When Your Professors are Your Career Center: Advice for Applying to Grad School in the Humanities

Claire Dwyer PO ’20
Staff Writer

From the moment I stepped into my first medieval history class at Pomona, I knew that I wanted to be a historian. Magical things don’t often happen in college, but one happened to me, and I still give thanks every day for the miracle of miracles— that I found Late-Antique Medieval Studies (LAMS). I feel so lucky that I got the chance to discover something for which I truly have a passion, and that I am going to be able to live my life doing something that I love.

My path through college was very different from that of most Claremont Colleges students. I discovered what I wanted to do right away, and then I devoted my time and energy to it almost entirely. I chose the most “liberal arts appropriate” major at the five colleges, but then I barely took any classes outside my specialized, albeit interdisciplinary field. However, I don’t regret my choices for a second—I can’t think of a field for which I am better suited.

I can remember attending traditional career fairs and applying for internships at the beginning of my college trajectory. Nothing made me more miserable than the thought of being part of the traditional workforce. However, when careers are discussed at everything from job fairs to student talks to family gatherings, “medieval history professor” isn’t often brought up as a suggestion. So originally, it was inconceivable to me that I might go against the corporate grain, so to speak, and actually get the chance to pursue something I loved so deeply.

However, I luckily realized pretty early on in college that I could actually go into medieval history as a field. I was certainly not led by Pomona’s Career Development Office (CDO) in this direction—in fact, the first time I went there I leafed through a brochure that supposedly had all the majors at Pomona listed in it along with a list of jobs people could do after completing them. My major wasn’t even included. It was at that point that I realized that my path to gaining support for my chosen career might look a little different from that of the “typical” Claremont student, if such a thing even exists. To be clear, I don’t fault Pomona’s CDO for this—it isn’t every day that a student wakes up, drops out of pre-med, and starts saying that they want to pursue an academic career in medieval history instead.

My professors became my career center. If I have any advice for students just starting out on their college journeys who might be interested in academia, it would be this: develop meaningful relationships with professors in your chosen area of interest. Then, make sure you have taken two or more classes from each of your mentors, if possible. The professors in your field are going to be the ones who write you the most pertinent letters of recommendation, and the individuals who most understand what it is like to work in your field academically. This action is especially important if you work in a field like mine—you just can’t expect your college’s CDO to be able to reasonably provide the same kind of support that working professionals in your field can. There are still many services of the CDO that are of course useful for aspiring academics. But the CDO won’t know the secret ins and outs of your area of study, what graduate schools are specifically looking for in the year you apply, and some of the important specifics in regards to what you really need to be a well-rounded applicant. I applied and was accepted to grad school based primarily upon the support of my professors and other students in my field, and this is why I was ultimately successful.

If you are applying to grad school in the humanities, start going to conferences in your field as soon as you possibly can. You do not have to present at them, but just being present will make a world of difference. Most of the colleges have some kind of funding source available to students who wish to finance academic travel—you just have to look. In my case, I worked specifically with my professors to find the Pomona funding resources which were right for me. While you are at conferences, try to meet as many people as humanly possible, even if you are by nature shy. It is surprising the amount of networking that I, an introvert, was able to accomplish at conferences.

Attempt to connect with grad students in your field as well, because these students will have just gone through the grad school application process and will understand the benefits and drawbacks to each school quite well. They are also good people to chat with if you are questioning what exactly you want to do with your life. If you haven’t had a chance to go to conferences, you can usually find current grad students to email from the institution’s website. Most grad students in my field were very open and willing to talk about their journeys with me. All you have to do is ask.

It is also important, though it can be nerve-wracking, to email professors from your field to introduce yourself if you can. Sometimes you get a response, and sometimes you do not. But when it comes time for each school to decide who to accept and who not, the fact that you’ve emailed your potential advisor will probably be remembered even if you’ve never met them in person.

I will just finish with this: yes, it can be hard applying to grad schools, and it can take a lot of energy. It is probably a bit more similar to applying to jobs than is the undergraduate admissions process (for instance, in my field the tuition for PhD programs is fully funded and you are paid a stipend) and there are different difficulties and worries that come along with it. But for me, every second of difficulty was well worth it.

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