By David N. Myers
Graduate school can be an extraordinary time, full of intellectual stimulation, professional growth and even great fun where one makes friends for a lifetime. At the same time, it can also be demanding, isolating and even a bit tedious ““ a sort of purgatory between the relative freedom of the undergraduate life and the gratification (and perks) of the professional’s. Especially in these times of economic challenge, the prospective candidate to graduate school should approach the application process with eyes wide open.
It is important to get a sense of what life might look like on the other end. This means gathering as much information as possible at the beginning about your employment prospects upon completion of the degree. What is the placement rate of your particular graduate program? Where do its graduates find jobs?
Related to this information-gathering is your willingness to consider a range of possible job prospects. For example, those entering graduate programs in history need not focus their sights exclusively on a position as professor in a college or university, but also on careers in museums, government agencies, K-12 schools and even the private sector.
For letters of recommendation, find recommenders who know you and your work. As part of your application, you will want to have recommendations from professors or employers who can speak with real firsthand knowledge about you and your work. This requires an even more preliminary step while still in college: Get to know your professors. Visit them during office hours to discuss your work.
This is, of course, important in and of itself. It has the added benefit of allowing you to put together an application for graduate school with recommenders who can move beyond banal cliches to say something meaningful about you. You should also aim to submit a writing sample that puts forward your most mature work.
If you are called upon to submit a piece of your writing, as you would be in applying for a history Ph.D. program, choose a sample from a class that you particularly enjoyed and felt excited about.
In all likelihood, your writing from that class will be at its most developed and animated.
Further, use your self-statement as a road map. When given the opportunity to discuss why you want to go to graduate school, provide a road map of your intellectual journey, pointing out how you got to where you are and what you want to accomplish in graduate school.
In particular, it is important to focus on what you want to study with some degree of specificity, what your preparation has been for your intended course of study and why the institution to which you are applying would make for a good fit. You may be a great student, and the school to which you’re applying a great place, but the fit in terms of faculty interests and program direction needs to be a good one.
There are surely other important tips to prepare for graduate school. Seek out your favorite professors to ask for their guidance. And best of luck in embarking on this exciting new stage in your lives!
Myers is a professor of Jewish history and serves as chair of the UCLA History Department.