Jonathan W. White: 8 Simple Rules for Prospective Graduate Students in History

midnight in america by jonathan w. white

Today we welcome a guest post from Jonathan W. White, author of Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War. The Civil War brought many forms of upheaval to America, not only in waking hours but also in the dark of night. Sleeplessness plagued the Union and Confederate armies, and dreams of war glided through the minds of Americans in both the North and South. Sometimes their nightly visions brought the horrors of the conflict vividly to life. But for others, nighttime was an escape from the hard realities of life and death in wartime. In this innovative new study, Jonathan W. White explores what dreams meant to Civil War–era Americans and what their dreams reveal about their experiences during the war. He shows how Americans grappled with their fears, desires, and struggles while they slept, and how their dreams helped them make sense of the confusion, despair, and loneliness that engulfed them.

In the following post White offers advice for students considering a graduate degree in history. 


During my first semester of college I told a professor that I wanted to go to graduate school to become a professor. He very wisely replied, “Jon, get a real job and do history on the weekends.” As a senior, another professor told me, “Don’t get a PhD in history unless you can’t see yourself doing anything else.” Both offered sound advice, and I hope they will forgive me for not taking it.

Now, as a tenured faculty member, I often find myself giving advice about graduate school to my students. I usually give them similar advice to that which I received when I was in college because they need to be aware of the risks involved in graduate study. The reality is that too many people are getting PhDs in the humanities, and there just are not enough jobs for them (I was on a search committee earlier this year that had 174 applicants for one job). Graduate students in certain fields therefore run the risk of lost potential income over a series of years, only to come out either unqualified or overqualified for most jobs, and ultimately unemployed or stuck in the adjunct circuit.

All that said, there are some people like me who don’t want to do history only on the weekends, and who can’t see themselves doing anything else. The following advice is intended for them as they think about pursuing a PhD. While my advice is drawn from my experiences as a history graduate student and professional historian—and as the prelaw advisor at my university over the past four years—it could easily be applied to many fields in the humanities and social sciences.

  1. Don’t Go into Debt for a PhD in History

When I was a senior in college I was offered admission to three graduate programs, but only one offered me funding. I chose that one. In the current job market, a PhD is not worth taking loans for. But do not despair if you are not offered funding from your graduate program. Most large universities have other graduate funding that students can apply for, such as advising undergraduates, working in the library, or writing for a university publication. If at first you are not offered a financial package by your department, look for these other opportunities. And once you are in the program, so impress your professors that they want to give you a teaching or research assistantship in later years.

  1. Find a Program that Meets Your Needs

Think very strategically as you consider where you will spend the next few years of your life. First, look at a department’s website and see if there are faculty who might make for a good advisor. Find their books or articles and read them. Then set up a conversation with them and come to that meeting (or phone call) prepared to have a substantive discussion. When you write to them, be professional. Don’t begin with, “Hey Professor.” And avoid using emoticons or acronyms they might have to look up at Have intelligent thoughts and questions prepared about their work and about the graduate program. Ask them if they are willing to take on new graduate students at this time. And be prepared to talk about what directions you might like your work to go. Remember that it is the faculty who make admissions decisions—and often funding decisions—for graduate school programs. Don’t give them a bad first impression.

But don’t just contact faculty. See if there is a list of graduate students on their website, or a graduate student association, and contact them as well. Current graduate students are often quite willing to give prospective students a taste of what their lives are like, and they will be able to give you a candid impression of their experiences. Again, be prepared for that conversation, with questions ready to ask.

  1. Location, Location, Location

The first orders of business in determining where to go to graduate school are reputation of the program, funding, and a good advisor. But all things being equal, you should also think about where you will be living. And I don’t mean climate or social life. On the contrary, prospective students should think about the resources available around the university. Are there major libraries and archival repositories? Being in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, or Philadelphia can be a game changer when it comes to writing your dissertation. As a student at the University of Maryland I could be at the National Archives at College Park within ten minutes of leaving my apartment, and I could be at the downtown National Archives or Library of Congress within forty minutes. In my final three years of graduate school I lived on Capitol Hill and could walk to those institutions. Most scholars have to pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to travel to those institutions for only short periods of time. Living in close proximity to research libraries that are related to your field will exponentially facilitate your productivity.

  1. Write a Memorable Personal Statement

In many instances your personal statement will stand in the place of an interview. The readers want to see that you’ll be an upstanding member of the community and that you are passionate about pursuing a PhD. Use your personal statement as an opportunity to introduce yourself and to demonstrate your ability to communicate clearly and concisely.

Above all else, follow the prompt. If the application asks you to write about a particular topic or answer a specific question, do so. If you can’t follow directions on something as simple as a personal statement then the graduate admissions committee may not be willing to take a chance on you.

If the question is open ended, I recommend opening with a succinct, one-paragraph story that you can use to illustrate who you are and why you want to go to graduate school. Show them, don’t tell them. And don’t try to tell your entire life story in two pages. Use that opening anecdote to transition into why you want to pursue your chosen field. Give them a sense of what you bring to the table and what makes you excited about history.

If you decide to tailor your personal statement to particular programs, be sure to say something concrete about why you want to study at their school or with particular professors. Don’t simply close with, “And that is why I want to study at such and such college,” without having said anything about the institution. Readers can see right through that. And if you do specify particular programs in your personal statement, be sure to send them to the right school!

Finally, a few things to avoid. Don’t write your personal statement in a foreign language. Especially Klingon. (I saw this once.) You don’t want them to think you have the social skills of Sheldon Cooper. And avoid controversial or extreme subjects unless they are relevant to your field of study. You never know who will be reading your application, and you don’t want to offend someone who might then decide not to admit you.

  1. Be a Star

Your advisor will likely have several—perhaps many—students while you are in graduate school. You need to stand out. Some advisors will only write a recommendation for one student for each individual job posting. Be that student. That means working hard in your classes and being creative and conscientious as you pursue your scholarly agenda. Along these lines, find opportunities to publish and present at conferences as you work on your dissertation. In short, find ways to distinguish yourself from the pack.

  1. Network

Don’t simply rely on your pedigree or your relationship with your advisor to get you a job. Build strong relationships with other faculty, and stay in touch with your undergraduate mentors. (Doing so will help them write stronger letters for you when you go on the job market.) Go to conferences where you will meet other historians in your field (especially when they come to a city near you, which makes it more affordable). Many smaller professional organizations offer funding awards to help top graduate students attend their meetings. Apply for these opportunities.

  1. Success in Graduate School is about Endurance and Focus

Getting a PhD is not necessarily about being smart; it is about pressing on when you get lonely in the archives, when you see your college friends making fat paychecks, having families and buying houses, and when you just can’t seem to find the energy to write another word. I’ve seen a lot of really intelligent people flounder in graduate school. They got high grades in their courses, flew through their comprehensive exams, and then hit a roadblock. Some took another decade or more to finish; others never did.

Along these lines, it is never too early to think about your dissertation. The sooner you come up with a topic, the sooner you can start working on it. And you don’t have to be postcomps to do that. In fact, I started thinking about my dissertation topic when I was still an undergraduate. Some of my peers in graduate school made fun of me when I was a first-year master’s student talking about my dissertation. But I was being strategic. I used my seminar papers and master’s thesis to think about my dissertation, and by the time I had finished my coursework and comprehensive exams I had a solid chunk of research and writing already complete.

  1. Start Working Hard Now

When I was an undergraduate I rarely did the reading that was assigned in my classes—and when I did, I often did so in such a rush (or with such distraction) that I didn’t internalize the material. In hindsight I can see that I did myself a tremendous disservice. Not only did I miss out on an incredible amount of knowledge, but my reading and study skills also atrophied.

I have a feeling that my experiences as an undergraduate are not unique. One of the best ways you can start preparing for graduate school now—which, in a history program, generally involves reading at least one book per class per week—is to develop healthy reading habits and study skills now. If you do, you will thank yourself later.

Jonathan W. White is associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University and author of Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War. Check out his website at