The Ingredients of a Ph.D Application

Today, as I am gathering up the pieces of paper that will be sent off shortly, I thought it worthwhile to discuss for those who are applying to graduate school (especially in the humanities) just what sort of information is required to do so.  In addition, I will briefly (though not in detail) explain what I put in each of these categories.

Personal Statement

According to what I have read, the personal statement is among the most important aspects of an application.  Schools want to know how serious you are about your field, what it is you bring to the table as a researcher, and whether your field of interest is covered by relevant personnel.  Having prior contact with professors and doing one’s research on the research specialties of the school where you wish to attend can help you gain an understanding of how to frame your research interests as well as what people could potentially serve on a dissertation committee.  For example, my research into the Ph.D program I am applying to shows that they have a commitment to having graduate students learn how to teach (a very good thing) and have strong backgrounds in fields of personal historical interest like Appalachian History, US-Latin American Diplomatic History, British Imperial History, and African History.  In short, it’s a good fit.  The fact that I have a family connection with the university makes it even better.

Writing Sample

It is recommended that for a writing sample one use a thesis or capstone paper which demonstrates one’s research capabilities.  Especially as one of my references is my capstone adviser (who happens to be an alumnus of where I am applying), I am using my capstone paper, “The Puzzle of Chilean Prussianization,” which examines the political and geopolitical context of why Chile drastically reformed their successful military after 1891, the reasons why Germany’s then-prestigious military became a model, and whether that effort could be considered a success (the answer I defended was ‘mostly yes’, taking into consideration peace and territorial integrity over the last 120 years for Chile as well as the occasional difficulties with civil-military relations–notably the successful coups of Ibañez and Pinochet).

Three Letters of Recommendation

Recommendations matter a great deal–as it is important for people who are already experts in a field to recognize the capability of someone to handle the rigors, scholastic and political, of engaging in a field of study.  I happen to have all of my recommendations being sent directly to the university.


As I have a lot of experience sending that out, it was fairly easy to find and edit a resume showing a rather unusual collection of experiences and interests and abilities.  Hopefully it’s enough.

Put these ingredients together, and you have the part of your application that goes to the department–the school as a whole receives transcripts and additional forms and test scores in addition to this.  Hopefully it all comes together to make a yummy recipe.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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