So You Want to Apply to Grad School: Part II How to Apply

So you want to apply to grad school?  You read PART I: On Deciding to Apply and have decided you still want to bite the bullet? How do you actually go about applying?

This post is the second of a series offering advice to grad students. Some of the details may be particularly useful to students pursuing history degrees, especially food history. However, most of these tips are applicable for other humanities and social science degrees.

My experience is with American and Canadian universities, so this post will particularly address those educational systems. As I believe advice is best served with a soundtrack, enjoy Muddy Waters' Take My Advice.

As I have mentioned previously, grad school is a wonderful place to delve deeper into a subject you want to explore in more detail. You might not know exactly what you want your MA project or thesis or PhD dissertation to be on, but you need to have some idea before starting the process. The more specific you are at the start, the easier it will be to find a program and supervisor that fits.

(NB: Occasionally specific MA of PhD programs are advertised with a project already attached. I have found these advertisements more common for European graduate humanities and social science programs than in the United States or Canada. These placements often come with funding and a supervisor (and even a research team) pre-determined. You will have less flexibility with your research but if you find a project that seems appealing, go for it! For future historians, you can find these opportunities on HNET). 

I. When do I Start?
A. When do I start Looking

It is a long process. Typically grad school applications are due around January 15, but make sure to look into specifics of the program you are interested in. These are not the kinds of things you can write the night before.

I recommend beginning the process at least a year in advance of the application due date-- which means you are looking at about 18- 20 months before your program would begin. This is not to say that it is not possible to apply on faster schedule.


B. Straight from Undergrad or Do I Take Some Time Off?

This is a very personal choice. As I really want to emphasize in this entire series, you are a human being living your life. Certain choices might facilitate specific plans, but deciding when to go to grad school is a personal decision.

The benefits I found as a student that went straight from undergrad to my MA to my PhD were:

a) I still had the mentality of being a student. I was still used to reading and writing a lot and did not have to re-learn those skills as some of my colleagues who took time off did.
b) It was easier to get recommendation letters because I was still taking classes with my professors when they were writing the letters.
c) Since I still had the student mentality, I was used to living frugally. My peers who had worked in the private sector and were used to making 80 grand a year saw living on a PhD stipend as a downgrade in lifestyle. I have never made very much money, so my past year as a PhD student was the most money I have ever made. When you go from making 15 grand a year to almost 30 (cobbled together with funding packages, TAships, Research Assistant-ships, teaching contracts, and other side hustles), you feel rich.

The benefits that I saw my friends who took time off from school were:
a) They had savings (sometimes) from working and it relieved some of the pressure of working so many side jobs.
b) They had valuable life experiences that inspired them to return to study something specific.
c) OR They realized they hated their jobs and when they returned to school, they were so excited to be a student again.


II. How to Choose Where to Apply

The answer to this question differs slightly between MA and PhD programs. Many MAs are course based, so your decision of where to apply will likely relate to the strengths of a particular department or program. Do they offer courses you want to take? Your PhD program, whether or not it includes coursework, will center on writing a dissertation that is supervised by one or two supervisors. As a result, finding a specific supervisor whose interests align with yours will be the main factor in choosing a PhD program.

How do you know who to pick as a supervisor? This is a huge topic but a starting point is to who has written the books and articles in your future field. Think about how their work relates to your future project either topically, methodologically, or epistemologically.

Again, you are a person. It is OK and I even encourage you to consider personal factors like asking yourself where you want to live. You might be living in that city or town for over six years and oftentimes during your 20s or 30s. You might be in a relationship or have children and unable to move away from your current region. THIS IS OK.

Another practical matter to consider is the rent of the place you would be living. I have been fortunate to complete my graduate studies in Montreal-- an exciting city, the cultural capital of Canada, and a place with VERY cheap rent. By living in a place with a lower cost of living, my graduate funding went further than if I had lived in Toronto or New York.

While your supervisor is important, you will also be making other connections within your institution and outside of your home university, so do not worry if not everything is a perfect match. 

III. What Does An Application Involve

Graduate school applications for history degrees are usually quite similar. In addition to filling out some kind of form with your name and contact information, there are a few main components:

A. The Proposal

Your proposal is where you describe your future project. There are a few things you want your proposal to have:
1) Clearly explain what your project is about.
2) Make clear the "so what." What question is your research answering and why should we care?
3) How does your project fit within the literature (historiography)
4) Methodology: what kinds of sources will you be using (this section shows readers that your project is actually possible. Be specific about what archives you will utilize. Will you be doing oral history? How will you find your interviewees?)
5) Why here? Tell your readers why you want to do your work at that specific university and discuss how your future supervisor will be helpful.
6) You might have a short section about how this research relates to other work and research you have already conducted.
7) Make sure if the application specifies things that the committee is looking for that you actually address those questions.

B. A CV
1) There is a standardized format for writing an academic CV. Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In Blog and Book has a really useful template.
2) Proofread
3) This is a living document. In my next post I will explain how you should be updating your CV monthly.

C. Rec Letters/ Letters of Support
1) Most applications will specify 2-3 recommendation letters or letters of support.

2) When you ask professors to write you a recommendation letter, provide them with a copy of your:
a) proposal
b) CV
c) the list of schools you are applying to, the address with pre-addressed envelopes with the stamps already on them (or the link for the online application), and the deadlines
d) Do not ask someone to write you recommendation letters last minute. Give AT LEAST 3 weeks before the deadline.
e) Respect the time that these letters take. Make sure to thank professors for their letters and inform them if your application is successful.

3) Who should you ask?
Ideally you will be asking a professor that can speak to your work personally. If you attended a university with class sizes of 400 it might be difficult to find professors that know you. Make sure you go to professors' office hours.

D. Standardized Tests
I only applied to schools where no test was required. However, you may have to take the GRE. Most applicants like to give themselves a few months to study for the exam. Once you have identified institutions to which you would like to apply, make sure you find out if a test will be necessary as these tests are only given at certain times of year.

KEY: Unlike your undergraduate degree, you do not just send in an application. IT IS VERY IMPORTANT that you contact your potential future supervisor in advance. I recommend that when you have identified the places you are applying to and the people you would like to work with, read their books, email them about their research and talk to them about the potential of working with them, and go from there.

III. How Many Places Do I Apply to?
There are different opinions on this question but I applied to 5 programs for my MA and just one for my PhD. The benefit of multiple applications is that if the universities offer funding packages, it is possible to negotiate.

IV. Funding Applications

Funding applications are usually a separate process. Most MA programs are unfunded, but yours might be fully funded (lucky you!). Oftentimes, PhD offers will come with some kind of funding package attached.

While you apply to a graduate programs usually in January to attend the following year, it is common to have to apply for external funding in the fall a year before beginning your studies. In the Canadian system, this means SSHRC (for federal funding) and some kind of provincial funding. These applications usually require: a proposal, a CV, candidate statements, recommendation letters, and more!


What Does Funding Mean?
You've heard the phrase-- "fully funded" --but what does that actually mean? This can actually vary.
It can mean that you don't have to pay for tuition. It can mean that you receive a stipend. Be careful-- your stipend of guaranteed funding might include TAships and RAships.

V. What Else Should You Look Into?

Occasionally there are other types of funding available. External organizations might want to sponsor research on a specific topic.

If your work is interdisciplinary or trans-diciplinary, look into funding opportunities from other departments. While my MA in History was unfunded, I received a recruitment award from the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. Another benefit of working with other departments, programs, and institutes on your campus is that you are able to network with a wider group of scholars that can encourage and challenge you.

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