma.

Also, consider applying to a few MA programs as well. PhD admission rates in the humanities suck in general. If this truly is what you want to do with your life (...with every second of your caffeinated, stressed-out, haven't-slept-more-than-4-hours-a-night-since-undergrad, life), hedge your bets.

Ahh but I am not so good at standardized tests. There is a very good chance I could do worse.

Well the problem is this: I do not mind having a specialization throughout grad school but I do not want to have to write about one thing forever for my whole career. If this is a foolish notion I suppose I can rid it from my mind but this is just the way I feel right now.

Understood.

Understood. I have a question concerning this but I will save it for the end.

What is good assurance that one will be accepted? Are there statistics anywhere on the average #s of grad students that are not rejected?

Let me add to what Sparky said. Gee, Sparky, we've become veterans... do you think we should get Purple Heart or something from AHA? ;)

To OP,

First of all, change your attitude about the numbers. Once you're in the PhD program, nobody cares. Unless you're surrounded by people who only make a 4.0, your GPA is comparably very high and just right in the barrel. I'm jealous, honestly. Your GRE scores are decent and should at least keep you within reach for departmental funding.

Second, you do need to choose ONE geographical field. That means if you pick US history (the most competitive), you should really stick with it. You can switch thematic issues (political to cultural) or time periods (say to 18th century if there's someone doing colonial America), not geography. However, if you're concerned about switching over to Europe, definitely apply to American, they train everyone to deal with both fairly equally, and don't really care.

Third, unless you truly are an amazing writer, I would A) polish your most recent research paper (with primary sources!), not your still-working thesis or B) Put off a year and submit your highly polished, "I need sunglasses" shiny thesis if you feel very strongly about using your thesis. I say this because writing sample is, if not the most important, is one of the top 3 factors in determining admissions. They look for excellent writing, strong use and analysis of primary sources, and originality of the topic and approach. They are all signs of a potential scholar.

Fourth, as of your list of schools, I noticed that they all seem to center around mid-Atlantic. Why? Is that your personal preference? I'm also guessing it has to do with your current undergraduate's location. Departments tend to know each other regionally, not so much nationally because of regional conferences. You'll want to do more research to diversify your list a bit more and make sure you're not leaving out any other schools that are going to be great fit. Ivies might not be good fits so don't do it just for prestige. Look all over but use Sparky's suggestions to look up historians who have inspired you and where they got their PhD from, not just where they're currently teaching. In academia, it's about lineage.

Fifth, LORs. It's about connections and how well professors think of you as a potential scholar. A big name who's just a professor in the department is better than a little-known name who's the dean. Start making friends with professors now in courses you've done well in and who came from graduate programs that you're interested in applying to, especially for US history. Be warned though, they'll tell you that US historians, along with modern Europeanists, have the worst job market and that either you shouldn't go for PhD just to be in academia, or keep your eyes WIDE open and be open to all possibilities that one can do with a history PhD. (American University and GWU would be excellent for opportunities beyond academia because they have a lot of connection with the government in DC for fantastic research opportunities.)

I'm just a little worried about you rushing into all of this as it seems like from the way you wrote your post. As Sparky said, you're welcome to try for PhD this year but if you're determined to go to grad school next fall, apply for funded MA programs.

You are jealous? I am shocked because I honestly thought that a lot more people applying to grad school had a 4.0! I guess I was wrong. What was your GPA and what school did you get into, if you don't mind telling?

I would always stay american. See what I wrote above: " I do not mind having a specialization throughout grad school but I do not want to have to write about one thing forever for my whole career. If this is a foolish notion I suppose I can rid it from my mind but this is just the way I feel right now."

I have been polishing the research paper since August in anticipation for grad school and it is based on at least 50% primary sources. I am not going to say what proffs have said in the past but lets just say I am confident about it, but not arrogant.

Yes I live on the eastern seaboard. But is it not possible for a good historian to work at an average program? How do I really know what is good and what is bad beyond name recognition?

Yes proffs I have told have made attempts to dissuade me from the profession, just like Rabbis try to dissuade people from converting to Judaism to see if they are really committed. Funny you should say that because it was those Universities I least wanted to go to as I heard Washington D.C. is a crime ridden dump in all non-tourist areas.

I have been preparing things since August, I just found the site a couple of days ago though and wanted to see what you all thought. If I understood their website correctly, Penn State puts people who are pursuing a phd into a masters program first and all applicants that make it get at least four years of funding. I will consider other programs but I have heard that MA programs are a waste of time since many Phd programs dont take any transfer credit for them and basically dont acknowledge that you even did them.

Also, I wanted to say:

1. Where are there rankings for the sub-fields of history? The U.S. news and world report only lists 11 or so schools. U. Virginia is on the list. There are other schools on the list I don't have on my "to apply" list. Should I apply there despite a professor not explicitly telling me to apply there? This brings me to my 2nd question...

2. I read a post here that said it was impossible to get a job as a prof if you did not go to a school that was in the top 20. If I do not get into U. Virginia what should I do? It is the 20th overall for history, 8th in Modern U.S. history(according to US news).

Thanks a lot guys!

Edited by Rosenphelia Godot
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You are jealous? I am shocked because I honestly thought that a lot more people applying to grad school had a 4.0! I guess I was wrong. What was your GPA and what school did you get into, if you don't mind telling?

Look at my signature for my statistics in terms of admissions. 2007 was just my senior year of undergraduate and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing! 2010 was my second year of my MA program and I limited my list for a particular reason. Stupid mistake but I didn't have enough languages to feel confident to add more schools that would demand German. Both time I had sent in *slightly* messy thesis for writing sample, hence my warning for a very polished sample. My GPA isn't high as yours but I make up for it with extremely strong research, hard work, perseverance, and more importantly, high respect from my professors which 2 of my LOR writers have heavy political clout.

Yes I live on the eastern seaboard. But is it not possible for a good historian to work at an average program? How do I really know what is good and what is bad beyond name recognition?

You do research on professors' books and CVs. See how they write- is their writing and organization the kind you want to see in your dissertation? See what they've done in terms of books, articles, fellowships, etc. If you can get a hold of a graduate student's CV, you'll see how well the program's doing for that student. You look at job placements. You look at the requirements for PhD. You DO want to find a FIT, whether the program's great or just average. It has been said on these forums that if you wind up in a lower ranking program that's less competitive but starving for students, has money to give away, and a very proactive adviser, you might actually be more productive in that program than in a highly competitive program where the competition between graduate students for funding and adviser's time is cut-throat and it's easy to get distracted by those. Right now, focus on applying to programs that fits your needs and interests.

Funny you should say that because it was those Universities I least wanted to go to as I heard Washington D.C. is a crime ridden dump in all non-tourist areas.

Goodness. DC is great! I spent 2 summers interning there and go back when I have a chance to visit friends and family. There wasn't a time that I didn't feel unsafe. DC's done a lot to clean up the city and now the crime's gotten much lower except in far NE DC but there's nothing up there anyway. Yes, even at 3 AM, DC is hopping and you're actually safer walking on the streets than going down underground on the Metro. I'm sure my uncle still wished that I wouldn't run on Rock Creek Parkway but didn't complain because I've come to his house unscathed. :D

I have been preparing things since August, I just found the site a couple of days ago though and wanted to see what you all thought. If I understood their website correctly, Penn State puts people who are pursuing a phd into a masters program first and all applicants that make it get at least four years of funding. I will consider other programs but I have heard that MA programs are a waste of time since many Phd programs dont take any transfer credit for them and basically dont acknowledge that you even did them.

Still. Apply to a couple of MAs anyway if you're really set on going somewhere. PhD programs will be impressed if you can get into a funded MA anyway because it shows that you were very highly qualified to begin with to get competitive funding. As for course credits, in general, PhD programs will allow a semester's worth. Few will do a year. It's worth doing coursework at the PhD institution anyway because you get to know the faculty members you'll need for your committee. So from this perspective, it's worthwhile to do the MA over again in some ways. Also, it shows to PhD programs that you've been "broken in" and are going to be likely to stick around to finish the degree because A) You've gotten to know the unwritten rules of academia, B) know what it's like to complete a MA thesis and won't mind writing a dissertation, C) Can handle the rigor of graduate school and D) you've proven yourself to be a capable student (not that you aren't anyway). Some professors do actually prefer MA students because they're more mature and trustworthy and don't want to deal with "I-Don't-Know-What-The-Hell-I'm-Supposed-to-Do!!!" students who require TLC to survive. I don't think MY MA hurts me as I've been conversing with potential advisers over the last few weeks because I can really "talk shop" with them about research, graduate school/program, academia, and the like. It also helps to have a "Big Name" to give you some political clout. So choose your MA programs carefully. It varies by PhD programs so it's a hit-or-miss, depending what you've done with your MA degree.

My best advice about MA programs is write down 3 goals what you hope to get out of a MA program that will make you a stronger applicant for PhD. If you can't figure out what could potentially be wrong with your application that can't be rectified on your own, then the MA's not worth pursuing.

As for sub-field rankings, ignore those. Find those big-wigs as they're likely to influence the quality of training and coursework in their departments.

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@ ticklemepink

Tell me about it. We should get special avatars or something.

@ OP:

Piece of advice #1, 2, 3, *and* 4:

Forget about the US News "rankings."

The USN&WR grad school rankings are a joke. Look up the "top 10" African history programs on their list...then go to the websites of those schools and count how many of them actually offer a PhD track in African history. And nobody's going to bother to rank "mid-20th century U.S. cultural history with an emphasis on the intersection of race and disability" programs.

The way you find the best program for YOU is to find where Professor Rockstar teaches. The name of your dissertation advisor can be very, very important in the job search, just as if not more important than school name. If you try to look for schools based on what is "good," you are much less likely to end up applying to places where you are a good fit; if you are not a good fit at a school that is anywhere near the top 10, you won't get in. (And even if you did, once you got there you'd probably be miserable).

Example: the philosophy PhD from the school where I got my MA (not in philo) has maybe a 35 or 40% job placement rate, in a good year. Students who study medieval philosophy (a.k.a. do-you-want-fries-with-that) under Prof. Rockstar have about a 95% placement rate. This is not on the website. People know this because they know she is Prof. Rockstar, and would be worth it even if she were at Northern South Dakota State. And 95% is a hell of a lot better than you're going to see people for people coming out of [ivy] with Dr. McMediocre as their advisor.

There is no such thing as "good assurance" that you won't be rejected. Any PhD program that accepts a pleasant percentage of applicants is not a program from which you want to have a diploma. UT Austin last year, for example--they have 12 subfields, right? They accepted seven people. That means that if you applied for, say, Asian history, but they had already decided not to offer a spot to anyone applying for Asian, you could be the awesomest candidate ever and you still wouldn't get in. And so on. Larger programs will of course accept more than one person per subfield (so, maybe...two?), but those programs will also likely have more applicants. The admission rates listed on any site besides the school's webpage (and the ones bandered about on TGC from last year) are inaccurate, out of date, or both. And it's meaningless to talk about a "program" acceptance rate when at most schools you're competing only against people applying to your subfield. If they get 200 applicants for U.S. and 20 for Africa, and can take one student per subfield...see what I mean?

As far as switching fields once you have a job goes...well, the university would hire you to teach and research 20th century U.S. So sure, you could go from, I don't know, 1920s intellectual history to 1960s economic...but in order to get tenure, and then promotions (assuming you get tenure!), you have to build up a solid body of scholarship, which means concentrating in one area. Once you are Peter Brown or Caroline Walker Bynum, then maybe you can start to think about stretching your metaphorical wings...but then again, look at what Bynum has published: female saints, invention of the individual, monasticism, blood cults, resurrection of the body, werewolves...ALL of those still fall under "later medieval cultural history".

"Terminal MA" programs are different from "PhD programs where they give you an MA after you pass comps." We are telling you to apply to at least some of the former. No, your credits are not likely to "transfer." But for goodness sake--you're getting paid to go to class and talk about what you love. Why on Earth would you want to rush through that?!?! My current program grants a master's on the way to the PhD. Every single student here had at least one master's degree before they came. You might be able to test out of survey classes--but come on! If you're at a school that has Dr. FitzAwesomeness, take advantage of it!!!

If that doesn't sound like a dream come true to you--if you don't understand the emotion with which I am typing all of those exclamation marks--if you don't have a research area that makes you pant like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally...there's no point.

Here is one final piece of advice for now:

ticklemepink and I don't always agree, but when we DO agree, I don't think we've ever been wrong.

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:blink:

{a} Seriously? You don't know who the top people in your general field are?

{b} Who advises you and who you mention as major influences in your SOP are two different things. My advisor is Bruce Springsteen; in my SOP I think I mentioned Jimi Hendrix and Two Steps From Hell (i.e. one huge star; one who has made a giant contribution to the field overall but is often unacknowledged and/or ignored--except by you, of course). Like that.

{c} Ask your current/former profs who work in the same area, or anything remotely close. They will know. (I bet you couldn't find three professors of European Late Antique history who don't know who Peter Brown is. Heck, I don't know if you could find three undergraduates studying Late Antiquity who don't know who Peter Brown is).

{d} Go on Dissertation Full Texts & Abstracts (database) and look up a recent dissertation on something related to your topic. Chances are it will have a lit review at the beginning in which the person will acknowledge the top scholars.

{e} Who wrote the textbooks for your classes? Who wrote the articles your profs assign as homework?

{f} Footnotes of an article, especially the first couple, which often are a billion miles long and contain a lit review. Some articles will even have a "Any work in hocus pocus of course owes a significant debt to Mandrake the Magician" etc.

{g} Who have you cited in *all* your papers in this field?

{h} Who wins the book awards in your field?

{i} I know this isn't what you want to hear, but: if you don't know who The Superstars in your field are, you probably shouldn't be looking at PhD programs.

ETA 'cause I don't know the alphabet, apparently.

Edited by Sparky
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@Sparky, that was one of the best rants posts I've seen :)

@OP,

How do you identify the most popular kid at school? You've seen Mean Girls, right? No, let's assume that you do watch Glee. You want to be like Finn (or Cady on Mean Girls). You don't want to be anyone else.

A) S/he is extremely well known, even by those who hide in the basement (trying to avoid the bullies).

B. People look up to them because they know what's going on around the school because they interact with literally everyone.

C) They're generally respected by teachers who push them to do better.

Let's take it to academia.

A) Person is well-known because of her/his involvement in talks, conferences, and residences as fellows when they're on fellowships (look for a comprehensive CV)

B. Person is cited quite often because of his or her expertise on the subject (Check your books' footnotes! Who are the most referred?)

C) They're respected by senior faculty and peers (Ask your professors who they respect and why!)

They have great political influence which will help a lot in the job market and grants (as Sparky noted about the Philosophy professor). It can be difficult when you haven't read enough in the field so hit the library and the Internet.

Be cautious though, sometimes they actually make lousy professors/advisers but that's when you talk to graduate students to validate the Rockstar's ability to teach. Recent PhDs will tell you that it's better to have someone who's actually better at teaching than research. It's very difficult to survive academia without a couple of excellent mentors and you just need to seek out people who are will to help you succeed. They are the reasons why I'm back for this cycle and battling again.

Sparky made an excellent about subfields. I was in a tricky position, hence, my mixed results. At some schools, they considered me as an Americanist because they solely operate on geography, meaning I was up against 100+ other people for 2-3 spots, just because it's where most of my training has been in even if I expressed interest in Europe or Latin America. Others actually have spots for my thematic subfield but that's just 1 spot (or none at all in a bad year!) and I'll be up against, you know, say 10 people or something. Also, departments can't predict at this time who they'll need for next fall. Last year, Latin Americanists and Early Americanists did great because departments needed new graduate students in those areas. I know of a student who applied to Michigan twice. First year, her application just wasn't that competitive but they liked her. Second year, she was extremely competitive but they didn't need another person in American labor history. You can't predict and that's why Sparky and I (and other veterans) are telling you to apply widely to cover your bases a bit.

So, really, you need to prepare yourself emotionally too that you might not have a basket full of acceptances for a variety of reasons, especially department politics. Department politics do hurt the most of all because they affect both the applicant and the professor. They were the culprit of my waitlists and one rejection as the DGS of each school said that there was absolutely nothing wrong with my application and there was nothing I could do to make it better. My advisers at those schools were not happy in their e-mails back to me, meaning that they had fought very hard for me but lost their battles. I was seriously devastated.

Like I said, keep your eyes open, be prepared for any possibilities, and just pray a lot. A lot.

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UVA is having epic and well known funding problems, so I am not saying drop them, but you should take that into consideration. Have you thought about U Chicago one of my 20th century profs got his PhD there, and another got hers at Yale. You do need to get your GRE up a bit (I know its stupid and says nothing about your actual ability but it is the way it is) and the kaplan course, although expensive, helped me a lot (like about 200 total points). You may also want to look at Maryland which is a solid program with some decent 20th century people and Johns Hopkins, and what about Georgetown (if you have a midatlantic fetish).

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