September
16th 2009
How not to apply to grad school part II: STEMs and seeds edition

Posted under: jobs, students

Female Science Professor had an interesting post yesterday about mentoring undergraduate students through the graduate school application process.  In a contrast with a student she dubs “Student 1,” who is smart, displays initiative, doesn’t have to be told things twice, and (perhaps most importantly) has somehow perfectly absorbed and assimilated the professional culture of hir chosen field.  Student 2, on the other hand, “tends applicationto focus on the immediate task at hand. S2 does best when told very specifically what to do and doesn’t seem to be able to handle a lot of information at once. If general advice is given to S2 in advance of a specific task, it needs to be given again when directly relevant.”  She then reports a conversation with S2:

S2: I’ve decided to apply to 6 graduate programs and was wondering if you would write me a letter of reference for my applications.

SP: Yes, of course. What are the 6 places?

S2: Do I have to tell you? 

SP: Umm.. Yes, you do because each program is different and most programs require me to send or upload my letter to them directly. Aside from that, it makes a better letter if I can personalize it to address your strengths relative to a specific program or adviser. Is there some reason you don’t want to tell me?

S2: No, that’s fine. I’ll come back later and tell you what they are.

SP: Have you already written to some potential advisers at each place so you know they are taking on new graduate students next year and are interested in seeing your application?

S2: No, am I supposed to do that?

SP: Yes, remember we talked about this a couple of months ago. It’s a good idea to make some contact and briefly introduce yourself.

S2. Oh, OK. So should I just send my CV? Do I have to write anything with it or just send it?

SP: I was thinking more of an email in which you briefly introduce yourself; for example, tell them you are doing a senior thesis with Professor X on Project A and that last summer you were a research assistant for Professor Y on Project B and that based on these experiences you have developed a strong interest in Z Science and therefore you are thinking of applying to the graduate program at University K because Professors L and M do interesting work in Z Science. Or something like that. You can be brief but informative. Don’t send a form letter to all 6 and don’t send your CV without explanation.

S2: Oh. This is going to be more work than I thought. Maybe I will talk to you more about this later.

Faculty colleagues who are aware of this conversation with Student 2 have two different reactions:

Type A reaction: Student 2 needs a lot of help figuring out how to apply to graduate schools, so let’s give that help.

Type B reaction: If Student 2 is that clueless, there is no way that student will do well in grad school. Let Student 2 flounder and nature take its course.

Applying to graduate school is a lot more work than it used to be in some ways, and easier in many others.  Twenty years ago, before the widespread use of the internets, we never would have thought to telephone or write to a professor to inquire if they were “taking on new graduate students next year and [were] interested in seeing [our] applications.”  (That’s the easier thing about grad applications in Olden Times–no one would have expected us to do this, not really, although I remember my advisor shaking the trees a bit with her contacts and asking her former mentors and some grad school friends for advice.)  We might be contacted by them, if in our applications, we had indicated an interest in working with them on a Ph.D.–but contacting them in advance would have been very unusual.  Now, it’s typical, largely because of the way that e-mail communication has flattened organizational hierarchies.  Pretty much every faculty member of every university has hir e-mail address published right there on a departmental home page. 

Technology–among other things, perhaps–and the vast amounts of information available to potential students–has raised the bar of professionalism even in graduate school applications.  I applied to some totally inappropriate programs to study with wildly out-of-the-question people 20 years ago–all because I had read an article or book they had written (although I hadn’t given any thought as to whether or not they were writing the kind of history I wanted to write), and the universities were prestigious and in cities in the region of the U.S. where I wanted to live.  Superscientific, eh?  If I could read my graduate admissions application now, I’d probably laugh myself all the way to the recycle bin.

A number of the commenters on Female Science Prof’s blog noted that class bias may account for some of the differences between S1 and S2–and that professors should be patient and non-judgmental with students who don’t pick up on the professionalization as quickly as S1 has.  (Other people disagreed, and said that S2 is just a dimwit.)  Still others made the excellent point that a student who says, “Oh. This is going to be more work than I thought,” should probably be invited down to the anxious bench and asked whether or not ze is really serious about graduate school.  I have to say that if I had a conversation like the one reported above, I’d want to be very involved in hir applications, since I was being asked to endorse S2 with a letter of recommendation.  But–sigh–it just sounds like it’s going to be an awful lot of work to turn that little acorn into a mighty oak tree. 

(For more tips, please see last winter’s “How (not) to apply to graduate school.”)

38 Comments »

38 Responses to “How not to apply to grad school part II: STEMs and seeds edition”

  1. Susan on 16 Sep 2009 at 7:36 am #

    Funny you should do this today. Yesterday I sat with a version of Student 2, who asked about graduate school “in European History”. Ze wanted to stay with us; I am mentoring hir in senior thesis wayyyy outside my field. So I say that we have a very small program in European history, and our grad program is not just history. And I ask about languages, and said that if ze was interested in continental history, ze would HAVE to have a reading knowledge of French and German, in addition to any other relevant languages.

    I tried to channel Dr. Crazy, and suggested a masters degree to set hir up for applying to Ph.D. programs.

  2. Mary on 16 Sep 2009 at 7:44 am #

    This post comes at a rather timely moment for me. I graduated with my MA last May and I am applying to PhD programs this fall. Applying is ALOT of work. In fact, it can be a little overwhelming. I figure by the time I am finished with all my applications and studying for the GRE, I will have spent 100+ hours working on graduate school applications.

    Last night, I was telling this to a good friend who is also applying to graduate school and she seemed baffled that I would devote at least 8 hours a week to studying and applying. Now this friend is really bright and received much better marks than I did all through college. However, ze doesn’t have their MA, and is really unfamiliar with the professional culture of academia.

    I guess I was struck with how valuable my MA is in this regard. It has made me a much wiser (and hopefully, a better) candidate. The other thing my MA did was enable me to see myself as a professional historian. I consider the graduate application process to be the next step in my professional career and believe it is tantamount to my current teaching job. This is another thing that baffled my friend—the first thing ze said when I referred to my graduate application as part of my job was “But thats not work!.”

    So I guess I’m in the camp that sympathizes with S2, there’s just so much you learn once you’re in the system, and even bright students don’t always get it.

  3. squadratomagico on 16 Sep 2009 at 8:39 am #

    Hm: When I applied to PhD programs more than 20 years ago, I actually DID contact professors teaching at the institutions I was considering, by snail mail. So, from my perspective, the process certainly has become easier, not harder.

    And I am completely and totally in the camp of letting S2 sink or swim. If a student requires that much remedial help (inability to remember past conversations, apparent inattention to, or inability to recall, which programs s/he is applying to, needing to have hir hand held through every step of the process) then S2 simply will not prosper in graduate school. I do NOT see this as a class issue: yes, some students are more quickly inculcated into professional cultures, but this student strikes me as the type who want to be a professor because of what s/he perceives as the advantages of the “lifestyle,” rather than through a strong desire to learn more about a certain field.

  4. life_of_a_fool on 16 Sep 2009 at 8:51 am #

    it’s hard to tell just from this snippet and not knowing the student, but student 2 sounds a little shy too, like in not wanting to tell FSP where he/she’s applying etc. That sounds like a fear of failure and wanting a protective layer of anonymity. I get that. Some of the other stuff, like forgetting conversations, does sound more problematic.

    then again, I do try to be patient with students, as I am also one who’s grad application process was filled with really really stupid mistakes and cluelessness.

  5. Historiann on 16 Sep 2009 at 9:09 am #

    Squadrato–you were an overachiever in your day! (Or, maybe I was just more like S2 than S1…) I remember applying specifically to work with people, but just assuming that they’d be there since they were all senior scholars but not too close to retirement.

    RE: Susan’s, Mary’s, and LOAF’s comments–I think a lot of undergrads don’t understand how different selecting a grad institution is from selecting an undergrad institution. In undergrad degrees, there is a great deal of similarity across institutions, but institutions have varying degrees of fame and prestige. For graduate degrees, students don’t always get that an institution they might not have perceived as particularly prestigious (say, Big State U., where all their high school friends went to drink beer) is in fact the best place to pursue a Ph.D. in X field. Similarly, students may not feel inclined to seek out another institution because they like you and they’re comfortable with the faculty at your institution–so why go to the trouble to leave? In some cases this makes sense, but only in a minority of cases. (I generally think that studying at different institutions is good for ensuring broad and diverse training.)

  6. Tom on 16 Sep 2009 at 10:00 am #

    From my grumpy perspectives both S1 and S2 deserve faculty time and attention: it ought to be perfectly fine that students are coming to the application task from different positions, with different ideas about what they are doing and so on. Wouldn’t it be easy to be a faculty member if we only had to support students who have already learned all the lessons–not only of subject matter, but professionalism, too? S2 might well be told–gently–that a lack of professionalism may shine through in the application materials, including rec letters, if he or she is not careful, but our job is to tell undergraduate students what Graduate School is and what it is not, and to let them do what work they wish to try to do: apply, not apply, whatever. But no student should be “left to sink or swim” because he or she has not yet learned all the lessons we have to teach–unless we have better things to do with our time than teach our students. Poor S2 may not learn the lessons of how to apply for graduate school until he or she actually applies for graduate school. Many S1s won’t learn those particular lessons any sooner, and it’s hard to imagine how they could or should.

  7. rainy_day on 16 Sep 2009 at 10:29 am #

    De-lurking to say:

    Thanks for posting this, and for linking to your older post. I am in the process of applying to PhD programs after a few years out of school. It’s really helpful to hear advice beyond the ‘don’t do it’ refrain, although that is of course important to hear as well.

  8. Dr. Crazy on 16 Sep 2009 at 10:44 am #

    Historiann, it’s so bizarre how similar our backgrounds are. Squadrato was TOTALLY an over-achiever (grin).

    As for the sink or swim issue…. I’m all for teaching students and giving them a leg up. In my student population, I’d say the vast majority of my students who consider grad school start off a lot more like S2 than S1. Some of this does have to do with being in the first generation of their families to go to college, but some of it also has to do with the fact that at my institution, it takes a lot less than at some others to rise to the top and to think that grad school is an appropriate path – without necessarily considering all other paths. If you’re rocking your classes in your major and you’re an honors student, grad school can seem like an “obvious” next step, especially if nobody gives you the tough love talk that explains what applying and going really entails.

    That said, I do think a tough love talk is in order for students of the S2 variety, and very early on in the process. This isn’t about not wanting to teach these students, but it is about realizing that sometimes telling a student – point blank and directly – that the process entails x, y, z in addition to a vast amount of independence, and that the student needs to get used to this NOW before he or she is really in a sink or swim position, is very important. Usually a way to figure out whether the student can get up to speed, I’ve found, is by asking the simple question, “Why do you want to pursue graduate school?” If the answer is along the lines of, “well, I’m not sure what else I’d do in this economy,” or “I guess being a professor would be a good job,” that’s just not good enough. And that’s when I go into speech mode about all of the ways in which grad school is different from undergrad, and all of the things entailed in a professor’s job that are typically pretty invisible to students. And I talk about options for using the undergrad degree aside from going on to grad school, and I give them links to a bunch of internet things that make all of this more clear. Then I send the student away to think and I make a follow-up appointment with the student. If they come back and they still want it, THEN I mentor them through the process. But a lot of times, after all that, they realize that now is not the right time for them to pursue this, or they realize they want to take at least a year off, or they realize that “being a professor” doesn’t sound so great after all.

    Sometimes I think one of the most important jobs I have in teaching undergrads is in mentoring solid students *away* from grad school. It really isn’t a path that’s suitable for everybody.

  9. Janice on 16 Sep 2009 at 10:45 am #

    This is timely. I’m just reviewing our department’s information prior to a Monday session on applying to grad school and for grad funding.

    We have a disproportionate amount of first-generation students who literally don’t know the ropes. By the time they’re in their third year and feel serious about the discipline, we’d hope they would start picking up some of the information but not always. So we explicitly present a how-to and what it’s all about session in hopes of getting them to the point where they know they need to get informed!

    And, Susan? The bit about students wanting to do something random in European history is so familiar. I tell them that even British historians are expected to read French or Latin at a minimum, let alone someone who wants to do Italian or German history needing those languages and a few more.

  10. perpetua on 16 Sep 2009 at 11:35 am #

    @ Crazy – I also find myself in the position of trying to talk even bright students out of academia. The less bright ones (the “I just like school” types) respond with a lot of resentment, like I’m trying to destroy their dreams. But they don’t have a clue what they’re getting into, in terms of requirements, length of time, job prospects, etc.

    That said, I was definitely a version of S2 as an undergrad, although more capable of listening to advice and remembering it. Unlike S2, I wasn’t mentored in any way. In some ways the conversation makes me think of the earlier post about the job market and hiring people based on pedigree. Students who go to upper-tier schools (esp Ivies) or places where scholars mentor students understand the culture much more than folks like me, from an unintellectual middle-class family and a third-tier liberal arts college. It was nothing short of a miracle that I got into grad school, and most of the time there I felt like I was playing catch up with my better-trained, better-mentored colleagues. Even though it worked out for me, most of the students I encounter now are more like me than S1 – to those I often recommend following Mary’s path: MA first to learn the ropes, and the languages.

  11. Dr. Crazy on 16 Sep 2009 at 11:45 am #

    Perpetua – I was an S2 type, too, for sure. And largely because I didn’t find mentoring until very late (big regional state school for undergrad, here). I did an MA first at an institution that was culturally very similar to my undergrad place, though a strong program. I’d never have survived in my PhD program if I’d not done that step first.

    As for the “destroying my dreams!” thing, I just say that it’s my job to do that outright – in a joking way, but still. The fact is, if I’ve got the power to destroy your dreams, then a competitive PhD program will leave you a bloody, mutilated pulp. Better to toughen up before you enter into that environment, I say :)

  12. squadratomagico on 16 Sep 2009 at 11:49 am #

    Perpetua’s way of speaking about mentoring is helpful. I myself came from a lower-class, blue- and pink-collar family that gave me no preparation to enter a professional, academic world. But, I went to a great SLAC and received excellent mentoring there, which is entirely responsible for any grad. school application success I achieved.

    So, I’d say that in some ways I’m sympathetic to the somewhat clueless starting-point that S2 is coming from. Yet, I nonetheless feel quite unsympathetic to S2 at the point in time (farther down the line, as I see it) that’s represented in this post. It looks to me like S2 has been receiving excellent mentoring for some time: the prof. is supporting S2 and has been giving hir excellent advice, apparently over the course of several months or perhaps an academic year. Yet, either because s/he is incapable or unwilling, s/he has not really listened to that advice, assimilated it, or acted upon it with some initiative of hir own. We have a duty to teach and to mentor our students, yes, but they also have a responsibility to somehow respond to what we say and implement it. I see this student as lacking in the “initiative” part of the equation.

    I, personally, would not want to train a student who could be described as this one was. I therefore would hesitate to recommend such a student to my colleagues.

  13. perpetua on 16 Sep 2009 at 12:17 pm #

    @ Crazy: totally! If you think THIS conversation is going to destroy your dreams, wait until you’re locked in an office with Herr Doktor Crusty whose life-goal is to make you cry.

  14. truffula on 16 Sep 2009 at 12:26 pm #

    In competitive programs, it may not be enough for a good student to make contact, write a sparkling essay (with some editorial help, I hope), have a good academic record, and have solid letters of recommendation. If I feel strongly that a student has what it takes to excel and a specific program is really where ze should be, then I think it may be time well spent to contact a potential adviser in the program myself (“have you seen so-and-so’s application? can I tell you anything more about hir?”). I’ve seen my promotional effort on behalf of a student pay off.

    It’s been eye-opening to hear basic questions about skills I thought were clearly described in application essays and letters of support. This has caused me to think about how I approach the process myself. Faculty everywhere are busy, we have a lot of these things to read, and we tend to read for what we expect to see.

  15. Historiann on 16 Sep 2009 at 12:40 pm #

    I agree with Squadrato that part of S2′s problem may not be lack of mentoring, but rather lack of listening. Most of the students I’ve sent to grad school haven’t come from privileged or academic backgrounds, but they have been little sponges who seemed to me to have a near-phonographic memory for everything I ever said. (One student remembered and 2-3 years later quoted words back to me that I had said in a presentation in his freshman orientation. That was extremely eerie! I almost thought he must have been stalking or eavesdropping on me.)

    I would still give S2 a chance–but that’s why I thought that the advice many of the commenters here and at FSP to draw the student out on hir interest in grad schol was correct. Whatever the outcome, it’s certainly not a waste of time to push a student to clarify and articulate hir goals and how a graduate degree would play a role in achieving them.

  16. Historiann on 16 Sep 2009 at 12:45 pm #

    And, p.s.: Something I should have included in the post is the fact that while we urge students to write to the people they want to work with before applying to grad school, the fact remains that not everyone replies. I have to say that when a faculty member at my Alma Mater failed to reply to my student Mr. Sponge’s e-mail queries a few years back, he remembered that. When Alma Mater Ivy offered him a fantastic full-ride fellowship and tried to recruit him, he remembered that–and decided to enroll somewhere else.

    Other faculty were extremely courteous and responsive at Alma Mater Ivy in the wooing process–but that one ignored/deleted e-mail played a role in his turning elsewhere. Although it’s possible that the e-mail was lost or never delivered, I can’t say I think his reasoning was flawed. Why would he want to work with a faculty member who is inaccessible from the start?

  17. Sisyphus on 16 Sep 2009 at 12:52 pm #

    This is why I like recommending a book like Peters’s Getting What You Came For:

    http://www.amazon.com/Getting-What-You-Came-Students/dp/0374524777/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1253127172&sr=8-1

    … it gives a history of what the MA/MS and PhD have been and what they are for, as well as breaks down a lot of the steps of the _entire_ process of grad school. Not just how to apply and getting funding but thinking about how to position yourself in a professional, adult-type manner, planning your trajectory, passing comps, all that stuff.

    I recommend it because it has lots of sample narratives that you can then imagine yourself in those positions: this person did x, y, and z. This person did the explicit right stuff but failed to follow the unstated norms and expectations. This student did everything right but hir advisor died unexpectedly and zie had to struggle to get back on track. For those people who do not understand the day-to-day workings of grad school or who don’t recognize why grad students need to be very organized and self-motivated, this book lays it all out. And, I would add, it is easier to mentor a student by telling them they need to get this book right now and read it 10 times cover to cover than to think of everything and explain it all yourself.

    Funny thing is, I regularly tell people over on the livejournal “applying to grad school” community and they get mad at me because of either a) it is old, b) they hate the tone (I think it’s funny!) or c) it is a book and not available through the internet. They want it to all be links they can click on. Sigh.

  18. Indyanna on 16 Sep 2009 at 1:01 pm #

    Lots of perspectives on this. I think you would need to cross-tabulate the clued/less/ness issue against the overall indications of the individuals’ intellectual accomplishment at the undergraduate level. There’s an old baseball scouting adage that if two players get to first base in even approximately equivalent times–one with good mechanical technique and the other with bad– sign the one with the bad technique. For reasons that I think are pretty obvious.

    I was Student 1.5: quite that clueless, but not at all that unenterprising. I didn’t know from things like professors “taking on” graduate students or not, but it was less relevant in general then. A scholar who wrote a book that really shaked/shaped me as a history major had left the graduate department I ultimately went to about a year before I got there. I didn’t even know ze had EVER been there until about ten years later. This ended up being fine for my purposes. I don’t think I’d be too happy now being even a technically very profficient professor of the American Progressive Era.

    From a programmatic perspective, I’m not sure it’s unequivocally that much to the good that students typically enter what is now called graduate “training” as sophisticated as they generally are about things like the interpretive terrain of their anticipated fields or the culture(s) of the graduate school experience. For “time to degree” purposes it obviously is. Whether it will contribute to the production of more resilient and durable generations of scholarship in the medium to long runs, we just don’t know yet. All this said, it is, unquestionably, much easier to write letters on behalf of the grounded and oriented students than for the wanderers.

  19. John S. on 16 Sep 2009 at 1:14 pm #

    I’d follow Historiann’s post above and be (somewhat) charitable to S2, mostly b/c I was like that student. I might have come across as an inattentive listener when talking to my mentors as an undergrad, but some of my problem stemmed from the fact that I didn’t know exactly what to listen for. When it came to the subject matter in my field (the research I had done, the historiography I’d learned in seminar, etc), I had a pretty phonographic memory. (I wish, in fact, that my memory was still this good today; it’s not.)

    When it came to some of the other issues FSP raises though, I was utterly clueless. In some respects, I do think this is a case of my mentors falling down. It was only after I had talked to multiple professors about my interest in grad school and gotten three of them to write me letters that a prof (not one of my letter writers) mentioned that you’re supposed to apply to work with a particular graduate adviser and not just to a graduate program in general. And it was only after I got to grad school that someone pointedly told me that graduate school is fundamentally about professionalization.

    But I didn’t ask any of these questions, either. And if someone had dropped by the by mentions of these pretty major issues (how to pick a program, what grad school involves), I missed them. I don’t think you can assume that students know what to listen for, since academic culture and what it involves is likely so foreign to undergrads. (In my case, I knew exactly 1 person who had a Ph.D. before I got to college. Plenty of other people in my academic cohort as an undergrad, meanwhile, had parents who were professors. I imagine their application process was a little smoother.)

    This is something I am very conscious of nowadays when I have students express an interest in grad school. Most of them I try to discourage; I would say I have met three students in the nine years I’ve been here that I think would really excel. But for those I think are promising, I try to have a very nuts and bolts conversation with them, assuming that they know very little about how one actually gets a Ph.D. and becomes a professor. I guess I am willing to let them sink or swim in the long run, but up front I am very proactive for forgiving if they come across like S2 in the beginning.

  20. Indyanna on 16 Sep 2009 at 1:34 pm #

    @John S: I’m pretty sure I met you your first semester in graduate school, and you sure fooled me, measured by the criteria you outline above! I would have definitely said S-1.

  21. John S. on 16 Sep 2009 at 1:41 pm #

    I should also this: if technology has raised the bar in terms of professionalism in terms of grad school applications, it has also made the process much more time-consuming for professors at Ph.D. institutions. I *try* to respond to all the emails that come my way regarding grad school–but I tend to get a lot that seem so ill-thought out that I think it was a waste of time for the student to send it and will be a waste of time for me to respond.

    For instance–yes, I teach and research on religious history–but every one of my publications is on the 17th and 18th centuries. Do I seem like someone that you want to work with for 20th century history? Really? I’ve gotten people who want me to be their adviser for California history projects. Really? Does that seem wise? We have *two* people in my dept. who have written books on the black church. Am I the person here you most want to work with? And if I am not–if you really want to work with them–why are you telling me that I am? In some instances I’m not the person for them to work with, but I understand their inquiries; their interest reflects a knowledge of my publications. But some of these other examples are head-scratchers.

    I try in most cases to encourage prospectives to at least contact other members of our department if they want to come here. (Like….the actual, award-winning member of our faculty who does Western History? Did you consider him for your project on California history?) But there’s a way in which I think prospective students can abuse the access email provides.

  22. HistoryMaven on 16 Sep 2009 at 1:44 pm #

    Historiann, I read Female Science Professor’s description of the two students and your synopsis omits FSP’s introduction:

    “These two students are both smart — neither is brilliant, but both are hard-working and motivated, have had research experiences as undergraduates, and have done well in their classes. On paper, they will have similar records that look very promising for graduate studies.”

    I was a late bloomer. My undergraduate advisor really didn’t want to write a letter on my behalf for graduate school: I was shy, juggling a job and courses, and was a female student being taught by a department of white male historians. Figuring out how to appear professional and smart while facing an advisor who didn’t really liek me was an exercise in discombobulation. My GRE’s and my grades were my defense, and my process of learning certainly made me look foolish and dumb to those on the other side of the desk. I was dismissed, found others who would support me, and was admitted to an Ivy League program in which I thrived.

    Methinks S2 is one of those individuals who requires more assurance in every step of whatever task she undertakes. I’ve had graduate students who appear at nearly every office hour to show me the primary sources or the bibliographies or the draft paragraphs of their research projects. They asked the same questions over and over, and I offered the same advice, over and over. It wasn’t that they forgot; they needed re-assurance. Like me, they are visual learners; they don’t necessarily rely on or trust what they hear or trust their instincts.

    And such students don’t wish to fail–not thinking to reveal to the advisor what grad programs S2 is applying to may just be a bit of evidence of this insecurity. The facts that she does have a list of 6 grad schools and directly states that she will “come back later” to tell the FSP what they are tells me she’s done some research and understands that part of the application process. But S2 steps back into timid/protect mode when she learns that she would do well to contact professors–she states “Maybe I will talk to you more about this later.” Now she’s unsure, realizes she hasn’t completely remembered FSP’s advice (and perhaps is a bit embarrassed), and, like so many insecure students, would rather resort to the anonymity of the application form (no one else sees it except those anonymous folks making the decision). Now’s she’s being advised to pitch her application, to go public and perhaps fail in front of her advisor (hence, the question about why the advisor needs to know what schools S2 is applying to).

    Accuse me of over-reading the evidence, but I’ve real sympathy for S2.

  23. Kathie on 16 Sep 2009 at 3:36 pm #

    I want to say a bit more about doing an MA first. I double majored in history and political science as an undergrad, focusing on my specific geographic area of interest in both, and while I thought history was right for me, I honestly wasn’t really sure. I did an interdisciplinary area studies MA, in the process of which I was able to work with faculty in both departments at my graduate institution. When I was more certain about history, my faculty adviser in history helped me shift directly into the PhD program. I know it doesn’t necessarily work like that everywhere, but it was a huge help for me, and also gave me contacts and support in poli sci while I went on to finish my degree in history (I suppose it might be obvious that I tend to do modern political history).

  24. Knitting Clio on 16 Sep 2009 at 5:41 pm #

    The comment by S2 “this is more work than I thought” is telling. All too often I talk with students who want to become college professors because they think our jobs are easy. I’ve found that it’s best to be as frank as possibly about the amount of work it takes just to put together a decent graduate school application, let alone succeed once there and get a job at the end of the process.

  25. Digger on 16 Sep 2009 at 8:17 pm #

    Historiann, These How Not To Apply to Grad School posts are great, and I gave them out (again) to my students tonight (them = yours and one from Notorious).

    I’ve had several SEVERAL people try to talk me out of wanting a PhD. For years, even! And yeah, I’m still up for the soul-crushing, pasta-eating, debt-incurring, relationship-destroying, stress-fest that may only possibly result in related gainful employment. Yay soul-crushing!

    Sisyphus: thanks for that book recommendation!

  26. Historiann on 16 Sep 2009 at 8:33 pm #

    Thanks for carrying on in my absence, friends–I had a little accident involving my computer and a cup of coffee this afternoon…bummer. Good thing it was just a cup of black drip coffee, instead of my usual afernoon order of a double latte with whole milk! So there’s that I can reconstruct as some good luck. I think it will be OK. Considering how frequently I have a cup of hot liquid by my side while I’m on my laptop, and how klutzy I am, I’m kind of surprised that this hasn’t happened sooner, and more frequently!

    Sisyphus–your comment got held in moderation for a little while, but it’s up now, and I second Digger’s thanks. Although, girlfriend please: the book was published in 1997, and I refuse to think of any title published AFTER I finished my Ph.D. as an “old book.” I think it’s hillarious that your students don’t want to be referred to dead tree old media–and yet they want to get a Ph.D. in literature (presumably)? Yikes.

    HistoryMaven: I think you present a very plausible alternative reading of S2. I didn’t exclude FSP’s introduction of the 2 students as equally good because I wanted to slant the conversation–I just thought that since she said that they were equally promising but for the ways she details in the parts I quotes, that the similarities were less important than the differences.

    John S.: I hear you about the not-quite-appropriate queries, but surely you can cut-and-paste some responses to those queries along the lines of, “I’m sorry, I’m an expert in X and Y fields, not the one you’re most interested in, so I couldn’t advise you. My colleague Professor Flapdoodle is the person you want to work with.” A brief reply is much, much better than a non-response. A former S2 like yourself should have a little more compassion for the perhaps somewhat clueless! (And I don’t believe for a minute you were an S2. You always seemed like a very savvy operator to me.)

    Knitting Clio’s point is a good one: if the work involved in putting together a good application is too burdensome, then how badly do you really want this career? Mary (way upthread) is a good illustration of someone who is taking her Ph.D. apps very seriously. Other students who aren’t putting in that kind of time should worry that she’s going to eat their lunches. And she just might!

  27. human on 16 Sep 2009 at 8:55 pm #

    Other students who aren’t putting in that kind of time should worry that she’s going to eat their lunches.

    What if they don’t have that kind of time because of their life situations? Should they be ineligible for grad school?

    (Let’s assume that being offered a fellowship and a place in grad school would alter their situation so that they were then able to devote the necessary time to graduate study.)

    I think it’s churlish to assume that an S2 who says, “This is going to take more time than I thought,” is saying that because they are lazy.

  28. Historiann on 16 Sep 2009 at 9:04 pm #

    If their “life situations” don’t permit them to pull together a solid grad school application, then they may not be up to the challenge of grad school at that point. Maybe they should try again another year, when they can put in the time to submit a competitive application.

    Not churlish–just realistic. That’s your competition!

  29. John S. on 16 Sep 2009 at 9:48 pm #

    Historiann–I should be clear. I am actually polite to all who email me and try to write helpful responses. And I do try to clue people on to what I think they need to be looking for. (Like–how chronological specialization can often trump thematic specialization, the idea that you want to pick an adviser who’s had experience training students in the past, etc.) I am mostly venting here.

    Regarding the students learning how much work applying is: I think is a teachable moment as well. To my mind, much of the work here involves applicants figuring out their career goals. Writing these emails, I think, is like any other kind of writing. Being able to articulate your interests clearly to prospective advisers *is* difficult, and it is something that I don’t know if applicants did in the “olden” days. But I suspect it allows students to hit the ground running when they get to their PhD program.

  30. Indyanna on 16 Sep 2009 at 9:57 pm #

    Bummer indeed on the laptop. I killed mine early this summer the good old fashioned S2 way, by impassively looking on while it slowly degraded electronically over a period of several weeks, allthewhile failing to make the requisite backups. Paid for it too. Twice, in fact.

    I think whether John S. was an S1 or an S2 depends on a reading of the curious usage “phonographic memory” in his comment above, but I’m going with S1. And of curious usages, I’m still trying to decipher the STEMs part of the brilliantly subtitled “STEMS and seeds” allusion in the post-header. I guess I left too many brain cells on the playing field back during the “paleo-botanical” era of writing those graduate application “statements of purpose,” which is when I did that!

  31. anon2 on 16 Sep 2009 at 11:04 pm #

    Historiann – re the laptop, immediately flip it over onto the screen/keyboard and unplug and take out the battery. Let it sit for 24 hours. Usually does the trick. Obviously I do this a lot. I’d give hints on how to deal with other laptop problems but those would give away my secret identity. :-)

    As for grad school applications, let me say that I made sure that all of my letter writers had 5 weeks to write their letters in (I didn’t apply to – what turned out to be the major school in my field – because they would only have 3 weeks to write the letters), I gave them copies of all of my papers I had written for their classes, my transcripts and my GRE scores. And one day, while walking down the hall with one of these profs, I mentioned my GRE scores and he looked at me and said “oh, maybe you will get into grad school.” I had gone to him for recommendations for schools, which I later learned were mostly (although not all) second or THIRD tier schools in my field. And this was the professor in the field I planned to study. (Who I had been taking classes with every quarter for two years; I had taken a year of an unusual language that would help my application, etc. I was not a wholly unprepared student. I had a 4.0 in history coursework). It was a professor in a wholly unrelated field who suggested the school I ended up attending.

    The point is that I was clueless but even when I tried to do things right I had a lack of good mentoring. I was S1.5 – I was trying to be on top of things but floundered a lot. Perhaps as John S. said, I wasn’t hearing what I needed to know even when it was said to me.

  32. Sisyphus on 16 Sep 2009 at 11:33 pm #

    Although, girlfriend please: the book was published in 1997, and I refuse to think of any title published AFTER I finished my Ph.D. as an “old book.”

    to be fair, it has advice on taking the paper GRE and advises students on “how to buy a personal computer.” :) But all the details about faculty in-fighting and how not to embarrass yourself around colleagues are priceless!

    Indyanna: STEM is some combination of science, technology, engineering and medicine (though I’ve seen it used without technology in one case and without medicine in another). They do things differently over there, is what I like to say. Including pay their RAs more. :) And do actual bench work.

  33. You never can tell : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 17 Sep 2009 at 6:00 am #

    [...] to the student who affects diffidence in class but whose papers show real insight and effort.  As many commenters noted yesterday–you never know who you might inspire or what a student might do with what you’ve [...]

  34. Matt L on 17 Sep 2009 at 9:33 am #

    I don’t think I can add a lot to the comments or the post. I definitely recommend the Peters book, even if it seems dated. Its a great insight into academic culture and its not too discipline specific. Its a great starting point for S1 and it will help S2 get a clue.

    One other thing about S2. I think that he/she was telling her mentor that he/she is not ready. S2 is clueless as a senior, but that doesn’t mean that he/she won’t make an excellent graduate student after a couple of years in the working world. So there is a great deal of merit in letting S2 struggle for a little bit, and then be ready to write her/him a great letter in a couple of years.

    At Woebegone State University maybe one in a hundred history majors have both the innate talent to think historically and the necessary skill set to succeed in a History PhD program. The rest of them need time to develop these skills and to cultivate a historical imagination. If they cannot do that, you do not owe them a letter of rec or mentoring through the graduate school application process. Do not throw good effort after bad.

  35. Indyanna on 17 Sep 2009 at 10:29 am #

    Thanks for that clarification, Sisiphus. The “seeds” part I think I can follow to its logical conclusions, or maybe better to say allusions. I always liked the scientific term “bench” as a reference to the worksite, and think maybe humanists could profitably co-opt it. Unless that would be seen as some sort of an imperialistic move.

  36. John S. on 17 Sep 2009 at 10:49 am #

    I just thought it might be of interest to the crew here–I am actually meeting this afternoon with a former student of mine (graduated in June) who’s in the midst of putting together her applications for grad school. (On my advice, and strong advice of her honors adviser, she started preparing for this months ago.) I of course sent her immediately to this thread for pointers–we will see what she thinks.

    Moreover, since this student is interested in women’s and gender history, I told her she might has well stop by and read the blog regularly. Thus another intellectual may be brought into the web of Historiann(dot)com.

  37. truffula on 17 Sep 2009 at 11:10 am #

    STEM stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.”

  38. Friday food fights! Plus evidence of my evildoing, with links. : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 15 Jan 2010 at 12:52 pm #

    [...] How (not) to apply to graduate school, part I and part II:  stems and seeds edition [...]

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