Pursuing a doctoral degree in History specifically is something that takes a lot of preliminary research and “grunt work” before you ever even submit an application.
First off, WHO you study with is just as, if not more, important than WHERE you apply. Even if you graduate with a Ph.D from a top ten history program, so have a few hundred other people, and there surely aren’t a few hundred history teaching jobs out there. However, if you studied with a top two or three professor in your given field who will give you a reference, you have made your job application stand out. That’s why it’s not a bad idea to consider a little bit lesser Ph.D program if it means studying with a top two or three professor. Find out who the top professors are in your concentration area, where they teach, and how to apply to study under them.
Identifying secondary and tertiary concentration areas is absolutely vital in applying to Ph.D programs as well. It’s not enough to simply concentrate on U.S. history or European history. If your primary concentration is U.S. history, either your secondary or tertiary area should be something non-western, non-European. The reverse is also true, if you’re focusing on European, Asian, or African history, have at least one Western concentration area. Universities today particularly value professors who can teach in multiple areas.
Most history Ph.D programs require proficiency in at least one non-English language (some require two), so if you’re not proficient in one, begin learning it before you ever apply. Spanish is an excellent second language to have if you plan on focusing primarily in Western history, a knowledge of German would be helpful if your main interest is Europe, and French would come in very handy if you’re concentrating on Africa.
Also remember, universities are placing more and more of an emphasis on history professors continually being able to do published, scholarly work. It isn’t enough to simply teach effectively. You have to love writing and publishing if you’re planning to teach history at the university level. Those who aren’t really into writing should consider just getting an M.A. and teaching at a community college. The Ph.D in history is a scholar’s degree.
Thanks to Dr. Craig Kaplowitz, Associate Professor of History at Judson University, and Dr. Hans Vought, Associate Professor of History at SUNY-Ulster for their valuable advice that formed the basis of this article.