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Latin American history chances in top 10


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Hey guys,

Though I feel somewhat confident about my course of action, I'd like some feedback on what you think.

I'm applying to do a PhD in LA History, and I'm only applying to schools in the top 20.The thing is, I'm going to apply to a lot of them (UNC, Georgetown, Princeton, Michigan, Wisconsin, Chicago, Vanderbilt, UCLA and Stanford). I've been in contact with professors from each of these schools about research interests and I've received encouragement from almost all. However, they don't know my numbers, so I wanted to ask you guys if I am wasting time or money by applying to all of these programs comsidering the competitiveness, or if I have a decent shot at them. Here are my numbers:

GRE: taking it on Wed but on ETS practice tests I'm consistently between 650-710 Verbal and 580-620 quant.

Top 5 Public school

Majors: History, International Studies

Minor: Spanish

36 hours of courses in Latin American history, culture and politics

Study abroad 1 semester in Mexico

Overall GPA 3.37

J/S year GPA 3.72

History GPA 3.82

Peace corps volunteer in Central America for 1 year

Living in south America at the moment (I've been here for 1 year)

Fluent in Spanish

2 well known Latin Americanists who know me well as recommenders

Thanks for reading all that. So should I apply to these competitive programs or try for something more realistic (if these aren't) ?

Thanks for helping me out.



Edited by Jdealla
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Your profile looks great (and you know it). So the very best in the admissions process!

If spending money on applications is not a big problem (oh wait... Peace Corps ... waiver ... awesome), I'd apply to as many school as I could.

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i'm already in a latin american history program so maybe i can offer a bit of insight.

you look like a good applicant. the spanish proficiency is definitely a bonus, and if you're fluent, find some way to mention that in your SOP. sometimes having 3 or 4 years of college-level courses doesn't necessarily translate as full fluency, so play that up. in PhD programs, you'll need 2 foreign languages (at all the schools you mentioned and any others worth their salt), so if you've already started on your portuguese or french or whatever other relevant language, mention it. if not, don't panic, many students don't have their second language underway before they begin their MAs, but if you do it will be a bonus.

your numbers are good. they are not mind-blowing. when i applied two years ago, i had a 3.7something GPA overall and a 3.9something history GPA from a canadian school that is top 30 in the world, top 2 in canada. my GRE verbal was either 650 or 670 and, like you, i was consistently testing between 650 and 710 on ETS practice tests. i also had LORs from people very well-known in the field. i only applied to a few of the schools on your list because a lot of those schools don't have anyone in my area of interest, but i applied to 9 schools total, many of them "top 10" or "ivy league" or "public ivies," and i didn't get into a lot of them.

why? for one thing, it was the first year in a string of incredibly competitive years, and this year will be no different. some schools are only going to take 1 or 2 latin americanists, if any. others may have the perfect advisor for you, but no other latin americanists on faculty, no other students in your cohort, no courses on your region. you just won't get into those schools regardless of your numbers or your SOP. some of it will come down to luck, and much more of it will come down to your fit with each program. if the fit isn't obvious, you won't get in, even with stellar numbers.

your SOP needs to be really good. pitch them a project that you want to work on. you're not held to it, they just want to see that you CAN conceive of a doable (and worth doing) historical project. pick a country, a time period, a topic, and the sort of questions you want to investigate. mention particular professors at each school, how their work would inform your own (so if you don't know their work, read up!), even mention the school's library collection if they have stuff that you could use in your research. the clearer and the more specific you can be on your potential project, the better you will do.

my honest advice to you is to add 1-3 schools outside of the top 20 that have strong latin american history programs and good potential advisors for your work. get your favourite books off your bookshelf and look at where those scholars are teaching. you'll find that most of them aren't at top 20 schools, but they are at places with good lat-am programs. to avoid getting shut out this year, apply to those places.

also, about "top 20"... what ranking system are you basing that on? US news world rankings? because their rankings are useless. absolutely f'ing useless. they have 2 or 3 schools in the african history program's top 10 that don't offer african history. they put harvard on the top 10 list for latin america when they've only really got one person there (woback) who is willing to advise on a wide variety of projects but... there isn't really much of a "program" with just one guy. princeton's another one, which (unless they've done some recent hires i'm unaware of) only has jeremy adelman. he's great. he's a really nice guy and a solid scholar and also willing to advise far outside of his area, but... one prof can only have so many advisees at a time. you'll be competing with probably 40 other students for 0-2 spots for lat-am history. at michigan, with a much larger program, they've only taken 8-10 students TOTAL a year in recent years (down from 20-30 before the economy got bad), so you'll again be competing for 0-3 spots lat-am spots.

these schools can't tell you now "oh we won't be taking any latin americanists this year, so don't bother" because they don't know themselves yet. there will be long, angry meetings where professors fight for their potential advisees to get that last spot, and department politics will determine who wins and who loses. you have no control over that, so hedge your bets and look to other schools.

ignore the ranking system. just completely ignore it. find where your favourite historians are teaching and see if those schools have good programs. look for latin american studies centers at different schools and then check their history departments to see who they have. with any school, check the job placements for recent lat-am grads. not every school publishes these (especially "top 20" schools, because they do much worse than they want you to know), but it doesn't hurt to ask a prof where the last few lat-am grads were hired.

you're a solid applicant. your numbers are all high enough that these schools will all have serious talks about whether or not to take you. but the numbers alone don't make it. a strong SOP and a clear fit and a bit of luck are all needed to get into any of these places.

i hope some of that rambling helped. :)

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Last year UMich admitted five Latin Americanists, two accepted. I think there were 15 Historians admitted, 5 History/Women studies, 5 Anthro/History, and 2 German/History.

Consider UConn. They have a bunch of LA&C faculty in History, you can also get a funded MA at CLACS. They only have 3 LAists grad students on the books, one of who is defending soon, and they want more.

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i didn't realize michigan had bounced back so nicely. the year before they took 8 students total, and i think one might've been a LAist.

and as long as we're talking top 10/20, i'm surprised duke or yale isn't on the OP's list. i'd also highly recommend NYU, they've got four high quality LAists.

it would be easier to offer up other schools if we knew your area of interest.

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Thanks for the useful information. When first posting I didn't anticipate receiving such a substantive response.

My approach to picking schools was a mix of considerations. Research interests, Latin Americanist faculty members, program prestige and funding. All of the schools that I chose are a fit somehow or another. But before I explain that, why don't I just explain my research interests.

The first one is to look at the independence andpost-independence period, specifically in Nueva Granada and what is now Colombia (where I am now). I'd like to focus on the development of regional identities and therole they played in the lead-up to the independence movements and also theirrole in the political formation of the early republic. Who and which regions were with Simon Bolivar and who were more ideologically aligned with Francisco de Paula Santander? What was the cultural, political and demographic make-up of these regions and their people? Why was each group aligned with who they were aligned with, what were their motives and what were the implications for each region and people after independence? How is this situation related to other regions of Latin America during the same time period?

My second time period of interest is the very-modern period (1900s-present). I have two interests here, one being to focus on the modern history of Brazil's and their recent economic growth,specifically looking at the rise of the middle class and its effect on the country'spolitics, its regional role and its international relationships. The other is to investigate- you guessed it- Colombia, specifically the discrepancy in growth in the country, therole that regional identities have played in that and also its affects onsocial and political development in the country. Also, I would love to digdeeper into the special relationship between Colombia and the United States andhow this relationship has changed Colombia's regional relationships and itseconomic and diplomatic ties.

The schools I've chosen have been based on those interests. Here's how their faculty match up:

I went to UNC-Chapel Hill as an undergrad and I would like to continue my studies with John Chasteen. He'd be great for my first interest- the independence period.

Georgetown has a modern-Brazilianist and an Andeanist with a focus on economic history and inter-american relations.

Princeton has a Colombianist (hard to come by, it seems) in Rob Karl, and 4 other Latin Americanists.

Vanderbilt is huge with 9 LAists

Wisconsin has a diversified staff, ranging from Colonial Andes specialists to Nationalism specialist and a Brazilianist as well.

Michigan also has a large and varied staff with modernists and Brazilianists

Chicago has two modernists, one of them also a Brazilianist with interest in inter-american relations

UCLA has a large program and a Brazilianist who has focused primarily on economic history

Stanford has a Brazilianist and modern economic historians

The reason that Duke isn't on my list is not because I went to UNC, but because I e-mailed Dr. French and he said that they took on 6 students in the LA field last year and it doesn't seem like they are going to be admitting any this year.

Yale isn't on my list because, frankly, I don't think I can get in with my numbers.

I have been on the fence about NYU. They do have a big program with faculty of aligning interests but not as much as the others. Since their deadline is a little later than others (Dec. 15th), I'm going to see how I feel at the end of Nov. and see if I want to fork out the cash and apply.

Thanks for your suggestions Chiba but UConn, though a good program, is focused on the Caribbean, which is not an area of interstest for me.

About the SOP, how detailed do I need to make it? How much more do I have to substantiate than I did in this post? The rest of the SOP isn't giving me trouble, and I feel good about it, but really the research interests- the most important part- is something about which I don't have much of a clue.

Really, I appreciate your help.


Edited by Jdealla
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thanks for the detailed response.

princeton did some hiring recently, it seems. back when i applied two years ago, adelman and lee were the only professors (lee listed under asian history rather than latin american). candiani was a lecturer then, but they've given her an assistant professor gig now, which is good. their program's a lot more substantial now than it was 2 years ago, and does indeed sound like a good fit for you. but.... if you have the numbers for UNC, princeton, michigan, etc. then you have the numbers for yale. and if you don't have the numbers for yale, you don't have the numbers for UNC, princeton, michigan, etc.

i'll again throw out my pitch for NYU (no, i don't go there). barbara weinstein's one of THE brazilianists. greg grandin's a goddamn superstar and while he's known for his work on central america, his most recent work(s) branch out to all of latin america and to brazil/the amazon, particularly relating to US relations and economic development in lat-am (he's currently advising on someone on a 20th century econ development project). ada ferrer works on cuba and haiti, but on issues of independence, which thematically fits with your first topic. it's right on the cusp of the top 20. if you have no aversion to new york city, you might want to check them out.

don't let programs with lots of caribbeanists scare you away. colombia and brazil are both part of the circum-caribbean and if your plan is to study regional difference in colombia, being able to talk about caribbean colombia would be part of that.

mary roldan used to be at cornell (she works on violence and development in 20th century colombia) but she moved a year or two ago. possibly to one of the SUNYs, i'm not sure if her current school has a lat-am program. ann farnsworth is at upenn but they don't really have anyone else there, so you'd be on your own if they took any latin americanist at all. jason mcgraw's at indiana and he works on independence-era colombia. indiana has a huge lat-am program, including people that work on brazil and venezuela, and they do really well for job placements, so i'd look into them too. at northwestern, you've got brodie fischer who works on poverty and citizenship in urban brazil (her husband is emilio kouri, at chicago, FYI). she led a workshop and participated in one of my seminars a few weeks ago, she's lovely and a great scholar. again, go look at your books on colombia and brazil and see where those guys teach.

as for what goes in the SOP... i wish i knew! at the time that i applied, i had 3 possible projects i wanted to work on (not unlike yourself). they all dealt with the same geographical area (central america, so i sympathize with your difficulty in finding colombianists to work with) but my development of the topics was... nebulous at best. i wanted to study struggles for water access. i wanted to study the (lack of) political integration on the caribbean coast of nicaragua during the somoza dynasty. i wanted to study tourism in central america. they all sounded like three different, wide-ranging projects. for some schools, i pitched all three ideas. i didn't get into those schools. :lol: for others, their faculty didn't have (so i thought) people that could advise on any of the three topics, so i picked one and developed it at greater length. for every school where i only pitched one project, i got in with the most competitive funding packages they could offer.

so... just from my personal experience, giving them a range of interests may not be the way to go. do you want to study the 19th or the 20th century? do you want to study macro-economic development and international relations or regional political/economic divisions and internal wealth inequality? brazil or colombia? if you can read portuguese right now, then feel free to pick brazil. if you can't read portuguese and won't be able to read it by the time you enroll (fall 2011) then don't pick brazil. even if you ultimately decide to study brazil once you're in a program, you'll have a hard time getting accepted to these schools if you can't already demonstrate reading proficiency in portuguese.

my suggestion would be to write (slightly) different SOPs for each school. if, at chicago, you want to study with a brazilianist, then pitch your brazil project (just as you did here, but in a little more detail). for the princeton application, pitch your 20th century colombia idea, since karl is a 20th century colombianist. so on and so forth. this will definitely be more work and take up more of your time but i'm fairly certain it'll make you more competitive and yield greater results.

no one really expects you to know exactly what you want to study right now, so you can change your ideas or move around a bit once you're in a program, but to get in, i think it's best to be as clear and focused as possible.

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Really, thank you. I just sent an e-mail to Dr. McGraw at IU. I had overlooked him before when I gave their website an apparently cursory look.

if you have the numbers for UNC, princeton, michigan, etc. then you have the numbers for yale. and if you don't have the numbers for yale, you don't have the numbers for UNC, princeton, michigan, etc.

I guess it's just the name and prestige of the institution as a whole that is intimidating. Really, I consider Princeton to be a stretch. The only reason that I think I have some sort of chance is because Karl is a Colombianist, and I think I can make a pretty good case for being a good candidate to study Colombia.

But, I guess we don't know if I have the numbers for any of them really. I'm assuming my overall GPA is low in comparison to most applicants. I was hoping that my LOR, my undergraduate work and my post-college experiences would help.

I could definitely be proficient in reading Portuguese by August, if not sooner. It's pretty basic right now, but I can manage. I don't know how exactly to frame that in the SOP without saying something like "hey, I want to study Brazil, so accept me and I'll work my ass off and get good at Portuguese in the next 9 months".

So, it looks like I am going to be applying to even more schools, especially if I hear back from McGraw about the state of IU's LA program. I'm going to investigate more on NYU this week.

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Thanks deuterides. Actually, UVA was one of my top choices when I started this process due to Herbert Braun being a Colombianist. I sent him an e-mail a couple of weeks ago and he got back to me and explained that the program was going through some financial problems and that it didn't look probable for this year. I would love to go there for a lot of reasons, academic and personal, but I just don't think applying is worth my time or money considering what he said.

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you're welcome.

if you're looking to cut places, UCLA always struggles with funding and they have so many graduate students that it can be difficult to get to know your cohort or get a lot of time with your advisor, unless they only have 3 advisees or something. i almost applied there myself but didn't because their funding was so rough.

and don't worry about the prestige of yale. their graduates have just as hard a time as anyone else on the market. ;) but if you want brazil and economics, stuart schwartz is your guy. even though he does colonial era, he may be willing to advise on modern brazil (ask him), and if he is... well, he's a great historian. it'd be worth the application, if you can swing the cash.

as for demonstrating that you will eventually be able to read portuguese... i'd say something like "i've done X months/semesters of preparation and will be enrolled in Y classes over the current year, which will make me a proficient reader of portuguese by fall 2011." if you don't have coursework in portuguese and you're teaching yourself how to speak it, do your best to make it sound official... maybe even mention a book that's only been published in portuguese in your SOP to demonstrate that you can actually read it. otherwise, trying to study brazil with no real way to demonstrate that you will be able to read portuguese will definitely hurt you.

good luck!

(also, on the "pitch one project instead of three" thing for your SOP... that's just my opinion based on my own experience. i'm sure other people will tell you schools like to see a range of your interests but... i think that would be taking a risk.)

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Took the GRE today and I did how I expected to do: 650/V and 640/Q.

So now it begins. For the next week I'll be tightening up my SoPs and my writing sample, and sending out transcripts and submitting applications. It looks like I'm going to be applying to a bunch of schools. Maybe March Madness will actually be a relevant term for me this year. At least this will make it interesting.

Thanks for your help Strangelight and everyone else. I'll keep you posted on who I apply to and then on the results.

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