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Department of History

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I go to graduate school straight out of college? There are many sound strategies for pursuing graduate study, but we find that students who take time off after college graduation are some of our most successful and satisfied graduate students. Getting hands-on experience in a public history agency or institution is an excellent way to learn if a public history career is for you. Taking a break (after all, you’ve likely been in school continuously for 15 years now) will also give you a more precise idea of what part of the field intersects with your interests and abilities. We have also had good success with students who have come to the Public History Program for a second career, after working in public relations, banking, real estate, and insurance, for example. This prior professional experience enriches their work and marketability as public historians.

Should I study history or public history? The best public history programs provide students with training in the theoretical framework and research methodologies of a traditional history program, as well as experience with hands-on projects that develop practical skills in preparation for a variety of careers.

There are a lot of public history programs out there. Is the University of South Carolina program right for me? You are the one who will have to decide. As you consider graduate study, you should systematically research the many fine public history, historic preservation, and museum studies programs that have been established in recent years. Consult the listing of public history programs throughout North America that is available on the website of the National Council on Public History. NCPH's New Professional and Graduate Student Committe has drafted a guide to navigating the different programs. Also take a look at the the link on the AHA's website "Advice on Choosing the Right Program for You". The key is to reflect on your own interests and career goals and then to match those with a graduate program that is a good fit.

I have particular areas of interest in history and public history. How do I figure out if South Carolina is where I should study? Look at the list of faculty on the Department of History website and the list of faculty affiliated with the Public History Program. Study faculty research specialties and teaching fields. Thus, if you have an interest in the military history of the American Civil War or the history of decorative arts or the technical conservation of objects, you may find it somewhat difficult to pursue your studies here. By contrast, if African-American heritage preservation, environmental history, the public history of science, historical memory and the Civil War (and many, many other fields) are among your interests, you will find many courses and faculty with these specialties. Note that you will write your M.A. thesis under the direction of two faculty members with scholarly expertise related to your topic; you should begin thinking now about what faculty members you’d like to work with. Study the faculty at other institutions similarly.

What are the strengths of the Public History Program? Historic preservation and museum studies. These are two formal concentrations within our curriculum, each of which is supervised by a designated faculty member with teaching and research expertise in that field. The faculty advisor works closely with each student to choose courses, set up the internship, and place the student in a professional position following graduation. More generally, our location in a state capital creates numerous opportunities for hands-on experience in a variety of public history agencies and institutions in a state with a rich, deep, and diverse heritage. Our long-established program has an alumni network that extends back almost 40 years and has placed over 200 alumni in professional positions throughout the United States.

I am interested in historic preservation. Is the South Carolina program right for me? Again, it depends on your interests. Historic preservation is an interdisciplinary field that can be studied and practiced from a variety of perspectives: within a public history program (like ours) but also through a college of architecture or a school of planning. A helpful listing of current preservation programs is the PreserveNet website. Compare courses, degree requirements, and faculty. If you are interested in being trained as an historian first and foremost who works in historic preservation, we have a strong program for you.

I am interested in museums and material culture. Is the South Carolina program right for me? You won’t be surprised when we say that it depends on your interests. We always emphasizes that the strength of our museums' track is its grounding in historical scholarship. It is not a traditional "museum studies program" that focuses on collections management or object handling (although this can be learned through courses taught at McKissick, the university museum). We prefer to admit students who aspire to be curators, the intellectual drivers of museum exhibits. The Smithsonian Institution maintains a list of different types of museum studies programs. Compare courses, degree requirements, and faculty. If you are interested in being trained as an historian first and foremost who works in the museums field, we have a strong program for you.

I am interested in archives and libraries. Is the South Carolina program right for me? At the present time, we are not offering a concentration in archival studies within the Public History Program. Students interested in archives and libraries should consider applying to one of the several degree programs offered by the university's School of Library and Information Science. Note that the "Joint Program in Library & Information Science and Public History" remains open for Public History students in the museums and preservation concentrations. The library school is a separate university unit from the Department of History, and you should contact SLIS directly.

I realize now that I’m not really sure what my interests are. A good way to gauge your interests and define your career goals is to get some hands-on experience in public history -- before you attend graduate school.

Can I complete a public history degree at the University of South Carolina through distance education courses? No.

Can I get a Ph.D. in public history at South Carolina? There are two routes to a Ph.D. in history with a public history emphasis. One path involves earning an “M.A. in Public History” on the way to the Ph.D. A second path is to declare public history (or historic preservation or museum studies) as an outside field of study; usually this requires two public history courses plus an internship. We have had students choose both routes with good success, depending on how intensively they wish to study and practice public history.

How does financial aid work? Admitted students are generally funded through teaching or research assistantships in their first year. Subsequent funding is dependent on adequate progress towards degree, but generally covers the two years of the MA program.

What is your placement record for graduates of the Public History Program? We have an excellent record, close to 100%, even in these tough times. Take a look at our placements.

What is the history of magic and occult sciences? The history of occult sciences covers a wide swathe of human knowledge across the globe, especially in premodern and early modern eras, ranging from such practices as astrology to alchemy. This focus delves into how people organized knowledge about natural processes, developed systematic approaches to understand and investigate the world around them, and how various societies in different times and places situated themselves within such frameworks. This focus is unique because it not only covers how occult sciences were practiced in world regions such as Europe, but also covers the African diaspora, Jewish communities, Islamic societies, and the American South.

Tips on the Application

Will a campus visit increase my chances of admission? No. Admission decisions are made by a faculty committee that considers a variety of factors: the statement of purpose, the writing sample, your college transcripts, and letters of recommendation. These are considered in their totality, so we are unable to provide data on minimal GPA. We understand that you may wish to check out Columbia and, if you do visit, we are happy to meet with you. We can put you in touch with some of our current students, and you can talk with them about why they chose to come to South Carolina, life as a graduate student, and what it’s like to live in a medium-sized southern city. 

What should I put in the statement of purpose? The admissions committee is interested in learning what hands-on experience you have in public history, as well as which track of the program meets your professional goals. Be as specific as you can about your interests. We are looking for students with high academic achievement as well as a working knowledge of public history. You can also use the statement to explain what happened to your grades in your sophomore year, but please avoid platitudes about your long love affair with history, historic sites, and museums dating to your childhood.

What kind of writing sample should I submit? The ideal would be a well-written and cogently argued historical research paper grounded in the relevant secondary literature and based on extensive use of primary sources. 

Whom should I ask to write letters of reference for me? Because you are applying for graduate study in a history department, the best recommenders are those who know your work in the field, such as history professors or public history professionals. Public officials, ministers, and family friends are usually not the best choices. Avoid generic letters; be sure that your letter-writers know that you are applying to a public history program.

How competitive is the admissions process? The Public History Program receives 50-60 applications per year, and we seek an entering class of 6-8.

How can I make my application stand out? In addition to the obvious things you might imagine that faculty like to see – a dazzling writing sample, astounding letters of recommendation, and stellar GPA and GRE numbers – here’s some final. Don’t treat graduate school as the obvious next step in your already long educational career, sort of a finishing school or a promotion to the next rank. Not everyone belongs in college, and not every college graduate belongs in grad school. Instead, use your application to be thoughtful and reflective about what you’d like to accomplish in a career as a public historian.

I Need More Information

Where can I get more detailed information about the Public History Program? The best source of information is our website, as you know, or you wouldn’t be reading this. Go back to the menu for "Information for Applicants" and scroll through the various links. For even more details about the curriculum, check out the links under "Information for Current Students".

If you have any additional questions, please contact Dr. Josh Grace, Director of Graduate Studies,

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