Interested in getting a PhD? The process can be intimidating. Often, hundreds of applicants are vying for a few top spots in a department.
You may have an MA degree, a substantial background in your field, and a great GPA, but often, so do half of the other people applying. To be successful, you must avoid common pitfalls students make while crafting their application.
So, how to make your application stand out from the crowd? Dr. Peter Larson, head of Graduate Programs in History at the University of Central Florida, Dr. John Sacher, Chair of the Department of History, and Assistant Professor of History Yvonna Pineda shared some important reasons why PhD programs reject applicants. Tailor your application accordingly – consider yourself warned.
- The applicant did not identify a professor they want to work with. Long before the submission of your application, email and try to make a phone appointment with someone who you are interested in working with. Dr. Pineda states: “While you’re applying you definitely want to contact the professor who might eventually be your adviser. The adviser-advisee relationship is crucial at the graduate school level…You want someone who is enthusiastic about your project, will be on-campus, and will work with you through the stages of graduate school.”
- The applicant did not identify the area of history they want to study. Saying you want to study “history” is not enough. Dr. Sacher explains: “People who apply to programs because “they love history” doesn’t get you very far. If you apply to a program and say you’re not sure if you want to study 21st century American history or Greco-Roman history, that doesn’t get you very far. Even if you’re not sure, pretend! You need to be sure, you need to be out there and very confident of what you want to study.”
- The graduate school is not a good fit with the student. Interested in Civil War history? Don’t apply for a program that specializes in the Greco-Roman World. According to Dr. Pineda: “You always want to apply for the best program of your sub-field.”
- The applicant does not look like a good investment. Graduate programs want to produce PhD students who will make their alma mater proud and prestigious. Dr. Larson notes that: “PhD programs select students whom they think will 1) finish and 2) reflect well on them later (where you received your PhD gets mentioned at conference introductions and on book jackets).”
- The applicant was not an involved student at the undergraduate or M.A. level. Did you just show up to classes? Graduate programs might want to know why you weren’t more involved. Dr. Sacher explains: “If you think about it from their perspective, when they see an applicant who has always shown that they can be a professional historian, has already gone and done primary source research and has gotten it published in peer-reviewed journals, has gone to conferences, has demonstrated the ability to work on their own and carry an argument throughout, that’s a much safer bet.”
- The applicant did not clearly identify possible research and projects. It’s important for departments to know what you will are interested in contributing to their program. Before you send in your application, you should also know which professors will assist with this research. According to Dr. Sacher, “I would recommend that you contact people in those programs. That way, you can say when you apply: “Well, I have contacted Dr. So-and-so who studies in my field, they are interested in my project.”
- There is no professor available in the applicant’s field. Another reason to get in touch with faculty ahead of time! Make sure the professor you want to work with is not retiring, leaving, or too occupied for another student. Dr. Beiler offers the following advice: “Pay attention to the individual you want to work with on the dissertation. When you are looking around for a program, it is important that there is one person there for you to work with. If there is no one there, that is not the program for you.”
- There simply was not an open position. Sadly, this is probably the biggest reason graduate programs reject students – even very qualified students. According to Dr. Larson: “Some schools have a ratio of 20:1 or worse of applicants to spaces so it can come down to luck.” Even if there is a space, it may not be in your field. The moral of the story? Apply to as many colleges as possible!Agree/disagree with some of the points on our list? Feel free to leave a comment! If you have any additional tips or advice for students seeking a PhD program, please share.
- [Click here to see common mistakes students make on their admissions essay]