UCSC History Department Guide for Students Considering Graduate School

How do I research & choose a graduate program that is right for me?

The American Historical Association (AHA) is the largest national organization of Historians in the United States. They act as a clearing house for information about graduate programs and the profession. They have a whole page that provides information on the application process in general, what to look for in a program, and information on things like admission requirements.

Keep in mind that graduate school differs in many significant ways from undergraduate coursework. You should not pick a graduate school because it is generally a great university, you need to pick a specific department that has an academic concentration or thematic/regional strength in the subject of your interest, and you will often choose one or two individual faculty in that department that you really want to work with. You will spend much of your time in graduate school doing research on your thesis topic and working closely with 1-3 faculty members, and their own areas of interest will directly shape your own projects. This means that you need to carefully research the faculty you would want to work with at each school you will apply to and read some of their work even before you apply. You can do this by researching the faculty member’s university website, which usually has a list of publications. Sometimes, instead, they post their publications to a site called Academia.edu (you may have to login to download their articles -- basic membership is free). If what they are doing is not really interesting to you, it probably isn’t the right department and university for you. Keep looking!

What should I consider before deciding to go to graduate school?

Again, graduate school is unlike undergrad in many ways. A Ph.D. program often takes 5-7 years, including a few years of coursework and many years of independent research. Graduate school is not for people who “like history,” but instead, for students that are serious about doing original research, are strong writers, and who are self-starters that want to pursue intellectual goals. Ph.D. programs (especially in History) are writing intensive and will require that you are extremely self-motivated. You may also be working as a Teaching Assistant (TA) while doing coursework, so organization and an ability to balance many activities at once are key skills.

Graduate degrees take many years, years when most of your peers will be gainfully employed, and you will be making-ends-meet. Jobs as “tenure-track” professors are not easy to get, and many people who receive a Ph.D. never get a job as a professor. If you do the work to get this degree, will you be okay with getting a job outside of a research university? Students who see the Ph.D. as a direct line to a job as a professor are often disappointed by reality. The AHA (mentioned above) often publishes statistics on the number of Ph.D. students who successfully obtain employment in academia, and on average, more than 80 applicants (all with Ph.D.s!) apply for every one job posting for the position of Assistant Professor in History departments and closely related fields. This demonstrates how extremely competitive the job search will be for anyone who hopes to become a History professor.

Before deciding to go to graduate school, you should first work with a UCSC Career Center coach and reflect on your personal and professional goals. Career coaches can help you clarify your career aspirations and identify occupations (some that you might not have even heard of!) that align with your interests and values. There are also many types of graduate degrees, and career coaches can help you determine if a Ph.D. program is the right choice for you. With their assistance, you might discover alternative professionalization opportunities that more closely align with your career trajectory.

If you know positively you want a graduate degree in History, to find the right department and faculty to match your interests, you may have to go outside of California, or live in a city that isn’t necessarily where you would choose to live otherwise. Once you get a M.A. or Ph.D., if you want to become a professor, you will have to apply for jobs wherever they are located (again, likely outside CA and often in cities that you may not love). Getting a job in academia is kind of like the NFL draft - if you get offered a job, you usually have to take it. Most people apply for tens of jobs after receiving the Ph.D. and are only offered one. Many faculty members live far from their hometown and families, so if living in one specific city is really important to you, think carefully about what you want to get out of a graduate degree. The person who gets a Ph.D. in California and then a job as a tenure-track professor in California is *very rare* (ask your UCSC professors where they got their Ph.D.s and where they grew up). You may not be able to find work you want in the exact place you want to live. Think about your priorities and balancing your work/life goals.

What can I do to prepare to apply to graduate school while I’m an undergrad?

1. If you have a basic sense of what you want to pursue in graduate school (19th century US labor history, for example), search the AHA’s directory of History departments and organizations and identify 3-5 programs that specialize in that subject and look at their degree requirements.

  • Do you need a foreign language or multiple languages? Don’t assume the answer is no! Look at program requirements and if so, get started now. You will often need to be able to read that language for research, so you likely will need at least 2 full years of instruction (and sometimes more). Some schools make you pass a test in that language before you move on in their program. For programs focused on ancient history, often ancient languages are required before acceptance.
  • Do they expect you to have already completed some type of coursework, or internship, or fieldwork to demonstrate your seriousness/capabilities? If so, seek out related internships, work with faculty at UCSC in related fields, or make sure to complete those requirements to make yourself stand out as a candidate.
  • Do you need to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)? If so, some students like to “prep” for the exam and review the format of the test in advance.

2. Study abroad/away from UCSC. If you are interested in the history of a non-US country, one of the best ways you can become informed about research on that location is by spending time living and studying there. This is especially true if the native language of that country is necessary for you to learn. Attending courses, visiting local archives and historical sites, attending in-country lectures, and speaking to faculty and historians there about areas of study and graduate programs will give you a great perspective on the field (and excellent material for your application personal statement). Summer courses abroad are particularly great opportunities to learn a language. So if you want to study Colonial Latin America, or Medieval Spain, you should be connecting with the UCSC Study Abroad office as early as possible to figure out what kinds of programs are available that would expose you to classes and locations that are focused as closely as possible on those topics.

3. After you have read through this whole document, and the AHA links (especially the Application and Decision Process webpage), seek out graduate students here at UCSC that are in the general area of your interest. Ask them to chat with you about grad school and what advice they would give you. They are in the middle of it, so they are great people to talk to about the admissions process, funding, and job prospects. Ask them why they chose to come to UCSC, and where else they had considered applying. Make sure what they describe about their activities and lives sounds like something you want to do.

4. After your initial research into programs and talking to grad students, it is then time to go and speak directly to your UCSC professors. Don’t waste your face-to-face time with them asking questions that can be answered by online research! Go in with specific questions about programs you are interested in and faculty you might want to work with. Ask them if there are additional programs you haven’t considered that you should, as they will have a sense of which universities may have strong programs that you have not yet identified.

5. You will likely need a writing sample for graduate school that demonstrates you are a strong writer and researcher. This could be work from your History writing seminar course or from a thesis that you produce working with an individual faculty after completing your seminar. You will need lots of practice doing research and improving your writing before having something ready to send, so try and take multiple seminars and really try and improve your communication skills during your regular coursework. If you are using a paper from a class, make sure you spend *lots of time* editing it and proofreading it before you send it in. If your professor gave you feedback, make sure you address those issues. Ask someone with good editing skills to look it over before you send it in. If there are spelling mistakes and errors, it will negatively impact your application.

6. You will also need strong letters of recommendation from History faculty members, preferably at least one in your area of interest. That means taking multiple upper-division classes and a writing seminar with 1-2 faculty members in that area, and making sure that you are an *outstanding* student. Graduate schools expect you to be a truly excellent student, with excellent grades and activities that show your promise as a future scholar. Attend those faculty member’s office hours and ask about research opportunities, internships, anything you can do to get involved in History on campus or with their own research work. If they don’t really know you, and you just took one class with them, they are not able to write you a strong letter of recommendation.

Does this seem like a lot of work? It is! Casual applications to graduate school are rarely successful. Hundreds of students will be seriously applying themselves to all the above steps and if you want to get into a great program for you, you have to spend the time and do the necessary research.

Remember that you need to ask for letters of recommendation 2-4 weeks before they are due, at a minimum. Faculty are busy and often cannot quickly write you a good letter that talks about your potential as a scholar. See the guide on tips for asking for letters of recommendation: Tips for Undergraduates Seeking Letters of Reference by Kate Jones. Writing letters for students takes significant work for faculty members, so once you’ve contacted a faculty member and they’ve agreed to write for you, try and send them one email with all the information they will need (see the Jones document “What you’ll need”). Sending a faculty member various emails with different files is just asking them to lose it or to miss a deadline. You are not the only student asking!

7. You may need to take the GRE exams. Check with your top programs (that should be on their website). This has to be done months in advance of your application, and many schools require GRE scores *before* the application due date.

When to apply

You absolutely do NOT need to go to graduate school immediately after undergrad. In fact, most faculty advise their students to take *at least one year* off between undergraduate and graduate school, but more time to gain skills, learn foreign languages, or being employed in a related job actually improves your chances of being considered as a serious applicant by a graduate school. Often, students who have worked 2+ years and have other experiences can get better funding offers because they are stronger applicants. Most students coming right out of undergraduate school look pretty similar in their applications, so it is hard to “stand out.” Think about ways you could intern/work/volunteer for a few years to improve your application. Jobs working in a local historical museum, teaching high school history, working abroad in your country of interest, or working for a public history institute are not just “filler” activities for improving your application, but usually help students narrow their focus and define their exact interest, which helps them write stronger applications and be more successful in graduate school because they know exactly what they want to research when they arrive.

Students who are successful applying to graduate school often spend 40-80 hours+ on applying to 3-4 schools (not including studying for the GRE). That means that trying to complete your applications *at the same time* you are finishing your undergraduate degree is not advised. Focus on finishing your coursework and getting excellent grades. Doing poorly your final year at UCSC because you are working on grad school applications is self-defeating.


Deadlines for different schools vary. Check their websites carefully.

If you have identified a program that is your top choice, make sure you contact the professor you would be mostly likely to work with and talk about their program and your interest. Make sure they are accepting students the year you intend to apply and make sure you meet all their requirements. Be sure all your communication with them is done in a professional manner (address them as Dr. X, etc.).

Hundreds of students may apply each year for only a few spots, so your application needs to stand out for you to get accepted or for you to get accepted with funding. It is key that you start to prepare as far in advance as possible to make your application strong.

The personal statement is a key piece of your application. It is a very specific type of writing, and you need to follow the standards. Here are a few resources that give information about what to include:

How does funding for graduate school work?

Funding differs based on the university. Read the websites of the programs carefully. Do they guarantee certain years of funding to accepted graduate students? For many schools, your funding options will be presented to you after you get in, and then you will have a few weeks to compare and decide.

For many research universities, graduate students seeking the Ph.D. in History will receive tuition remission (the school pays your tuition), health care, and a living stipend or salary. This may be in exchange for acting as a TA for undergraduate classes, or it may be guaranteed for only a certain number of years. Students seeking an M.A. (usually a 2-year program) frequently receive significantly less financial support from the university. Some universities have more resources (often private schools) and can offer more funding or demand less teaching from you in return. Think carefully about your own financial situation and compare offers. What is the cost of living in the town where the school is located? Can you afford to live near the university on the funding they are offering? Do you have money saved up? If the offer you are given is not enough to support you, think twice about accepting. Is there a way that you can improve your application for next time by taking a year or two off and doing something else? Try again or apply to different schools that have better support. Be realistic about the support you need to focus full-time on graduate studies (you will have very few extra hours to devote to part-time jobs outside your duties). Do your homework before applying or accepting; many students are unrealistic about the financial realities of graduate school.

Consider as well area studies centers and institutes related to your interests that may (or may not) be available at a given university. These centers often provide important funding opportunities for language study, research travel stipends, and more. Investigate the presence (or absence) of such centers and such potential opportunities in addition to evaluating the stipend offered from the program to which you have been admitted.

Further reading and information

  • AHA’s career section, with information on careers for Historians (with an MA or PhD), to give you a sense of what types of jobs frequently employ professional Historians.