I just got home from an enjoyable weekend getaway to western North Carolina. The foliage is now past its peak color, but you can see from the photo I snapped with my cellphone that the weather and scenery was beautiful. Many of you – indeed most of you – know that I lived in western North Carolina for around two years while I working on my master’s degree at Western Carolina University. In addition to the sometimes all-consuming work load of graduate school, my life was a complete mess during much of my time in WNC. Going back to the mountains in the fall reminded of my how much natural beauty I missed while I was living there because I was either too busy, too emotionally numb, or both to really enjoy it. I know it’s a simple thing to say, but thinking about this makes me sad. I was in one of the most beautiful places on Earth for two years and I didn’t take a single day to enjoy the natural splendor all around me – and when I tried I wasn’t really able to. Of course, being back in the mountains also reminded of the things I enjoyed about my time at Western – the work load was heavy, but I did enjoy my studies. And being back in the mountains also reminded me that it won’t be long until I return to graduate school to pursue a Ph. D. Being as I don’t use the old blog here nearly enough, I thought that I was long overdue for a post that’s more personal than a book review I writing more for myself than anybody in cyberspace. And it’s a good time to update my faithful reader(s) on my progress in ending my so-called exile. Or in the words of the old spiritual, I’m getting ready to travel on…
First things first, I took the GRE in late July. If you are staring down this gauntlet that is useless as a predictor of future success, remember that it’s only a test. I let myself get a little too stressed over it. Practice and focus are key. Find your weaknesses and study those sections most. Both Kaplan and the Princeton Review sell workbooks and there are also a number of websites that offer free practice sections. Most history programs use the GRE verbal as a gatekeeper in the admissions process. All people below this score, please turn back. For most programs it’s 600 and some of the elite schools won’t look at anybody who scored under 700. This isn’t really fair, but it’s a practical way of separating the wheat from the chaff in the early stages of the admissions process. One tip for anybody getting ready to take the GRE: have a clear idea of where you plan to apply. ETS will send your scores to four places for free. I picked my four based on where I thought I might apply but I have since decided not to apply to two of them. ETS charges $23 for each additional report. Today, I cut a check for $69 to send three reports and if I had done my homework in advance I would have only had to pay for one additional report.
I scored high enough on the GRE so that I’ll never have to take it again. One hoop jumped through. My next step was to decide which programs to research. There were obvious choices for a specialist in southern history – Georgia, Chapel Hill, South Carolina, Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss, LSU, and so on. But I am also planning to have a heavy emphasis on religion, which also narrows the list quite a bit. To find out which professors are currently directing dissertations, I went to the American Historical Association’s website, where they keep a reasonably up-to-date directory of dissertations currently in progress, listing titles and advisors. From this, I made a list of schools where I thought my interests matched fairly well with some of the research currently underway. I ended up with a list of something like 20 universities. For the next phase of research, websites are a charm. University departments have pages for each faculty member that typically list research interests, publications, current graduate students, and sometimes even links to their CVs. After I narrowed the list down to ten or so professors, I sent out introductory emails to politely inquire if they are indeed taking new students.
After sending out my emails (which was a little nerve-wracking, since some of these people are very well-known in the field of southern history), I was able to start an email dialogue with several professors. I was also sure to find out about funding at their schools, always an important consideration. Out of eleven emails, all but two responded. One politely told me that I would not be particularly well-served working under him (I was disappointed with this one because I had met the guy a few times and had only heard extremely positive things about working under him). After this phase of correspondence, I winnowed some programs out of consideration and came up with my list of which schools I am applying to: Florida, Auburn, Chapel Hill, Temple, and Yale.
I have also started to assemble application materials. Most of these are not terribly difficult to pull together. I have a good writing sample and I’ve had my GRE scores sent to all the schools. I’ll need to get transcripts mailed and the applications actually filled out (this is usually the easiest part of the entire process). I’ve also written a statement of purpose (the most difficult part of the entire process), but I’ve sent it to some people to read over. When I have their comments and make the revisions, I’ll move on the paperwork with all possible haste. I hope to have all the applications in by the end of this month and then the waiting game begins.
Applying to Ph. D. programs in history involves a lot of waiting. You apply in the fall and hear back in the spring. When I get word sometime around April, then I will have to travel to each school I got into to visit with the professors and meet with other graduate students. Then I’ll choose where I’ll go for a Ph. D. It’s a huge decision – as serious in the life of an academic as picking a spouse. Not only is picking an advisor going to determine how smoothly your experience as a graduate student will go, but you will be forever linked to that dissertation director and the university for the rest of your career. This is no time to make a bad decision – goodness knows I’ve made my share of those.
This is very exciting for me – and also a time of great soul-searching. I’m essentially signing myself up for at least five years of indentured servitude. I will work 80 hour weeks and have to try to figure out a way to squeeze more time out of the day. Like ever other graduate student, I will be made to do the work that others refuse to do. I’ll sacrifice relationships with family and friends for the sake of doing more work. I will not get a full night’s sleep for months at a time. I will be resigned to a life of bare subsistence.I will endure the hazing ritual known as comprehensive exams. I will have to defend my research, writing, and ideas in the face of withering criticism. And when it’s all over there will probably not be a job waiting on me.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m traveling on.