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Logo The content below is information specific to this academic department's fields of interest.

Questions and Answers about Graduate School in History

Muskingum College, Department of History, © 2007

1. Where should I start?

1. Where should I start?

The Department has two important places to begin exploring the prospects of graduate school in the field of History. First is the American Historical Association's (AHA) pamphlet entitled: Careers for Students of History, located on the small bookcase in the History suite. This pamphlet provides guidance on a variety of careers, including teaching at the collegiate level, archival training, and public history. The second are the AHA's guides to history programs, their faculty, and their specialties, called The AHA Directory of History Departments and Organizations in the United States and Canada also located in the small bookcase in the History suite. You can also search for information about graduate programs in history, including by field of specialization on the AHA website: Once you have decided on a target degree and/or specific field of study, these can help you find the departments most suited to your own interests. However, you should double-check academic websites to verify that key faculty members are still at the institution and taking graduate students; for example, ensuring they have not retired.

Other important resources to consider are independent rankings of graduate programs. While it is often very difficult to compare the qualities, competencies and resources of graduate programs, several independent research bodies have devised various means to make relative comparisons. The National Research Council has created one ranking of 111 graduate schools in History [click here]. Keep in mind that this ranking dates from 1995 (unfortunately an updated list is not yet available) and that often a program ranked in the second or third tier overall might have a top-ranked program within a specific field of study. An interactive approach to the same data, which lets you set your own priorities for ranking the schools, is available at  U.S. News and World Report offers yearly rankings.  Their list serves as a good start for further investigation:

2. What are the most important aspects of applying to graduate school?

  • Finding the right fit:
    First and foremost, do your research in terms of which programs and faculty are the best fit for you. Keep in mind that this part of the application process includes such elements as: prospective faculty advisors whose interests are close to your own; types and likelihood of financial aid available; geographic location; cost of living; track record in placing graduate students upon degree completion; likelihood of teaching opportunities (both as a TA and as an advanced graduate with one's own class) and minimum GPA (schools usually require a minimum of a 3.0 overall GPA and often higher within your history major) and GRE scores (varies greatly dependent on the institution).  Internet searching as well as the guides listed above will be particularly important during this process. You should begin this process in the spring semester of your junior year, giving yourself plenty of time to explore all your options.
  • Requesting information:
    Once you have narrowed your search to several good matches, request information directly from the institution. Some institutions send out information directly from History departments, while others may route all information through the Graduate School. Again your search process above will point you in the right direction. At this point in the process, you should also contact the specific faculty member(s) with whom you want to work, if you have ascertained this. If you know that you’re a person who will need regular contact with and encouragement from an advisor, the timeliness and nature of the faculty member’s reply is the first indication as to whether your chosen institution might be a good fit. Additionally, it’s always useful to make sure they are accepting graduate students, etc. before one applies.   
  • Completing Applications:
    Pay attention to all the different elements of the application process including: statement of purpose (which you should have your recommenders read and offer suggestions); due dates for materials; types of recommendations (some schools have forms that must be sent with each letter, while others just request a recommendation letter); whether they require official or unofficial transcripts and/or GRE scores; whether they require a writing sample and if so, maximum and minimum page lengths; and any additional materials. Application completion requires a great deal of organization and attention to detail.
    • Having a checklist for each institution will ensure that you submit all necessary elements on time.
    • An important part of every graduate school application is your statement of purpose, and often it can be the key piece that sets you apart from other applicants. Be prepared to spend a good deal of time on it, and work through drafts with your academic advisor and/or other faculty here at Muskingum. In this document, the Graduate Program will expect you to clearly articulate why you wish to pursue a degree in History and in which field(s) you want to focus. In addition, if you have an idea for a specific research topic, you should include this as well. Additionally, you should mention the faculty members you wish to work with – by name. Many schools filter applications through potential advisors, who choose the students with whom they’d like to work.
    • Make sure you request your recommendation letters with plenty of advance notice from faculty members with whom you have had at least two classes, and preferably at least one upper-level class. You do not have to request letters only from members of the History Department; if you have worked closely with a faculty member from another department, it is appropriate to ask him/her for a letter as well. To best prepare your recommenders, you should provide each one with an updated transcript, an updated resume, a copy of your statement of purpose, and list of other recommenders. It is also a good policy to meet with him/her to discuss the nature of the program and what you might like the recommender to address in your letters of recommendation.
    • Choose the writing sample (if required) carefully to ensure that it is both your best work and that it fits within the institution's guidelines. Be prepared to spend additional time working on it and review it with the supervising professor. The writing sample is extremely important. You’ll want to have pages that speak to your interests, your skill as a historian, and your ability to communicate clearly and effectively. As such, you should prepare to your best possible work during your final year of coursework, particularly in H460 when you are writing your senior seminar.
  • Considering financial support:
    • Unless you are independently wealthy, you should apply for financial assistance from each institution to which you are applying. Financial assistance could come in several different forms including, but not limited to: Fellowships, Teaching Assistantships (T.A.), Research Assistantships (R.A.), and internships. Fellowships typically (but not always) provide a tuition waiver and a monthly stipend, with no requirement for the graduate student to work a designated position in the department. Essentially, fellowships allow you to focus full-time on being a student, and, therefore, are both the most desirable and the most difficult to obtain. More common are TA or RA positions, which usually come with tuition waivers and a small monthly stipend in exchange for teaching small sections of entry-level classes or providing research assistance to a faculty member. Within archival and public history programs, sometimes paid internships are available to off-set the costs of graduate school.
    • For Fellowships, TA and RA positions, institutions typically set a maximum number of years that students may hold said positions. Some require students to re-apply on an annual basis, while others guarantee a certain number of years (or semesters) of funding, provided that minimum requirements are met. In addition, these types of funding are normally first offered to students who will pursue a PhD, rather than just an MA, so if different options for degree pursuit are offered on an application form, make sure that you choose the PhD option if that is your end goal.
    • You should also investigate outside funding sources. Do not simply rely upon the graduate institution to provide support. There are numerous sources of funding for specific areas of study, types of students, ethnic background, etc. An investment of your time here can be very profitable to you later.
    • Many students do take out loans to complete graduate degrees. If you do choose this option, try to keep them to a minimum and to supplement your income with other forms of employment. Bear in mind that the number of graduates far exceeds the number of open positions.
  • Visiting the campus:
    Once you have been accepted to a program (or programs), make sure that you visit. Meet with your prospective advisor(s) and get a feel for how they interact with their graduate students. Meet or exchange emails/phone calls with current graduate students, both of the graduate institution and those that have worked with or are currently working with your prospective advisor. Ask for their frank appraisal of the program, how it supports its graduate students and how it provides opportunities for both graduate student teaching and research. You will be spending between two and ten years with your faculty advisor and in this particular program. Be sure you feel comfortable with and fully understand the program.

3. What is the G.R.E. and how important is it?

  • Part of the application process will be the taking of the Graduate Record Examination (G.R.E.), information about which is available on-line ( and in Career Services. Many institutions will specify minimum scores required to gain admission. The format of the test includes a written section, for which your classes in our department should have well-prepared you. However, other sections of the exam include mathematics and verbal/vocabulary testing in a multiple choice format. We would strongly recommend purchasing a guide to the G.R.E., studying for it, and taking many sample tests prior to taking the exam in order to familiarize yourself with its patterns and types of questions. You can take the current, computerized form of the G.R.E. in numerous locations on a date of your choosing; consult the above website for details.
  • In terms of the importance of the G.R.E., answers to this vary dependent on institutions. Some programs require it, some do not; some put a great deal of stock in the score, some do not. However, you should keep in mind that you are competing for limited spots within programs with undergraduates from across the country, perhaps the world, and from a wide variety of colleges and universities. Given that training, major requirements, and academic rigor vary greatly, the G.R.E. provides admissions committees with the only country-wide (and even international) standard assessment of your abilities and allow the admissions committees to compare you against other applicants. This does not mean that the G.R.E. is the most important element of the entire application process; more that it is a unique way to measure your abilities against those of your peers, and important in this sense.

4. What should I know about the realities of graduate school in History?

  • Standard MA Programs: Typically MA programs take two years to complete, and require you to demonstrate mastery in one language. Total credit hours or coursework vary dependent on program, but typically they take two to four semesters. Some MA programs require comprehensive exams (both written and oral) at the end of the process, others require an MA Thesis (ranges from 100-200 pages and contains original research), while still others may require both. Typically for a MA degree, students choose a major field of study and a minor field. Financial support for MA degrees is sometimes limited.
  • MA Programs in Archival Work and Public History: Typically these programs also take two years to complete, may require mastery of a language, but may require a different end project, rather than a traditional MA Thesis or comprehensive exams. These programs also require hands-on training within one's specialty, often within an internship setting.
  • Standard PhD Programs: Average time of completion for PhD programs (depending on one's main field of study) ranges from four to eight years, on top of two years pursuing one's MA. They require mastery of at least two languages, dependent on one's field of study, and sometimes, depending on one's research topic, three or four. They include usually two additional years of coursework, culminating in written and oral examinations in three or four fields (one major and two or three minor fields). The purpose of these “General Examinations” is to ensure that you have mastered the material and are prepared to teach it on our own. Then begins the research-intensive portion of the PhD, the end product of which is a dissertation, generally 200-400 pages in length and containing original research. The rigor and length of PhD programs in History typically results in a 50% completion rate, i.e. also a 50% drop out rate. It is a difficult and challenging path to follow to the end. In fact, graduate studies in history are more difficult to complete than most other graduate degrees. According to studies by the Council of Graduate Schools and reported by the AHA's Robert Townsend, "Less than half of all history doctoral students will complete their studies within ten years . . . giving history a lower 10-year completion rate than almost all other disciplines." Description: Attrition rates
  • Fields of study are normally geographically and chronologically-specific, but could also be thematic in nature (e.g. gender, military, sexuality, diplomacy, imperialism). Examples of traditional geographic and chronological fields of study are as follows:
    • United States: Early U. S.; Modern U.S.
    • Europe: Ancient; Medieval; Early Modern Europe; Modern Europe
    • Latin America: Colonial and Modern
    • Asia: usually grouped by region, nation and period; Pre-Modern China, Modern China, Pre-Modern Japan, Modern Japan, Pre-Modern Southeast Asia, Modern Southeast Asia, South Asia, Korea.
    • Africa: Ancient; Early Modern; Colonial; Imperial; De-Colonization
    • Middle East
    • World and/or Atlantic World

5. What should I know about the realities of life after PhD completion if I want to teach at the college or university level?

  • First and foremost, there is a serious imbalance between the number of academic positions open (few) and the number of qualified applicants (many). The difficulty of obtaining an academic position varies dependent on one's major field of study. See, for instance, this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education concerning job history for history PhD’s at the nation’s top twenty history graduate programs:
  • The two most common major fields of study (and therefore often the two most difficult major fields in which to find a job) are Modern American History (1877-present) and Modern European History (1789-present). For each job posting, typically 150-300 well-qualified applicants apply.
  • Major fields in Asian, African, Latin American and Middle Eastern history typically have fewer jobs openings a year, but far fewer applicants per position (50-75) than the above-mentioned positions. However, they typically require fluency in non-western languages not taught at Muskingum. If you are intending to study non-European speaking regions, language study is one way to show your commitment to graduate school. Numerous universities within the U.S. and outside the U.S. provide intensive language training as well.
  • In recent years, as more institutions have added courses in world history (and sometimes reduced or eliminated traditional western civilization courses), this growing field of History has become increasingly important. In our experience here at Muskingum, the opportunity to teach world history has enhanced our regional and thematic concentrations by providing a wider and deeper base for our own understanding of historical forces, actors and encounters.
  • Given the above realities, graduate students who have a variety of fields of study (e.g. Modern U.S., Early Modern Europe, Southeast Asia) tend to have greater opportunities on the job market. Liberal arts colleges, such as Muskingum, often hire people who can teach more than one field.

6. Additional Resources:

7. Jobs Outside Academia:


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Robert Townsend, Number of History PhDs Rising Again, but Job Openings Keep Pace, From the News column of the January 2008 issue of Perspectives on History