Tips for Applying to PhD Programs in the Humanities

As application season gets going, CSGSH members offer advice to prospective doctoral students on applying to PhD programs:


As someone who just completed my Ph.D. in Germanic Languages and Literatures, I can offer three pieces of advice for people considering applying for graduate programs in the humanities. The first is quite basic: dig deep and make sure that a Ph.D. in your discipline is really what you want to do. This might sound obvious, but feeling energized and excited by your field of study is incredibly important and, considering the immense workload and stress that you will face for the next 5–7 years, will sometimes be the one thing that holds you steady on the path towards graduation.


Second, seek out graduate programs where there are multiple faculty with whom you would like to work rather than just one faculty member. Having this deep bench will make getting through coursework much more meaningful and enjoyable; in later stages, you will have to select additional members for your exam and dissertation committees, so having a team composed of other supportive mentors in your department and affiliated programs will be crucial for your success. Furthermore, so much can change in the long course of a doctoral program, so giving yourself the option of working with multiple people in your department can provide a safety net if, for example, your intended advisor retires before you are finished.

Third, research what recent alumni of each program have done since graduating. If you are thinking of pursuing an alt-ac path, but all the former graduate students in a particular program are leading more traditional careers, it might not be the best fit for you. Usually a department’s website will feature alumni or news sections where you can learn about their post-doctoral lives. You might even be able to reach out to former students and ask about their experiences in the program.  — Didem Uca, Visiting Assistant Professor of German at Colgate University


On funding:

Look at the pay rate for TAs and GAs and determine if you’d be able to survive in that area on a certain salary. I was awarded a presidential fellowship from one university I really wanted to attend—but cost of living was so high in that city that the award didn’t even cover half of my living expenses. Meanwhile, another university offered me a regular TAship in a more rural area, and it turned out that the TAship paid twice what the presidential fellowship offered. So while the presidential fellowship sounded nicer and excited me at first, I made the pragmatic decision to take the TAship at the more rural university. Now that I’ve graduated, I’m really glad I did. Really dig into the numbers to see if it even makes sense to apply to a university before you decide where to send your applications.

On your academic experience:

I’ve always been of the belief that graduate school is what you make of it. Attending the most prestigious program does not guarantee you learn more or get a job. That’s on you. So choose a place where you can envision yourself doing your best work. For me, that meant attending a program closer to home. But I knew that about myself, and I was a well-supported, happy grad student with a sense of work-life balance as a result. I got to help my sister plan her wedding and attend my little brother’s track meets on the weekends. I’d have been so unhappy if I hadn’t been able to do all that. Maybe there’s a city you’ve always wanted to live in, or a place that seems just idyllic to you. Pursue universities that genuinely excite you in locations where you’d be happy to live. This is 5-7 years of your life, after all.

On job training:

Look for programs that offer you strong opportunities to teach and to get involved with a few aspects of university work while you are a graduate student, regardless of your field of study. I was grateful that, during my time at both universities where I pursued graduate work, I had the chance to work on a GAship at a writing center, in student affairs, with summer high school programs, and with a fellowships office in addition to getting the traditional time to teach. The truth is that the job market is very challenging no matter what your field of study is, and it’s probably not a good idea to try to choose a field, sub-speciality, or even university based on whether or not you think you can break through in the job market. Instead, look for the place where you can get the most diverse work experiences so that you build skills that extend beyond research and teaching to open a wide range of university-related careers to you. Professor is not the only university role that provides job satisfaction, personal fulfillment, or the ability to support students. You might be surprised at how much you might like certain jobs on campus! And it’s been my experience that, especially at offices that don’t typically have a lot of graduate student engagement, staff are eager to support graduate students who want to explore career opportunities across campus.  — Kristina Reardon, Associate Director of the Center for Writing at the College of the Holy Cross


First off, I’d like to echo some of the advice provided by my colleagues in this piece: make sure this is what you want to do with the next 5-7 years of your life, figure out if the financial situation of income/location of school works out for you, and pick the schools that have the most faculty in your field.

Being an international student (Canadian doing a PhD in the US), I will offer a few tips for international students considering a PhD in the US. First, makes sure to start the required immigration paperwork ahead of time. Bureaucracy can be slow and daunting and the last thing you want is to show up a few days late to your PhD in a foreign country. Second, research and consider the political climate in the area of your school. While most times college towns are welcoming to foreigners, it is always a good idea to know what to expect from the city off-campus. A good way to do this is to reach out to your potential advisor and current graduate students at your institution to find out how welcoming the town might be. Third, ensuring that your potential school has a good International Student support system can go a long way. These offices are of great assistance with several obstacles that are particular to the international student experience. One of the activities I enjoyed the most upon my arrival at the University of Kansas was the international student orientation, where we were able to interact with peers across the disciplines in the same situation. International Student services might also provide advice on immigration status to ensure that students remain in legal status throughout their academic program according to enrollment requirements of their visa. 
Andrés Rabinovich, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Kansas


Expect (and prepare) to spend a lot of time writing and revising the Statement of Purpose, as this is a crucial part of the application for PhD programs and sets the tone for how you and your application comes across. This is time well-spent, as it’s your chance to share your academic interests, tell your story, explain in your own voice what you want or plan to do in graduate school, and share your project ideas. You are not setting your dissertation topic in stone by identifying your interests and questions in the Statement but you are showing the broader areas or questions that your interests—which are evolving, and will continue to evolve during graduate studies—fall into and how or why you came to them.

Try to see the Statement of Purpose as a way to define, integrate and focus your application. Be forthright in your interests and your project ideas—it is one of the few places in the application where you get to “speak” directly to your readers. And make sure to get feedback well before you submit it. Ask professors—who know your work, who you have taken classes from, or who have advised you. Professors will have the best insight into how to improve your Statement of Purpose, so implement their suggestions!

Finally, prepare for the possibility that it may take more than one round of applications to be admitted into the program of your choice, or into the one that suits your circumstances. This happened to me. The first time that I had applied to PhD programs, I secured one admittance—and while it was to a British university of my choice, the admittance came with no guaranteed funding and only the prospect of applying for funding in future years. I decided to apply again the following year to try once more into different funded programs, rather than to pursue a degree without knowing how/if the funding would pan out year after year. It was during the second application round that I found the program where I am completing my PhD degree. Shoring up your patience for the application process will help you get through these kinds of high’s and low’s.  — Amir Hussain, PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Emory University


1. Start having a backup plan for your post-PhD life, including the possibility of not working in the academy, as you are applying. Start putting it in practice the first year. The job market might turn around – anything is possible – but the current slump is ten years along and still getting worse. Even well-intentioned faculty advisors may have little experience with, or interest in, professional sectors outside the academy. Your experience in graduate school can be enriched by getting to know people who do public-facing scholarship, serve on nonprofit boards, and otherwise have experience that can help you prepare for work beyond the academy.

2. If a program lacks a piece of infrastructure you think it needs, you can create that infrastructure. If no one is talking about how to prepare for non-academic jobs, and you want to know more about that, convene a working group on the topic. If a department’s guest speakers don’t represent the discourses taking place among graduate students, graduate students can start a speaker series that does. (This helps you stand out in the department, and signals to potential employers, down the road, that you are an active and engaged colleague.) Some departments have designated funding for such purposes.

3. You can do it with a family. Yes, even with children. It’s extra work, and you will probably need to take any extra paid work that comes your way. But having obligatory commitments outside of your department can be a helpful reality check. Whether you have a family or not, having meaningful things to do outside of teaching and lit crit – and, as much as you will hopefully grow close with your cohort, with people who are not in graduate school – will keep you grounded.  — Gerard Holmes, PhD candidate in English at the University of Maryland

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