Considering Grad School in History?

Frequently Asked Questions on Graduate School in History

What are the requirements to get into grad school?

The requirements for our own program are as follows:

  • GPA minimum of 3.25 for either the MA or PhD program
  • GRE Scores (for PhD applicants only). Subject GRE is unnecessary.
  • A writing sample (length varies between MA and PhD program)
  • A statement of purpose of 2-3 pages indicating your areas of interest, your background in history, and any other pertinent information that will help us evaluate your suitability for our program.
  • Two letters of recommendation

What can I do to prepare for graduate school?

In addition to keeping up your GPA, here are some suggestions:

  • Take language classes. First, knowing the languages of the place/period you want to study are an important step in showing dedication and preparation for those studies. Second, almost all history graduate programs require at least reading knowledge of two foreign languages. This is even true for U.S. history, although some U.S. programs require one rather than two languages. Learning languages before you get to grad school makes you a better candidate and will make your life easier once you get there.
  • Get to know professors, especially those in the area you propose to study. Not only will you need good letters of recommendation but these professors can provide guidance and point to opportunities.
  • Decide on an area of interest within history. Think in terms of place, time, and topic. For example, you might be interested in 20th c. U.S. immigration history or 16th c. Latin American gender history.
  • Work on producing a good research paper, preferably within that area of history. You will need it as a writing sample. Senior Seminar is a good place for this.
  • Gain experience outside the classroom. Working in a museum, studying abroad, doing research or archaeology, travel to a place you are interested in to take a class or work… all of these things will give you valuable skills and help you stand out among candidates.

My GPA isn’t so good. Have I ruined my chances of going to graduate school?

The answer may well be yes, if not forever at least for the next several years. The GPA requirements are minimums. Schools will have numerous candidates with GPAs well over the minimum to choose from.

How you are measuring your GPA? Some schools look at overall GPA, others look only at your GPA in your major. Some do not look at transfer credits.

If there is a reason you did poorly in one single semester or isolated period, despite an overall record of success? For example, was there a serious family issue or a health crisis? If so, explain that in your personal statement. Also point to your recovery (grade-wise) and overall record of success. It is good to address any anomalies in your record, but to do so in a way that is positive and demonstrates your academic success and perseverance rather than in a way that is defensive or defeatist.

If a low GPA was not caused by a single crisis, it is a bigger problem. The best way to offset a slightly low GPA is to build an extensive portfolio of significant experience outside school relevant to the type of work you want to do in graduate school. You can also take undergraduate classes, for example languages, at a community college or take graduate classes as a non-degree seeking student at a local program.

These routes MIGHT lead to an MA program, and if you do very well in that you could transition to a PhD. But there is no room for missteps and you will be at a serious disadvantage.

Is taking time off between undergrad and grad school a bad thing?

Heavens, no.

On the one hand, gaining experience outside of graduate school can make you a more attractive candidate. It might also help you enter grad school better prepared in a number of ways.

How helpful it is, of course, depends on what you do. Gaining experience in a foreign language or culture (working abroad in any field), in a field related to history (teaching, publishing, journalism or writing, media technology, libraries or archives, or museums, to name a few), or in a field related to the type of history you would like to do (working with immigrants if you are interested in the history of immigration, for example, or in a health field if you are interested in the history of medicine) will be helpful in admission and in completing your graduate work. That is, working in MANY fields can be useful but it will be up to you to sell it!

On the other hand, there are many, many opportunities out there that do not require a graduate education. Many of them offer benefits you will not gain through a graduate education in history. You might decide that graduate school in history isn’t for you, that you enjoy a career that doesn’t require graduate education, or that you would like to pursue graduate education in something other than history. And that is a great thing.

Is grad school expensive?

It is a sacrifice, and it CAN be expensive, but you should not go into debt or empty your savings for it.

Most PhD programs are funded. That is, you generally work as a teaching assistant or in some other capacity in exchange for tuition and a modest salary, usually enough to live on frugally. Generally speaking, you should not enroll in a PhD program that is not funded.

Some MA programs are funded along a similar model; most are not. Private universities can be very expensive while public universities, especially where you are an in-state student, are not. In the case of MA programs that are not fully funded, there might still be some funding available for some students. It is always fair to ask, especially once you have been admitted but before you have accepted.

What can I do with a graduate degree?

Most graduate programs still train PhDs with the expectation that they will teach at universities. This is something of a problem because only about half of all history PhDs end up with long-term, permanent jobs in academia. Some leave the field entirely (go to law school, work in fields unrelated to history). Others work in fields like publishing or museums, more closely related to history. Others work in academia doing things other than teaching history, such as working in admissions or in a dean’s office.

A Master’s degree is both more versatile and leads less directly to any job. In many jobs an MA will mean a higher salary. This is especially true in teaching or in government work. But these jobs also require other preparation and experience, so you need to think hard about where you would like to go and start building towards that before, during, and after your MA program.

How do I choose a grad school?

With graduate school, and especially with PhD programs, you do not pick a school so much as you pick an advisor and program. What is your interest in history (see question 2, above)? What programs offer classes and have faculty in that area? A professor here who works in that area can help you identify some schools, but you will also want to do some googling. Look at history departments' websites. Do they have faculty in the area you want to study? Does the department offer an MA? A PhD? What sort of funding do they offer? You can get all of this from departments’ websites.

Should I do an MA first? Or go right on to a PhD?

There are benefits and disadvantages to both routes. Obviously going right to a PhD has the possibility of getting you finished earlier. But getting an MA first lets you see if graduate school is really right for you. If you decide it isn’t, you leave after two years with a degree. If you decide it is, doing well in an MA program will likely help you get into a better PhD program than you will have straight out of undergrad. We have had students from our MA program at FIU get into PhD programs at University of South Carolina, Harvard, and Princeton. Remember that all PhDs are not equal on the job market.

What else should I know?

One thing you should know is that getting a job as a history professor—if that is your goal—absolutely requires geographic mobility. You cannot expect to go to undergrad in Miami, graduate school in Miami, and then get a full-time job teaching at a college in Miami. Not only will you likely need to go away to the BEST graduate program for you, but it is then very likely that you will need to again move to a new area of the country for a job, and often several times.

Why should I go to graduate school?

This is a question you need at answer for yourself. More to the point, you need to consider ALL the other options out there and think about those first. Think about ALL the reasons NOT to go to graduate school. Then consider realistically what doors would be opened to you if you pursue graduate school in history. Are you actually interested in those options?

Remember that this is just a start. If you are still seriously considering graduate school you should talk early and often with professors who can guide you in the process.