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Hi everyone,

I am a recent graduate from a highly prestigious midwestern university, and am looking into getting my MA or PhD in History in the next year or so. The problem is that I cannot tell if I am competitive for the schools that I am looking at. I was pre-med freshman year, and taking science classes tanked my GPA (I graduated with a 3.5, scraping by with college honors). I also did not write a thesis my senior year.

I am primarily interesting in German history, looking at the intersection between gender, bodily agency, and war, particularly in the context of the WWII-post WWII era. I have fairly strong letters of recommendations from a history professor and a German professor. I'm currently working in an AmeriCorps program, though it isn't related at all to what I've studied. 

I'd like advice on 1) if I should aim for an MA before a PhD, or if I should try for a PhD right away, 2) if I am competitive to the schools that I am looking at, and 3) what I can do to make myself more competitive.

The programs I'm looking at:

UNC-Chapel Hill/Duke PhD in German Studies

Stanford: PhD or MA

University of Washington

University of Michigan: dual PhD in History/Anthropology or History/Women's Studies

Georgetown University

UC Berkeley

UCSF/UC Berkeley: PhD in Medical Anthropology (Anthropology was my second major)

 

Thanks!

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The answer to this question is multifaceted. 

If you can fund the Masters, either through personal savings or loans that you are willing to shoulder, then elect that route and write an excellent thesis, using this experience to determine the landscape in your specialty and develop a network as well as even better letters of recommendation. In that case, make your decision on program based on minimizing costs and maximizing fit with a particular faculty member. Contact candidates directly and explain your objectives. If they are not on board, or can't lend prestige or contacts to your cause, then move on to the next candidate.

If further graduate education requires that you receive support, you had better have very strong GRE scores and write an extremely focused personal interest statement keyed to a particular faculty member's specific interests, even his or her emergent interests. Address the impact of your first year, but show how that experience drove later research interests (so it is not just a sob story.)

As far as competitiveness for these programs, I can't say. I am curious what others might offer to your question and this unanswered dimension.

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If you graduated from Wisconsin, you're actually in a great place to be getting advice.  Its history and German departments are excellent.

I'm in German history doing post-WWII.

University of Michigan-- you'd definitely want to contact Kathleen Canning to see if she's willing to take on graduate students (she's the department chair right now-- not always the best thing as department chairs tend to have their hands very full with administrative BS).  Geoff Eley should be retiring over the next few years.  You'll want to make sure that you have a solid team of faculty members to help support Canning.

If you're that interested in the topic you're proposing, you should look into Ohio State.

PM me if you want to talk more or have other questions!

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In answer to your first question, I would like to second what Telkanuru said and strongly disagree with what Wicked_Problem said. It is not necessarily an either/or applying to MA and PhD programs, except as determined by your limited time in filling out and  your financial resources in submitting the applications. Some programs, like UWashington, will automatically consider you for an MA if you are not admitted for the PhD. Other schools, like UCBerkeley, do not have an MA option. Other schools only have an MA option. I would recommend casting a wide net and seeing what you drag in. Depending on your ambitions (i.e. whether you are set on tenure and teaching specialized courses at Harvard or would be perfectly content teaching the entire history of humanity at Southern Ozark Mining College), it might make sense to initially apply for schools higher up the rankings for a PhD and a wider range of schools for an MA, which would then leave you the option of "jumping" the rankings after you've shored up your CV a bit. I would, however, only agree with Wicked_Problem's suggestion of paying for an MA if you are Scrooge McDuck and your swimming pool of bullion is so overflowing that you can't find any other use for it. I would be very cautious about taking out loans for an MA, even from a prestigious program. Others may differ, but the job prospects with just an MA in history are so far between, the odds of turning that into a top-tier PhD admit so long, and the availability of funded MA programs frequent enough that I would strongly caution against an unfunded MA program, as tempting as it might be. 

In answer to your second question, if what dragged down your GPA was in the first year that shouldn't be too bad, and some programs only look at your GPA for the last two years. A strong GRE score might be able to help compensate for this. As Telkanuru also hinted at, what you write on your statement of purpose and writing sample (which might be problematic if you didn't do a senior thesis) will be the most important parts of the application.

In answer to your third question, you can probably look at recent literature within your proposed topic to get a sense of what the historiographical debates are and where you fit into them. Above all, however, work on language, language, language. If you're not fluent in German, keep working on it. If you are, start picking up French. 

Finally, congratulations on AmeriCorps! I did a year of AmeriCorps after my undergrad and it was a tremendously rewarding experience and one that was 1) noticed in my applications and 2) helped because a lot of schools will waive application fees for current VISTAs. Also, depending on your placement, you might be able to take language classes concurrently. I served at a university and was able to take two years of language courses while there. Good luck!

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If you graduated from Wisconsin, you're actually in a great place to be getting advice.  Its history and German departments are excellent.

I'm in German history doing post-WWII.

University of Michigan-- you'd definitely want to contact Kathleen Canning to see if she's willing to take on graduate students (she's the department chair right now-- not always the best thing as department chairs tend to have their hands very full with administrative BS).  Geoff Eley should be retiring over the next few years.  You'll want to make sure that you have a solid team of faculty members to help support Canning.

If you're that interested in the topic you're proposing, you should look into Ohio State.

PM me if you want to talk more or have other questions!

I actually graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, but I've looked into applying to Wisconsin. Thanks for all the help! I'll for PM you if I have any more questions!

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In answer to your first question, I would like to second what Telkanuru said and strongly disagree with what Wicked_Problem said. It is not necessarily an either/or applying to MA and PhD programs, except as determined by your limited time in filling out and  your financial resources in submitting the applications. Some programs, like UWashington, will automatically consider you for an MA if you are not admitted for the PhD. Other schools, like UCBerkeley, do not have an MA option. Other schools only have an MA option. I would recommend casting a wide net and seeing what you drag in. Depending on your ambitions (i.e. whether you are set on tenure and teaching specialized courses at Harvard or would be perfectly content teaching the entire history of humanity at Southern Ozark Mining College), it might make sense to initially apply for schools higher up the rankings for a PhD and a wider range of schools for an MA, which would then leave you the option of "jumping" the rankings after you've shored up your CV a bit. I would, however, only agree with Wicked_Problem's suggestion of paying for an MA if you are Scrooge McDuck and your swimming pool of bullion is so overflowing that you can't find any other use for it. I would be very cautious about taking out loans for an MA, even from a prestigious program. Others may differ, but the job prospects with just an MA in history are so far between, the odds of turning that into a top-tier PhD admit so long, and the availability of funded MA programs frequent enough that I would strongly caution against an unfunded MA program, as tempting as it might be. 

In answer to your second question, if what dragged down your GPA was in the first year that shouldn't be too bad, and some programs only look at your GPA for the last two years. A strong GRE score might be able to help compensate for this. As Telkanuru also hinted at, what you write on your statement of purpose and writing sample (which might be problematic if you didn't do a senior thesis) will be the most important parts of the application.

In answer to your third question, you can probably look at recent literature within your proposed topic to get a sense of what the historiographical debates are and where you fit into them. Above all, however, work on language, language, language. If you're not fluent in German, keep working on it. If you are, start picking up French. 

Finally, congratulations on AmeriCorps! I did a year of AmeriCorps after my undergrad and it was a tremendously rewarding experience and one that was 1) noticed in my applications and 2) helped because a lot of schools will waive application fees for current VISTAs. Also, depending on your placement, you might be able to take language classes concurrently. I served at a university and was able to take two years of language courses while there. Good luck!

I have to take the GRE still (I'm dreading the math portion), but I am fairly confident that I can score on the other two sections. Your advice was very helpful! I'll definitely be applying to MA and PhD programs and see what sticks. I'm hoping that my research paper from my senior history seminar will suffice, after edits of course. I will keep working on German (I took it my last two years of undergrad, but I've found that it's hard to keep it up when I'm not using it everyday), and I definitely need to brush up on my French, since the last time I took it was in high school (though I can get by pretty well with a dictionary).

AmeriCorps has been great! Getting fee waivers is a great perk...

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I would be using a paper that I wrote for a history seminar, which is about 24 pages long.

Does this paper pertain to your proposed subject of study? Does it make extensive use of primary sources and put them into conversation with the secondary literature? How many people (preferably professors) have given you feedback on it?

You don't have to answer these questions here, but I think you can figure out what the good answers are. If your answers are less good, I would focus your energy on an MA, though if you have the cash it may not hurt to throw a PhD app or two at your dream school(s).

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