The Search for the Holy Grail – or the Next Best Thing: The Right PhD Program

by Felix Zuber

Even before I came to Michigan to pursue a Joint MA at Central Michigan University, originally a one-year plan that quickly turned into a two year stay, I had eyed the possibility of continuing my modest academic career with a PhD at some point. Of course, the naïve graduate student that I was, I thought I would have all the time in the world to make up my mind and then prepare my applications stress-free.

The actual “Holy Grail” (credits: www.history.com)

The actual “Holy Grail” (credits: www.history.com)

Well, before I knew it, my second year at CMU had started, work was piling up again, and suddenly, with not a small amount of panic, I realized that the submissions deadline for PhD applications had silently crept up. So, here is my first tip to all of you out there looking at colleges: Start early! Yes, I know, it is the eternal warning, given in hindsight by those who survived. But the simple truth is, it really is important.

Start to look for potential landing spots early on, and that can mean as early as a year before the application is due. You will need the time to make a list of possible programs, have a look at the individual application requirements – because not all universities agree on that point – and prepare all the different parts of a successful application.

One of the first things to keep in mind will be the GRE: Perceived to be antiquated by some, loathed by many (me included), you nonetheless still have to provide scores from this test for the vast majority of PhD programs. International applicants, like me, also need to keep in mind that applications usually require some form of proof of English language, usually the Cambridge Certificate or the TOEFL, or a similar test. The reason not to postpone taking these exams, is to have enough time to retake them if needed, before the application is due.

While researching my potential future academic home, I focused mainly on faculty. I knew what my field of study was – Cold War history – and, of course, remembered some of the more inspiring books I had read. So, my first point of departure was to find the authors of those books. Were they still teaching, and if so where? Then I had a look at other faculty at the respective departments to determine if it would be only me and my potential adviser laboring in solitude, or if there would be other scholars with similar interests to learn from. Also interesting were additional resources, such as research centers, libraries, special collections, annual conferences, or ongoing/recurrent research projects. Furthermore, while others may well be in a different situation, for me geographical considerations did not factor in. As a graduate student familiar with the somewhat harsh conditions of the humanities job market, I was willing to relocate to Alaska, Utah, or the moon, if needed.

Once I had finished my reconnaissance of universities, I ranked them and then eliminated enough programs to come up with a feasible, and fiscally realistic, list of options. Unfortunately, application fees are nothing to be sneered at, especially since they can quickly pile up. A careful monitoring of your budget will be necessary, as I quickly, and with a sinking feeling, realized. Overall, before I started the process of compiling my list of potential programs, I had heard about two differing strategies, both of which certainly have merit. The first one was to follow the “traditional” approach of spreading out applications across the spectrum of universities, from safety schools, to the lofty heights of the Ivy League. The other idea was to only apply to the best, since it would be hard enough to find a job later on anyways, so why not shoot for the stars? I, for one, more conservatively followed the first approach and ended up with a rather balanced list.

The next step, was to email the lucky faculty members I had chosen as my potential advisers. Since they had had no idea of this privilege yet, I had to enlighten them concerning my (hopefully) impending arrival, but most of all to make sure they were in fact still at the respective universities, not on leave, and were considering taking on new graduate students in the first place.

On a side note, before beginning the actual application process, some universities invite prospective students to visit their campus and get a feeling for the place they could be living in for years to come. However, since the United States are a rather large country, and I was about to spend most of my application budget on the application fees, I opted to not visit any programs before I had been accepted.

Once that hurdle was taken, I had to compile the actual application. As I mentioned last week, there are test scores, which, for a fee of course, have to be sent to the prospective departments. I then had to write, what most universities referred to as a statement of purpose, sometimes followed by a research proposal or a personal statement as well. However, not all programs asked for all of these, and the length requirements also varied greatly, from a maximum of 1-2 pages, to no limit at all. In the latter cases I tended to err on the side of caution and limit myself to three pages at the most, remembering the oft-repeated graduate school mantra: You have to learn how to say as much as possible in the smallest possible space. Additionally, while some departments had very specific questions and aspects they were looking for in these written statements, other were vague at best. In the end, I prepared a set of paragraphs about my research interests, academic career, and personal background that I could universally put into every application. Then, depending on the specifics, I tailored the statements towards the individual department, and, most important, the potential adviser. However, I also tried to always identify one or two additional faculty members whose work (I claimed) I would be able to profit from. Generally, my statements followed these questions: What had I done so far? What did I plan to do? What could I contribute to the department? What could the department do for me? Where did I see myself five years later?

Another important aspect was the dissertation project proposal. Here, I felt it best to toe the line between the specific and the broad, emphasizing the potential of narrowing or expanding the scope of my ideas, as needed. Throwing in a few potential sources, or pointing towards research and writing I had already done on the topic, surely did not hurt (at least I hoped).

I also had to choose a writing sample to accompany my application. Again, I was faced with two choices. Either submit a paper that was related to my proposed dissertation project, or include a writing sample from an unrelated field, yet one that might be better in terms of source work, style, or writing. After speaking with faculty both in- and outside of CMU, some of whom had served on admissions commissions, I opted for the second choice. As a result, my writing sample covered the activities of German gymnasts in nineteenth-century Michigan, whereas my field of dreams/study, was the Cold War. I had, of course, also written about that subject, yet nothing I felt came close to the level of primary source work and writing of the paper I ended up submitting.

Next, I had to dust off my CV. Vaguely remembering that I had sworn to consistently update the same over the years, I cursed myself after finding out that (naturally) I had failed to do so. Faced with the task of creating an almost new one, I chose to emphasize my education, research, and teaching on the first page, followed by awards, honors, and grants I had received. Lastly, I mentioned conferences I had attended, relevant internships and work experience, before closing with language proficiencies and references. Overall, valuing brevity, my goal was to have a two-page CV, but I ended up with one closer to three pages. Since writing the perfect CV apparently is a science on par with splitting the atom, or solving the Middle East crisis, I will not go into further detail here.

Less work (for me at least) were the letters of recommendation all programs asked for. Trying to decide whom to ask, I focused on the faculty that knew me and my writing. I recommend allowing the people you ask a few weeks to write the letters. While some may be able to come up with something in a tour de force overnight, others might look less favorably at (an unnecessary) short-term notice. After all, this is something you do not want rushed.

At last, the only thing left was for me to press send - and then pay the application fee. I must admit I was less than happy to find out that, while many universities offer application fee waivers, these seem to be exclusively available to Americans. I, as an international student, always had to grab my credit card. The only exception were two departments that had sent me a waiver code beforehand, after I had entered my information into the GRE online-network while taking that test.

Lastly, one of the most important pieces of advice I can give the hopeful applicant is: talk to your current adviser and other faculty in your department. At CMU I was lucky to profit from invaluable advice and help many faculty members gave me. Without them, I can safely say, finding the right PhD program would have been much harder and quite possibly far less successful.