Graduate School Application Process: From Start to Finish

The United States is home to more than 150 history PhD programs. Each program offers something unique, whether it's a specialized course of study, strength in a specific field, a professor who shares your research interests, or exclusive research facilities. Before making the decision to apply to a particular college or university, you should learn as much as possible about the history program. Begin your research here at the History Doctoral Programs in the United States web site, and then look for more detailed information on individual departmental sites. The following advice offers suggestions about things you will want to consider as you look for, apply to, and decide on a program that fits your scholarly interests and career goals.

The Application and Decision Process Includes:

Application Process

The application process combines a mixture of reflection about what you want out of your pursuit of a graduate degree in history and a preliminary effort to identify schools and faculty that can help you achieve those goals.



The reflection stage is crucial in helping you think about what kinds of programs and environments best suit your interests and goals.  Answering these questions will help you narrow your list of schools to apply to as well as help you prepare a stronger application.

Questions to think about:

Initial Research on Schools

The first place to start is to consult with professors at your undergraduate institution; they can help suggest programs that would be appropriate. Then search the AHA’s database and carefully review history department web sites of schools to which you think you might apply. Consultation of these sites will enable you to get a sense of program basics, degree requirements, the interests of faculty and current graduate students, admission requirements, and application procedures. Not all sites will be equally informative, but it is important to try to cull as much information from them as you can. At this early phase, it is particularly important to pay attention to faculty profiles. The faculty, and especially your advisor, have an enormous impact on your professional training so the importance of finding someone appropriate to work with cannot be emphasized too strongly. Most faculty members only accept students whose interests are relatively close to their general area of interest. Take some time to read something written by your potential advisor so that you can articulate in your correspondence and application why you think your intellectual interests are a good match for this program and advisor. It is advised that you write to a potential advisor before you apply. Describe something about yourself and your research interests and inquire politely whether he or she might be willing to supervise a dissertation in the subject (but take care not to be too wedded to a specific question or approach because professors want to know that you are open to learning more). Contacting your potential mentor gives them an opportunity to tell you if they are over committed supervising other dissertations, if they are planning an extended sabbatical, or perhaps that they are planning to retire. Things to look for when researching schools:


Decision Process

Once you have been admitted to a program, you typically will have the opportunity to visit the departments/campuses and learn about programs on a whole new level. During the course of the campus visit, ask all the questions that are on your mind. Don’t be shy. This is your opportunity to really get to know the ins and outs of a particular program—what will be expected of you, what the intellectual and social environment is like, what you can expect financially, etc. You are consumer about to buy a product (an advanced degree) that is an investment of years of your life.

It is important during this process to talk to various people—faculty with whom you think you might work, the DGS and/or the Graduate Assistant, graduate students in the program (and if possible a recent graduate or two), and to other resources in the field (e.g. your undergraduate advisor, etc.). Ask some of the same questions to each of these different constituencies. You can learn a lot from asking the same question to different parties (and you may be surprised by divergent responses). Below are some suggested questions for conversations with different parties.

Ask Questions of Faculty and DGS of the Program

The key here is to spend time talking with the DGS and the faculty to get a sense of what they are like to work with and to get a deeper sense of the program. There is no perfect description of a potential advisor or of the perfect History Department. The important thing is your advisor’s style matches yours and that the Department’s culture makes for a good fit.


Questions for faculty, and especially for a potential advisor:


Questions for faculty or the DGS about:


Ask Questions of Graduate Students in the Program

Take advantage of the opportunity to talk at length with graduate students currently in the program. They will undoubtedly have opinions about what the professors and the graduate program are really like. Ask about all of those things. Graduate students at different phases of the process will have a different take on the experience so, if possible, talk to students at different stages—those still completing coursework, those working on dissertations/heading toward the job market, and recent graduates. Many of the questions listed above are worth also asking grad students; sometimes faculty and student perceptions of a program differ. Grad students are also an excellent resource for information that may be important to you personally—recreation, off-campus life, housing, religious or political communities, health insurance, cost of living, childcare, what the weather is really like in January, etc.


Updated by Elise S. Lipkowitz, chair of the AHA’s Committee for Graduate Students, 11/2006


Last Updated: March 19, 2014