Applying to Graduate School in History
After completing your B.A., you may choose to go directly on to graduate school. There are a number of professional graduate degree programs with specific career applications for historians. Make sure you are fully committed to the vocational goal of a graduate program before enrolling; doing otherwise could be a waste of considerable time and money.
If you are interested in working in museums, historical societies, archives, or historic preservation, you may consider a M.A. program in Public History (see, for example, our own UMass Public History Program), or a History Museum Studies M.A. program. Archivists and librarians generally hold a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science (MLS or MLIS). A good point of entry into finding the right program for you is the National Council on Public History's booklet The Public History Navigator: How to Choose and Thrive in Graduate Public History Program. Many students who pursue a Ph.D. in History do so with the intention of applying for faculty positions in academia, though the American Historical Association (through its Career Diversity initaitve) and other organization increasingly note the diverse array of careers enriched by advanced training in history. In addition to these fields, many history majors pursue a range of different kinds of graduate study, from business to the law, teaching, medicine, and beyond.
Here are some basic tips and a few resources on applying to graduate school. They're not intended to substitute for individual advice from your advisor or another professor. If you're interested in graduate study in history, talk to a professor!
When to apply: Most graduate schools require that applications be postmarked in late December, January, or early February. But you should start the process in September--and if you're thinking about graduate school in your junior year, talk to your advisor or another professor in the spring.
Where to apply: Your choice of graduate schools depends on a number of factors. Do you intend to pursue a M.A. or Ph.D.? In which area of history do you want to specialize? What are your career goals? How good are your GPA and your GRE scores? When you have an idea of your answers to the questions, talk to your advisor or another professor for suggestions on where you might apply.
What you need: Most graduate schools require the following material, though the exact requirements differ from school to school. (Be sure to check with the schools to which you apply to find out exactly what they want.)
- Application form (printed or online)
- Writing sample - a substantial piece of your writing, preferably a research paper
- Personal statement - why you want to pursue graduate study in history
- GRE scores
- Letters of recommendations from two or three professors
The writing sample should be the best work you can do. If you are using a paper you wrote for a course, you should revise it before you send it in with your application.
The personal statement is one of the trickiest parts of the application to write. Jane Bast discusses what to do - and what to avoid - in "Making a Statement" on the Chronicle of Higher Education's website. Bast is applying to graduate school in English, but her advice is useful for history students too.
Letters of recommendation are crucial. Ask for recommendations from professors who know you and your academic qualifications: for example, the prof. who taught your junior writing seminar, or one with whom you did an independent study or an honors colloquium. Professors can write better letters of recommendation if they have copies of the papers you wrote for them, your writing sample, and your statement of purpose. Keep in mind that professors are busy, many are gone over the holidays, and it takes time to write a good letter of recommendation. You should ask for recommendations as early as possible.
Make arrangements early in the fall to take the GRE (Graduate Record Examination). For more information, visit GRE.org. For history, you need take only the GRE General Examination; there is no longer a subject exam in history.
The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University maintains a directory of history departments on the web. If you want to learn more about a particular history department's graduate program, it is a great place to start.