Pursuing a PhD in Classics: Preparing for Graduate School
Your particular situation and/or individual programs that interest you may call for a very different pattern than the one outlined below. Always ask as many questions as necessary to arrive at the information you need, and make certain to follow above all else the particular directions provided by the institutions and programs to which you are applying. The information and advice contained here in no way purport, of course, to guarantee desired results in the graduate school admissions process.
|Stele of Demetria and Pamphile, Oberlaender Museum, Kerameikos, Athens, 4th century BC|
Some current trends in graduate studies in classics
In recent years, the time spent in graduate school (most notably from end of undergraduate to end of PhD) by classics candidates has generally increased. A number of factors have probably contributed to this trend, but two of the most notable ones are the later arrival of classicists to the profession (many graduate students in classics began one or both ancient languages only as undergraduates, or even as MA candidates), and a growing tendency for graduate students to take on substantial teaching loads (whether elective or required) in order to fund their educations and broaden their preparation for the academic job market. Time from end of undergraduate to end of PhD now easily ranges from 7-10 years for candidates planning to seek university positions.
Intensive language study
Many future classicists, not having had the opportunity to study Latin or (especially) Greek in middle school or high school, need to work quickly to enhance their abilities in the ancient languages and reach a comfortable reading level. In response to this need, intensive summer language courses in Latin and Greek have been created at universities throughout the country. These summer sessions enroll both undergraduate and graduate (the latter usually MA-level) classicists, and aid in accelerating the learning process--provided that students continue working and reading on their own without stopping once the courses are over.
Future classicists are also sometimes discovering at the conclusion of their undergraduate years that they need (most frequently) more language study or perhaps some work in ancient history or archaeology prior to entering the graduate programs of their choice. One-year postbaccalaureate programs (or 'postbacs') at certain institutions have been designed to answer this challenge. At a 'postbac,' a student who has just completed a bachelor's degree can spend an additional year earning a certificate of study and/or (more importantly) preparing for admission to more competitive graduate schools. Some postbac programs have special seminars just for their members, but more often, postbac students pay a flat fee for their tuition (generally somewhat reduced from standard university tuition, since no degree-seeking is involved) and are permitted to register for whatever courses on offer fit their levels and needs. While a postbac can be a perfect solution for accelerated work, it can also create advising challenges, since postbac students will actually need to spend their first semester applying to the very graduate schools they are studying to enter.
Even if these situations do not apply to you now, they will inevitably have an impact on your future if you are seeking a professional life in academia. You will likely teach and advise students in accelerated or postbaccalaureate programs at some point in your career, and so it is in your interest to familiarize yourself early with the needs which these initiatives are seeking to meet.
The 'prerequisite' MA
This is perhaps one of the most confusing situations at work in the humanities graduate school world today. Quite a number of PhD programs in classics award an MA in the midst of an integrated (and unalterable) course of study. To a student researching these programs, it therefore frequently sounds as if these institutions are expecting (or at least inviting) admission straight after the completion of a BA.
At many programs, however, many or most of the entering students, despite the fact that they will earn an MA while in residence, already have a master's degree from another institution, or a second bachelor's degree from (e.g.) Great Britain or Germany, or at least a postbac year. Having only a BA when you apply to one of these programs can compromise your chances for a competitive fellowship package, or even just your basic chances for admission.
So how do you discover whether there might be a situation like this at the programs you are interested in? One tactful way to do this is to ask about the profiles of recent entering classes. Have new graduate students in the past few years generally arrived with only a BA in hand, or with additional advanced study to their credit? Would a faculty member be willing to discuss the compatibility of your level of educational experience with recent admissions trends during a campus visit? What courses or endeavors might you be able to undertake during this application year that might, even while they are in progress, help to strengthen your application? (Modern languages are often particularly relevant here.)
And what do you ultimately do about this situation? If you get the impression that many of the programs you want to attend would really prefer that you have an MA before entering, this does not mean that you cannot put together the best possible application packet and seek admission now. It does, however, mean that you should take special care to have some backup plans in place. Try to add to your list some institutions that offer terminal MA degrees, and apply for those as well. That way if your first-choice PhD program believes you are not quite ready yet, you can seek an MA, make yourself that much more competitive, and reapply.
Some essential early considerations
The GRE (Graduate Record Examination)
Many, if not most, graduate programs in classics require scores from the 'general' GRE (there is no 'subject' GRE for classics or its affiliated fields), a national exam that, like the SAT, is administered by ETS (the Educational Testing Service). Most of the GRE is administered on a computer terminal, but the writing/essay portion of the test means that scores are not instantly available. Make certain to plan ahead so that your results will be available to the institutions of your choice in time for their respective deadlines. You can register and find other information about the test at ETS' GRE website.
One of the best ways to prepare for the GRE is by taking a practice exam or two, just to get a feel for the length and structure of the test. Up-to-date GRE preparation books are readily available at most major bookstores and online, but the GRE website itself also contains a wealth of free materials that can be accessed with test registration.
If you have attended more than one institution for your past degree(s), if you have completed substantial work (especially in classics) at an outside school or overseas, or even if you are simply no longer in residence at your former university, gathering the documentation of your prior study may be a longer process than initially anticipated. Spend some time online or on the phone to ensure that you know which offices to contact for your transcripts, how much they charge (and how to pay them), and what their anticipated processing time may be.
Your curriculum vitae (CV)
Potential graduate programs will want to know the full shape of your academic background after high school. If you have already completed some graduate study, done any teaching in (or outside of) the field, added one or more of the classics-associated modern languages (most notably German, French, Italian, or modern Greek) to your repertory, studied abroad in the Mediterranean, interned at a museum or archives, or even published something, you will need to provide exact and correct information about your achievements.
One of the best ways to prepare for graduate application-writing, therefore, is to begin assembling a formal academic CV, if you have not already done so. Some useful general guidelines for a CV in classics are provided by the SCS (Society for Classical Studies). Since these guidelines are for individuals actually seeking academic jobs in classics and classical archaeology, some of their headings may not yet apply to you or your experiences, but they are a good place to start. Consult with an adviser for some ideas about how to incorporate your other achievements into this basic framework.
Remember that an academic CV is not a resume. It should not contain or highlight the same details that would concern an employer in e.g. the business world. If you have already prepared a business resume, it will be a very useful resource for you as you shape your CV, but it cannot substitute for it. A CV is generally longer than a resume, and focuses most significantly upon academic activities, rather than upon responsibilities held or projects executed within the workplace.
You may not need, want, or be able to enclose your academic CV in every graduate or scholarship application you complete, but many venues will either invite you to do so or not expressly forbid it. If you choose to add a CV to an application that does not ask for it, you can mention it in a cover letter as an additional enclosure for reference or interest.
Letters of recommendation
Most graduate programs require three letters of recommendation; to be certain that you have enough recommenders for any situation, however, try to plan for four writers if possible (you will probably not need more than this unless you elect to apply for a Rhodes scholarship). You can then divide up the application workload amongst your four recommenders according to their areas of expertise and the particular parts of your academic career that they know best.
A good time to think about potential recommenders is the summer before you begin your applications. Review your recent years of study. Which faculty members did you best connect with? With whom have you taken classes most frequently? Most recently? Who is advising your independent work? Ideally, your recommenders should be instructors who have taught you in more than one course, or worked with you on an especially detailed level, so that they can offer a fuller view of your academic strengths.
Your recommenders to graduate school in classics should ideally not be former employers (unless you were doing basically academic work, such as research on behalf of a professor, museum or archive tasks, archaeological excavation, humanities computing, etc.), family friends, local governmental officials, and the like. Nor should they be faculty members, however eminent, who barely know your work. Remember that the admissions committee is attempting to evaluate your potential for success as a future teacher, researcher, and scholar, and select your recommenders accordingly.
Assuming that the guidelines above apply to you, most of your recommenders will probably be college or university faculty members with whom you have worked fairly recently. Plan to formally ask them to prepare letters for you in early September at the latest (i.e. one year before you are planning to enter graduate school). The one exception to this scheduling note occurs if you are considering applying for major overseas fellowships, many of which have September deadlines. If you are doing these particular applications, you will need to contact your recommenders much earlier, probably at the beginning of the previous summer.
Remember that university faculty members expect to write recommendation letters for students. It is a normal part of their general responsibilities, and they will always tell you in advance if they feel they do not know your work well enough to write for you, or if their schedule will not permit them to complete a letter on time. In return for their effort and their candor, however, you will need to supply some logistical planning to make their jobs as easy as possible.
Ideally, have a list of application destinations (both programs and external scholarships and fellowships) ready when you approach your recommenders. They will then be able to tailor their letters to the needs and interests of the institutions and organizations to which you are applying. Request letters as far in advance as is practical, and tell faculty members up front that you will email a friendly reminder or two as deadline dates approach. Provide your recommenders with the full contact information and web addresses of the programs to which you are applying (making sure to specify the exact degree program that is of interest to you), and give them any forms that they need to fill out and enclose if the recommendation is to be completed in hard copy.
It is natural to suppose that the recommendation transaction is completed once the necessary letters are uploaded or mailed. Many students, however, omit the final and most essential step: do not forget to thank your recommenders (preferably with a thoughtful email or, even better, via the always-correct formal handwritten note) and to let them know the results of the applications they have supported. Not only is it a courtesy to your recommenders to notify them of your outcomes, but it is also useful to them to know the effects their letters have had upon particular institutions and organizations.
Time and expense
Applying to graduate programs (in classics or in any other field) is a time-consuming, money-consuming, and often emotional process. It is also an endeavor that inevitably takes place at a particularly busy time in a student's life, generally near the conclusion of an earlier degree. As best you can, try to plan ahead for the effort and expense you are about to undertake.
You will probably need to spend a good deal of time both online and on the phone. Making certain that you have private access to reliable connections and to a printer will save both time and embarrassment.
You will need to produce documents and materials that display you and your work at your best. Be prepared to spend the necessary time printing and assembling them, whether electronically (as pdfs) or in hard copy. It goes without saying that you will have to follow directions and produce complete and accurate applications, with all required materials arranged and submitted as requested. (This is particularly the case for external scholarship and fellowship programs, which frequently accept only hard copy and reserve the right to summarily disqualify candidates whose applications are not in the proper format.)
Remember throughout this process that graduate school, as one professor put it, is 'adult education.' Admissions offices that might have been proactive with undergraduate candidates (e.g. notifying them if portions of their applications are missing, or making exceptions to deadlines) will frequently not do the same with potential graduate students. The responsibility for the application and admissions process rests almost exclusively with you in a way that it may not have done before. Be prepared to serve as your own administrator and your own advocate.
The basic timeline
All of the dates in this section refer to the academic year prior to the one in which you plan to start a graduate program. For example, if you are projecting starting an MA in September 2026, the dates below apply to the academic year 2025-26, starting with June-August 2025.
Bear in mind that most major graduate programs in the humanities do not practice 'rolling' admissions; expect firm and specific deadline dates in most contexts. If you wait until spring to begin seeking out programs for the following fall, you have missed most of the opportunities.
Research programs and make individual lists of questions for each
Schedule and study for GRE
Track down past transcripts and check on ordering process
Put CV in order
Make list of potential recommenders
Start drafting personal statement
Research external scholarships and fellowships and note deadlines
Finalize application list
Take GRE (to allow time for a later retake if necessary)
Contact recommenders and request letters as per application instructions
Seek an adviser's input on personal statement and revise as needed
Many major external fellowship applications are due this month
Contact programs of interest to ask questions and schedule a visit
Schedule travel for self-generated campus visits
Take GRE again, if desired
Complete personal statement and finish applications
Submit applications, if desired (most deadlines are in December)
Visit programs; meet faculty and students (informal interviews)
Many other external fellowship applications are due this month
Submit applications (most deadlines are this month)
A few other external fellowship applications are due this month
Main 'application season' winds down
Many programs make contact to schedule formal admissions interviews
A few early offers may arrive via email or telephone
Offer time for most major programs; formal letters sent out
Commitment time: most classicists select by the end of the month
Last commitments finish; financial aid offers are generally fixed
Although you may think that you are starting 'cold' when you begin to research potential programs, you probably already have some relevant ideas and experiences that will help you to narrow the field quickly. Most of the major classics programs in the country are listed in the SCS' Guide to Graduate Programs in Classics, so you can take this directory as a starting point, and combine it with other lists of programs available online.
One helpful way to begin is by accommodating the 'negatives.' Eliminate areas of the country where you are unwilling or unable to live (e.g. where a spouse would have no chance of finding employment). Next eliminate institutions that do not offer the specific program or degree in which you are interested (e.g. no terminal MA available, or no program in classical archaeology as opposed to literature). You may need to read websites with particular care or make a few quick telephone calls to administrative assistants to confirm that individual schools do not, after all, have what you are looking for. Bear in mind that classical archaeology programs may be located within departments of (e.g.) art or anthropology, ancient history programs within departments of history (as opposed to classics).
At this point your list is probably already fairly short. Now is the time to consult with your current faculty members or other contacts you may have within the field for their recommendations about programs you should examine more closely. A few that you have eliminated may get back onto your list as a result of these conversations. At this point your primary concerns should probably be (although not necessarily in this order): 1) academic strength (will you come out with a well-rounded, intensive degree, with a number of exam credentials and a broad spectrum of coursework and teaching to show? Is the program strong in multiple areas so that your interests can be accommodated if they change?); 2) faculty breadth and depth (does the institution have at least several faculty members whose work is of interest to you and who are recognized as making significant contributions to the field? Are there any famously good teachers and mentors on the faculty?); 3) program finances and viability (does the program have access to funding for graduate fellowships, academic travel, and the like? Is the program of a healthy size for the size of the institution? Is the program successful in turning out completed PhDs and helping them find employment?); 4) unique program features (is there an interdisciplinary track that interests you? Is there an ongoing excavation to which graduate students have access? Is the program highly prescriptive, or are you allowed to choose your courses with a special degree of freedom?).
Many of these questions will be answered or at least hinted at in conversation with your current instructors; others you will answer yourself online. Conventional wisdom frequently suggests that you apply to approximately 5 graduate programs (probably simply because of the time involved), but there is no reason you should not apply to more if you feel that your situation warrants it and if you feel you are able to demonstrate that you are a good individual match for all of the programs on your list.
As when you applied to undergraduate institutions, remember to consider a spectrum of schools. Indulge in one or two 'reach' applications, if you like (filing at schools where your odds of admission may be lower), but try to submit the bulk of your applications to institutions whose students have academic profiles somewhat in line with your own. And do not forget to include at least one institution whose admissions policies should give you an excellent chance of receiving an offer.
Typical non-academic concerns of a graduate student
As you are researching graduate programs, do not forget to take quality-of-life issues into consideration. Not only do you have the right to give some thought to your financial and personal situation, but you must do so; by the time you are entering graduate school, you have probably been emancipated from your parents' or guardians' health insurance policy, you are likely financially independent or nearly so, and you may have a spouse or significant other and even children to accommodate--or will by the time you finish school and begin looking for full-time employment.
Although there are various offices and programs in place at many major universities to deal with 'graduate student life,' family affairs, finances, and the like, your own planning should begin the moment you take interest in a given institution. Where in the country is the school located? Can you travel to and from there quickly and easily? What is the cost of living in the town, and how does it relate to the kind of financial aid and fellowships typically offered to graduate students in the humanities? Will you be able to afford your own apartment, or will you need to rent a room or take in multiple roommates? Will the institution's health insurance be sufficient for you, or will you need a supplemental policy? Will you need a car to get around? Is there a job market for your partner? Are there decent schools for your children? A little advance question-and-answer work during preliminary research and an early campus visit can very quickly give you some ideas about whether you will be able to live at a given institution.
Do not forget, in your advance planning, to complete a realistic assessment of the amount of debt you anticipate being able to handle when you leave school. Many graduate students borrow throughout the course of their studies, and are in school for so long that they virtually forget that their loans will be tallied up and become a significant part of their financial lives once they receive their degrees or time out on their enrollment (i.e. continue to work on their dissertations or schoolwork after the official length of their programs expires). A loan total that covered only the equivalent of one year of tuition and living expenses can easily become the monthly equivalent of an extra car payment (or more) when it comes due, and many newly minted PhDs and their families experience financial hardship as a result of this. It may be in your long-term interests to accept a better financial offer from your second- or third-choice institution rather than borrowing to attend your first choice.
Making initial contact with potential programs
Once you have narrowed your list down to something less than ten programs, it is time to make contact with them by speaking with the department's director of graduate studies in order to ask some preliminary questions. The best way to do this is generally to schedule (by email) a brief telephone call, rather than peppering the faculty member with written inquiries to which he or she must then type out answers.
This phone call is your opportunity to introduce yourself to the department, to ask some of your questions that are not answerable through online research (make certain that they are not before you make the call, in order to avoid the embarrassment of just being referred back to the website), to try to get a feel for whether your academic profile is in line with general admissions trends, and perhaps also to set up an informal campus visit, if you already know that your interest in the program is serious.
The 'informal' visit
Many programs have systems in place for handling what we will consider as 'informal' (i.e. not containing required admissions interviews) campus visits, so do not be surprised if you are asked to wait a month or two before coming to campus, or to submit your application before scheduling a visit. Once you are allowed to make this appointment, however, you will probably be directed to work with the administrative assistant or the director of graduate studies to plan a half-day or so at the department. You will almost certainly meet with the graduate director (and you should ask to do so if at all possible), and perhaps with other faculty members who share your general academic interests, as well; you may be able to sit in on a class or seminar; and you will likely be given the opportunity to meet with current students and ask them some questions about their experiences. Under these circumstances, expect to travel at your own expense and cover your own lodging and meals; if the department wishes to make arrangements for you to stay overnight with a current student or to take you out for a coffee, the offer should be made by them, not requested by you.
Informal visits, if permitted (some institutions only have 'formal,' i.e. admission-interview, visits available, and these are necessarily by invitation only; cf. below), are an excellent way to gain some preliminary perspective on the academic and social conditions of the department in which you are interested. It goes without saying that you should present yourself throughout this time at your professional best, because you will inevitably be affecting your prospects. Try to maintain a give-and-take in the conversations which are scheduled on your behalf, striking a balance between discussing how you might fit into the program and asking questions about it. Be prepared to share some general ideas about your interests and your future career. Use the graduate students you encounter as resources, and try to make some specific inquiries about the student experience in the department and at the institution. Above all, maintain an open, friendly, and enthusiastic attitude throughout your visit, whether your interest in the school is waxing or waning as time progresses. Many of these people you are meeting will one day be your professional colleagues out in the larger field.
The application itself
A basic graduate school application package will generally consist of a paper or online application form accompanied by an assortment of supplementary materials, some electronic and some hard-copy. The most common of these are discussed here.
These will need to be sent by ETS directly to the institutions where you are applying. Make sure to request them well in advance in order to have time to deal with any problems.
Do not let your GRE scores become a source of undue anxiety as you are preparing your applications. GREs are only one of many factors used when admissions committees make their decisions. Frequently, larger universities will use GRE scores at the schoolwide level for purposes like breaking tied competitions for university fellowships between (e.g.) a historian and a physicist. Individual departments and programs will evaluate them as part of your total profile, not as the sole indicator of your potential.
Some graduate programs prefer to receive transcripts as part of a package that you upload or send in yourself (and they may want them sealed, stamped, signed, etc.); most, however, will want to receive transcripts directly from other institutions. Make certain to follow the individual directions of the programs to which you are applying, and do not forget to order transcripts for work completed at outside institutions if this work is relevant to the graduate program you want to enter.
Transcripts are a significant admissions factor for all graduate programs, and they can represent a good opportunity for you to really shine. If you are interested in going to graduate school in classics, chances are that you have a transcript that reflects your enthusiasm. Look over your past courses and grades as you are getting ready to write your personal statement. Are there any trends visible there that may help to define you as a future teacher and scholar? Are there any patterns that show your special interests within the field? You may want to call attention to these features elsewhere in your application.
If your academic record contains any gaps or bumps in the road, e.g. if you took a semester off due to financial constraints or illness, or if you changed schools and worked for a year in between, etc., be prepared to offer an explanation for this in your personal statement or in an addendum.
Letters of recommendation
Now that you have selected your recommenders, it is your responsibility to see to it that they are able to submit their letters on time. As suggested above, a friendly email as deadline dates approach will probably be welcome, particularly if you have promised one in advance. You may also wish to offer your recommenders a copy of your current CV, so that they can review your recent achievements and learn more about your other interests as they are writing their letters.
Your recommenders will keep the letters they write for you on file. Once they have submitted one reference, they are often willing to adjust and rework their letters on shorter notice if a sudden opportunity arises for you (e.g. you discover a scholarship on the internet for which you want to apply--and the deadline is 48 hours away).
Letters of recommendation are the portion of your application portfolio over which you have the least control, comparatively speaking. However, there are a few ways that you can help to maximize the potential of this part of your credentials. Cultivate intellectual relationships with faculty members whose classes and ideas interest you. Take multiple classes with the same faculty members so that they can evaluate your work in different contexts. As you are considering recommenders, meet with them in person to talk about your graduate school and career goals. Offer them some samples of work done outside of their classes to skim over, if they like. Provide them with copies of your CV and explain items on it that are particularly important to you. All of these efforts will assist your recommenders in writing you letters that are, above all else, specific to you and to your academic career.
Some programs, particularly when students are entering at the MA level, will request itemized lists of ancient texts studied or read in the original Latin and Greek. It will be to your advantage to begin compiling these lists early, particularly if your experience in the ancient languages is long or extensive. Do not worry about listing specific chapters or sections unless they are explicitly requested or are in fairly simple formats: Hdt. 1.1-130 is a reasonably useful indication; the numerous letters and numbers required to cite a passage of Aristotle will be less quickly appreciated by those who skim your lists, and you may do better to refer to percentages of a whole (e.g. "about 10% of each of books 1 and 2 of Plato's Republic").
Many programs will invite (or more often, require) you to submit samples of past academic work so that departmental admissions committees can evaluate your writing skills and your scholarly development. These work samples should, of course, be freshly printed or properly created pdfs of recent papers, free of all grades, instructor comments, and computer-generated watermarks. They should also be, if at all possible, work related to the field of classics and to your interests within it.
Given the page limits set by the application requirements, try to select a paper or papers that have been favorably received by your instructors, and that you have written in the last year. If possible, aim to include papers that represent at least some research (think bibliography), analysis (think ancient evidence and arguments about it), and independent thought (think conclusions you draw yourself). Particularly if you are applying to programs in ancient literature or ancient history, it is important, if at all possible, to submit writing samples that show direct engagement with original Greek and/or Latin.
Including a cover page on each writing sample giving its title and a brief summary or abstract of the contents will make it easier for readers to follow your arguments quickly. This is particularly the case if your writing sample is an excerpt from a longer work like an undergraduate thesis. Some programs will accept complete undergraduate theses as exceptions to their page-limit requirements; you can find out if this is the case by contacting them.
The personal statement
For some individual evaluators or admissions committees, the personal statement is the most important component of the application package after former degree credentials and transcripts. As such, it should be crafted with great thought and care, and rewritten for each application you submit so that it is specific to each institution.
Although it occupies the same position in the graduate application as the 'essay' did in the undergraduate one, the personal statement is a very different kind of document. In a nutshell, it is your opportunity to justify and discuss your academic career to date, outline your future intellectual and career goals, and explain why the program to which you are applying is an appropriate bridge between your past and your future. The personal statement should not be a virtual academic paper or dissertation proposal (students in the US are not expected to arrive in graduate school with dissertation topics in hand), nor should it be a mirror reflection of the institution's self-proclaimed strengths (do not write, "I want to attend the University of Q because of its excellent library"). Rather, it should show how and why the institution (department, program) is a good fit with both your prior qualifications and your coming plans.
The personal statement does not have to be overly long (about two single-spaced pages should probably be sufficient, and this is a commonly requested length), but it should still be detailed and well-organized. Although you should avoid simply re-rehearsing a 'laundry list' of achievements presented elsewhere in your application packet, you might think of the 'past' portion of the statement as your chance to expand upon and prioritize the information in your CV. What areas of study are particularly meaningful to you now, and what experiences in the past led you to them? Were there any significant moments of change in your academic career? If so, how have they shaped the apprentice scholar you are now? What kind of independent work have you done, and what impact has it made on you? What do you consider to be your most advanced study to date?
Your description of your future goals and plans should be sufficiently specific to demonstrate real depth of thought (not "I want to be an archaeologist," but "I am particularly interested in future teaching, excavation, and research that focuses upon the Bronze Age in the ancient Near East because . . . "), and should be elaborated upon to demonstrate a good fit with the program to which you are applying ("University Y's ongoing excavation in Israel is a particular point of attraction for me, as is the yearly cycle of papers in the Near East Seminar, which I would plan to join immediately upon entering the program"). If you choose to mention specific faculty members at the destination university, do so with care. A little work on the internet will tell you whether Professor X, with whom you want to work, has just accepted a temporary three-year fellowship to the other side of the world, or whether Professor Z has recently departed for another institution. "Above all, do not stop at 'I want to work with Professor X'; rather, continue on to 'I would look forward to working with Professor X because . . .'"1 If you have had a prior conversation with the faculty member, you will be able to be even more specific about the areas of his or her research that are of particular interest to you, but be careful not to try to characterize yourself as such an ideal student of Professor X that you would never or could never be interested in working with Professor Y.
The usual rules of good writing apply: organize with impeccable clarity, be concise, be lively, use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Remember, this is the most recent example of your 'work' that the admissions committee will read, and they will pay a great deal of attention to it in order to make sense of your vision of your academic career. Do not be reluctant to seek advice from your current and past instructors as you are crafting your personal statement; they can often be an excellent resource.
As a last note, there are a couple of 'red flags' that you should avoid in your personal statement:
1. Negative language of any kind, e.g. "I do not have much experience in ancient history, but . . ." This should always be represented as a positive acknowledgement of growth potential and accompanied by a commitment to further development, e.g. "My enthusiasm for my chosen field of study has only grown with my increasing experience, and in the summer before entering a graduate program I plan to deepen my knowledge by . . ."
2. Language that could potentially be dismissed or deconstructed by a more experienced scholar. Be very careful about using absolute terminology like "always" or "never" when discussing academic topics in your statement, or about making blanket generalizations about your field that you do not yet have adequate experience to support, no matter how firmly you may believe they are true.
The interview process
A number of programs require admissions interviews for all of their shortlisted candidates, or use them to break ties near the bottom of their admissions lists. If you are called for one of these interviews, you will generally work with an administrative assistant to schedule what we will call a 'formal' visit to campus. As on an informal campus visit, you may have time to speak with current students, and also with individual faculty members, whose conversations with you may or may not be a codified part of the actual interview evaluation. (You may still safely assume, however, that every meeting you hold will help to create an overall departmental impression of you as a candidate.) Other interviewees may or may not be on campus at the same time. Under these circumstances, it is likely that you will travel at the evaluating department's expense, and that some coverage will be provided for lodging (perhaps with a current student) and meals; however, as in the case of the informal campus visit, the offer for these arrangements should be made by the department, not requested by you.
Often these kinds of campus visits will culminate for you in a scheduled formal interview, sometimes held before an entire committee of faculty members. The general advice frequently given to job applicants in the business world certainly applies here: suitable attire, positive and professional body language, a confident tone of voice, a thorough knowledge of the institution and the program (as best as can be achieved by an outsider), and the ability to present your particular strengths and relate them to that program in a concise and articulate fashion will all serve you well. The faculty members will drive these kinds of interviews with the questions they ask you. Do not extend your answer to any one question for so long that there is no time for follow-up; instead, pause after a summary response and ask the committee members if they would like you to elaborate further. Remember to reread your own CV, writing samples, and personal statement (the one you crafted for this particular institution) before your interview, as these documents or their equivalents will form the basis for many of the questions you will receive. And if you cannot answer an intellectual or field-related question that is posed to you, describe instead how you would go about discovering that answer. It will give you an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge of the basic processes of academic research.
Evaluating program responses and offers
Offer time and negotiation
Perhaps it is February, and you have just received a tantalizing email from your second-choice program offering you admission and a partial fellowship. This is your first offer, and in your excitement you are tempted to take it and get the decision-making over with.
Do not jump too quickly. Particularly if you have applied to several programs or to similar programs within the same geographic region, you may end up with several offers that need close comparison before you can make the choice that is truly right for you. Is admission with no financial support at your first-choice school better than that partial fellowship at your second choice? Given the cost of living in each location, how much financial aid will you require? Is there more than one faculty member at the top school whose work fascinates you? (Your academic career should never hang upon your intellectual relationship with only one mentor. People do move, change jobs, and retire.) Do students at the second school tend to be more successful on the job market when they finish?
Some of these kinds of questions are ones you can answer yourself by researching graduation rates or crunching cost-of-living numbers once again. But you may have other questions that require additional contact with the faculty members and administrators at the institutions you are considering. Do not hesitate to contact them, but try to keep your emails and telephone calls organized and concise when you do (again, no long lists of detailed questions over email). Explain what ongoing concerns you have, even if they are primarily financial in nature. Occasionally fellowship offers may be readjusted as a recruiting tool, or a financial aid office may be able to find one more grant or loan program that makes the difference for you.
Remember that it is still your right to complete your research and have your questions answered, no matter how badly a department may want your answer early. Watch the deadlines and conduct your discussions with good sense and tact, but take that extra time if you need it to wait for all of your responses to come in and talk the various issues over with friends and family, or to revisit one or two campuses.
Accepting an offer and planning for entry
At long last, you telephone or email the director of graduate studies at your chosen department, send back the relevant forms (and the various mandatory deposits) to the relevant offices, and commit to a program. Congratulations and celebrations are in order at this stage, of course, but it is crucial that you do not waste the time available to you in the intervening summer. This is the last summer until you complete your dissertation during which you will not have some kind of graduate work or exam preparation pending, and this empty space can be used to your great advantage. Plan to spend the summer preparing to relocate, if necessary; earning some extra money (always needed); and either formally studying a modern language (e.g. an intensive class at a local university) or reading ancient texts. If you choose the latter option, make sure to select texts from your required graduate school reading list (ask for a copy from the department if a reliable and updated one is not available online). You will be examined on this material quite soon, comparatively speaking, and the preparation for it takes a great deal of time.
Once you do commit to a program, ironically, the academic department's involvement with you, which may have been fairly detailed up to this point, generally takes a hiatus until you actually enter. You should direct any questions you may have about housing, finances, health insurance, etc., to the proper university offices rather than to the department itself. Consider this your opportunity to get to know the infrastructure of your new institution.
External scholarships and fellowships for graduate study in the US
Counting exclusively on your destination university of choice for graduate school funding is the logistical equivalent of putting all of your eggs in one basket. As you are applying to graduate school, do not forget to submit additional applications to external scholarship and fellowship programs. In many cases, a university will extend equivalent support for a certain amount of time to the winner of a prestigious scholarship after the scholarship's funding expires, in effect providing a much clearer financial path to the final degree.
The department maintains a list of important links to external scholarship and fellowship opportunities. You should also consult a Foundation Center library (there is one of these in downtown Washington, DC) for references and assistance. Be prepared to commit significant time and energy to this endeavor, but also be comforted that it really does reward most industrious students on some level.
Above all else, it is important that you begin this process early. If you wait until you have already been accepted to a graduate program, you will have missed the deadlines for the scholarship and fellowship applications, which are usually in the early to middle fall of the academic year in which you plan to complete your previous degree. One easy way to handle it is to apply for the funding first, and then do the degree applications.
Finally, in no case whatsoever should you pay an independent 'service' or website to locate sources of financial aid for you. If you need assistance in determining whether a given source of funding is legitimate, an academic adviser or university career counselor should be able to help you.
Overseas scholarships and fellowships
There are a number of well-known international scholarships and fellowships designed to assist American students who want to pursue graduate-level work (or a second bachelor's degree) in other countries. Additional information on specific programs can generally be found in the study abroad or financial aid offices of US schools, and especially online.
IMPORTANT: Preparation for overseas degree seeking is a long and extensive process. Initial applications for major fellowships such as the Rhodes, Marshall, and Fulbright are generally due in home university offices (for initial rounds of vetting and elimination) in early to mid-September of one's final year of study, i.e. one full calendar year before entrance at a European or other institution is desired. Many viable candidates are rendered ineligible for these competitions due to their lack of attention to these early deadlines, so be sure to follow your current university's directions to the letter. Additional assistance with the extensive applications may be available to you; many schools maintain faculty advisers whose responsibilities include preparing students and their files for Rhodes, Marshall, and Fulbright competitions. Ask at your home department or at the career counseling and overseas study offices.
Here are just a few of the major overseas scholarship and fellowship programs that may be of interest to you:
1 This individual recommendation is quoted nearly verbatim from the 1998 recruitment brochure of the Department of Classics at Princeton University (current version).