Should You Apply to Graduate School?

Should You Apply to Graduate School? March 15, 2016

Late spring is a good time for potential applicants to start thinking about applying to graduate school. Most application deadlines come between about November 15 and January 15, for admission the following fall. Here’s my post from the Anxious Bench archives about choosing the best programs for you – and whether you should apply to graduate school at all.

I routinely get questions from undergraduate and Master’s students about applying to graduate programs. (Mostly in history, though not exclusively.) Here’s some of the most common questions.

How do I choose a Ph.D. program? I had a wonderful experience in my graduate program at Notre Dame, especially because of the particular historian (George Marsden) with whom I worked. Many people make the mistake of thinking “school” instead of “advisor” when considering Ph.D. programs. Not that the quality of school is irrelevant – there are some lower-quality Ph.D. programs out there which do not offer adequate financial support. But typically the most important issue in considering a program is the faculty with whom you plan to work.
This includes your prospective dissertation advisor, as well as professors who might serve as field supervisors and doctoral committee members. If you are an undergrad or Master’s student, and as you continue to read in your field, are there particular scholars whose work you really admire? Are those professors still active, and do they work with graduate students? This is one of the best ways to think about where to apply – the focus is on particular professors, not institutions.

Should I apply to a Ph.D. directly, or to an M.A. program? I was a political science major as an undergrad, so it made a lot of sense for me to switch to history for an M.A. before I applied to Ph.D. programs. It helped me get my bearings in a new field (even though I had been a history minor) and made me a much stronger candidate for Ph.D. programs. If you are not sure a doctorate is for you, a terminal M.A. can make a lot of sense. You can apply directly from a B.A. to a Ph.D. program, but students with only a B.A. will obviously have a harder time justifying their preparedness for the Ph.D.

How hard is it to get in? At strong programs, it is phenomenally difficult. If you do not have at least a 3.7+ GPA, and 90%+ percentile scores on the GRE (verbal and analytical for liberal arts programs), you probably will not receive serious consideration. These programs often have far more applicants than spaces, sometimes accepting less than 5% of those who apply. Be honest with yourself about your credentials. Even some people with 4.0 GPAs and perfect GRE scores do not get in everywhere they apply. Thus, you are going to have to apply to multiple programs if you are serious about pursuing a Ph.D. – including a range of “dream schools” and “backup options.”

What about the job market? I hear it is rotten. As I have noted before at Patheos, the job market is indeed terrible, and anyone going into a Ph.D. program needs to take a broad, flexible view of what they might do career-wise at the end. There can actually be a few more opportunities if you would be open to teaching in either a Christian or a secular school environment (Christian schools sometimes struggle to find candidates who have both a serious Ph.D., and a serious faith), assuming that the secular schools do not get scared off by signposts in your c.v. that you are a Christian.

If you are a Christian thinking about graduate school, let me say this: we desperately need serious, thoughtful Christians to be active in academia and publishing, as a matter of Christian witness to both students and other professors. Being a professor is a great life, assuming you can get a job. But graduate work is not for everybody.

-Information about Baylor’s graduate program in history, which offers both Ph.D. and M.A. degrees.

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  • stefanstackhouse

    One thought: Some graduate programs will admit for the spring semester. If this is feasible for you, it is worth a try. Not so many people apply for spring admission, so you just might possibly have an easier time getting in. There are always students who start in the fall, and after one semester decide it isn’t for them – or their grades decide it for them. Graduate program administrators are always eager to bring in some new students to fill the gaps, unless they have a curriculum that is totally structured on an annual cycle. Something to keep in mind if you don’t make it on the first try, also.