Get Accepted to PhD Programs in the Humanities [Episode 568]

By - Mar 26, 05:00 AM Comments [0]

Show Summary

Here at Accepted, we’re getting more and more inquiries from applicants interested in PhD programs in the humanities. We have a panel of experts today on the show to discuss PhD admissions in the humanities. You’ll hear from Vanessa Febo, Dr. Mary Mahoney, and Dr. Christie St-John as they discuss what PhD programs in the humanities look for in applicants, including academic achievements, research interests, and fit with the program and faculty. They also discuss the importance of having a clear goal and being open to different career paths after completing the PhD. The panelists emphasize the importance of the statement of purpose, writing sample, and letters of recommendation in the application process. They also provide advice on researching programs, selecting recommenders, and starting the application process early.

Show Notes

Welcome to the 568th episode of Admissions Straight Talk, thanks for tuning in. The challenge at the heart of PhD admissions is showing that you both fit in at your target programs, and are a standout in the applicant field. Accepted’s free download, Fitting in and Standing Out: The Paradox at the Heart of Admissions, will show you how to do both. Master this paradox, and you are well on your way to acceptance. You can download this free guide at

We’ve done this once before, and I thought it worked great, so we’re going to do it again. For today’s episode we have a panel. Our panelists are Vanessa Febo, Dr. Mary Mahoney, and Dr. Christie St-John.

Vanessa Febo is an Accepted consultant, who has 10 plus years of experience teaching writing at UCLA, where she has also guided applicants to Acceptance’s scholarships and grants, including the Fulbright, Stanford’s Knight Hennessy, and Ford Foundation Fellowships through UCLA’s Center for Scholarship and Scholar Enrichment. She is completing her Ph.D. this summer, so almost congratulations, Vanessa, and welcome.

Dr. Mary Mahoney is an Accepted consultant and tenured English professor, director of a medical humanities program at a liberal arts college in New York, and writing instructor. Dr. Mahoney earned her PhD in literature and writing. 

Dr. Christie St-John is an Accepted consultant and former admissions director at Dartmouth and Vanderbilt. She earned her PhD in French and Italian. 

You’re all repeat guests on Admissions Straight Talk. Welcome back to Admissions Straight Talk. It’s a pleasure to have you, and I’m really excited about this new format that we’re experimenting with. We won’t do it all the time, but I’ve enjoyed it when we’ve done it in the past. 

Welcome to Admissions Straight Talk. [2:20]

[MM] Thank you.

I realize that the topic of PhD admissions in the humanities is a very broad topic. What will most PhD programs in the humanities want to see in applicants both academically and experientially? [2:28]

[CS] Well, one of the key things is that you have an idea of what you want to do this program for, that you have a basic idea of the research you’d like to do. Academically, of course, you do have to have strong grades and good test scores. I think one of the key things for me when I was applying was I was really worried about the test score, and it wasn’t as important as my grades, actually.

They were more concerned about, “What did you do here? What did you do there?” They also wanted to see writing samples to make sure that I could write well, and that I had a decent idea of what I wanted to do, and that the school I applied to had the faculty members with the expertise I needed to guide me. That is critical. You don’t just apply to any school out there. You need to check and see what kind of research do they do. You don’t have someone to guide you. It’s a very lonely and long process.

[VF] I think that’s articulated perfectly. I guess the only thing I would add is yes, with the school choice, it’s not necessarily about school rankings. Schools within those ranking systems have different rankings based on the area of study as well. For example, if you’re interested in a history PhD, and you’re interested in Tudor England, a school could be number two in the country for history, but they don’t have that support. They don’t have experts in Tudor England.

Then why are you going to that school? It’s not going to be supportive to what you want to study. It’s not just about rankings, and it’s not just about the school in general being good, a fit for you, but I think, yeah, the mentorship is an incredibly important component.

[MM] I did a master’s degree and then did a PhD. I can say that one of the things that I wasn’t privy to until I started that master’s program was that the faculty at the master’s program frequently have inroads with faculty in other programs.

There’s often an unofficial liking between schools, and some schools prefer to have a closer look at those candidates who are coming from either an undergraduate school or a master’s program with a school that they’ve had good experiences with with their students in the past. I know that that was influential in my ability to go to the PhD program I went to.

How can you research that if you’re considering going for a master’s or undergrad? [5:28]

[MM] I would say develop trusting relationships with your professors, and as your conversations go further and further with the seriousness of what you want for your future, they will start to tell you stories about their suggestions for where to apply, and disclose perhaps where some of the previous students had gotten in, due to, in part, the affiliation with or the liking of the master’s program.

I want to go back to the importance of a post-PhD goal. There are a shrinking number of faculty positions in the humanities. If somebody doesn’t want to work in academia or is trying to be realistic about their job prospects post-PhD, what are some realistic goals? [6:01]

[CS] Well, as you know, my PhD is in French and Italian, but I actually got recruited to the Business School at Vanderbilt because I had lived abroad for about eight or nine years, and they wanted someone with international experience who also spoke the languages. They hired me to teach French for business and Italian for business.

These were not obviously crowded courses, but they were fun, and also to deal with the exchange programs and start recruiting the international students and working with them. From language and humanities, I went into business. I can say the main thing that got me in there is I could tell them the difference between Goldman Sachs and Saks Fifth Avenue. I learned it as I went along.

[VF] As someone who’s about to enter into the job market, I have thoughts on that, yeah. I think increasingly, departments are facing the reality that there’s a shrinking tenure track, professorship track, pool, and that jobs are becoming more and more and more competitive, and more difficult, and trying to think outside the box about what’s available. The truth is that there is a lot that’s out there for someone with a humanities PhD.

Some of it is more teaching-focused, so something like community colleges, some of it is more administrative-focused. There are lots … increasingly, universities are looking for PhDs in administrative positions, and positions to be decision makers on campus and to run centers. That’s a big part. Then outside of academia altogether, I know personally people with humanities PhDs who work in tech, who work in all sorts of different fields, you learn a research skill set, broadly speaking, in the humanities, that is pretty broadly translatable to lots of different fields.

I think a lot of people come into a PhD program expecting to be a professor and wanting to teach, but I think being open to other opportunities is a good thing, because they’re definitely out there.

[MM] I would say the vast majority of the people that I know who completed their PhDs had aspirations to be in academia. However, I do know people with PhDs in literature, or even literature and creative writing, who went and worked at museums, went and worked in art curating, in gallery archives, international programs for ESL, and on and on.

The not-for-profit route, though, is probably one that’s most appealing among the people that I’ve seen choose it, or choose an alternative path other than to go into academia, or they graduated, but they weren’t successful with their applications or their interviews, and they had to, by me, choose an alternative route.

[CS] Also, a good route to think about, because publishing companies do a lot, not just text publishing, but you do, as Vanessa said, you develop a lot of strong research skills, you know a lot about different things. You learn to think critically about what you’re looking at, so that you make a really good candidate for a publishing company.

Good point. I was thinking as you were all talking that one thing I would assume PhDs in the humanities learn is qualitative analysis. It may not be the quantitative analysis that’s typical in the STEM field, but qualitative analysis is also valuable, and it’s something that one would assume PhDs in the humanities should end up with at the end of that education. 

Now, let’s go back to the beginning of the process. We started at the end, which is not necessarily a bad place to begin.

Several of you mentioned the important factors to consider in selecting programs to apply to, rankings aren’t the critical factor, the faculty advisor. Again, if the faculty advisor is so important, and strength in your specific niche in the humanities is so important, how does one go about researching that? [10:26]

[VF] First, you can turn to the internet. You’d be surprised at what is available through some very strategic searching through the university’s website. Most universities have bios and full CVs for many of their professors. They list the professors that are in the department. They also list the grad students that are in the department, where those grad students went to undergrad, what they’re studying, who their mentors are often. They list centers that are available at the university that target specific areas.

There may be a medieval center at a particular university that’s there for people dedicated to medieval studies and all different types of humanities fields. The first place really to look is just the site.  I think people don’t realize how much information, and it’s not at your fingertips, it’s not on the homepage. You have to do some digging, but if you do some digging, you will find a lot of information. You can find their personal web pages with their entire CV, and their dissertation topic. Emails for contact. Cold contacting and kind of just doing outsider level research through their websites is the first step. Then the second step is honestly your own contacts at your university. As an undergrad, the professors that you work with, where did they go to university? Who do they know at other universities that they’re colleagues with, that they’re friends with? If you have the opportunity to go to a conference as an undergrad, conferences are essentially, a big part of that is networking and learning about other people who are also in your field of interest.

These are all ways to connect with people and learn who is in the area that you’re interested in working in. Then also the lists, while they’re not super helpful, or I wouldn’t rely only on the US News Report list of the top schools, they do also list what schools specialize in different areas within your fields of study. That can be a good starting point if you just have no idea what schools are best suited to what you’re interested in. Yeah, networking and then doing your research is really key.

We’ve been talking about applicants doing research on the schools and on the programs, but typically, when applying to PhD programs one has to have done research in order to show desire and ability to do it in the future. What is enough research when applying to PhD programs, and does an applicant have to be published? [14:11]

[MM] Well, I do think in the humanities, your writing sample is going to be critical. It should not only demonstrate that you can analyze and think critically, but it should also demonstrate where your interests are starting to streamline, so that this way, you’re already demonstrating at least a correlation, if not a match, with some of the interests of the faculty or the interests of the department.

What is their particular bend on this? Is this a very political school? Is this a very conservative school about approaching literature from a different direction? On and on. You really want to make sure that your writing sample speaks to them in several different ways, and reflects you in ways that they understand. One other thing I was going to say earlier was I’ve had some clients who wanted to go to PhD programs, but they were bound to their geographic area.

They were limited in where they could apply, and they were willing to adapt to the focus of the program because they weren’t necessarily wedded to a niche that they would stand for. I don’t know if that came out.

Basically, geography was more important to them than the specialty. [15:46]

[MM] Right. I highly recommend for my clients who have to stay where they are, to try to take a  non-matriculating class or two with a professor who interests you. If there seems to be a good camaraderie and a recognition of your fit, then that person should be writing you a letter. You can take that class non-matriculating, and quite likely it will transfer in, but if it doesn’t, it’s not a major loss.

It really just opened up a little bit of a bridge. I’m a big believer in gathering up what you need to make your formal application much stronger, and if you have to go non-matriculating, then so be it.

[CS] I don’t think that being published is going to be critical. It is always better, but it’s not going to be the critical factor in acceptance. You do have to have at least presented at a conference, I think. That’s also a way to get your name out there and find people at the schools that might be a good fit for you. I know I’ve recently had two clients who had both done master’s degrees, but they had gone on to work after, and had been working in the real world, not academia, for at least five years.

They both discovered something that they were fascinated with and had decided, “I want to do a PhD program.” They didn’t have anything published, but they had really good reasons for why they wanted to do the research and why they wanted to do the PhD. We came up with some really good essays, and  statements of purpose.

But neither one of them had the typical route. They didn’t go directly from undergrad to master’s to PhD. They went from undergrad, worked a couple of years, masters, worked a few more years, and then PhD. I think schools like a non-traditional path, because you’re going to add some knowledge to the program, depending on what you’ve been doing, obviously.

Does it make a difference from an admissions perspective if the applicant says, “I want to stay in academia,” or not? [18:09]

[CS] All I can say is I think that from what I gathered from my dissertation directors, yeah, they really wanted people who were going to be in academia to make the school more famous, obviously, and to garner credit for their work, as well as my work. I don’t know that we all are cognizant of the fact that there just aren’t jobs out there.

Or if there are, when I was looking, it was, “Oh, you can go here and replace somebody who’s pregnant for a year, and then go out to this Boise or whatever and replace somebody else.” There really were, it was bad. I think they recognize that fact, but as long as you are in there doing the research, and you have a legitimate reason for the research, and it’s going to do something, make an impact when you get through with it, I’m not sure that they really care as much anymore.

[VF] I definitely think that for a very long time, there was a stigma against people who were not interested in academia, so it was pretty good advice to say that you were planning on becoming a professor and that you wanted to continue to conduct research professionally. There still is a bit of a stigma for people who decide against applying to tenure-track positions entirely. I would say from an applicant’s perspective, it’s a pretty safe route to say that you want to go into academia and to continue to do research.

I also do think that it’s not the most important part of your application by any means, because that’s obviously going to be subject to change depending on what happens when you come out on the other side. I think just having a clear intention is the most important thing. I do think it’s the safest bet still probably to say that you want to go into academia and become a professor, because like I said, that stigma, depending on the school, it can vary, but that stigma against people who want to leave academia is still pretty strong.

Do you think that it’s important to have a plan B, or just deal with it when you get out? [21:13]

[VF] PhD programs are a lot longer than master’s programs. If you’re entering a master’s program, you have sort of two years to figure it out, and you’re coming out on the other side before you even realize it. A PhD program, especially in the humanities, can be five, six, even seven years. You really do have that luxury of time to figure, to worry about what you’re going to do on the other side, once you’ve actually gotten through the program.

I think the more important thing is to focus on figuring out what you want to study, and to figure out who you want to work with, and have that plan pretty set going in. That’s also something the Admissions is going to be looking for is that that is really concrete, but what you do afterwards will come, because you’re going to be a different person in five, six, seven, years anyway. Yeah, I think figuring out what you want to research is the more critical and more pressing issue.

[MM] I was exceptionally concerned about what I would do once I graduated. I didn’t have, as a graduate student for so many years, I didn’t have money in the bank. I really had to know what I could do to work to be able to stay independent. I did take one part-time gap year between finishing my PhD and starting a tenure track job. I can’t say that that was advantageous in any way. It’s just that the second year, I was more successful in the application process, but I absolutely had to have a plan B.

My story is a little bit less typical than some of the other people, but there were two things that I wanted to share. One was that sometimes graduate students who are already living with other graduate students in apartments and houses have a plan B collectively, that they’re all going to stay another year. They’re going to try to work part-time here, work part-time there, get an adjunct position somewhere nearby, and then they try to figure out the networking for the tenure track lines as they go.

They plan on a semi-soft gap year. The other thing I wanted to say is I think there’s a little bit of a divide among humanities faculty, in the sense of who is appealing to them, in that it’s, when you think about it, people working in academia really have a very different sense of work life, and they have a very different sense of a work community and what work means. They tend to stay a little bit insulated in that world.

When they just see more and more people of their ilk, it’s not all that interesting anymore, because that’s your little bubble and you’re in it all the time anyway. Sometimes, this isn’t my favorite way of saying it, but sometimes an applicant who is a career changer, or an applicant who works in one capacity but wants to study in another becomes really interesting to some of the faculty, because they’re just kind of tired of just the solely bookish type.

One favorite student was a professional boxer, things like this, an EMT, previously a cop, previously a surgeon. That kind of shakes up the community a little bit in a good way, makes people learn about each other, rather than just replicating that insularity.

Do you think your having been a nurse before going for your master’s and PhD might have put you in that bucket too? [24:57]

It did push my application into the, “Let’s look at her again” pile. Yes. I didn’t even know that there was a faculty member at my master’s program who, committedly, was trying to recruit people who had blue collar jobs. At the time, my nursing job at that time, it’s not so much anymore, was kind of considered a blue collar job. He wanted all the cops, he wanted all the nurses, he wanted all those people to come in, and that was just serendipitous.

What is the role of the statement of purpose in the PhD application process? [25:38]

[VF] It plays a very important role. It tells the admissions committee the work that you have found most important that you’ve done so far. It’s an opportunity for you to describe, sometimes they don’t have a separate research statement. In many instances, this is also your opportunity to describe the kind of research that you’re interested in and what you want to do. It’s also your opportunity to make a case for why that particular school, and who you want to work with, and to state what your purpose is attending the program, to enter academia, or to work at a museum or whatever, as we discussed.

It really is your opportunity to tell your story about and construct your narrative, so that it’s clear that your life and your experiences have been leading to this point where you’re applying to this program, and for them to hopefully say, “Well, it makes perfect sense why they’re applying to our program, and they fit the criteria that we’re looking for.” It’s one of the most, especially in PhD and master’s programs, the statement of purpose is just so incredibly crucial.

[MM] I think more and more of the graduate programs, there are many more graduate programs now that are humanities, but they’re also in a certain way interdisciplinary. I think if you can look at your interests in a way where they don’t necessarily just have to be singularly defined, but it could be the intersection of two different disciplines. In a circumstance like that, your fit with how that graduate program works in interdisciplinary ways is critical.

You don’t want to learn how to grow orange trees from a program that grows pineapples. You don’t want to do it that way, but you want to find the intersection already and show your fit in that way. That there’s nothing wrong with finding one. One of my colleagues, one of the younger colleagues that I work with now, does a fusion of literature and economics. Yeah. That’s perfectly okay, but also, know who your faculty are at that school to make sure that there’s someone who already has a foot in that door or in that intersection.

Certainly the top schools who have graduate programs that are interdisciplinary really frame, when you look at their definition and their mission statements, they really frame what they do in that program as a space of staying open in spaces of uncertainty, so that this way, there could be more discoveries by way of the intersection of these different disciplines, so that you don’t have to step in feeling as if you know the answer of what this intersection means, but that you have to spend time in it in order to suddenly realize what it means.

[CS] Something just came to mind when you were talking about the disciplinary fields. My third area was pedagogy. That was totally fascinating to me. I did lots of papers with people in other departments about different techniques for learning languages, and it also applies not just to languages. It’s like how you learn different things. I learned all about people being visual learners, mechanical learners, memorization learners, or whatever it might be, the different kinds of learning styles, which I could then apply, when I was trying to do something with a group of students, to figure out, how are they best going to learn this?

How can I put them into groups where they’re going to be compatible? I think this is a skill that goes into teamwork as well. No matter what area you’re in, if you’re working in a team, you have to figure out, how do people learn what they need to learn, and how do you put them together the right way? That was probably one of the most valuable things I got out of it.

[VF] I think that it was something that I was thinking about as Christie was talking, and MJ, that sort of two things. One, something that we haven’t really touched upon, that Christie just touched upon, that is so crucial is the teaching component. That’s something that you learn on the job as you’re going through the PhD program, but when we’re talking about future careers, that often, the sort of pedagogical training and that component, can be the more valuable piece of the puzzle if you are deciding to work outside of academia.

There are additional skills outside of the research arena that you are absolutely learning as you go through a PhD program, and that’s such a crucial one. Then I was also thinking when you were talking about interdisciplinarity, that this speaks to a tricky part of the personal statement, which is you want to show that you have a clear area of research interest, whether it’s interdisciplinary, or whether it’s sort of located very firmly within a field, but you also want to show that you’re open to exploration.

One of the trickier parts of the personal statement is coming across that you have a very clear idea of what you want to research, but also that you’re excited to change your mind. That is a really tricky thing to convey through the personal statement. That’s something that I work a lot with my clients on is, are we being too rigid? Can we interject something that adds that sense that you’re wanting to explore? They’re not looking for someone who necessarily comes in, you want to have an idea of what you’re going to study, but you’re probably going to change your mind.

They want you to be open to that exploration. You take classes for a reason. That’s sort of a tricky thing to convey in the personal statement, but it’s incredibly important. Interdisciplinarity plays a big role in that, I think, too.

I read the memoirs of Bernard Lewis. Bernard Lewis was a scholar of the Near East. He passed away at over a hundred a few years ago, and I think he wrote his memoirs well into his nineties, maybe even at a hundred. I think he was initially at Oxford, and then he moved to the US and was at Princeton. He wrote about a time when he had a PhD applicant come, and he was interviewing the PhD applicant. He had been really interested in bringing this fellow into his department as a PhD candidate.

He asked him, “What do you want to do? Why are you pursuing the PhD?” He says, “Well, I want to show that this piece of land, this disputed piece of land in the Middle East belongs to X,” and Lewis did not say what X is. He did not identify the disputed piece of land. Dr. Lewis asked him, “How do you know that it belongs to the country in question?” He said, “Well, everybody knows it, so I want to do the research that will prove it.” What will you do if your research proves otherwise?” He says, “Oh, it won’t.”

He wasn’t invited to join the program. I think that, going to your point of exploration and flexibility, that particular candidate was not showing the necessary open mind and openness to following the data, or even reasonable curiosity about the data. [32:33]

[CS] We’re dealing with hypotheses here. We’re not dealing with concrete facts, in most cases.

Let’s talk about the role of the writing sample, specifically what makes for a good writing sample. Should it be something that the applicant composes for the application? Is it a sample of research they’ve done? Should it be a statement of the research they want to do? What should it be? [34:31]

[MM] Well, it really depends on the orientation of the program, I think. For instance, my PhD was actually a specific kind of PhD program that had a creative dissertation, not an analytical dissertation. My writing sample needed to be creative writing, and preferably sending them creative writing that had already been accepted for publication. In my field, it kind of just makes practical sense that if you’re already involved in these genres, and you’re already publishing in these genres, your writing sample might need to reflect the genre that is your area.

They do group you according to genre, under the umbrella of the entire pool of PhD students entering the program. They can’t have 31 fiction writers and one poet. They have to have a pretty good balance for their genres. On the other hand, in the analytical writing, I think that it has to be able to show disciplined critical thinking, and literary analysis, no matter how you define your role in that, whether you are working from theory, whether you’re working intersecting theories, whether you are working in a more traditional close reading kind of arena, but that it should reflect where you would fit.

[CS] I think that’s perfectly said, because you start out with an idea and that’s what you want to develop, but then I kept getting off track. I would be researching something and find something else. “Oh, that’s even more interesting.” My dissertation director had to pull me back and say, “You’ve really got to pick one of these things. You cannot write a 9,000-page dissertation.” I really had to curb myself, but there’s so many interesting things out there.

[VF] I think part of it’s also length. Most of the time, for people applying to these programs, applying to a PhD program, your choices are limited because it’s usually like, you’ve done one substantial project, maybe an honors thesis, but it really is just, like everyone has said, there to show that you can do strong analytical work, that you can do the traditional close reading, that you’ve engaged with either theoretical concepts or history in some fashion.

That also does remind me that different schools do have different approaches to how they do the discipline overall. Some schools are very theory-heavy and are really interested in people who engage with theoretical concepts. Looking back at my acceptance to UCLA for the PhD program, UCLA in the English field is very heavy on history, and sort of historicism, and social contextualization of literature. I didn’t even know that that’s what I was doing. That was just the way I approached the text in undergrad, but it is the way that I tend to work.

It makes perfect sense in retrospect that they would be interested in me, because I was approaching the text in a way that their school was known for, which I was very ignorant of when I was applying to graduate school and didn’t even realize that that was the case. Someplace like Chicago, which is incredibly famous for more of a theory-heavy approach, may not have been interested in my work.

Kind of understanding a little bit about yourself and your approach is a good idea when you’re looking at your writing sample, but at the end of the day, it should really just be your best work in that area. You probably won’t have that many choices of what to submit, because of the length and the depth that they’re looking for. Pick the best one and edit it carefully, and then that’s all you can really do, honestly, and a lot of-

It seems like the instructions also that come with the writing sample requests are really critical. Obviously, follow whatever instructions you get, whether it’s the writing sample, or the statement of purpose, or whatever materials they request. Do you agree with that? [39:17]

[VF] Yes, yeah.

[MM] I’m just looking around at the requirements or the prompts for the statement of purpose or the personal statement, depending. Again, same thing as in other disciplines as well. Sometimes the prompts are very wide open, and sometimes they’re very detailed. They have several layers and several steps. Just make sure that you know precisely what it is that they’re asking for it.

Who should applicants seek as recommenders? [39:57]

[CS] Well, I came from a little different background, so Vanessa might be better at this one than me, because I had been working and living in France when I decided to come back to the states and do the PhD, so I didn’t have really recent recommenders from college, but I did call upon one where I’d started the master’s program. She liked me and knew that I’d made progress, and wrote the recommendation for me.

I actually got one from one of my bosses, and he had no idea about my academic research, but he knew that I could do research, and that I was fluent in the language, and that wasn’t an issue. He did the other one, but that’s pretty uncommon, because normally, you’re going to have an academic recommender.

It’s nice to know that if you’re a nontraditional applicant, then you have that option. What makes a good recommender for a traditional applicant? [40:49]

[VF] It’s the people who can speak best and most positively, really. I left undergrad and I worked for five years in publishing. I did know that I wanted to go back and complete my PhD, so I did strategically keep in touch with the professors that I wanted as my recommenders, and had secured them as my recommenders before I left undergrad. I definitely recommend, if you’re not sure about when you want to go on the timeline for a PhD, to kind of at least lock in some relationships and keep in touch, say Merry Christmas, or happy holidays, or happy Hanukkah, or whatever to them, and kind of keep in touch.

Also, sometimes that’s where a master’s program can be really helpful as well. Honestly, I say this to clients who are kind of debating, and I say this to students all the time, that if I could do it again, I probably would’ve gotten a master’s first. After leaving undergrad for five years and then entering a PhD program, I felt incredibly in over my head. I hadn’t written a paper in five years, and I was entering a PhD program. It was very intimidating and daunting.

If it’s been a while and you don’t feel that you have any relationship with professors, or you have good recommenders, that might be a sign that you might want to do a master’s first, just to see what academia is about and what this level of research entails before you commit to a very long program and that process. You will get much better and much stronger recommenders.

You also get a master’s degree if you decide not to pursue the PhD. [43:00]

[VD] Right, yeah. You come out of it, the time commitment is so much shorter. Two years is not nothing, but it’s a lot shorter than a PhD. You’ll have a much better understanding of what it entails. If you are someone who doesn’t think they have recommenders, that might be a good sign that you want to figure out whether you want to do this. A master’s is a good way to do that.

Would you ever recommend that somebody in college ask a professor to write a recommendation to use to apply to a PhD program in four or five years? [43:33]

[VF] That’s what I did. I asked people on my way out, and part of it was I was expecting to only take a year off and work in publishing, and it turned into five years, but yeah. That worked out pretty well, because they could basically just update the date that they had. Even if our relationship had faded and they forgotten who I am, at the time that they wrote the letter, they knew. That was helpful. Yeah. I would definitely recommend that if you’re thinking of taking a gap year, secure those letters before you do.

[MM] I think it’s also, in a way, courteous to do it ahead of time like that, because five years out, your professors will have encountered so many other special students as well. To have a letter that had been guided by common experiences in, say, either an Interfolio file or even if some professors will also send you a copy of that letter as a courtesy and let you hold onto it, so when it’s time to get back in touch with them again, you make it easier for them to have fuller recollection.

They’ll recognize their own writing where they want to replicate what I said in paragraph two, because I’m reading it now five years later, and I like what I wrote.

Do you have any last words of advice, or is there anything that you wish I would’ve asked you? [45:22]

[MM] You do not necessarily have to have the equivalent undergraduate degree major as the graduate program that you’re going to. You could be a librarian, but you’ve been publishing stories, and then you want to go over to an MFA program or something like that. There’s not necessarily the same expectation as other disciplines, where, like for instance, social work, many graduate programs want you to have the BSW, and then you can go into their master’s program. They’ll make that very plain in their description of who they are and who they want.

In the humanities, there’s a lot more negotiation because there’s overlap. It’s a good time to encourage that, so you don’t necessarily have to go back to school to get that undergraduate major that matches directly all the time. Some schools might prefer that, but you can see that through the CVs of their faculty, and the CVs of their graduate students as well, about whether or not they are open to a variety of different approaches academically to get to their program.

[CS] I think take the GRE early if you can, while you’re still in school. The scores are valid for five years. Make sure that you do get it, because I just was talking with a friend last night who almost didn’t graduate, because when she went to do the test, there wasn’t a test time available. This was back before everything was computerized. She took another one instead.

When she was coming up for graduation, they said, “Well, you can’t graduate.” She said, “Why not?” “Well, you don’t have a GRE.” “But I have this test.” It doesn’t matter. Book says you have to have a GRE, you have to have a GRE. She had to take it in her last year of grad school while she was doing research, so take the test early. That’s my advice.

[VF] I guess the only thing I would say is start earlier than you think you need to, especially for humanities, PhD, with the writing sample, the quantity of writing that you need to submit is different from other programs. Keeping that in mind, you’re going to have a lot of editing on your plate. Yeah, taking that test early, getting it out of the way, so you can focus on all this writing work that you need to do for the application is pretty important, so start early.

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The post Get Accepted to PhD Programs in the Humanities [Episode 568] appeared first on Accepted Admissions Blog.

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