A GUIDE TO APPLYING TO DO GRADUATE WORK IN INTELLECTUAL HISTORY last update: fall 2000/minor revisions 2001-2. www.people.virginia.edu/~adm9e
The following Guide was first compiled by Allan Megill, with the assistance of Kevin Burnett, in 1989 at the University of Iowa. The present version was substantially revised and put on the web in June 1998. This is an informal guide, for the private use of persons directly interested in the matter, and is not intended for wide dissemination or for discussion in public forums. It has particular reference to the University of Virginia, but many of my comments have a wider reference as well.
A Prefatory Comment
The academic job market is brutal, and will probably always remain so. Tenure-track positions are difficult to find. European history is not a growth area, and for various complex reasons intellectual history has a somewhat tenuous and marginal status within the historical discipline. Funding for graduate training at the University of Virginia has generally been poor, except for a few of the most highly qualified students. I should note that over a period of years we have sharply cut the size of the graduate program, and it is possible that this factor, plus a greater drive to raise graduate funding that is now underway, will lead to somewhat better funding in the future. Even so, you ought to understand that if you have the intelligence required for doing well in graduate school, you should also be able to do far better financially by working in the business world. You will most likely be surprised by how many years it takes to complete a good Ph.D and to get established in the academic world. [Addendum of Jan. 2001: There are some indications that retirements are picking up. If this is a real trend-and it may well be-it bodes well for the academic job market. But don't expect the hiring nirvana that prevailed for a few years in the 1960s. Students will need to be attentive to continuing intellectual and institutional change (I do not mean by this that one ought to follow every enthusiasm that comes along). AM]
Still, if you have a precise intelligence, if you think that you can find things to say that are original, important, and true, if you feel that you have some affinity for teaching, and if you can repress the mistaken idea that you already pretty much know how to do what you will have to learn to do, don't let my warning comments deter you from at least investigating the possibility of graduate training in this field. An academic position can give you the economic basis for pursuing matters of intellectual interest. If you do not obtain or do not want an academic position, graduate training, if it is of high quality, can help prepare you for a wide range of occupations where clear thinking and expression are required-although I also believe that in this case you need to have significant non-academic experience as well.
I do suggest that you strongly consider not going directly from college to graduate school. Firstly, if you have never had a responsible job, where it really mattered whether you did something in the right way or not, you may not understand yet the sorts of demands that will be put on you in graduate school. Secondly, if you want to work in European intellectual history you need to start graduate school already knowing well one major continental European language, and there are ways of acquiring such knowledge after your B.A. if you are not already proficient. Thirdly, given the financial rigors of graduate school, it might be a good idea to spend a few years working, in order to accumulate money and also to acquire marketable skills that you may need to fall back on later.
Deciding Which Schools to Apply to, with Special Reference to the University of Virginia
Let us suppose that you have a B.A. or will be getting one, and that you are interested in doing graduate work in intellectual history. How do you decide which schools to apply to?
Seek advice from as many sources as possible--but remember that not all of the advice will be well-informed or suited to your interests and abilities. For general guidance, consult those professors at your undergraduate institution who are most familiar with your work or with the field itself. You will probably be familiar with the names of some potential graduate teachers. To survey systematically who teaches where, turn to the latest edition of the American Historical Association's Guide to Departments of History, which lists faculty in every major department and indicates their specialties (most history departments will have a copy on hand). Go through the book and see who identifies intellectual history as a field. It is a simple matter to discover, through a research library catalog and through such CD-ROM or on-line resources as the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, the Social Sciences Citation Index, Arts & Humanities Search, and Social Science Abstracts, what these persons have published. Consult with the reference librarians at a good library if you need help. Search engines on the World Wide Web will also generate references to these people, although you should remember that the Web lacks quality controls. All research universities have Web sites, as do many faculty members, and the more useful of these sites will include information about professors' publications.
Write briefly to two or three scholars whose work interests you. Tell them that you hope to do graduate work in intellectual history and that you are thinking of applying to their department. Outline your interests in a sentence or two. Keep in mind that professors take leaves of absence, move to other institutions, and retire. So it is wise (and not at all impolite) to ask whether your correspondent will actually be teaching at University X next year. You should also ask for advice on other schools and scholars that might suit your interests. Again, keep the letter brief. Until you are actually admitted, you have no real call on the professor's time and energy.
Getting Admitted, and Problems Attendant Thereon
Can you get admitted? That depends on the selectivity of the graduate school and on the reputation of the particular department. Unless your record is absolutely outstanding, your chances of getting admitted to Stanford, Yale, Princeton, or Berkeley are small. So, when you apply to one of the most selective schools you should be prepared to be turned down. Even if your record is stellar, you may still be turned down, sometimes for reasons that have little to do with your merits. For example, if you want to work with Professor X and Professor X is going be retiring next year, you may well be turned down (to save yourself time, money, and trouble, therefore, you should inquire ahead of time, as suggested above). However, don't be afraid to apply just because you might be turned down. You should also not be afraid to apply simply because you cannot yet fully see how your studies can be financed. Since you have never read through a file of applications, you have little basis to know how you would come out in the competition; perhaps the admissions committee will think well of you.
As for the financial burden, the total cost for a year of graduate training at UVa seems currently to be around $25,000. After the third year the cost is much lower, because tuition declines from $16,000 to a tiny fraction of that amount. The first year is likely to be the worst year financially, unless you are lucky enough to get a very good fellowship. Assuming that you do well, you can expect to have somewhat better financial aid in subsequent years, through teaching assistantships and various forms of fellowship assistance. You should fully explore whatever assistance is available through the Federal Student Aid Programs.
You should understand that there is a relatively high attrition rate among graduate students. Not everyone is suited to this enterprise. Perhaps the only way of judging your suitability is to try it and see.
Maximizing Your Chances of Admission
If you are still an undergraduate, do what you can to make your record as outstanding as possible (if you are a senior or a graduate, there is little or nothing that you can do at this late date about your undergraduate record, although there are certainly ways of preparing yourself further for graduate work). Take demanding courses from the best professors available. Try to work closely with two or three professors so that they can become familiar with you and with the quality of your work. If your writing is mediocre, fix the problem now or forget about graduate school entirely. An intellectual historian ought to have a sophisticated grasp of English: accordingly, any time spent studying usage, style, word meanings, word origins, grammar, rhetoric, and style will pay off in the end. I suggest that you begin building a small library on these subjects.
Foreign languages, particularly French and German, are essential to anyone who professes an interest in European intellectual history. Put a lot of effort into ONE of the two languages as an undergraduate: a minor or its equivalent would be useful (I am willing to supervise work based primarily on French or German sources; I am not willing to supervise work based primarily on sources in other languages). If possible, learn to speak the language. If at all possible, you ought to write a research paper in which you go out of your way to demonstrate that you can use the language; admittedly, this may not be possible in every undergraduate program. My experience with the graduate admissions process at the University of Virginia--in particular, my experience comparing the qualifications of different candidates in my field in order to rank-order them, and then seeing what the admissions subcommittee did to the list--underscores the importance of knowing, and being able to show that you know, one of the relevant languages.
Based on my experience so far at Virginia, I would say that, if you wish to work with me, you are grossly handicapped in the admissions process if you cannot demonstrate practical knowledge of either French or German. Build yourself up in your language of choice before coming. I emphasize that the requirement is not that you have the knowledge that an honors major in French or German would have (although that would help). It is that you have a good, practical, reading knowledge, as well as the basics of the pronunciation (particularly important for French).
A double major, in history and some other subject of interest to you and relevant to the field, may be helpful (but double-major only if it suits your inclinations). Honors work in your major is also a great advantage. Membership in Phi Beta Kappa or other academic honor organizations tends to impress.
Most history departments have a graduate committee that controls admissions. Usually the members of the committee will be practitioners of a variety of fields in history; thus, intellectual history won't be strongly represented. Graduate training, and the hiring of assistant professors, are strongly disciplinary in character, and so prospective Ph.D's in history need to learn to think and write "like historians." You need, therefore, to persuade the admissions committee (a) that you are intelligent, and (b) that there is a reasonable chance that you will learn to "do history." "Doing theory" won't cut it. I mention this point because persons interested in doing intellectual history are usually interested in theory, and you do need to understand that disciplinary constraints operate.
I would like to see a sample of written work from every student interested in working with me. Send, directly to me, the best paper that you have written so far. Make sure that it is not inconsistent with the conventions of historical scholarship. A paper that is heavily theoretical or textual will not endear you to an admissions committee composed largely of social, political, and cultural historians. The paper ought to show that you can do serious historical research and writing, as distinguished from superficial reportage. It might well be your honors thesis. Remember that the work you send will have to arrive in sufficient time to be weighed in the balance. The deadline for admission with aid at most good graduate schools is usually early in the spring semester preceding your intended date of enrollment (which almost invariably should be the beginning of the fall semester: it usually makes no sense to begin graduate work in January). The deadline may even come as early as December, although it is hard to imagine that any real processing will take place until after January 1. Find out what the deadlines are for the institutions you are interested in. It may well be that the sample of written work can be sent in a bit later, since serious evaluation of applications may start a bit later than the deadline.
A second element in your application consists of your Graduate Record Examination scores. We cannot process an application to our Ph.D program without the GRE's. Be sure to meet the deadlines for arranging to take the exam, which may be earlier than you think. Your score on the Verbal part of the GRE is the most important element, but high scores on the Analytic and Quantitative parts are also nice to see. While your GRE scores are in part preordained by your attentiveness to the world, especially to the intellectual world, over the preceding 20+ years of your life, you can probably improve them by studying for the exam, and perhaps you should consider doing so. However, don't overestimate the importance of the GRE. There are many things that it doesn't measure, such as motivation, emotional stability, originality, and diligence, which are also important for success as a historian.
A third element is your undergraduate transcript. Remember that an admissions committee is unlikely to view the GPA's of applicants in a mechanical way. The meaning of a particular GPA varies greatly from college to college and from field to field. As noted above, it is important to take challenging courses; do not proceed timidly in the hope of getting a few more A's. Nonetheless, a low GPA clearly lessens your chances of getting into a good graduate school. Perhaps you are lazy, or intellectually unserious. To be sure, grades that rise from C in the first year to A in the junior year are better than the reverse. If you can provide some plausible explanation for poor performance, do so in your application essay (statement of purpose). Maybe one of your referees can note the emotional or intellectual crisis, now nicely resolved, that you went through as a first-year. But don't expect an admissions committee to fall for any story you invent.
Fourthly, you will need to ask several professors to write letters of reference for you. Be sure to do good and substantial work for two or three professors in history or in a closely related field. Try to work under the best people available. At a research-oriented institution, these are professors who write and publish serious work; if you are studying at an institution where research is not so important, seek out the most dedicated and capable teachers. Make sure that you discuss with your referees what you hope to do in graduate school and why. It may also be helpful to seek advice from them about which schools to apply to. Give each referee copies of your GRE scores and your transcript, and make sure that he or she has copies of any written work that you did for him or her in previous semesters. Sign the privacy waiver on the reference form; "open" letters carry little weight. And do not forget to supply a stamped and addressed envelop if the referee is to send the letter directly to the school.
Finally, your graduate school application should include a brief, but thoughtful and polished, statement of purpose. Demonstrate that you are familiar with the field. Discuss your major interests. Suggest what topics and areas you wish to investigate, and indicate how these connect with what the graduate department in question offers. It is not a good idea to be too specific at so early a stage in your career; but do not be vague either.
It bears emphasizing that "direct" evidence has greater persuasive force than "indirect" evidence. A poorly researched, turgidly written, unoriginal term paper full of spelling mistakes will kill your chances of admission. Your GRE scores, especially the Verbal score, carry weight because they flow directly from your performance on a standardized test and because the Verbal score in particular shows whether you have been paying attention to the language that you have been speaking for so long (of course, allowances are made for nonnative speakers of English). Letters of reference from your professors provide a subjective perspective that admissions committees often find useful. In the absence of strong indications elsewhere in the application, your statement of purpose may well be read as mere fluff, since the real question is not whether your sentiments are sound but whether you can do the work. Alternatively, if your written work and GRE scores are solid, a good transcript and glowing letters from your professors may well differentiate you from all the other talented applicants for admission.
As noted above, it is perfectly in order, and probably even preferable, to take off a year or two--or even longer--between finishing college and beginning graduate work. Keep in touch with your old professors, since they will have to write letters of reference for you. Consider setting up a placement file now, so that if a professor dies or disappears you will still have a letter that you can use.
Is it necessary to be a history major in order to be admitted to a history department? The question is relevant, because many people with an interest in intellectual history will have a strong background in another field, such as philosophy, political science, or even literature. In the UVa history department we are not much concerned about which undergraduate major an applicant took, as long as it has some relevance to the studies that the student proposes to pursue in graduate school. Still, we do hope that you have done some work in history also. It is perhaps the case that most history departments are more insistent on students' backgrounds in history than we are at Virginia, although I have no data on the matter.
Do remember that a new Ph.D in history--even in intellectual history--will necessarily have historians as the primary critical audience, since the hiring of junior faculty is carried out almost exclusively on a disciplinary basis. Thus it is fitting that in most cases your application for admission to graduate school will be considered by a committee composed of historians generally, not of intellectual historians. These will be well informed and intelligent people--more intelligent and better informed than you are, in all likelihood--but they will have no special expertise in intellectual history, philosophy, or literary theory. If they are able to read your sample of written work with understanding, and to see it as within the scope of historical discourse, you will have a chance of admission. If, on the other hand, they find your work incomprehensible, or if (comprehending it) they fail to see how it fits within history, you will have no chance of admission.
There are a number of interdisciplinary programs that persons interested in intellectual history ought to be aware of: the best-known are the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, the Humanities Program at Johns Hopkins, and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Be aware that these programs change dramatically when the faculty involved change. To investigate whether such a program might interest you, read carefully a selection of the published work of the faculty. These programs are often very difficult to get into. Admission often depends quite heavily on a "fit" between the interests of the prospective student and the interests of the faculty currently active in the program.
Note also that since the hiring and tenuring of junior faculty is virtually without exception carried out within the framework of specific disciplines, there is a tendency for junior people with interdisciplinary training to fall between stools, satisfying practitioners of none of the disciplines "between" which they claim to operate. Interdisciplinary Ph.D. programs are perhaps best suited for very mature and experienced students who already have significant advanced training in a specific discipline, who have a clear idea of what they want to write their dissertations on, and who can demonstrate that their dissertation plans connect closely with the expertise of a faculty member or members in the program in question.
Deciding Among Different Schools
All other things being equal, it is better to study at a graduate school higher in the rankings than lower. This is because it is generally harder to get into the more prestigious schools. People know that admissions are more selective, and they will take some account of that fact when you go on the job market. But the prestige of the school is only one among several factors to consider. Some extremely well-reputed schools academically have also acquired a reputation (deserved or undeserved) for being inattentive, or worse, to graduate students. And, currently, some highly regarded universities would be poor choices as places to study modern European intellectual history. Absolutely crucial is whether anyone in the history department at University X has expertise and a good reputation in intellectual history (especially in the kind of intellectual history that you wish to pursue). If there is such a person, does he or she have tenure? If not, you may soon find yourself orphaned. I have already noted that you ought to check whether the professor in question will actually be teaching at University X during the next year. And suppose he or she were to go on leave the year after: is there a second person in the department who might step in to advise you? If not, does the department routinely hire well-qualified replacements for professors who go on leave?
If (like many people attracted to intellectual history) you have interdisciplinary interests, check to see whether you will be able to develop these interests at University X. At many of the best universities, individual departments are so large and strong that they tend to become self-contained, so that historians rarely interact with philosophers, literary scholars, political theorists, or others who might be seen as pursuing intellectual history by different means. A warning: whatever your interdisciplinary interests, you will still need to learn how to do proper work within the discipline.
For most people money is an extremely relevant factor. If the highly prestigious University X gives you a virtually free ride financially, this signals that they think well of you and creates a presumption that you might indeed thrive there. On the other hand, if University X admits you, but only in the company of your checkbook, this suggests that the admissions committee does not think that you will add much Lux to the Veritas that University X already enjoys. Under such circumstances, you might well want to go elsewhere. But be careful. Remember that graduate fellowship money in humanities fields is hard to come by these days, and that most students have to finance their graduate education out of a combination of savings, loans, and working. Remember, too, that you should not do graduate work at a place inappropriate or inadequate to your interests just because it gave you a lot of money. The key question is: Does that graduate school have anyone who is well-regarded in your field of interest?
Inquire to what extent and how well Professor X works with graduate students. Some famous professors are much more interested in writing than they are in training graduate students. This is fair enough, especially when they write well, but you should know what you are getting into if that is the case. After University X has actually admitted you, you have every right to ask Professor X what students he or she has worked with recently, what topics these students worked on, and where they are currently employed. You should also feel free to ask the department's director of graduate studies about Professor X and Professor X's students, and about the ambiance, ethos, and results of the graduate department generally. Will you be able to do some work with Professor Y in the philosophy department (or the German department or the French department), whose interests happen to connect with your own? Or will you be rushed through so quickly that collateral resources will be impossible to exploit properly? Finally, consult students actually studying at University X. Ideally, you should try to visit University X. If that is not possible, feel free to ask the director of graduate studies for the telephone numbers of graduate students in your field or in related areas.
As noted at the beginning, the chances of obtaining a tenure-track appointment in intellectual history, and in history in general, are quite poor. You can try to maximize the chances, but don't be surprised if a tenured academic position does not come through. I believe that there will always be a demand for smart and well-qualified people, but don't expect it to manifest itself in the form of an offer of tenure, or even of the chance for tenure.
Here are some rules that might marginally help you. Firstly, it is important to work with a professor who has some standing in the field. I would be glad to discuss with prospective students the various places they ought to consider in looking for a graduate school. There are indeed some good choices, some with considerably better admissions and financial aid prospects, for persuasive candidates, than are to be found at UVa. Much depends on what your specific interests are. Secondly, success is not guaranteed. Once you have found a compatible adviser with a certain measure of recognition in the field, the crucial thing is to write a good dissertation that historians are able to recognize as legitimate historical scholarship. It also helps to publish an article or two in well-regarded scholarly journals before going out in search of a permanent job. Doing your Ph.D. at highly prestigious university X is not in itself enough, though attending such an institution creates an initial presumption in your favor. Thirdly, keep your eyes and ears open. Although your interest is in intellectual history, be aware of what is going on in history generally. Additionally: Develop a variety of scholarly interests. Attend a few scholarly conferences. Get yourself known as an up-and-coming person. Go the extra mile. Cultivate clarity and precision. Acquire some good, broadly gauged teaching experience before going on the market for a permanent position. Etc., etc. More could be said, but let's leave it at that.
What You Can Expect if You are Admitted to the University of Virginia to Study Modern European Intellectual History
I have not yet encountered any new history graduate student who already knew how to produce a seminar paper written at a professional level. The fact is, undergraduate training usually does not give students insight into the actual process of scholarly research, writing, and publication. Rather, it gives (some) students a vague sense that they might have some further interest in the subject. That is the way it should be. Undergraduate training is not graduate training; it isn't intended to be.
What I have just said applies to all fields of history. But for prospective intellectual historians there is a further problem, namely, that intellectual history has a marginal status within the discipline generally. In fact, almost all of the most interesting work in intellectual history is work that connects most closely not with what most historians are interested in, but with problems in such fields as philosophy, religious studies, and literary studies. Accordingly, it might be thought that the aim of the new graduate student in intellectual history should be to operate in an interdisciplinary mode, blending history, philosophy, literature, and whatever else is connected with his or her specific areas of interest.
Wrong. You only get to mix your own brew when you have tenure, and even then the operation will be carried out under a certain amount of constraint. One can't "do" philosophy, literary studies, "theory," and the like competently without training in the field. This means socialization into a graduate program in philosophy, literary studies, or whatever, since study of those fields at the undergraduate level--or the mere reading of important works--won't alert one to how study at the professional level is carried on. One becomes a philosopher, for example, by participating in graduate colloquia and seminars in philosophy departments. Only there can one learn which arguments will "pass" in philosophy and which arguments won't be given the time of day.
An analogous process takes place in history departments. One becomes a historian by learning the literature that people currently think is important, and, even more crucially, by writing actual works of history, the draft versions of which will be criticized by your professors and fellow students. The sine qua non is success in writing research papers; I won't supervise the dissertation of anyone who has not written at least two research papers in my field that can be recognized as history by historians generally.
The prospective intellectual historian has to learn how to think, speak, and write in a way that will be acceptable to historians generally. I emphasize this point partly because you need to understand that an essential part of graduate training is learning how to satisfy, not your own individual inclinations, but the standards of an intellectual community, and partly because there is simply no chance that you will get a job in a history department unless you satisfy disciplinary standards (and it is nearly impossible for a Ph.D. in history to obtain a job in any other academic department). At the same time, of course, the work you are doing needs to generate enthusiasm on your part, because otherwise you will not be capable of enduring the drudgery.
Accordingly, you should see your first semester or two at Virginia as concerned with two related enterprises: (a) socialization into the discipline, and (b) the writing of a research paper that can pass as historical scholarship. The first semester is particularly important for many students (I wish it were not so important) because the impression that your work makes on your professors will be important for the decisions on financial aid for the second year. The department is obliged to make those decisions by early April. I have no problem with incompletes as such, but I do have to note that it would be a good idea for you to finish, or at least come very close to finishing, all your work for the fall semester by March at the latest. If you can do it earlier than March, that's even better. The ideal is to finish off all your first-semester work by the time second semester begins, in mid-January. The department evaluates all its first-year graduate students again in early June, and so it is a good idea to have your second-semester work finished by the end of May.
I should note that in principle first-year students here take four courses (12 semester hours) each semester. In fact, to really devote serious attention to four courses is a recipe for disaster, because you would be scattering your efforts too much. Most importantly, you need to start working out possible seminar paper topics, and that takes time. So, one of the courses that you enroll for should be treated as a "dummy" or "supplementary" course. For example, you might audit an undergraduate lecture course and produce some sort of short paper, or you might do an independent study with one professor intended to help you with a larger research project that you are doing with another professor. These things are generally worked out through conversation with your various actual or potential professors.
The department finds it a bit difficult to make intelligent decisions concerning aid when evaluating students with whom it has not yet worked. Moreover, there isn't an adequate amount of money to give out, and we do not want to risk too much of it on unproved applicants. It should also be noted that second- and third-year students compete for teaching slots, whereas we cannot give these to first years. Accordingly, if the faculty comes to think that you have the peculiar mix of talents that professional-level scholarship in history requires, you might have better luck with aid in the second year than in the first. But I can make no promises.
In the early 1990s, I believed that the job market justified my offering of a seminar (800-level) in modern European intellectual history every fall semester. In a seminar, students attempt to write research papers in the field (based on sources in the original languages). The result was a baptism by fire. Pedagogically, I believe that baptism by fire is the best way to go: by starting real scholarly work in their first semester, people are put in the position to figure out very quickly--within a year or a year-and-a-half--whether they have the talents and the desire to continue forward to a Ph.D in the field.
More recently, however, I have concluded that only under the rarest of circumstances would I ever want four students interested in modern European intellectual history to enter the department at the same time: and four is about the minimum number for a seminar. Consequently, I have not offered an 800-level seminar for some years. If you come to the department to concentrate on modern European intellectual history (which ipso facto means that you will be working with me), you need to pursue a different strategy.
An important point to note is that you will be required to take seminars and colloquia from a number of other faculty members. Most importantly, the department has instituted a sequence of four European colloquia, two in medieval and early modern Europe and two in the modern period, in which a background is given in social, cultural, and political history. All students are required to take two of these courses. You will also be able to choose seminars offered by other faculty members. If rightly chosen, these seminars and colloquia will give you a good introduction to what is going on in the discipline in general and in European history in particular. As noted above, such knowledge is absolutely required if you are to do a Ph.D in history.
But these courses will not teach you how to do intellectual history. For initiation into that field, you will need to attend some of my undergraduate lecture courses and to take my 500-level (upper-level undergraduate/graduate) courses. I should note that the intellectual level of my undergraduate lecture courses is quite high (and much more analytic than one usually finds in undergraduate history courses). Most of the students are very bright, and this is even more so of the upper-level undergraduates who take my 500-level courses. So these courses are far from being a waste of time, assuming that you are interested in the topic. The undergraduates may not know as much as you do, but they do have much to add, especially when they are fourth-year honors students writing their senior theses.
In auditing or taking these courses, the graduate student does not do the same sort of work that undergraduates do. Rather, the task of the graduate student is to identify a problem in European intellectual history and write an intelligent research paper on it, the various drafts of which I shall criticize. Listening to lectures and participating in class discussion are aids to the writing of a research paper or papers; these activities also give you give you broad knowledge of the field of intellectual history, and will help you to see how I think and how I expect my students to think.
In lieu of offering a seminar I make arrangements for students in my field to write seminar papers with me under an independent study number, often piggybacked onto one of my lecture courses or 500-level colloquia. Alternatively, my students may be able to begin to work up a seminar-type paper in intellectual history in a class offered by another faculty member (a seminar-type paper is one based on research using mainly primary sources in the original language). It is not a good idea to decide on a paper topic, let alone a dissertation topic, before you arrive here, but it is a good idea to think about possibilities. This might perhaps best be done by reading current work in the field. If you have access to a research library, you might try looking at "primary" works in whatever areas of interest you might want to tackle.
Resist the temptation to zero in on only the most recent topics. Although I would not exclude the possibility of your doing a paper (or dissertation) on a very recent topic, there are advantages to going further back. Most importantly, historians, including those who will decide whether to hire you, are likely to think that a topic from--say--the late nineteenth century is more "historical" than one from the 1970s. Moreover, working on a "dead" topic is a good test of whether you can turn yourself into a "real historian." If your interests turn out to be fundamentally theoretical rather than historical, history graduate training is not right for you.
In your first year here you will take courses from my modernist, continental Western European colleagues, who include Leonard Berlanstein, Stephen Schuker, Alon Confino, Jeffrey Rossman, Robert Geraci, and Sophia Rosenfeld (Rosenfeld is something of a "crossover" person, since she is an eighteenth-century and French Revolution specialist). In addition, the early modernists Erik Midelfort, Anne Schutte, and Duane Osheim may well be of interest. Some other faculty not in continental European history may also be of interest, most notably Richard Drayton. The idea is to get a good basis in the social/political/cultural history of Europe, to complement your studies in intellectual history.
It is all but a requirement that any student of mine also connect in a substantial way with another history faculty member specializing in social, political, or cultural history. Thomas Howard's dissertation was cosponsored by Erik Midelfort. He also cosponsored the dissertation of another student, and Stephen Schuker cosponsored the work of my third Ph.D here. The student I have who is currently writing his dissertation is working with Midelfort as well.
There is also the possibility of taking courses outside the department, from such people as Rita Felksi (aesthetic theory, feminist theory, gender studies, cultural studies) and Krishan Kumar (sociological theory, nationalism, utopianism). In general, however, in one's first year one focuses mainly on courses in the department, since one needs to turn oneself into a professional historian.
As noted above, it is routine for students to take only three actual courses in each of the first two semesters. The final 3 hours of credit (making up the required 12-hour minimum full-time course load per semester) are usually taken as one form or another of independent study.
Normally, in the third semester all Europeanist students will take the European M. A. seminar, in which they work up to completion their MA essays. I believe that it is possible to complete the M.A. essay before the third semester, but I don't think that that has actually been done in living memory.
In March in the sixth semester, students take their comprehensive exams (written exams, followed by an oral). My 300-level lecture courses, particularly HIEU 378 Origins of Modern Thought and HIEU 380 Origins of Contemporary Thought provide a framework for the European intellectual history field; HIEU 381 Marx, for its part, offers a detailed analysis of the work of one major European thinker and can be helpful for that reason. In addition, HIST 506 Philosophy of History is a class that all of my students ought to take: it is both a course in theory (which picks up themes in many of my articles on philosophy of history) and a course in one aspect of intellectual history.
I should close with some comments on the character of the training that people who work with me receive. I have a friend, Robert Stuart, who teaches at the University of Western Australia. There, good students receive a grant of $Aust16,000 (a little over $10,000) each year for all three years of the Ph.D program (which involves writing a thesis, with no course work). The money is adequate, and Robert is able to tell prospective students that graduate work will involve a three-year investment of time, at the end of which time they will have just as good a chance of getting a decent civil service job as they would have after completing a good honors B.A.--and maybe even a slightly better chance. He also tells them that the chance of getting an academic job is very small. Under these circumstances, he is willing to allow his students to do quite unorthodox things in their dissertation work.
Conversely, I have a former B.A. student who is now working on his Berkeley dissertation, on a quite funky and unorthodox topic in twentieth-century German-Jewish intellectual history. He will have a good chance of getting an academic position: he had an absolutely first-rate undergraduate training in history; he obtained DAAD and Rotary fellowships for two years of study, in Germany and Israel, after his B.A.; he was admitted to do graduate work at both Harvard and Berkeley, two of the very best places in modern European history in the country, at or close to the top in the usual rankings, and he received fellowship money at both places; and after his early work at Berkeley he received a Javits Fellowship, which is a multiyear award. Because these various approvals and accolades give him a lot of standing already, he can afford to write an unorthodox dissertation.
Virginia is very good in many ways, and I do want students to find interesting dissertation topics. But here, every student who has come to me has needed to "prove" himself or herself, in the sense of proving that he or she could do intellectual history in such a way that it conforms to the tacit rules of the historical discipline. As a critic of student drafts, I can be maddeningly obsessive about details: How do you know this? How do you know that alternative explanations are not correct? Are you sure that you have accurately understood the previous scholars whom you criticize? What makes you think that you can get away with making this theoretical claim? Why is this sentence ambiguous? Why is this sentence unclear? Isn't what you say here simply rumor and hearsay? And so on. People either learn to anticipate my kinds of objections, or they go on to do other things. However, I should say that by the time people are launched into their dissertations, having cleared the initial hurdles and having satisfied my reservations and those of a colleague or two, I am willing to leave them almost entirely free for long periods. For example, once I have seen and been satisfied by an introduction and first chapter, I am quite happy not to read any more of the work until there is a complete first draft in existence. (On the other hand, if people actually want me to do such reading I will do it.)
Five Books to Consult: Although it is certainly not accurate in every respect, Robert E. Clark and John Palattella, eds., The Real Guide to Grad School: What You Better Know Before You Choose Humanities and Social Sciences (New York: Lingua Franca, 1997; $24.95) contains a great deal of useful information. See also Lesli Mitchell, The Ultimate Grad School Survival Guide (Princeton, NJ: Peterson's, 1996, $14.95). Richard and Margot Jerrard, The Grad School Handbook (New York: Perigee, 1998: $14.00) contains a lot of practical advice about whether to go, where to go, financing, and so on. A. Leigh Deneef, Craufurd D. Goodwin, and Ellen Stern McCrate, eds., The Academic's Handbook (Durham: Duke University Press, 1988), gives a good general introduction to the way universities work; most of this will be terra incognita to undergraduates. Howard S. Becker, Writing For Social Scientists (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), is the best short and uncomplicated book I know on academic research and writing.
Allan Megill, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia, P. O. Box 400180, Charlottesville VA 22904. (434)924-6414, 971-8744. MEGILL@VIRGINIA.EDU, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the University of Virginia Web site (www.virginia.edu/~history), which contains some additional, but outdated, information from me, as well as much information about other members of the department.