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Research and languages- how much do i really need?

batgencam1batgencam1 Registered User Posts: 13 New Member
Hi!

I'm a rising senior studying medieval history and I've always had my eyes on grad school. From my freshman year I tried to get into research and languages, and though until now I did an ok job. As I research grad programs, I'm thinking I'm wayyyyy behind. My school has a very strange administrative structure, so I have no advisor to ask about anything really. But I've asked my tutor, and he said since independent research is built into my degree program (we do one 15 page original paper our sophomore year, one 20 page paper and one 25-30 page paper our junior year, and a 60-70 page paper our senior year) I don't need outside research. Is that true?

Plus I have no real modern language experience, will programs hold my zero knowledge of French and German against me?

I'm really bummed because of my aforementioned total blank on French and German, and because I've applied to a bunch of summer/term-time research programs over the years and gotten admitted to zilch. As a result, I've always spent my summers volunteering and now I feel like that was a big waste of time and that I should have just knuckled down by applying to more research programs.

I'll give y'all my info, just for reference:

1. 6 semesters of Latin, 4 of classical, 2 of medieval. (hopefully will be 7 total, with 3 medieval by the time I graduate)
2. 2 semesters of Attic Greek.
3. I took 8 semesters of Spanish in high school, which I'm sure means nothing but it's worth a shot.
3. 3.9 GPA currently (hopefully 3.92 when my grades come in for this last semester)
4. I've worked in our rare books library for 2 years if that means anything
5. I've got 1 pretty well-known prof, 1 associate professor, and 1 dean who was my tutor for 2 semesters who could write me pretty good letters of reference. Is that good enough?
6. I haven't taken the GRE yet, but I am sitting for it in August. My tutor told me because I did really well on the SAT that the GRE won't be a problem, but are they really similar tests?
7. I'm the Editor in Cheif of our Medieval Studies journal, which also probably means nothing but hey I'll take what I can get.

Basically, I'm wondering: How can I use my last year to make my application less terrible? Should I go for a Medieval Studies MSt. program to enhance language ability before I apply for Ph.D. programs (I like this idea, but my tutor says it's a waste of time)? Should I focus on starting French or German, or spend my time knuckling down on Greek?

Thanks so much!

Replies to: Research and languages- how much do i really need?

  • warblersrulewarblersrule Super Moderator Posts: 9,712 Super Moderator
    edited May 15
    Research experience in the humanities is not as vital (or as typical) as in the sciences, but it never hurts your chances. Remember that you need to go well beyond the bare minimum to get accepted to a top PhD program. Most history departments accept only a dozen or so students a year; each department has several subfields, and they may accept only one medieval student in any given year (if any at all!). There will be students in the applicant pool who have very strong research backgrounds, especially if they're coming from European (read: German) universities.

    The most important aspects of your application are, in roughly descending order of importance, your statement of purpose, your writing sample, and your letters of recommendation. Undergraduate research is primarily helpful for your writing sample, as you'll need 20-30 pages to send to each graduate program. It sounds like you'll be able to send your junior paper or, depending on how fast you write, a chunk of your senior thesis, so you're good to go there.

    Your statement of purpose should be as precise as possible. It has to cover your research interests, your career goals, why you want to study at that university and with those professors, and what you bring to the table. This is another place undergraduate research comes in handy -- it lets you figure out exactly what it is you want to study in graduate school. Try to narrow down the region(s), centuries, and historical approach (economic history? social history? political?) you're most interested in. Even the most qualified applicant will be rejected if the professors think (s)he will not mesh well with their research interests.
    Plus I have no real modern language experience, will programs hold my zero knowledge of French and German against me?
    To be blunt, yes. Foreign language experience is one of the first things used to cull applicants. You should have reading knowledge of at least one of them. Does your university offer a "French/German for reading" course? Failing that, you should plan to take either intro French or German next year.
    Should I go for a Medieval Studies MSt. program to enhance language ability before I apply for Ph.D. programs (I like this idea, but my tutor says it's a waste of time)?
    I recommend applying to a mix of PhD and (funded) MA programs.


    Your Latin background looks very good, and Spanish will be useful, I think. Your academic background otherwise looks very good, and being editor of a journal is certainly a bonus!
  • batgencam1batgencam1 Registered User Posts: 13 New Member
    Thanks so much for your wonderful advice! I really, really appreciate it. I just emailed the German department at my school to get a spot in German for reading! My one hitch is if I do German for reading I may have to put that last semester of Latin on hold. Is that worth it?

    I think I know what I want to do. I want to do East-West theological interactions in the sixth century, with a focus on the Latin side (cause my Greek is God-awful). Especially on Sicily. Sicily in the sixth century is really, really cool! Also, I have a lot more experience working on both the undergraduate and graduate theological journals at my school, so I'm pretty comfortable with ecclesiastical history.

    Considering this, my tutor recommended Princeton, Yale, UChicago, and Notre Dame; while I really like the Catholic University of America and Boston College. I think I want to try to apply for the MSt. in Medieval Studies at Black Friars, Oxford and go after a fellowship (maybe finally finding a use for my volunteer work, which sounds shallow but such is the world in which I live) because I know a girl who did it and said it really improved her Latin, Greek, and French. I just won't tell my tutor about it.

    Final parting question: Is it as bad as I always hear to do your PhD at your undergrad institution? I would consider applying to my college's cultural history PhD program, but I've heard that's a big no-no.

    Again, thanks so much for your advice! I really appreciate it!
  • MYOS1634MYOS1634 Registered User Posts: 36,376 Senior Member
    Try to find a summer intensive class in French as your 4 years of Spanish + advanced level in Latin will make that relatively easy. Then see if there's a French for reading class in the fall.
    So you attend college in the us or abroad?
  • batgencam1batgencam1 Registered User Posts: 13 New Member
    The US! I found an intensive French for reading class thorugh my college in the summer, but sadly the application date has passed :(
  • MYOS1634MYOS1634 Registered User Posts: 36,376 Senior Member
    edited May 16
    Contact thé instructor. I doubt they were overcome with hundreds of applicants and might still have a place.
  • warblersrulewarblersrule Super Moderator Posts: 9,712 Super Moderator
    edited May 16
    My one hitch is if I do German for reading I may have to put that last semester of Latin on hold. Is that worth it?
    Yes. You have a good Latin background already.
    Final parting question: Is it as bad as I always hear to do your PhD at your undergrad institution? I would consider applying to my college's cultural history PhD program, but I've heard that's a big no-no.
    This is something to ask someone at your undergrad. It really depends on the institution and the department. Some programs are extremely incestuous, whereas others won't even look at their own undergraduates.

    Going somewhere else for graduate school widens your academic network (who you know is important!) and exposes you to new approaches and viewpoints.
  • juilletjuillet Super Moderator Posts: 12,192 Super Moderator
    I am not in this field, but a little bit of poking around on the websites of medieval history programs reveals that the many programs recommend that you take some time to build strength in a modern language before applying.

    Yale's admissions website for their PhD in medieval history (https://medieval.yale.edu/graduate-programs) says:
    The Ph.D. in Medieval Studies is most appropriate for students who meet two criteria. One is that they already possess considerable expertise in either Latin, Hebrew, Greek or Arabic and in at least one of the modern languages. The other is that the disciplinary area in which the student intends ultimately to seek employment be one for which chronologically specialized training is appropriate.

    Notre Dame's PhD in the Medieval Institute: https://medieval.nd.edu/graduate-program/language-requirements/
    Expectations for Applicants

    Applicants should have a strong background in at least one medieval research language (Latin, Greek, or Arabic) and at least one modern research language beyond English. We encourage potential applicants whose language training is deficient to pursue at least a year of language study before applying.

    ...Every student must also pass written examinations in two modern research languages to demonstrate reading knowledge. These examinations are administered by the various departments. Most medievalists need more languages to be successful in their field. A student’s adviser will help determine the need for language study beyond the basic requirements.

    UChicago: https://history.uchicago.edu/content/requirements-0
    Medieval Europe: Latin (high pass); French or German (pass); one other approved language appropriate to the student's research (pass)

    Chicago and Notre Dame's PhD program requirements are also instructive. The department is likely to admit students they think are going to be successful in passing those language exams, and students who have already studied a modern language for a few years before admission are more likely to successfully pass the language exams in a timeframe that works for the program.

    I agree with warblersrule that you should apply to both PhD programs and high-quality research MA programs that will help you build your foreign language knowledge and prepare your writing samples. MA programs in the humanities are not usually funded, though.

    *

    Also, I feel obliged: Why do you want a PhD in medieval history? Are you aware of the crisis in academic jobs, particularly in the humanities, and especially in history?

    Here are some resources to read to make an informed decision:

    "Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go" (https://www.chronicle.com/article/Graduate-School-in-the/44846). This was written nearly 10 years ago, but it's still just as true today.

    "The Shrinking Humanities Job Market" (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/08/28/more-humanities-phds-are-awarded-job-openings-are-disappearing)

    "Does it Make Sense to Pursue a Humanities Doctorate? The Pros and Cons of Graduate Education in the Humanities" (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-r-schwarz/does-it-make-sense-to-pur_b_7151004.html) Longer, but has very great practical advice.

    "In Defense of the Humanities Ph.D.: It's No Crazier Than Becoming a Journalist" (https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/09/in-defense-of-the-humanities-phd-its-no-crazier-than-becoming-a-journalist/279863/)

    "Don't Be Afraid of Going to Graduate School in the Humanities" - (https://psmag.com/education/why-you-should-go-to-graduate-school-in-the-humanities-59821)

    This is a long and storied debate and you'll find a wealth of articles about it online if you poke around, particularly those written since about 2008 or so in the wake of the financial crisis.
  • lookingforwardlookingforward Registered User Posts: 26,556 Senior Member
    Oh, dear. Are you aware of the number of colleges and universities that have drastically reduced their programs? This has a lot to do with the dwindling (or null, in some cases,) interest among undergrads. So, a limited number of jobs or scholarly openings- and, to some extent, outside funding for your work. This was DH's field. There are many subsets and how you proceed depends on your interests. His PhD work and beyond required Latin, German, French and Italian. Other research obviously needs other languages (note juillet's quotes. After those basics, it could be any language the scholarship is written in.)

    But it's not just language "ability," the sort most of us get that allows us to read, write and travel. Rather the level of language the scholarship in your interest area is written in (present and past works.) That may take some sleuthing on your part. The language journal articles are written in is important, of course. But those are secondary sources and your own work may be with (will include) original documents. (Eg, that's where Medieval Latin comes in. Or Medieval German, etc.)

    He was able to enhance his Latin, German, and French while actually in grad school. You may need palaeography. Most of this couldbe done during your grad program.

    But let me put it this way. D1 wanted an academic career in Medieval. DH went into some panic, knowing how few the opps are. She settled for loving the field, majoring in it and classics, then working outside academia.
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