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Chances of Getting into a PHD program for History?


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I am currently a senior at Penn State, University Park. My overall undergraduate GPA is a 3.6 (it's a little lower since I got a D my freshman year in a calc class), My GPA in History in a 3.85, and I scored a 1300 (700 V, 600 Q) on the GRE. I speak fluent French and hope to study French History.

I have decent letters of rec, done an internship with a museum, and participated in research with a comparative lit professor (a little off but topic, I know).

Is this a realistic goal for me?

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IMO, the biggest obstacle you'll face is the fact that you've not written an undergraduate thesis. You will be competing against applicants that will have written two (senior and honor theses) if not more (if they double majored). When submitted as a writing sample, the thesis serves as a primary indicator of an applicant's ability to do historical research and writing at the graduate level. Moreover, some applicants will have attended undergraduate institutions where the requirements for the senior thesis are very demanding. (That is, the specific elements of a thesis are laid out in great detail and the courses carry more units.)

Were I in your position, I would first determine if it is possible to participate in the honors program--even if that means extending your stay at Penn State another year. Concurrently, I'd initiate conversations with the younger professors of your department. I would focus part of the discussion around their experiences as graduate school and there sense of how well Penn State prepares history majors to go on to graduate school. As you might hear something you really won't like, keep a poker face. By that same measure, you may hear something really neat, like "Hey, kenningsa, why not stay here?"

Meanwhile, I'd consult a printed copy of the AHA's directory of history departments. In addition to looking for departments that might be a good fit (based upon your interests), pay attention to professors who did their undergraduate and graduate work at Penn State. If you do this carefully, you'll start to see a "water finds its own level" dynamic. That is, professors at the top schools often do their graduate and undergraduate work at top tier schools. The purpose of seeing how this dynamic plays out for Penn State is to develop a list of potential programs on a similar tier. From this tier, you may be able to identify programs that are a good fit and you may have a better chance of gaining admission. (To be clear, do not let anyone deter you from applying to a least one top program. Someone is going to be that 1%-er who defied the odds. Why shouldn't that person be you?)

I also recommend you speak to the professors you have in mind to write your LoRs. Find a way to have discussions that can inspire them to write letters that are more than "decent."

HTH.

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IMO, the biggest obstacle you'll face is the fact that you've not written an undergraduate thesis. You will be competing against applicants that will have written two (senior and honor theses) if not more (if they double majored). When submitted as a writing sample, the thesis serves as a primary indicator of an applicant's ability to do historical research and writing at the graduate level. Moreover, some applicants will have attended undergraduate institutions where the requirements for the senior thesis are very demanding. (That is, the specific elements of a thesis are laid out in great detail and the courses carry more units.)

Were I in your position, I would first determine if it is possible to participate in the honors program--even if that means extending your stay at Penn State another year. Concurrently, I'd initiate conversations with the younger professors of your department. I would focus part of the discussion around their experiences as graduate school and there sense of how well Penn State prepares history majors to go on to graduate school. As you might hear something you really won't like, keep a poker face. By that same measure, you may hear something really neat, like "Hey, kenningsa, why not stay here?"

Meanwhile, I'd consult a printed copy of the AHA's directory of history departments. In addition to looking for departments that might be a good fit (based upon your interests), pay attention to professors who did their undergraduate and graduate work at Penn State. If you do this carefully, you'll start to see a "water finds its own level" dynamic. That is, professors at the top schools often do their graduate and undergraduate work at top tier schools. The purpose of seeing how this dynamic plays out for Penn State is to develop a list of potential programs on a similar tier. From this tier, you may be able to identify programs that are a good fit and you may have a better chance of gaining admission. (To be clear, do not let anyone deter you from applying to a least one top program. Someone is going to be that 1%-er who defied the odds. Why shouldn't that person be you?)

I also recommend you speak to the professors you have in mind to write your LoRs. Find a way to have discussions that can inspire them to write letters that are more than "decent."

HTH.

Thanks for the advice, that is more or less what I thought. Maybe I'll just go to Law School lol.

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Thanks for the advice, that is more or less what I thought. Maybe I'll just go to Law School lol.

An alternative to extending your study by a year would be to ask a professor to informally mentor you as you write a research paper of your own the summer after you graduate. This time frame is doable (especially if you start research now and devote the summer to writing); I, for example, wrote my senior thesis in one semester. Make sure to thank the professor a lot.

Edited by qbtacoma
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The advice I've always heard is that if you can conceivably imagine yourself happily doing something other than the work of a professional historian, then do that. If you can imagine yourself working as a lawyer, then do that rather than history graduate school. It's something that will test your resolve, and in the dark night of the aspiring historian's soul, there's no room for the question, "What if I had done law school instead?".

Sigaba, I usually admire your posts on this board, but it seems to me as if you've placed a bit too much emphasis on the role of an applicant's undergraduate institution during the admissions process. I would argue that the individual's preparation and hard work are far more important. My guess is that undergraduates at Penn State have gone to upper-tier graduate programs, as well as mid- and lower-tier programs, based on their independent qualifications. Perhaps I'm just reading your post wrong.

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Well I could Imagine myself doing something else... being a lawyer being one of them. Thanks for your advice

The advice I've always heard is that if you can conceivably imagine yourself happily doing something other than the work of a professional historian, then do that. If you can imagine yourself working as a lawyer, then do that rather than history graduate school. It's something that will test your resolve, and in the dark night of the aspiring historian's soul, there's no room for the question, "What if I had done law school instead?".

Sigaba, I usually admire your posts on this board, but it seems to me as if you've placed a bit too much emphasis on the role of an applicant's undergraduate institution during the admissions process. I would argue that the individual's preparation and hard work are far more important. My guess is that undergraduates at Penn State have gone to upper-tier graduate programs, as well as mid- and lower-tier programs, based on their independent qualifications. Perhaps I'm just reading your post wrong.

Thanks for your advice guys. I could imagine myself doing other things...

Still would my GPA and not having an honors thesis make this goal impossible? I mean I do have a 20 page writing sample I wrote on The Boer War Concentration Camps for which I received an A.

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Still would my GPA and not having an honors thesis make this goal impossible? I mean I do have a 20 page writing sample I wrote on The Boer War Concentration Camps for which I received an A.

If the paper demonstrates a high level of ability in primary source research, historical analysis, critical thinking, writing, and a serviceable grasp of the topic's historiography, it may be good to go.

The GPA may not be as useful given the ongoing concerns with grade inflation.

Your disclosure that you can imagine yourself doing other things may be problematic for you. You will be competing against applicants who cannot see themselves as doing anything but professional academic history. Before starting this process, I urge you to explore your motivation and your goals. Or, at the very least, make sure you understand the difference between dedication and commitment.

(When you sit down to a breakfast of ham and eggs, the chicken is dedicated but the pig is committed.)

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Well I could Imagine myself doing something else... being a lawyer being one of them. Thanks for your advice

Thanks for your advice guys. I could imagine myself doing other things...

Still would my GPA and not having an honors thesis make this goal impossible? I mean I do have a 20 page writing sample I wrote on The Boer War Concentration Camps for which I received an A.

I'm not sure I see why it's unrealistic for you to get into a Ph.D program. Your GPA is still competitive, and some schools (like mine) don't even have an honours thesis option. That has not gotten in the way of graduates from my institution getting into top Ph.D programs.

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I'm not sure I see why it's unrealistic for you to get into a Ph.D program. Your GPA is still competitive, and some schools (like mine) don't even have an honours thesis option. That has not gotten in the way of graduates from my institution getting into top Ph.D programs.

Thank you :)

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your GPA is fine. don't worry about it. i know people who went to schools with honors programs and chose not to do them, and they got into plenty of schools. one of them got into (and then rejected) harvard. so... don't sweat it.

you DO need your writing sample to be a historical essay where you're using primary sources. if you can take a research seminar or an undergrad class that has a research paper as an assignment, and then just edit it a lot before submitting applications, you'll be fine. even without those options, you can ask a prof you guide you through a research paper informally during the year (probably not during the summer. they might be out of town or doing research themselves). so, as long as you can get your writing sample in order, you're still competitive for programs.

i think people on this board forget that not everyone picked their college knowing they wanted a PhD and not everyone has groomed themselves from the first day of undergrad to get into a graduate program.

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Yes, I mean I understand that graduate school takes a lot of work and resolve. It's certainly a big commitment, and the decision to go shouldn't be taken lightly but I think a few people have been a little over dramatic... I'm really just looking for advice as to whether or not i could get in so thank you very much :).

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@Morgan18 In my own experience, I've seen how professors treat graduate students who have gone to a top undergraduate institution as opposed to those students who have not. Part of this difference is because of the reputation of some programs. Another part has to do with how some departments want to be perceived. Yet another part has to do with the broader goals a university may have to keep up with its "comparable institutions" and/or to move up a tier. (If you're working a teaching assistant when your department and/or parent institution decides it wants to improve its ranking you may find a drastic increase in your work load as you're tasked to hold undergraduates to a higher level of standards.)

But largely, this dynamic is about the persistence of the assumption that pedigree is a good indicator of future performance. I am not saying that this is the way it should be but the way it is.

Moreover, professors have to do a lot of committee work. For a variety of reasons many academics resent such obligations--even when that work is directly related to the future of the historical profession or the financial well being of their institution. I have attended "job talks" in which professors were under-prepared and facility planning meetings in which professors were entirely unprepared. When it comes to candidates for graduate work as well as for professorships, an accepted way of streamlining this process is to assume that the best candidates come from the best schools and/or specialize in certain types of history. (IMO, this approach has many pitfalls--not the least of which are departmental collegiality and the focus on what is most important--the teaching and mentoring of undergraduate history majors.)

@StrangeLight You may be misreading some of those posts.

@kenningsa Members of this BB have done their best to provide you with answers to your questions. IMO, it is exceptionally bad form on your part to ask for guidance and then to get snarky about the advice you receive. :rolleyes:

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Kenningsa--

Keep your options open. If you're serious about getting a PhD in History, don't apply right after undergraduate, and spend that time preparing your application. Learn a language or two. Consider a MA program. Since youre a Pennsylvania resident, you can go to Temple (which is well respected in certain fields) and it is relatively cheap. They should let you do a MA thesis there, and if you do that well enough--meaning get it published in a respected journal or present it in conferences--then that would really help you.

Plus, a MA at a cheap state school is about the cost of one semester of law school. Look at the job market for lawyers right now. Its atrocious. Law schools have been fudging their employment statistics. Unless you go to Harvard, Stanford, or Yale, you're basically SOL. I think the advice for prospective law students should be the same for prospective history professors: only do it if thats the only thing you could conceive yourself doing. Open up the yellow pages and see how many lawyers there are. Imagine competing against that, plus with 6 figures in debt.

Regarding your undergraduate institution, its not the most important part of your application, and you can't change it, so don't worry about it too much.

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Haha Cooperstreet... my first thoughts when I started reading articles regarding law schools' practices, I thought, "wow... now who's more ethical? I think PhD programs in the humanities are..." Speak for themselves! :)

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@Sigaba: I meant no offense, but I do think you're putting a little too much weight on the institution. I admit that I am not an exceptional candidate from Penn State, but there are others who are and I believe that they would have a good shot at top tier programs. What you are saying however makes some sense, and I thank you for your advice. I was by in no way thinking that I had a shot at elite phd programs. I guess they are all elite, in a way, though.

@cooperstreet: Yes that is the problem with law, and why I was gravitating towards graduate school. The MA would probably be the best way to go since my undergraduate record, while solid, is by no means exceptional. Plus I could see if a phd was really something I wanted to pursue.

@ticklemepink: I think I will heed you advce and wait a year. Graduate school is a big commitment and nothing that I should rush into.

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@Sigaba: I was by in no way thinking that I had a shot at elite phd programs. I guess they are all elite, in a way, though.

Er, I should have been clearer (or less parenthetical) when I said:

(To be clear, do not let anyone deter you from applying to a least one top program. Someone is going to be that 1%-er who defied the odds. Why shouldn't that person be you?)

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Kenningsa--

Keep your options open. If you're serious about getting a PhD in History, don't apply right after undergraduate, and spend that time preparing your application. Learn a language or two. Consider a MA program. Since youre a Pennsylvania resident, you can go to Temple (which is well respected in certain fields) and it is relatively cheap. They should let you do a MA thesis there, and if you do that well enough--meaning get it published in a respected journal or present it in conferences--then that would really help you.

Plus, a MA at a cheap state school is about the cost of one semester of law school. Look at the job market for lawyers right now. Its atrocious. Law schools have been fudging their employment statistics. Unless you go to Harvard, Stanford, or Yale, you're basically SOL. I think the advice for prospective law students should be the same for prospective history professors: only do it if thats the only thing you could conceive yourself doing. Open up the yellow pages and see how many lawyers there are. Imagine competing against that, plus with 6 figures in debt.

Regarding your undergraduate institution, its not the most important part of your application, and you can't change it, so don't worry about it too much.

This is an excellent post.

Another thing to consider would be spending a few years abroad. Try working in France for a few years. Perhaps this is easier in Asia, where English teaching jobs abound, but it is another thing you can do to at least look into. If you are interested in French colonialism, you could probably go to Vietnam or Morocco without too much trouble.

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What lustforlife said.

On a more personal level, live it up. A phd program is a lot of solitary, intellectual work. Travel if you can. Take a one way ticket to Europe and figure out what you'll do when you get there. You're going to have a lot more life obligations when you get older, so its going to be a lot harder in your future to say, ride a motorcycle across the country.

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@Sigaba: I meant no offense, but I do think you're putting a little too much weight on the institution. I admit that I am not an exceptional candidate from Penn State, but there are others who are and I believe that they would have a good shot at top tier programs. What you are saying however makes some sense, and I thank you for your advice. I was by in no way thinking that I had a shot at elite phd programs. I guess they are all elite, in a way, though.

@cooperstreet: Yes that is the problem with law, and why I was gravitating towards graduate school. The MA would probably be the best way to go since my undergraduate record, while solid, is by no means exceptional. Plus I could see if a phd was really something I wanted to pursue.

If funding is not an issue than an MA might be the way to go. That said, I am living proof that your undergrad institution is much less a factor than most people think, including Sigaba (IMHO).

I started at a community college and finished at a four-year city-based regional, commuter college and now I'm doing my PhD at Yale. I worried about my undergrad institution hurting me initially, but, in fact, three people from my undergrad history department got into Yale (2) and one to Princeton. One got into Michigan and another to KU, and the year before one got into Harvard. All funded PhDs, not MAs.

My sense is that Ivy League-type schools welcome candidates from outside the usual suspects especially as a means of diversifying cohorts. That said, the majority of my cohort here are from top undergrads (Stanford, Berkely, Columbia, etc...). Nevertheless, your undergrad institution's reputation will not take away from the quality of your work, which is why your writing sample and SOP need to be as strong as possible.

All this is not to say that pedigree plays no role. It does, though I think that it is diminishing. Either way, the doors to top PhD programs are absolutely NOT closed to worthy candidates from mid, lower, or even unranked public colleges and universities.

Edited by natsteel
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