OpinionFrom Tiger to WildCat

Becoming flexible in the graduate school application process
Thomas Harvell-DegolierApril 25, 20191163 min
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Illustration by Genevieve Humphreys

Deciding where — and whether — to go to graduate school is a hard choice. You have to create a curriculum vitae (CV), polish up a writing sample, solicit letters of recommendation and — of course — write a personal statement for each school you apply to. And revise, revise, revise. Much like a good paper, your CV and personal statement will end up going through many different changes and fixes. I decided to apply to Ph.D. programs in history because I love research and I love looking at how domestic politics influences foreign relations. I could see myself studying that for the rest of my life. However, it is a commitment and one that you need to think carefully about

The best way to go about creating your grad school portfolio is to get as many eyes on it as possible; if you want to go to graduate school, ask your professors to help you! They want to help you to succeed, they know your work, they know what graduate schools look for and your submission/application will be so much stronger because of their feedback. Seriously, while applying this past cycle, I probably had upwards of 20 pairs of eyes go over my material, and while I still got rejections, my application was strong enough to get me into one Ph.D. Program and into one M.A. — with full funding. It’s a stressful process, and you will need all the help you can get. You’ll be anxious for results and you will likely face disappointment, but everything will come out alright.

I wanted to study history and teach it at a collegiate level because I can imagine nothing I would enjoy doing more; however, the reality is, as many professors will — or should — tell you, the job market in academia, especially humanities, has become fraught. For example, the number of jobs for academic historians is far outpaced by the number of history Ph.D.s produced each year and — while Trinity is anomalous — 70% of academic labor is now taught by adjuncts who get little pay for class, few benefits and can easily get pulled into poverty without the guarantee of full employment. Even graduate students such as Thea Hunter who study under luminaries such as Eric Foner struggle to find work and get caught up in the pit of adjunct labor.

If you’re set on academia, it is important to realize these dangers and to somehow insulate yourself against them. As one of my advisers said, always have a backup, and while in graduate school, take time to gain transferable skills. This, of course, is easier said than done as adjusting to TA-ing and graduate-level work will, in most Ph.D. programs, take up too much of your time to make outside opportunities easy to pursue.

The realities of the job market and the honesty of my mentors guided me as I applied. Since the job market is difficult, I only applied to the best schools for my field because those were the ones that could best place me in an academic job; however, after the dust settled I realized that I needed to slow down and take more time, both to prep for doctoral level work and to be able to gain skills that transfer outside of academia.

The necessity of prepping for not getting an academic job is why I turned down a Ph.D. offer to a school I really loved and with professors who seemed amazing to go to a M.A. program that equally impressed me, but had more flexibility to gain non-academic skills. That is why, starting next fall, I will enter the M.A. in history program at the University of Villanova. The focus on internships and the varied definitions of success at Villanova blew me away as did their resources for traditional academic work. With job opportunities on campus for graduate students, opportunities for conference and summer funding, deep connections with local groups for internships and a writing center staffed by professionals who help graduate students improve their writing, the program is built to help graduate students reach any type of success, whether it be going on to a Ph.D. program, a public history career or secondary school teaching.

While I intend to continue on an academic path, the opportunity Villanova offered to explore and gain skills in other routes won me over, and rather than go straight into a doctoral program, I’m going to an excellent master’s program. Be flexible about what you’ll do. If you get into a Ph.D. program, it might not be the best fit for you at that moment and you can always apply again to the same Ph.D. program.

Thomas Harvell-Degolier

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