Graduate School is an Option

Why go to graduate school? How do you pay for it? Where should you go?  Should I apply to graduate schools in history or are there other options? Should you go right after UWL? Is your GPA high enough to get you into a graduate program? Should you do an M.A. or sign up for a Ph.D.? Students have many questions about the process--and pass on many myths. These include:

Myth #1: My GPA is too low.
If your overall GPA is at least a 3 or 3.25, and your major GPA is higher than a 3.25, you should not worry about getting into a graduate program. For a more competitive, prominent program you may be too low, but you should be able to make it into another program IF your GRE (Graduate Records Examination) scores are high enough AND if your letters of reference are strong AND if you have a good writing sample. You should be in good shape; if you have doubts, see your advisor.

Myth #2: My writing skills or reading abilities are inadequate.
Practice makes perfect. Keep working! You may be able to prove yourself by enrolling in a terminal, interdisciplinary, Master's program; the idea there would be to create a good writing sample, to outshine other graduate students in the readings discussions, and to grab the attention--and support--of a graduate faculty member who can then write you a strong letter of support. Talk to a faculty advisor if you are concerned. It may add 1 or 2 years to your school experience--but this is a good opportunity to start fresh if your undergrad transcript is less than stellar. Talk to your advisor.

Myth #3: I don't know anyone who went to graduate school. It's not for people like me.
You do not need to come from a family of college professors, lawyers, or physicians to get into graduate school. GET REAL! If your classroom assignments prompt you to do follow-up readings, if you enjoy reading, research, and critical thinking--graduate school may be just what you need. Look into it! There may be additional resources to provide assistance to women, non-traditional students, veterans, and others. Consult the UWL Office of Financial Aid (/finaid/), the Office of Multicultural Student Services (, or the Self-Sufficiency Program (/ssp/). If you are a member of a historically under-represented minority (Hispanic/Latino, African-American, Asian-American, or American Indian), you may qualify for assistance with the graduate school application process from organizations such as Project 1000 ( LGBT students may be eligible for some programs; see ( Where there's a will, there's a way . . . Visit Peterson's Educational Center for additional links (

Myth #4: Graduate school is expensive; I am in debt for my undergraduate degree and I need to work. I will go to graduate school--later.
WRONG! People RARELY pay for graduate school in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. The biggest expense--generally $300 to $500 per semester--is for books. Taxpayers, undergraduate students, foundations and endowments generally bear the cost of graduate school--upwards of $130,000 for four years' tuition. And remember, you can always defer your undergraduate student loans while you are in graduate school. Graduate students cover their living expenses, fees, books, travel, and insurance usually through four major methods:

An Assistantship such as graduate assistantships (GA), teaching assistantships (TA), or research assistantships (RA). These cover tuition, health insurance, and a stipend (salary) of $750 to $1,500 PER MONTH. in exchange for you continuing in "good standing" (a good GPA . . . in Graduate School, fyi, a BC is considered equivalent of a "D" as an undergrad) and performing about 15 hours of work per week, which may include recording grades, grading quizzes or exams, proofreading a professor's book or article manuscripts, providing research support such as photocopying, or leading a discussion group for a large lecture class. These are generally awarded during your first 2-3 years in the program.
A lectureship, also known as an adjunct teaching position, is generally held after the graduate student has completed all of her or his coursework
A fellowship, often known as "the full-ride," gives a student a generous stipend, research, and travel money. They generally go to individuals with high GPAs and a proven dedication to scholarship.
Other sources of funding include additional employment opportunities in a university, part-time teaching, paid internships, or student loans. Talk to your faculty advisor; ask him or her how they paid for their degrees. You'll be surprised! 

Choosing a Graduate Program

Applying to graduate school is a long, expensive, but rewarding experience. Budget time and resources accordingly. Between GRE exams, photocopying, postage, transcripts, and application fees, it is not unusual for a graduate school application to run as high as $120 per school. Many people apply to 3-6 schools. Women, first-generation and non-traditional students, as well as veterans and some members of historically underrepresented minorities may be eligible for programs that provide assistance with this process; contact the UWL Advising Center, the UWL Financial Aid Office, or programs such as Project 1000. This is a privately-funded effort to assist members of under-represented minorities with the Graduate School application process ( Without support, applying for 3-6 schools could cost you between $400 to nearly $1,000, all the more reason why you should do your homework. If you are receiving financial aid, you may be eligible for some support; the GRE used to provide waivers to students receiving certain types of assistance. Contact the UWL Financial Aid Office. 

Some questions you may want to consider when selecting a Graduate School:

Is there a specialist in your area of interest, who is willing and able to become your advisor? What is her/his track record with graduate students? How does she/he balance their mentoring with their own research agenda? Will she/he remain there? If she/he leaves, will they take you with them to their new position? Will they allow you to work with someone from another institution? How big will your committee be?
Does the program offer the degree you want? Is your area of interest a priority for the department? How many people are enrolled in the program? Who graduated from there--and what was the subject of their dissertation?
Are there specific requirements like foreign or ancient language reading ability that you need to fulfill? How many credits? What's the schedule? When are you expected to complete with coursework? How long will exams be? What mentoring will be provided to you? If you study an obscure language, will they provide FLAS funds for you?
Who is the graduate advisor? Can she/he recommend some current graduate students with whom you can talk about the program?
How big is the department endowment? What types of funding opportunities are available? When is the application for funding due? If you don't get funding the first year, what are the chances that you'll receive consideration the second year?
Has the deadline for application passed yet? Is there a waiting list?
How much is tuition? Are the graduate students unionized? Do they have health benefits?
What is the reputation of the program? Do they encourage innovation or are they a traditional program that discourages certain approaches and methodologies? What are their politics? Who should you avoid? What are their expectations of you?
Can you minor outside of history, in, literature? Women's Studies? Architecture? LGBT Studies? Classics? Philosophy? American Studies? Science? Biology?
What kind of support will they offer for you to attend conferences, or to go on research trips?
Does their library collect materials on your area--or will you be expected to apply to an external funding source to travel to conduct your research?
Is the school located in a community where you can thrive as an individual and find a community of peers?
Should I go to an Ivy League or a Public School? What are some benefits or drawbacks?
Answering all of these questions is difficult and tedious, but you need to know these things. To begin answering these questions, look up the department's profile in the American Historical Association's Directory of History Departments and Organizations in the United States and Canada, 30th Edition, 2004-2005. It contains information on 818 history programs and 25,000 professional historians. There is a copy in the UWL History Department office. Additionally, consult the web-version (please note it is not as complete as the print version!) at: ( In addition, check out the department's webpage and that of its college or graduate school. You'll find out additional information there. In addition, you should consult any of the following sources:

Preparing for Graduate School

Generally, the rule is to start as early as possible. Complete a second or third language--even if you think you will only study U.S. history. Continue with the languages you studied in High School--and keep practicing! Study abroad. 

You can only do so much preparation; enjoy your college years, but remember to take things seriously. Here are some hints to keep in mind:

Schedule things around so you can do a semester abroad, an internship, work, study, and engage in some type of service-learning experience. 
Do not do a 5-year undergraduate career if you can take J-term or Summer-term classes. You should think seriously about graduate school during your sophomore and junior years. You should work on getting your GPA to be as high as possible. 
Think strategically about your coursework and extracurricular activities. Which of your term papers will serve as a writing sample? Keep copies of all your work--especially those with a professor's written comments! Did you apply for an undergraduate research grant? Did you publish the paper? 
Have you been working closely with a faculty member who can write you a strong letter of recommendation? Have you done some research looking into summer enrichment and research programs? 
Have you presented any papers at regional conferences? Will you be attending an AHA meeting? Are you active in the local Phi Alpha Theta chapter? 
Again, here are some additional hints:

Keep copies of all your work in the major, especially term paper projects, because these may be your best writing samples.
Sign up for the GRE ( Graduate Record Exam ) the spring of your Junior year; find out your test score. Retake it in the Fall of your senior year.
Prepare a curriculum vitae (see above).
Edit your writing sample. Talk to your advisor.
Prepare a list of professors who can write you letters of recommendation. These should come from people in your major that are familiar with your best-quality work and, ideally, faculty whose research and/or teaching and/or service in the field of history is held in esteem or is known to colleagues at the institution where you are applying. Ask if they can write you a letter; faculty are busy with service, teaching, and scholarship and may not have time to write you a letter. Have a back-up! Give your recommenders ample time, at least 4-6 weeks, and copies of your statement of purpose, letter of application, transcript(s), curriculum vitae, copies of the exams or papers you wrote in her/his class, along with a stamped, addressed envelope. Did you remember to sign the recommendation form? Remind faculty to send the letter, one week before it is due. If they forget, have a backup; if the application asks for 3 letters, send in 4. It's better to have one-too-many than to be one-short. That may disqualify you. 
Gather information for the application process . . . request information from programs of interest, meet with your advisor to discuss what program best matches your interests. Find someone in that program and ask them questions about it. Do your research!
Prepare drafts of your statement of purpose early in the spring of your Junior year. Proofread and edit them over the summer. Work with your faculty advisor or advising center staff early in the fall of your senior year. Realize that faculty will review hundreds of applications! Clearly label every section of the application, and make sure that your essays clearly address your interest in scholarly activities. If you have any weaknesses, explain them here. Use clear, concise language; avoiding any clichés or displays of verbose theoretical pyrotechnics. You are applying for graduate school, not to be a Boy Scout or to be All-American. You may mention ideas and thinkers that inform your work, but avoid vague or unnecessary references to items in your c.v. that have no direct relationship to your potential for scholarship (your league championship, for example). Do not grand-stand; leave the coded articulations of political leaning for the graduate student mailroom, lounge, or coffee hour. Above all, follow instructions to the letter. If it says 2-page limit, that means 500 words. Use the word-count function.
Research financial aid and support. Do the paperwork to obtain student loans, just in case the financial package you are offered does not cover all your expenses. Have a back-up! Check all the forms!
During the spring semester of your junior year, begin researching possible advisors at the graduate programs where you may be thinking of applying. Begin e-mailing them. Read their work. Do all of the networking that you can. The advisor will keep an eye out for your application materials and help it through committee hurdles and make you aware of any issues. Get a letter of support from them for your application, in which they say they have been in contact with you and that you have been discussing your interests in their program. If they are writing major grants, can they write additional travel or research support into their grant application for you?
For and in-depth consideration of these points, refer to Melanie Gustafson's Becoming a Historian: A Survival Manual (Washington, D.C.: The Committee on Women Historians of the American Historical Association, 2003) available from the AHA online (, or in the UWL History Department.