Tips for Applying to Graduate School

graduationLast year, I completed a PhD in History from Princeton University. When I arrived at Binghamton University (SUNY) to begin undergraduate studies in 2004, I had no plans to obtain a PhD or study History. I enrolled in a History course because I needed to fulfill general education requirements. By the end of the semester, I had “fallen in love” with History and with the support of my undergraduate mentors, I decided to apply to graduate programs in the field. Without any experience or knowledge about the graduate application process, I relied on my mentors to guide me along the way. Their advice proved to be invaluable–I was accepted into numerous top programs in the field. While there are many factors that influence graduate admissions decisions, I offer the following tips for undergraduate students who are planning to apply to graduate schools in the fall. While these tips are based on my own experience as a graduate student in History, they are also applicable to those interested in graduate study in a range of fields and disciplines. Be sure to check out blogger Chris Cameron’s excellent tips and strategies for completing graduate study in a timely manner.

  • Have a Clear Sense of Purpose: Graduate school is difficult and can be very costly. One should not enroll in a graduate program unless s/he has a genuine desire to pursue advanced study in a particular field. While motivations will vary, it’s important to have a clear sense of purpose and drive. This will be especially crucial during moments when you may begin to question your decision. Significantly, this will also reflect in your written materials. Your personal statement must convey—in a compelling manner—exactly why you want to pursue a Masters/Ph.D., and why you are applying to a particular program. Taking some time off after completing your undergraduate degree—if only for a year—may be useful for self-reflection and preparation.
  • Seek the Advice of Your Mentors: Before applying to graduate school, be sure to consult your undergraduate professors and mentors. These individuals will help you narrow down a list of programs and potential advisors. Be sure to consult them before sending out any written materials—prepare early drafts of a personal statement, C.V. etc. and make sure your mentors read them carefully before you send them out. Your application materials should be flawless. Also, be sure to maintain these relationships after you enroll in graduate school.
  • Do Your Homework: Apply to graduate programs that best fit your needs (professional and personal). Have a clear sense of exactly who you want to work with and why. Peruse the department website, paying particular attention to each professor’s field of study, scholarly interests, and length of time at the institution. Be sure to identify at least one tenured faculty member (Associate Professor or Professor) with whom you’d like to work, and make sure that your research interests line up with the strengths of the department to which you are applying. Also, make sure that you conduct research concerning each department’s financial package. Many programs will provide funding—with or without teaching requirements. You want to be clear about expectations for each program.
  • Communicate with your Potential Advisor/s: Be sure to reach out to potential advisors before you submit your applications. These initial interactions are crucial for a myriad of reasons—you want to make sure to work with someone who is available to accept new graduate students; someone who is responsive to you and interested in your work; and someone who is fully invested in your success. If possible, arrange an opportunity to chat by phone or meet in person to have a meaningful conversation about your future plans. This will give you some sense of what to expect on ‘the other side.’ Finally, be sure that you have done your homework before initiating contact with potential advisors—review their CVs, carefully read their books and/or a few articles. You can locate articles (and book reviews) via JSTOR (access via the library catalog).
  • Communicate with your Potential Colleagues: Be sure to reach out to graduate students in departments to which you are applying. They will provide a different perspective —and sometimes, more candid feedback—about the graduate school process. Reach out to a few individuals via email, and if possible, set up a time to chat by phone so that you can ask direct questions.
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Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain is a historian of the 20th century United States with broad interdisciplinary interests and specializations in African American History, the modern African Diaspora, and Women’s and Gender Studies. She is the author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.