God save history/God save your mad parade
December 1, 2006 10:50 AM   Subscribe

I am a college sophomore who will be applying to graduate school in history from a somewhat mediocre university, and I need help with a course of action to follow in order to improve my chances of getting accepted. Much

I've known since childhood that I want to be a professor, and there really isn't anything else out there that I would be happier doing. But both of my parents are academics, and I am painfully aware that without a PhD from an absolutely top-tier program I am very likely to be working $20,000 adjunct jobs for most of my career; the job market is not going to get much better by 2015, roughly when I'd be getting my degree. I don't really care about money, but I don't think I could survive as an adjunct for long. So this question isn't a matter of being an overachiever and bragging about getting into a top school, it's a matter of personal necessity.

I am interested in the study of intellectual elites in Early Modern Europe (roughly 1600-1789), with an additional focus on Atlantic/Anglo-American colonial interactions. Apparently this counts as History of Ideas, though I'm also interested in sociohistorical perspectives. That means, I've been told, that I have to go to either Princeton or Stanford to give myself a shot at getting a job.

I have three things working against me: I go to Fordham (at Lincoln Center), which is hardly a recruiting ground for "elite" grad schools. I also don't have a stellar GPA (it'll probably be in the 3.65-3.75 range by the time I graduate). Finally, I'm not a US citizen and my political views prevent me from becoming one (I do not want to swear any loyalty oaths to the government, and I am reluctant to renounce my Russian citizenship) so I can't apply for the Rhodes or the Marshall.

However, I think I'll have a solid GRE (my SAT score was 1560, old version). I've also been doing some original research on my own about colonial New York (I'm submitting a proposal to the NY State History Conference next summer), which a few professors I asked found adequate for a professional publication. I've built up a rapport with several professors in my department, so I will probably have decent recommendation letters. I am president of the debate club at my school, if that counts for anything. I've also been told that the honors program, which I'm part of, is somewhat prestigious, but I don't know if I believe that.

So, all this long-winded introductory stuff aside, what should I do to improve my chances of being accepted, with funding, to a Princeton/Stanford/Yale/Harvard level PhD program? I do not think I will be able to improve my GPA much, I've been an A- student all my life and nothing I do seems to change that.

1. Is it worthwhile to pursue more original research projects with an eye toward getting them published? Next summer I will be working on one or two of these, and probably another one during the fall semester. The field of colonial New York history is small and rather moribund, so I have a chance to make a small impact, I think. I'm extremely familiar with almost all of the printed sources and many of the secondary sources for the period.

2. I would like, ideally, to attend Cambridge at some point, but I have been told that the PhD (D.Phil?) there is a degree created specifically to market the school to Americans, and that the real program is the Masters. I have also heard that it is extremely difficult to get funding there, especially for the Masters program, and I can't afford any more loans. Is it worth it to try for Cambridge, either the Masters or PhD?

3. I'll be graduating a semester early. Does it matter if I apply to grad schools for spring semester admission, or should I spend half a year living a non-academic life?
posted by nasreddin to Education (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This may not apply to regular graduate school, but I know someone applying to law school who had a hard time getting accepted because he scored high in the LSAT but had a low GPA. The reason is pretty simple: it's sends the message, "I'm smart, but I don't work very hard in school." That being said, I don't think a GPA of 3.65 or 3.75 is all that bad, so long as you can also shore it up with some evidence of other positive qualifications. I don't think it's that common to get published at the undergraduate level, but if you can do it that should definitely improve your standing.

Unless the Masters program in Cambridge is different than programs elsewhere in the UK, it only lasts one year. In addition to the standard MA and MSc that exist in the States, the UK also has something called an MPhil, Masters of Philosophy. If you go for your MPhil, this is considered a "stepping stone" towards getting a PhD, which as I understand it is simply awarded for spending additional time researching and finally publishing a doctoral thesis.

There may be a bunch of professors reading Meta. But if your parents are academics I suspect that they probably know a lot of professors that you can speak to directly. If I were you, I'd talk to the ones who are happiest with what they're doing now and find out what they did to get there.

And finally, if you really are going to spending the next 7-8 years of your life in academia, I would recommend giving yourself that semester off, as it's likely to be the last one you have. Use it to travel if you have not already done so, or to do something way out of line with your future career plans, just to have a little fun before committing to the long haul.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:14 AM on December 1, 2006

First, find a rabbi. That is, become friendly with a prof you like -- if possible, one with a national reputation. Ask questions during and after class. Go to the prof's office for advice about the course and your career. Ask about the prof's books and articles. Become a research assistant.

Do the same for the entire history department. Volunteer to catalog books or magazines, proofread articles or update looseleaf services.

Get to know the library staff. Ask advice. Ask about new books in history. Get a stack pass. Take all the research training you can get. Learn Nexis, the New York Times Index and the specialized computer research sources in history.

Join a tutoring group to help those in trouble in the elementary courses -- not just history. It does you good to become known to the administration as someone who is concerned and useful.

Each of these will give you training in what teachers do and will help you learn what it's like.

More important, it will start your network. Put everyone's name, position and contact information in your Outlook Contacts list (or the equivalent Mac program). People you get to know now are a lifelong resource.
posted by KRS at 11:16 AM on December 1, 2006

I'd say start trying to make contacts with faculty at your target institutions. Figure out (if you can at this point) what specifically you would want your PhD project to focus on, find the faculty at those institutions who could support it, and drop them an email to open up a dialogue about the topic.

Also, while you seem to have a very clear idea of what you want to be doing with your life and where you want to be in the next few years, I would definitely recommend thinking about taking some time off. I'd say take more than half a year living a non-academic life. I myself spent two years working between undergrad and my current master's program. Now I didn't know when I left school in '04 that I'd want to go back to school 2 years later, and I hated my job throughout those two years, but I really think that time off gave me a lot of necessary perspective, and envigorated me to go back to school (ie. when I got back into academia I was certain that it was what I wanted to do, where I wanted to be). In my master's program there are several students who have come straight from undergrad, and it is clear that they are starting to get a bit burnt out, and also lack that perspective I mentioned above.

Of course, you seem to know exactly what you want, so you might not need that time off.
posted by jrb223 at 11:18 AM on December 1, 2006

I hope you'll get some useful information here on AskMe, but you should also consider posting in the forums at the Chronicle of Higher Education. It looks to me like there are no requirements to post other than free registration, and you'd be talking to a lot of people who've had direct experience with these issues. You might want to tighten up the question a bit though.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 11:20 AM on December 1, 2006

Would it be possible for you to transfer to a more competitive undergraduate college now? I don't think you've even missed application dates for next school year.
posted by robinpME at 11:30 AM on December 1, 2006

I'm a current graduate student at what I suppose is a pretty prestigious university (top 25 in the dubious and often misleading U.S. News rankings). I also decided to pursue this degree immediately after undergrad.

Is there a way you can do some independent research with a professor, maybe even a thesis? My undergrad (state) school's honors program required a thesis for all seniors; it really helped to learn about the whole research process and it'd be great practice for your next, oh, eight years or so.

My program held a seminar with all of the main faculty to discuss the reality of obtaining doctorates nowadays. Like you, my focus is in the liberal arts; professors of mine (most of whom, incidentally, had NOT attended an Ivy) warned us that you basically have to postpone any regular life plans until you get that degree. I would ask your professors how they got to be where they were; I bet not all went the Princeton-Cambridge-Harvard route.

I would also consider some top-tier programs in large state universities; researchers there have many resources and just as much ability to accomplish extraordinary things.

As for the GREs--The verbal section is surprisingly hard (and I was an English major), the math doesn't go past your basic high school geometry and algebra. Get a few test books from the library. At my school, the median test scores were in the 1100s; the cutoffs are different than the SATs.

In the end, I think the key is to make yourself stand out from your peers, and it looks like you're well on your way. Also, don't forget to make yourself well-rounded--join a few random clubs, have some fun! Good luck.
posted by landedjentry at 11:36 AM on December 1, 2006

First, where you do your undergrad degree is not necessarily a block to where you attend grad school. Tiny state college? Maybe a problem. Fordham? Probably not an issue, especially with good GREs and recommendations. At my Ivy League top-5 program, there are plenty of students from smaller schools (Bucknell, SFSU, etc). If at first you don't succeed, well, then get an MA from someplace more reputable and go from there.

The most important piece of your PhD application package, however, is your letter of intent, which should describe the research that you plan to do and with whom you're going to do it. None of this "I've known that I've wanted to be a professor since I was this tall" schmaltzy nonsense. Be to the point about becoming a scholar and the research that will get you there.

To that end, know that you're not applying to a program, but rather to a singular professor who will be your mentor for your graduate career. The debate club, honors program, GRE and GPA all get you above the hurdle of keeping your application in the running, but then the grad chair turns those apps over to the professor whom you mention that you want to work with, who ultimately makes the decision of which student (singular) that they want to take on that year, if they are even alotted a student for that year, as departments may regularly take as few as four students per year divided among the standing faculty. So you NEED NEED NEED to make contact with the professors to whom you are applying and impress upon them that you are the person they want, while at the same time not coming across too strongly. There's nothing more offputting than an undergrad that thinks that he or she is God's gift to academia. 1560-3.7 students are a dime a dozen, and what really sets one apart is academic drive and professionalism.

To answer your subquestions:
1. You don't need to publish as an undergraduate, but if you can, do. That said, you could probably tone down your self-importance a bit, as you're coming across as arrogant, which doesn't play well to your future advisors.
2. UK PhDs are more or less worthless for teaching in the states. I know a few people that got MAs in Cambridge (funding is laughable), but why even bother? Because it's Cambridge? Focus on US-based PhD programs if you want to teach in the US.
3. Graduate schools accept students for Fall semester. Period. Find something else to do in the interim. You'll gain something from life experience.

A note on funding: most reputable PhD programs now fully fund all accepted students that don't come in pre-funded (via NSF or Mellon or whatever). This is a good thing, and your nationality makes no difference. If you're accepted without funding, then think long and hard about attending (that is, don't do it).
posted by The Michael The at 11:50 AM on December 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

You need to talk to history professors about this. All you'll get from us here is generic talk about graduate school, which might or might not be applicable to history. Along those lines, my thoughts:

Talk to people at target programs, explaining what you've done and what you can do to increase your odds of being accepted. The director of graduate studies should at least reply to you, and is an asshole if (s)he doesn't.

Honors programs matter, esp. if they involve a thesis. On the other hand, it is unlikely that anyone will give the slightest fuck that you were in, or president of, the debate club.

If you know that you want to be a professor in the US, I'd recommend attending a US graduate program unless history people tell you otherwise. If nothing else, being in the UK would mean that you'd be able to attend far fewer conferences in the US.

I assume you have a green card already. If so, reconsider taking US citizenship. It appears that Russia tolerates dual citizenship, so you would not lose Russian citizenship when naturalizing -- any renunciation is only to US officials and other countries routinely ignore it. But contact a Russian consulate for better information. Refusing to take citizenship to avoid a loyalty oath is downright silly. There are real, concrete benefits to taking citizenship, such as, maybe, access to federal graduate fellowships. And the oath effectively already binds you, even though you haven't taken it -- you're still bound by all US law, and you can still have your sorry ass drafted (or imprisoned for refusing) if it comes down to that. So all that you're really avoiding is saying the words -- so say them without meaning it. I assure you that they won't have a psychic or SQUID array there to read your intentions while you mouth the words of the oath.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:01 PM on December 1, 2006

I went to a top tier program for my history Ph.D. (early modern Europe, focus on Russia) and taught at a top tier university for over a decade. I’ve been on selection committees and worked with graduate students. So I know of which I speak. And it’s this: you are really exaggerating the importance of the US News and World Reports rankings in, well, everything. If you do good work, and you have strong faculty support, you will get into a program that regularly produces quality Ph.D.s in Early Modern history no matter where you were an undergrad. There are probably 20 programs of this type in the U.S., maybe more. All of them have excellent faculty and their graduates are seriously considered by any serious search committee. If you go to an Ivy (Harvard, Princeton, etc.) or a “name” public university (Berkeley, Michigan), you might be a little better supported and have more people to talk to, but your degree won’t be any more valuable if you do good work and make contacts in the field (attend conferences, play nice, etc.). It’s really all about the work and who you know.

I’d recommend this. Find someone at a serious program whose work you admire. Someone who works on what you want to work on, or something related (and, btw, you should have a topic or theme worked out, as in "I want to study x," where x is pretty focused). Actually, find and contact several such people. Call them to talk about what’s on offer, as in: Do you have grad students? How many? What do they work on? Do they get jobs? Where? Theses are prefectly legit questions for anyone who is not a jerk. Then, if they are local, meet them. Remember, you’re going to spend years with these people, so it would be good to know a bit about them. Then decide whether you want to apply there. Apply widely, because it’s a crap shoot. Once you are admitted to several programs, call your contacts and talk some more. Then, once you know what’s up, decide where you want to go. Go and work hard. You'll be fine.

As for Cambridge, just skip it.
posted by MarshallPoe at 12:04 PM on December 1, 2006 [4 favorites]

History prof here. Great advice above, especially from Marshall Poe. Presenting a conference paper or two, publishing an article, and serving some summer internships are all ways to distinguish yourself to graduate admissions at your target schools. And beware of coming across as arrogant.
posted by LarryC at 12:45 PM on December 1, 2006

Thank you for the answers so far, especially the ones that point out that I sound arrogant. I try to avoid that, and I really, honestly, don't mean to sound that way, but it helps to know when I fail.

It seems that the common theme here is that I should specifically contact my "target professors." I gather that that means I should develop a specific dissertation topic and find a professor whose work matches it. It looks like, from what my parents and others have told me, that my advisor is the single most important element in my career. How do I determine who is influential or well-respected in a specific subfield? I realize that I am not in a position to be a chooser, and it's incredibly impudent to have that sort of attitude, but my mother tells me that her career's suffered substantially because her advisor wasn't well-known, even though she went to a fairly topflight school. Are there any ways, besides just asking the people in my department point-blank, of finding this sort of information?

Also, what is the proper way to address one of these requests for information to professors? I'm very intimidated by this sort of thing, because, as people have pointed out, I sound jumped-up. As a professor, if you are one, or a professional figure, what sorts of wording are danger signals?
posted by nasreddin at 1:21 PM on December 1, 2006

However, I think I'll have a solid GRE (my SAT score was 1560, old version).

With a few practice tests, you'll almost certainly get an 800 math, (in fact, in engineering or science disciplines, it's embarrassing not to get an 800 math) but the verbal test is really much harder than the SAT. Having recently taken it, it's the first place in years I remember seeing words that are just completely new to me (and guessing their meaning with knowledge of the Latin.)
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 3:08 PM on December 1, 2006

A few tidbits from someone who tried this and failed -- please learn from my miserable experience.

1) Apply to many schools. Remember: you only need to be accepted into one. I applied to 8 or 9 of the top 10 schools in my field of history. I only got into one. As it turns out, it was probably the worst fit for me, but it was an excellent school.

and 2) That "fit" thing. When I was in your position, everything I read told me how important it was to find a good fit with the school and with the professors. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to be able to tell me how to find out what a good fit was. I can't be much more help than they were, but I can recommend a few things. Read the works of the people you're considering for advisors. Talk to their current students. Try to figure out if their style of research works for you (theoretical vs. concrete, etc). Are they supportive to their students? Help them find good summer opportunities or research funding? Can you really stand living in the town where the school is for 6-10 years? What is the social culture of the grad department like?

Hopefully some other MeFites can give tips on how to figure those things out *before* you start grad school, because picking wrong... well, it's miserable. I left without my MA and will probably never get it. I'm okay with that now, but if you want to be a professor, it's a long, hard path, and you need to be prepared for as many of the obstacles as possible before you reach them.

I'm really sorry if this sounds more discouraging than I mean it to. It sounds like you're already doing many of the best things you can do, including research and publication. I think you'll have a very good chance at getting into the school(s) of your choice. I've just made too many of the common mistakes to want to see someone else make them as well.
posted by katemonster at 3:24 PM on December 1, 2006

I presume you are talking about the UK Cambridge, if so: the PhD is absolutely not a created programme to attract US funding and students. It is one of the top history doctoral programmes in the UK. The Masters (M.Phil) is generally what proceeds the PhD and lasts a year. Don't know if this helps, and I know nothing about the US employment market for historians, but your sources are wrong about the intrinsic nature of a Cambridge PhD. And it is a fantastic place to study early modern history - it has a very vibrant faculty with many specialists in that period.

Funding, on the other hand, you are dead right about.
posted by greycap at 3:40 PM on December 1, 2006

Ahem - precedes, not proceeds.
posted by greycap at 3:40 PM on December 1, 2006

Without disputing any of the above, I think you need to think hard about why your GPA is so low, and fix it.

Fordham isn't a bad school by any means, but considering the moderate competition you're up against in your classes, someone with the potential to be a tenured professor of history should have the study habits, subject matter interest and writing skills necessary to get at least an even mix of A's and A-'s (i.e., 3.85).

The support of your current faculty will be a very important part of getting where you want to go, and you're unlikely to win really enthusiastic support on the back of a fairly mediocre record. You need to figure out what it takes to get "A"s consistently and then do it.
posted by MattD at 3:46 PM on December 1, 2006

As to your question about potential grad advisors to talk to, I'd ask someone in the Fordham hist department about who is producing good work and/or good grad students. Good advisors gain reps, and generally people in the field know who they are. Certainly the *active* early modernists at Fordham will know who's really supervising good research these days. They will also, perhaps, be able to put you in touch with potential supervisors by writing intro emails, viz. "I have an excellent student who is thinking about applying to your program. Would you be interested in talking to him/her?" Just ask for an intro email. Once everyone's said "yes." Then you jet the potential advisor(s) an email saying "Thanks for agreeing to talk with me about grad school. I'm interested in studying x (short description). I've read your work on the topic. Have you supervised dissertations on this topic, and/or would you be interested in supervising such work? If not, could you recommend someone who is supervising such work? I'd really appreciate it." That will open the exchange. The watchword here is "professionalism." You want to come off as a serious person with honest interests. No "I think your work is great" or "I'd be honored to study at Big Name U." Even if they say "no I don't and no I wouldn't and I don't have time for you" write back saying "Thank you very much for your time."

Always remember, any academic career is a labor of love. It's got to be about the work, b/c the rest of it is sort of a hassle. You don't get much money, fame, or (in many cases) even appreciation. It's the work, and who you work with, that counts.
posted by MarshallPoe at 5:00 PM on December 1, 2006

GRE changes in January!!! It is getting significant easier, vocab wise.
posted by k8t at 7:34 PM on December 1, 2006

I agree with the earlier comments saying that you should broaden your list of target institutions significantly. There are almost certainly more than two universities – probably many, many more – that you could attend without compromising the quality of your graduate education or killing your chances on the job market. The big-name-department imprimatur is not a guarantee of employment; well-known excellent programs in your desired specialty might be hiding at otherwise-unheralded institutions; and in the end the most important thing for your future employment chances is just that you do good work.

I think you can safely remove some of your concerns from the list: neither your undergraduate institution nor your citizenship are likely to pose great problems in getting into the departments you want to get into. (Unfortunately for you, the high GRE scores are also not likely to help all that much.)

The statement of purpose is not the most important part of your application, though it can help, especially if you show a familiarity with the work of the target department's faculty in your specialty, and give an intellectually mature picture of the kind of work you want to do, showing that you're aware of the current state of the scholarship.

But the most important part of your application is your writing sample: this needs to be a very strong sample of your scholarly work (in the discipline, and ideally in the specialty you're applying to work in). The sample gives direct evidence of your current training and ability, so it's taken very seriously. Make sure it's your best work, and talk about your choice (and ideally revise it) in consultation with your advisors. Publishing and conference papers are also great ways of demonstrating your professionalism, of course, but good work is good work, and nobody would require their prospective grad students to have published articles already. After the sample, your letters of recommendation are also quite important to convincing the faculty who will read them of your strength as a student (and MarshallPoe's advice about seeking advisors and recommenders is spot-on). Only after both of these get you into the final rounds will the readers really look closely at your statement of purpose and other supporting material.

My sense is that getting an application to this point, where you're being taken seriously as a top candidate, is the best anyone can do; many strong applications will still get rejected, for all kinds of extraneous reasons. The process is a crap-shoot in any case, so don't be discouraged by rejections. This is part of the reason for applying to many departments rather than just a couple.

Taking a half-year off in between undergraduate and graduate school is an excellent idea; more time would probably be better. Going straight through from undergrad to grad school is a surefire way to increase your stress and likelihood of burning out. Besides, everyone who considers a Ph.D. in the humanities should really take some time beforehand to look around and try to find another, more rewarding, line of work. If you discover, after trying hard to find something else, that the non-academic working world has nothing for you, then your commitment to the Ph.D. will be all the stronger for your well-informed decision to re-enter academia.

I do not know whether your GPA will be a problem in the application process, but there is a possibility, however unlikely, that it means that you're not doing work that indicates to your readers that you're ready for graduate school. Nobody on AskMe can say for certain if this is the case, since we haven't read your academic work. So you should discuss this with some of the professors who've read your work, and insist that they be absolutely honest about what they think your chances are. It's better to find out what they think now than to find their opinions reflected in rejection letters down the road. I don't mean this as discouragement at all, just to suggest that you make a well-informed decision based on others' assessment of your work as well as your own.
posted by RogerB at 9:53 PM on December 2, 2006

No offense, but please ignore what Deathalicious has said about masters degrees at Cambridge -it is not accurate.

An M.A. from Cambridge is a fake degree given to former undergraduates for turning 24. It has weird historical origins (it was given to them assuming they would have been teaching at Cambridge after their B.A., etc), but now is just a fake degree.

The real degrees from the Faculty of History are the Mphil and the PhD. Cambridge used to accept people directly to the PhD, but this is now extremely rare (unknown?), unless you have a masters from elsewhere. Even if you have done a four year undergrad and written a master's length research thesis in your undergrad, they don't care.

As far as I know, excepting the part-time Mphil in Local History, the Mphil in History at Cambridge is 9months to 1 year, and can either be entirely research (you come, you have tea, you write a thesis), or 1-2 terms of coursework, followed by the masters thesis. With satisfactory progress (ie a good mark), the Mphil can be rolled into a PhD; if you stay on the same topic, you have 2 more years in which to complete your PhD. If you change topics (even minorly), you can have three. This is known colloquially as 1+2 or 1+3, as in "are you doing 1+2? are you crazy?"

/husband did Cambridge 1+2, not reccomended, unless (like him) you only have money for 3 years of really high international fees
posted by jb at 5:56 PM on December 17, 2006

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