Preparing for Graduate Studies in History


Every semester, at least one new history major enters my office for advisement, marvels at my library (a major part of the ballast of my life for which my children will curse me when I am gone), and tell me that they intend to teach at a community college or university.  They proceed to tell me how they loved history their entire lives, that they visit museums and battlefields, and that they read all sorts of history.  Their comments remind me that studying history is more than an avocation or a hobby.  They read, but they are turning the pages of texts, popular histories, and best-selling biographies.  Rarely are they delving into primary sources and crucial yet sometimes turgid monographs and journal articles.  They are to history what the ardent movie fans, frequent playgoers, and avid novel readers are to literature, whose professionals are steeped in literary criticism.  They are like the talented musician who skillfully plays a musical instrument (like I play the piano) and the devoted music listener with a huge collection of vinyl and the best turntable compared to the professional musician who practices hours each day.  My judgement is harsh, I tell myself, because these students are sincere but novices.  I, myself, was in their position, and I likely held that mistaken idea of what a historian does longer than they will.  My goal is to nurture, not discourage.  It is to help, not hinder.  So, I begin to describe the process of getting a doctorate in history and what a student has to do to prepare not only to gain admission to a respected institution but to succeed in a graduate program in history.  I will summarize here the advice I have given so many times with the hope that it will help a greater number of students planning on getting a doctorate in history.  For that matter, my comments even may help those interested in other fields.

When I advise students, the first thing I ask them is to explain their career goals.  Every semester, a few students express their desire to complete a MA degree with the ultimate aim of getting a doctorate and teaching at a university.  They cling to their dream, despite the hard work, expense, and difficulties in finding full-time employment in academia.  Many are determined, but only a few deliberately take the right steps to complete a PhD that could lead to finding employment.  Often, potential doctoral candidates in history either abandon their goal or make choices that make it difficult to achieve.  With the right preparation throughout the undergraduate years, students will set a trajectory for success that will get them admitted to a doctoral program and help them complete it.  Should they change their career goal along the way, they still will have attained the sort of academic training and skills that will serve them well in alternative careers.

Frequently, the dim prospects for employment frighten potential doctoral students, but a study that the American Historical Association commissioned in 2013 of graduates between 1998 and 2009 is optimistic.  It found that nearly 53 percent of those who graduated with doctorate degrees landed tenure-track positions, 17 percent were teaching at the college level without tenure (that includes poorly paid adjunct positions), and slightly more than 24 percent were in other areas. That last category includes those teaching at the primary and secondary level, librarians, public historians, researchers, those working for non-profits, academic administrators, and those employed in business.  Ironically, one might think that the vast majority of this last category of nearly a quarter of the Ph.D. graduates were in business, but that number amounts to only 3 percent.  The study noted that hardly any were employed in menial tasks.

Begin Preparing as Early as Possible

The sooner one makes the decision to pursue a PhD in history the better, but deciding later does not harm one’s chances, as long as certain key elements are in place.  There is no particular formula of courses at the undergraduate level that prepares one for graduate school, but certain types of courses are essential.  History departments offer all sorts of courses–-American, European, African, Asian, Latin American history as well as the history of science, environmental history, diplomatic history, and more.  Some professors have their students do projects or write short papers, bibliographical essays, or historiographies, while others assign research papers.  A student should have a mix of courses in all sorts of fields, but it is essential for students to take some courses that require one to research with primary sources and to formulate an original thesis, both of which serve as the basis for long research papers.  Postponing research papers until it is time to write a senior thesis or capstone project is insufficient preparation, and students should set a target of taking five or six courses, that is, roughly half their major, that require some sort of research paper.  These projects will prepare one for writing even longer graduate papers and later articles or book chapters.  Eventually, the student will revise the research paper with the most unique thesis, extensive use of primary sources, and best grammar, style, and format for use as a writing sample to be included in the graduate school application packet.

Students considering graduate school in history should select a minor or a mix of upper-level courses outside of history that pertains to their specific focus.  Someone interested in cultural history might take courses in art history, music history, and literature, while someone studying political history might have a minor in political science and take courses in quantitative methods and statistics.  There is nothing wrong with taking a minor completely unrelated to the humanities and social sciences.  Those whose interest is in the history of science and technology may want to take courses in their particular area, be it biology or physics.  Another option is to minor in a subject, such as business management, that might assist a student in finding employment outside of academia, should that necessity occur.  The skills learned in this sort of minor may even help in the academic world, for example, if one has a stint in administration.  An alternative to selecting a minor is to complete a double major.  While that strengthens the student's knowledge of a second field and facilitates interdisciplinary critical thinking, it prevents the exploration of a number of disciplines because two majors will consume all of the upper-level credits needed to graduate.  A second major even may result in a few courses above the minimum graduation requirement.

For information on the benefits of a double major, see the Teagle Foundation report of 2012 by Richard N. Pitt and Steven Tepper of Vanderbilt University titled "Double Majors: Influences, Identities, and Impacts" at  Dan Berrett supplied a summary of the study in "Double Majors Produce Dynamic Thinkers, Study Finds" that is available in the 15 March 2013 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Subscribers to the journal can view the article at

Quality graduate programs require reading knowledge of two foreign languages, even if someone is interested in American history.  Ideally, an applicant should have all language preparation complete by the time one applies to graduate school, but admission committees, even at prestigious schools, will accept applicants who have a reading knowledge in one language and is completing the third or fourth semester of their second language.  Furthermore, not taking languages at the undergraduate level can be expensive because graduate students will pay the higher graduate tuition rate for language courses they will be taking with undergraduates.  Some students already may speak a second language from birth or because they lived abroad, and others may have attended summer noncredit courses or may have worked with tutors.  Graduate committees accept any means of language acquisition, and foreign experience is particularly attractive for nonnative speakers.  In the end, students are required to take standardized tests or specific exams a department administers to determine whether they meet the language requirement.  While an Americanist need not be concerned about which languages to study, assuming that they do not require foreign languages for their research, other students need to select languages that pertain to their specific area.  Someone interested in the history of Vietnam certainly will need Vietnamese and French, while another interested in France’s colonial empire in North Africa will need French, Arabic, and perhaps some other language.  Since advanced graduate students, especially those outside of American history, will be doing research abroad, it will be necessary for them not only to read the languages but to speak, comprehend, and write at least one language well enough to reside in a foreign country.  To satisfy a graduate admission committee and to prepare for research with archival evidence, a student needs to take language courses nearly every semester during their undergraduate years.  Some graduate programs require or have as an option quantitative methods in addition to or in place of a language.  That is an option that many Americanists take when it is available.  To determine what specific requirements for research tools a graduate program may have, check its graduate catalog on the Internet.  More information on studying languages appears on this web site here.

Good grades are essential to get into the top graduate schools, which means that students should have mostly As, especially in their major.  Having one B in an upper-level history course on a transcript will not exclude one from admission to a graduate program, but grades that consistently fluctuate between As and Bs indicate to a graduate admission committee uneven work and a wavering commitment on the part of the applicant.  Grades in upper-level courses in one’s minor also should be high, as should all other grades, although admission committees tend to overlook a slightly lower grade in areas unrelated to the social sciences.  Low Bs, Cs, and lower grades are definite red flags.  Although there is no magic grade point equivalent that guarantees admission to a graduate program, not even straight As, one’s average should be as high as possible.

Late in the junior year and certainly by the early fall of the senior year, a student hoping to attend graduate school will have to complete the Graduate Record Exam, although some schools accept the Miller’s Analogy Test.  The most important portion of the GRE tests verbal and quantitative skills.  History students traditionally do better on the verbal part, and admission committees recognize that fact.  Even though a reviewer should not add the scores together, they do so.  The top schools exclude students with a combined score much below 300 (typically, 160 on the verbal test and 148 on the quantitative), while other institutions accept lower scores.  There may be exceptions for students whose native language is not English.  Analytical writing scores should be 5.0 or higher.  Most professors in the country are critical of the GRE as a reliable measure of student ability, and when they sit on graduate admissions committees, they mainly view the GRE as an indicator of student potential.  The prestigious schools, which have hundreds of applicants, use GRE scores as an unforgiving filter.  They reject those who do not attain the set cutoff scores, no matter how good their application packet may appear otherwise, and the admissions committee may never see those applications that do not make the first cut.  Fortunately, one can take the GRE often because universities look at the top scores.  Of course, taking the test often is an expensive proposition.  A guide to interpreting GRE scores is at

The Application Process

Although most graduate applications not require a resume, it is a good idea to build one over time.  Because a resume contains the most important information about a person, it will serve as a handy reference to speed the process of filling out forms.  It also helps one to construct letters of application, and it provides a quick reference for anyone the student selects to write a letter of recommendation.  Students who work on a resume gradually will have the time to think about their skills, activities, and nonacademic accomplishments in ways that will enhance their graduate application.  Finally, a detailed resume can serve as a resource for constructing shorter resumes targeted for a variety of potential employers.  For more information about resumes, see “Constructing a Resume” in the article titled “Career Guide for History Majors” on this web site.

Graduate school applications require three or four recommendations from professors.  Logically, a student will want to approach the professor whose interest is close to that of the student and who best knows the student’s abilities.  Obtaining the recommendation of a professor outside of history, especially if that field of study is related to the student’s research interests, is also a good option. While professors can write a very good general recommendation for students who were impressive in the classroom, students should inform professors about their plans, how they have prepared academically for graduate school, and nonacademic accomplishments that give some indicator of the student’s reliability, independence, self-discipline, and work ethic.  This last bit of information can include employment, hobbies, volunteer work, scholarships and awards, memberships, noncredit courses, and foreign travel.  It is best to provide the recommender with a draft of the graduate application, resume, and cover letter.  Discussions about these items with professors may give students ideas about revising their packets, and professors may make suggestions about how to improve the application.  Make sure to give your recommenders as much time as possible to prepare their letters because rushed letters in support of an application may lack features that help the applicant and may contain errors.

The due dates for applications to graduate programs vary.  Some admit only in the fall and may have an early fall application deadline, while some deadlines for fall admission may be in January.  Some programs may have rolling deadlines and admit throughout the year, usually with specific deadlines for each semester.  Check the schedule for each institution because there has to be enough time to not only take the GRE but to prepare the application, improve the resume, edit the writing sample, arrange for letters of recommendation, and write a cover letter.  In either the application or the cover letter, if not in both places, the applicant should explain his or her intended career goals, research interests, language preparation, and which undergraduate courses were the best preparations for graduate study.  Just as important is to note significant responsibilities linked with employment or volunteer work that suggest reliability, a strong work ethic, and independence (in business, “self-starter” is the catch word).  In short, the applicant should argue why she or he is qualified for graduate study in outline form in the resume and using prose in the letter.

Since admission is selective, especially in the top schools, and applicants are abundant, even the best students should apply to a number of institutions.  Some individuals apply to three programs, others six, and I have written letters of recommendation for one graduate student who applied to 12 institutions one year and 11 the second.  Preparing each application takes time, in part because every program may want slightly different information, which is another reason to begin the process of selecting a graduate program and preparing the application early.

Selecting a Graduate Program

To decide on a graduate school, a student should consider the library, professors, funding, and reputation.  Other factors in determining which graduate school to attend may include the attractions and employment potential of a particular city or region of the country, but they are far less important than the academic strengths of an institution.  The student should select several programs, ranking them according to their various strengths, and he or she should be prepared for rejection.

Most history majors realize fairly early that not every department offers courses covering every corner of the world or every type and method of history.  One department can be strong in a particular area because the interests of its faculty members overlap, but that same department might have only one specialist in some other field and nobody to cover certain topics.  Furthermore, several departments in a university may collaborate to offer area studies programs.  High on every student’s list of graduate programs should be those with a critical mass of professors in his or her area of interest.  Those professors should then work with their counterparts in other departments to provide students with an interdisciplinary experience.  Because language is so essential, the student should be sure that a target university offers the languages one needs, especially when it comes to the less common ones.  For example, an American studies program might have history at its core, but it also may draw on other specialists in the university who may focus on classical and jazz music, art, sociology, geography, political science, anthropology, literature, and linguistics.  Such programs exist for other parts of the world, and there are similar interdisciplinary joint ventures that focus on areas like urban studies, land reform, ethnic studies, and more.  Funding for these programs come from a variety of private, corporate, and government sources, and the wealthier programs will have the means to host frequent guest speakers and to organize other events.  Yet another option is to select an institution that offers the ability to obtain two degrees at once, such as a MA or PhD in history and a MA or PhD in public or international affairs, law, medicine, or any number of areas.  Obtaining a dual degree enhances one's research skills and marketability.  A 2013 article that describes dual degrees as well as their advantages and pitfalls in the Chronicle of Higher Education is located here.

Determining which universities have a group of professors in history and other fields who are best poised to further a graduate student's development requires a bit of research.  The undergraduate student should consider the location of authors whose monographs they found compelling.  They should communicate with experts in the field that interests them not only their own university but also at other institutions.  The student also should join professional associations, such as the American Historical Association and its various affiliated groups, all of which have very low membership rates for students.  Their newsletters and the contacts these organizations provide are invaluable.  Perhaps a student will find it possible to attend a national or regional conference an organization hosts or some gathering of scholars in which the organization’s members are likely to attend.  There, the student can meet well-known scholars as well as graduate students from any number of institutions.  Membership in some organizations also comes with a subscription to a journal with scholarly articles, reviews, and news items.

Yet another factor to consider, when selecting a graduate school, is how many history graduates find employment in fields outside of academia, whether it is teaching or administration.  Rarely do history departments train students specifically for work in government, business, or other fields, but many end up in alternate career paths.  Programs that have public history components and faculty members who have had employment or consulting experience outside academia intentionally or inadvertently may convey more skills to their students that are applicable outside of academia than programs that are specifically research oriented.  Typically, elite private schools tend to stress research, and the top state institutions often pride themselves on providing a broader education, but that general rule does not always apply.  Prestigious private institutions also may provide their students with a varied mix of skills, depending on the courses they offer and the backgrounds of their professors.  There is no specific way to gauge the ability of a university to prepare a student for nonacademic employment, other than to examine the list of courses, options for taking courses outside the department, and the experience of the faculty members.  Certainly, prospective students should not hesitate to ask individual professors and department chairs about what their program does to prepare students for nonacademic alternatives and how many of their graduates find employment in such fields.  For a better understanding of this aspect of doctoral programs in history, see the results of the 2001 and 2016 by Robert B. Townsend in his 5 June 2016 article “How Are History PhD Programs Responding to the Job Crisis?” for History News Network, which is available at

Even if they offer a doctorate, some departments can admit students specifically to their master’s degree program, in which case the student will need to apply at a later time for admission for doctoral studies.  Departments also admit students directly into the doctoral program but may give students the option of receiving a MA once they have completed all of the appropriate requirements.  Although a person who is determined to receive a PhD may think that there is no reason to get the master’s diploma, which is simply a milepost in their graduate career, it is best to have the degree.  After receiving a MA, which usually takes a year and a half to two years, a student is not even half way finished with the doctorate.  Ahead are several steps: first, three semesters of additional course work; second, a semester or academic year of preparation for comprehensive exams that may be oral, written, or both; third, a year or two of research for the dissertation (foreign study often involves more than one year); fourth, one to three years of writing the dissertation; fifth, defending the dissertation and then revising it based on the comments of the doctoral committee, which may take a few weeks or even months.  Occasionally, life intervenes, and students must interrupt their doctoral studies at some point after they have passed the master’s level.  Personal matters, such as financial or health difficulties, or family concerns, like the illness or death of a loved one, may force a student to interrupt his or her studies.  Without the master’s degree, which institutions will not award retrospectively, the student only will be able to tell a potential employer that he or she has completed courses toward a doctoral degree instead of stating that she or he has a master’s degree as well as additional courses at the doctoral level.  Furthermore, if a student changes institutions after receiving a master’s degree, the next institution will accept that degree and perhaps two or three additional courses toward the doctorate.  Without the MA, the new institution only will accept two or three courses.  In the event that a student has completed quite a few courses, he or she will lose time and money as a result of the transfer.  When applying to a graduate program, determine how the department handles these issues to avoid difficulties in the future.

For more information on switching institutions while getting a graduate degree and a discussion of a "terminal" master's degree, see Philip M. Katz, "Another View of the Master's Degree: Switching Institutions on the Way to a PhD," in the January 2004 issue of the American Historical Association's newsletter Perspectives at

Business associations and marriages have a lot in common.  Partners feel the need to make progress in their lives and not stay stagnant or see their fortunes deteriorate.  They have to be compatible in terms of personality because close collaboration requires more than just toleration.  Entering into a  graduate program is like forming a long-term partnership.  Ultimately, it will end, just as a mutually-arranged marriage of convenience or a joint venture, but both sides need to maintain good relationships, in part because of the ties that will continue to bind them in the future.  Unlike most undergraduates, who file into a class and disappear when the lecture ends, graduate students have a more intimate relationship with professors in the department because the classes are small, the research requires more individual consultation, and graduate students frequently work with professors to instruct undergraduates or to undertake research.  Both sides maintain business-like relationships, even though intense intellectual bonds can develop, but there also can be disasters that result from personality conflicts.  Part of the process of selecting a graduate school, therefore, is to determine not only whether a university has professors whose interests correspond to those of the student but what the professors are like.  At some major institutions, professors may have a direct say in whether or not they want to work with a particular individual after a graduate admissions committee screens the potential candidates, but most universities admit based on the number of slots available.  Either way, the professors make the decision, not administrators or a computer, as is the case with undergraduate admissions.  As a result, a prospective graduate student should open a dialogue with one or more professors at the institutions on his or her list.  It will give the student an idea of the demeanor of the professor, and it may cause the professor to take the student’s application from the bottom of the pile.  On rare occasion, interpersonal relationships between a graduate student and a faculty member hit rocky ground, which can be unfortunate or even professionally devastating for the student, but entering a department with more than one expert in an area can mitigate the effects of a personality conflict.  Similarly, having more than one faculty member in a graduate student’s field insures some degree of continuity in the event that a faculty member goes on an extended sabbatical, retires, becomes ill, or leaves for another university.

An essential consideration is a university’s research facilities.  Having a library, even a large one, is not enough.  It must be one of the top research libraries for a graduate student because it must have not only the books and journals necessary for research but also a knowledgeable library staff and a well-stocked reference division.  Smaller libraries may be sufficient, but the researcher must expect to rely on interlibrary loan, which delays research and sometimes fails to deliver.  Universities also have archives, and some contain more pertinent materials for an individual’s research than others.  Another factor to consider is how far away a university is from other universities with important research facilities or from public archives.  Students in the Washington, DC, area can rely on the Library of Congress along with other libraries and archives in the area, even if their own institution's library is weak in a given area, while students in a small Midwestern city have no such luxury and must rely on interlibrary loan.

Paying for a graduate education is difficult, and one must consider not only the added expense of increased tuition for graduate courses but also the impact of out-of-state fees, moving expenses, setting up a new household, and lost income.  Many believe these are reasons to remain where they are or to seek less expensive alternatives, but the result may mean decreased marketability after graduate school.  The solution is to find what funding is available at various institutions, and the range is enormous.  At the selective Ivy League schools, other famous private institutions, and at many of the flagship universities of certain states, graduate students rarely pay tuition and have paid positions as graders, teaching assistants, research assistants, and teaching fellows.  In some cases, the graduate students are unionized, and collective bargaining has won them reasonable wages and benefits (approximately 50 graduate unions exist throughout the United States).  At other schools, funding is minimal or nonexistent, and even tuition waivers are rare.  When considering a program, contact the department to discuss funding, and ask about the policy for MA candidates, first-year graduate students, and advanced graduate students.  Some departments use their financial aid to attract capable students who then have difficulty finding funds later in their career.  Sometimes universities do not fund MA students, but they may have generous amounts available for doctoral candidates.  Furthermore, universities may have strict limits on how long a student can receive financial aid.  Funding, therefore, can range from nothing to what amounts to entry-level management, when one factors in the value of tuition waivers.  Students also should seek outside funding from corporations, associations, or granting agencies.  Such funds often are available to students at any institutions, although some effectively limit their awards to the top schools in a given field.  For example, the US Department of Education offers Foreign Language Area Scholarships (FLAS) at specific institutions for students who wish to study languages critical to America's foreign policy interests, such as Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and a host of other languages.  Graduate students receive approximately $18,000 for an academic year and a tuition waiver, as long as they take language courses with the other courses in their fields.  Other outside granting agencies offer support for students preparing for doctoral exams, others traveling abroad to research, or those who have completed their research and are writing their dissertations.

A doctor writes a prescription, and the pharmacist explains that a generic drug is available as an alternative to the name brand the doctor had prescribed.  The customer weighs the options, wants the most reliable medication, and declines the less expensive generic brand.  On the way out of the store, the customer picks up a few items: Kleenex, Scotch tape, two cans of Campbell’s soup, and a six-pack of Coca-Cola.  Less expensive products, some perhaps of better quality, can substitute for all of these items, but the customer feels more secure with the name brands.  Frequently, the generic brands perform or taste just the same as the more expensive brands, yet consumers trust the companies they know.  Name recognition also pertains to universities.  When surveys ask graduate students to name the top programs in history, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and Chicago usually are high on the list.  State schools rank lower, including Indiana University, which is fortunate to make the top 20.  Yet, for someone interested in certain aspects of East-Central European history, for example, Indiana’s faculty and research facilities are superior to the top-ranked schools.  Prestigious as they may be, the most famous graduate institutions have their drawbacks.  Selecting a program on name alone, therefore, can be short sighted.  Other institutions may serve the interests of a graduate student better, and many assume that the Ivy League schools produce graduates who do not relate to average students or simply hold a bias against anything that smacks of elitism.  A recent study revealed that 11 prestigious institutions provide half of those who received tenured and tenure-track positions in political science.  Graduates from more than 100 other institutions compete for the remaining positions.  Another study, available here, reaches the same conclusion with respect to those receiving doctorates in English.  Although logic dictates that the elite institutions have no monopoly on intelligence, elitism prevails.  Any student planning on getting a doctorate in the humanities and social sciences, where the employment opportunities are so scarce, must consider this unfortunate reality.  The inset below contains information about popular listings of graduate programs with specific references to history as well as other information about university ratings.

More Information on Graduate Program Rankings

Popular Graduate School Ranking Sites

Other Sites That Rank Graduate Schools

National Center for Educational Statistics --

National Research Council --

Graduate School Finding Aid

For a finding aid to help students select graduate programs that a Dartmouth mathematics professor developed with data from the National Research Council, National Science Foundation, and National Center for Educational Statistics, see:

Name Recognition and Degree Marketability

An article that discusses the tendency of graduates from the top schools to fill the most vacancies in academia appears in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives newsletter at

A common misperception of students is that they never would be accepted to an Ivy League university or its equivalent.  A student with good grades, glowing recommendations, high GRE scores, and the ability to research and write well has a very good chance of entering an internationally-respected program.  Although such institutions may tend to accept their own students and those from other highly-rated institutions, they also admit qualified candidates from across the United States and throughout the world.  Similarly, students should not hesitate to consider foreign institutions.  In many cases, they may find that unlike schools in the United States, which may charge foreign students a premium, institutions abroad have reasonable rates because of generous government funding and the recognition among politicians that a diverse student body facilitates learning.  Sweden, for example, actually pays its students to attend universities (until recently, even foreign students paid no tuition), and admission is competitive on a worldwide basis, with Swedes receiving no preference in the process.  Other institutions even advertise competitions throughout the world for limited slots in doctoral programs that amount to salaried positions.  Such advertisements often appear in the employment pages of H-Net at

A campus visit, often the highlight of selecting an undergraduate institution, is rare and sometimes unnecessary in the process of selecting a graduate program.  Far more important are phone calls or e-mail exchanges with professors.  Another means of discovering the ins and outs of a graduate program is to talk with graduate students who already have completed at least one year at an institution.  Professors often are willing to serve as intermediaries to link a prospective student with a current student, and the history clubs and student associations at various departments of history have web sites that list activities and provide a means of establishing contacts.  Researching the Internet also yields information about life in a particular town or city, including the cost of living.  Still, one may wish to gain a first-hand impression of a university and its surroundings, which could be a good reason to plan a brief vacation.

Determining the institution that has the right mix of professors, resources, funding, and reputation is not an easy task and requires a good deal of research and time.  Rankings alone tell little, and it is best for students to do their own research that should include an examination of university catalogs, discussions with students and professors at a number of institutions, advice from professors at the institution the student currently attends, and observations gathered from reading association newsletters and examining the publication records of academics.  When constructing the list of potential graduate schools, the student never should hesitate to include the most prestigious institutions as well as universities abroad.

Rejection and Second Thoughts

All the applications are sent, and the nerve-wracking stage of waiting begins.  Emotions are high.  One day brings thoughts of an exciting life in a particular city, and another is steeped in the depressing thoughts of rejection.  The first letter arrives: “Although yours was among the many qualified applications, we are unable to admit you at this time.”  The second rejection letter arrives from a university five states away, and one begins to wonder whether the same secretary wrote both.  At this juncture, keep in mind that the process is competitive, and another applicant may have had just one small item that made their application appear highly attractive.  It also could be that a professor is unwilling to take on another graduate student, in which case none of the qualified applicants gain admission to the program.  Often, a rejection letter will tell the student why he or she was not admitted.  If not, the student should call the chairman of the department to determine what the problem might have been.  If a pattern emerges in the reasons for rejection, the student should do whatever is necessary to address the deficit and reapply.  After all, a rejection does not mean that a department automatically excludes a student’s future application.

The differences between an undergraduate and graduate history program are vast, and sometimes a student is admitted to a program and in the first year believes that he or she is not suited to the academic lifestyle.  These students turn to teaching, law, business, technical, administrative, and even medical fields.  Even though a student may decide to stop seeking a graduate degree in history, he or she has not squandered time and money on a useless pursuit.  The reading, writing, research, and analytical skills that one acquires through the study of history readily transfer into other fields.  A view of the business skills a doctorate in the humanities provides from Megan Doherty, who completed her doctorate and left academia to work with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC, is available at   Consider also the section titled “Developing an Exit Strategy” in “Career Guide for History Majors” available on this web site.

Closing Thoughts

The process of selecting and applying for graduate programs is time consuming, and those who set their career trajectory early in their undergraduate career are best prepared for admission and less stressed in their senior year.  Although the entire process may appear to be daunting, it is similar to applying for any other professional or graduate program in that persistence, patience, and planning have their rewards.

Additional Resources

Students interested in applying to graduate school should check the Internet for more articles that discuss the various steps for preparing an application.  Two excellent articles are:

For those interested in public history, consider the following article: and the information from the National Council on Public History at

I encourage any current history graduate student, recent recipient of an MA or PhD, or professor to contact me by e-mail with any comments about this article along with suggestions for correcting or amending it.

Rev. 22. IX. 2016