Tag Archives: Applications

Separating from the Pack

Almost two years ago, I made the decision to go to graduate school. At the time I was basking in what could only be called a history nerd’s dream summer break, spending my workdays as an intern at the New-York Historical Society‘s public programs department doing background research on professors and authors we could invite to give talks. While learning about traditional history occupied my days, learning about digital history began to occupy my evenings (at least when I wasn’t occupied with being a 21 year-old enjoying NYC). I had used GIS extensively the previous summer through a research project and had caught passing glimpses of the broader digital history universe, but I hadn’t fully explored it as a possibility for future study or (gasp) a future career. By the end of the summer, I had realized with a crystal-eyed clarity that digital history is what I wanted to “do” – in the airplane conversation sense of, “So, what do you do?”

By the time I began the actual application process, things had become even clearer, but certainly not easier. I loved history – I loved reading it, researching it, writing it, speaking it, teaching it. The idea that I could potentially spend my life doing these things made me embarrassingly giddy. At the same time, I was endlessly fascinated by the potential that lay in digital scholarship as an exciting frontier with seemingly limitless possibilities. When I sat down to my computer to start looking at schools, I began to feel the intense tug-of-war between these two impulses that would become a constant throughout the next nine months.

On the one side of the spectrum lay the traditional academic program, ivy-wrapped in prestige and brimming with names that fly off the jackets of some of my favorite books. On the other side lay the digital history program, sleekly packaged in technology and humming with voices that build the blogs and websites I trawl. On the one side, my college professors and the academic job market counseling me to apply to the very best schools I could. On the other side, my own geeky impulses were urging me to take a chance and apply somewhere new and different and exciting. I did my best to split the difference, and in the end, I was lucky enough to be accepted to a school with a fantastic combination of these two sides.

My experience led me to the conclusion that just as digital methodology is shifting the scholarly landscape of historical study, it is also altering the competitive landscape of the field. Schools are rapidly carving out digital niches for themselves, and this will prove increasingly attractive to successive waves of graduate applicants and job candidates. Most of these individuals will be reliant on accessing databases and articles online, many will be familiar with new forms of media and technology, and some will be interested in areas of visual design, data mining, or spatial analysis. However, if any of them were to ask their advisor or mentor for suggestions on programs that are strong in digital history, they’d likely hear a one-name (if any) reply: George Mason. Most advisors wouldn’t be able to point towards Nebraska-Lincoln or University of Virginia as digital history strongholds, the same way they would be able to point towards Duke and North Carolina for their strength in African-American history.

This will change. At first glance, the general structure will remain the same. “Top-tier” schools aren’t likely to start hemorrhaging applicants to less-established programs immediately. Innovative schools like UNL will continue to fight the persistent prestige-and-name-recognition battle. Nonetheless, subtler transformations will occur. Even five years ago, it would have been inconceivable that a school like George Mason (whose doctoral program has only been in existence for eight years) would be able to compete on an even footing for history applicants with a school like Stanford. Now, their success in establishing themselves as the dominant industry leader gives them an unparalleled advantage for anyone interested in digital history.

Even for schools on traditionally similar footing, an established track record of integrating new media can easily tip the scales in their favor. Much like special collections and on-campus archives, showing off a sparkling digital infrastructure will emerge as a “sexy” way to pull in both applicants and candidates. Wealthier schools may begin to invest in humanities computing centers and new kinds of software, even if for the simple goal of keeping pace with their competitors. The day is not far off when the mainstream academic history-verse buzzes with the news that an ivy-league school has “poached” a leading history professor in media and technology. Grant proposals for more applicable digital initiatives will cut out bigger slices from an expanding NEH pie.

The schools that will truly separate themselves from the pack, however, will be the ones that demonstrate their support for digital scholarship on an ideological level.  Those programs that establish a sustained committment to encourage, guide, and reward the members of their department (both faculty and students) for digital methodological inquiry will be the ones that will emerge in the best position to attract and train historians eager to tackle the technological opportunities inherent in today’s world.

Rambling Admissions

Over the past three weeks or so, I’ve received a trickle of graduate school rejections and, thankfully, acceptances. Once the initial euphoria of that first acceptance wore off, the sheer strangeness of the entire process began to sink in. Applicants spend months and months working, researching, and worrying. There are the inane hoops to jump through – mountains of paperwork, re-answering the same application questions, altering document formats for different schools, and my personal favorite hoop of inanity: the GRE’s. They spend hours and hours drafting emails to potential advisors, delicately harassing their recommenders to get their letters turned in, and editing and proofreading countless personal statements or writing samples. And the entire time, they are constantly reminded of the similarities between graduate school admissions and rolling dice at a craps table in Vegas. If that weren’t enough, the most common advice an applicant usually receives about getting a PhD in history is: don’t. Unless you enjoy being unemployed.

By the end of January, the last of the applications are submitted, and applicants are left to wait. There are no other forms left to fill out, boxes to check, or essays to upload. For a day or two, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. It took me a solid week before I could watch a football game without feeling guilty that I wasn’t working on applications. This is the stage of admissions purgatory, with applicants wishing they could be a fly on the wall of a graduate admissions committee meeting. I’m sure the process varies from school to school, but I’ve always wondered just how random it is – how much depends on the order in which your application is read? Whether or not someone spilled coffee on your writing sample? Did a committee member used to date someone who graduated from your school? And would that be a good or a bad thing? These are some of the questions that skitter through your mind while sitting in admissions purgatory.

With any luck, purgatory is lifted with a magical acceptance note. With any greater luck, more than one arrives. And like flipping a switch, the lowly graduate applicant is suddenly the valued commodity. Once you finally get past “I am pleased to inform you…” you suddenly feel that switch flipped. It is liberating, joyous, and utterly surreal – to go from the position of seller, peddling yourself to various schools, to the position of buyer, as schools offer you their wares. All of that hard work, from those hours of studying in the library during college right up until you clicked SUBMIT on the last application, has finally paid off. I’m sure the stress will come later: of making a (the right) decision, of weighing financial support and programmatic or geographical fit, of accepting the reality that you are truly committed to spending the next 5-7 years  at one school laboring to obtain an elusive degree that you will uselessly cling to like a life preserver as you tumble into the deep end of an over-saturated job market.

But for now? I’m just enjoying the ride.

[As a less rambling coda, I would point anyone else in my position to Jeremy Young's extremely helpful post at Progressive Historians, "So You've Gotten Into Grad School. What Do You Do Now?" ]


Warning: This post is a blatant attempt to justify the imminent decline in my postings over the next month and a half.

I am now officially in the thick of the graduate school application process. Some observations:

- While not as stressful, per se, as I thought it was going to be, the busywork involved is much, much more time-consuming. As a digital enthusiast, I’m all for online applications. However, even with using the Quicksilver clipboard to copy and paste common fields, if I have to enter “Pomona College” and “History” into one more text box I’m going to lose it. Cough, need for a common app, cough.

- Many thanks to Jeremy Young for offering up his kind advice for graduate school, and then going ahead and writing a lengthy and quite comprehensive posting at Progressive Historians on the process of applying to graduate schools in history. For a similar, albeit dated, post, see John King and Andrew McMichael’s article at AHA.

- The more and more time I spend dealing with the GRE (test date: October 30th), the more and more I loathe the test and everything it stands for. It costs $140 for the very privilege of taking the test. From there, ETS will send your scores to the first four schools absolutely free (doesn’t this sound like an infomercial?), and at the low, low cost of only $20 a school after that. In all, I’ll be paying a little less than $300 to this company in order to show schools that I remember have no idea what cosine is, know the meaning of recognize the word “consanguinity,” and can write a coherent series of sentences so that a machine grader can read it. I’m not kidding, they have a machine analyze your writing section and compare it to a human grader to maintain fairness. Which is actually kind of cool, I’d love to see the algorithms behind it…

- Finally, since this is quite evidently not a serious posting, The Onion’s Historical Archive last week was amazing.

In conclusion, I will be in blogging semi-hibernation for the near future due to writing personal statements, remembering what cosine is, and anxiously following the most historically monumental presidential election of my young lifetime.

Just GRE-at

In my gradual meander down the grad school application path, I am trying my best to ignore the glaring fact that I need to take the GRE’s. I have yet to register for them, although I occasionally go to the website and get outraged at the entire process which, in my view, is a complete scam. Just as occasionally, I will flip through the two year-old used GRE book I bought for five bucks, wonder what exactly a divisor is, sigh, and usually go make myself a sandwich. The key step, of course, is leaving the book open on the table at all times, so I can at least pretend that I’m preparing to take the test.

After four years of a liberal-arts education, such a multiple-choice standardized test appears like some distasteful and foreign apparition from my past. I disagree with the entire concept on a variety of levels. Although I realize schools want a consistent metric for evaluating “intelligence,” tests such as the GRE’s and SAT’s use the broadest possible brush to paint applicants. I can almost guarantee you that a student receiving a 1600 on the GRE is intelligent. I can similarly promise that someone receiving a 900 probably wouldn’t do well at Harvard. But looking at the difference between a 1300 and a 1500 for evaluating someone’s qualifications to attend your institution? It’s complete bogus. And while I realize that most grad schools (hopefully) use it as a an extremely general indicator, I just don’t see the point. Of course, the deeper problem is one of privilege and money: students and their parents spend hundreds of dollars on courses that teach them how to take these tests. This puts anyone else at a disadvantage, and works against any objective measurement of intelligence. It’s a broken system.

In the tradition of full disclosure, I openly admit that my GRE score will be the weakest part of my application. My “diagnostic test” was shockingly abysmal not only in the math section (which I was expecting, given the fact that I was a history major), but surprisingly low in the verbal section as well. All that’s left is for me to bomb the writing section. In conclusion, I am not objective, but I am curious: do the admissions boards for history PhD programs actually look at these scores? How much does it play into the decision?

In case it wasn’t obvious, I wrote this post in a procastinatory fit during another failed attempt at studying out of my trusty GRE prep book. Fortunately I remembered the key step of studying: I’ve left the book open on the table next to me. Okay polynomials, lets see what you’re made of…