Applying to Graduate School: An Archaeological Perspective

[Re-posted with permission from Adam Smith’s blog, Assemblages]:applying to grad school

Having just supervised my third year of admissions into the MA program in Cornell’s Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies, I’ve come to see the process as increasingly shaped by poor communication on both sides.  We, as an institution, do a pretty poor job of communicating what an ideal application dossier looks like.  And students, many of whom boast sterling credentials, nevertheless often seem to have neglected to fully consider what graduate school entails.  Inspired by my colleague Sturt Manning’s post last year on graduate admissions in Classics, I digest here a few points of advice that I seem to repeat often to applicants and prospective students.

The elements of a graduate school application are relatively standard across programs and universities.  Typically they include:

  • Your undergraduate transcript;
  • Letters of recommendation (3 seems to be the magic number);
  • A writing sample (usually a term paper written for an advanced seminar);
  • Test scores (usually GRE, but also TOEFL for international students);
  • A statement of purpose (sometimes misleadingly called a personal essay).

Transcripts can be read in a numerous ways.  A few attest to a goal oriented, highly motivated student who knew their chosen path from day 1.  Some tell a story of struggle and success as grades improve and courses sharpen focus over the 4 years.  Some tell of students who wander listlessly through the curriculum until they discover their passion (e.g., archaeology) and then commit themselves fully to achievement.  Some tell of students who were driven into narrow pre-professional courses by social, economic, or perhaps parental forces in their freshman and sophomore years, only to find themselves miserable until a stray course in archaeology opened a new door.  Other transcripts testify to students  who never really clicked with anything and look to graduate school as a place to kill some more time while searching for self and future.  What story does your transcript tell?  How would you want an admissions committee to narrate your intellectual development?

Often times, the story of your transcript comes out most clearly in the letters of recommendation.  Faculty who care deeply about their students will often tell us about the unique challenges applicants  have faced or opportunities they have seized.  Their testimonials can often be incredibly powerful since they have the kind of firsthand knowledge that admissions committees lack.  So it is important in choosing letter writers to have established relations with faculty who a) know you and b) care about you.  This means you cannot rely on the instructor in the 500 person intro class that you did well in but who you never saw again.  That said, it is relatively rare that all three letter writers have the same kind of familiarity with students, but if one or two can speak knowingly of you and are committed to you, then chances are, that will be an impactful letter.

The writing sample is a complicated element of the process.  Presumably by the time you graduate from College, if you were in the humanities or social sciences, you will have written 4-8 term papers, by which I mean extended writings on a single topic that muster evidence to an argument (I do not include more personal or reflective essays or fiction writing, neither of which are proper material for a writing sample in an archaeology application).  I have seen writing samples evaluated generally for just two qualities.  The first is the quality of composition; is it well written?  The second is its use of evidence; does it understand the bases of archaeological arguments.  Occasionally samples are highly original, provocative, or pioneering, but these are not the expectations for a college term paper or honors thesis and so tend not to be the expectations of admissions committees either.  Of our two expectations–composition and argumentation–my experience is that the quality of writing trumps all.  Hence when students ask for advice on which writing sample to submit, I always advise them to submit the one that is best written, most polished, and most edited, whether it is about archaeology or not.  I would be far more impressed by a well-written writing sample about Georgian polyphonic singing than a second rate essay on excavations at Ur or Abydos.

It is important for students to realize then that at the time of application 3 out of 5 of the elements in a dossier are essentially out of your hands.  Your transcript was compiled over your 4 years in college; ditto your relations with faculty who will provide letters of recommendation; and writing samples tend to be (quite wisely) recycled term papers or honors theses.

In addition, in my experience test scores tend to be a secondary data point in admissions.  They might reinforce a sense conveyed by transcripts or they might force a second look if not in keeping with the impression conveyed by a writing sample and essay.  But it is rare that I’ve seen test scores work as a determining force of any kind on an admissions decision when the preponderance of other evidence points in a different direction.

So that leaves just the statement of purpose as the critical contribution that an applicant can make to a dossier at the time they are considering graduate school.  As a result, it is to my mind the most consequential piece of the application.   And yet it is also the portion that students often seem to have the most trouble with.  So let me set out what I think a statement of purpose should do.

  1. It needs to  clearly define a research project.  Graduate schools is primarily about training you to do research–what will it be about? But this is tricky.  If your proposed research project is too narrow (level 3 courseware sherds from site X) then you run 2 risks: a) no one who reads the essay is all that interested in level 3 coarseware sherds from X (or alternatively, only one person is and that is not enough support) or b) faculty will see the project as so fully developed that they have nothing to contribute.  If a proposed research project is too vague (“I think I’m interested in ancient religion or maybe politics”) then admissions committees will immediately conclude that you are not sufficiently prepared fro graduate education.  So research projects need to thread the needle between being too vague and too narrow.
  2. It needs to answer the question: “Who cares?”. It is not enough to simply have a research interest of your own, you need to make an argument for why anyone else should be interested.  Such an argument might appeal to wider anthropological theory (e.g., this project will inform accounts of state formation), or to historical questions (e.g., the data collected will clarify the political economy of late Classic Maya polities), or to specifically archaeological concerns (e.g., innovations in method, practice, theory, etc).
  3. It needs to explain why you want to come to Cornell (or anywhere else). Applications are not just presentations of your work and interests, they are arguments.  You are making an argument as to why you should be admitted to a program.  Hence you must explain why that program can cultivate the research you plan on conducting.  This can and should involve key faculty (never cite just one potential interlocutor, you will need at least 2 and maybe 3).  It can also include material resources (e.g., collections, archives, etc.).  But it should also appeal to the curriculum since that will shape most of your experience as a graduate student.  You cannot take courses from just one or two faculty, hence you need to point to ways that the curriculum as a whole can advance the method, theory, data and conceptualization of your project.

What is not on this list to be included in a statement of purpose is a personal story of your budding interest in archaeology since you first found an old spoon in your grandparents’ back yard when you were 9.  Those almost never work.  Also to avoid: that time you saw a discovery channel show on dinosaurs, a general love of working outside, and, most of all, Indiana Jones. Such appeals appear with alarming regularity–at least twice each admissions season.  Students should know that these are not read as charming, but as vacuous platitudes that do nothing to help us understand what you want to study and why we should care.  The essay, regardless of what universities might call it, is not a personal essay.  It is a statement of purpose that defines a sphere of interest and describes the graduate training you seek that will help advance that work.

One element of your experience that does fit into a statement of purpose is field experience (if you have any).  Discussing the intellectual impact of field experiences is an excellent way to show the admissions committee that not only do you have a strong sense of archaeological practice, but you have also reflected on it in a way that suggests it was not simply a lark, but a transformational educational experience.

If you can avoid the pitfalls of the overly personal and make a clear case for a compelling research project that fits well with the faculty, then your essay will have made a pretty compelling case.

This is not to say that there is not a place for a personal essay in the graduate school application process.  It is a very good idea for you to write a brief essay entitled “Why I Want to Go to Graduate School”.  In it, you should be candid.  Are you motivated by a thirst for knowledge, a sense of fulfillment that comes from empirically engaged field research?  Or are you thinking of grad school because you can’t think of something else to do?  If you can’t come up with a reason that truly convinces you that research is a calling, then you can stop right there.  If you can, then graduate school probably is for you.  And you can now get to work on crafting a compelling statement of purpose.  And you can file away the personal essay for those times down the road once you are in graduate school when you find yourself wondering, “Now why did I do this?”

–author Adam Smith is the Chair of Cornell’s Anthropology Department and blogmaster of Assemblages

Society for the Humanities Fellowships for Graduate Students

TO:                  Humanities Graduate Students
FROM:            Timothy Murray, Director
RE:                  Call for applications for 2016/17 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Graduate Fellowships at the Society for the Humanities

The Mellon Foundation has made available two fellowships for graduate students to become Fellows of the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University during the 2016/2017 academic year. Graduate Fellows will not teach courses. Graduate Fellows will be invited to all events at the Society for the Humanities.  The Fellowship includes a College of Arts & Sciences graduate tuition waiver, a $26,000 stipend, and health insurance. The two Graduate Fellows will share an office at the A.D. White House during the academic year.

Qualifications
Cornell University graduate students in the humanities who are working on topics related to the year’s theme (description below) are invited to apply. Applicants must have completed the A exam and all requirements for the degree other than the dissertation before the application deadline on November 1, 2015. Awards will be restricted to students entering their 4th, 5th or 6th year of study at the time the Fellowship begins.

Application Procedures
The following application materials must be emailed to humctr-mailbox@cornell.edu by November 1, 2015.  Please email materials in a single PDF in the order below with the subject line “GRADUATE FELLOWSHIP APPLICATION_Last Name”.

Order of Materials:

  1. A cover page with:
    – Full name and net ID
    – Home department
    – Proposed project title
    – Recommenders’ names and emails
  2. A curriculum vitae.
  3. A one-page dissertation abstract in addition to a more detailed statement of the research project the applicant will pursue during the fellowship year (1,000-3,000 words).
  4. A Cornell University etranscript (for instructions, visit http://transcript.cornell.edu/ ).
  5. One writing sample (published or unpublished) that is no more than 35 pages long.

Sent under separate cover:

6. Two letters of recommendation. Letters of recommendation should include an evaluation of the candidate’s research proposal. Please ask referees to send their letters directly to
humctr-mailbox@cornell.edu. Letters must be received on or before November 1, 2015.

For further information:

Phone: 607-255-9274 or 255-4086
Email: humctr-mailbox@cornell.edu

Awards will be announced by the end of December 2015.

Note: Extensions for applications will not be granted. The Society will consider only fully completed, emailed, applications. It is the responsibility of each applicant to ensure that ALL documentation is complete, and that referees submit their letters of recommendation to the Society before the closing date.

FOCAL THEME 2016-2017: SKIN

The Society for the Humanities at Cornell University seeks interdisciplinary research projects that reflect on philosophical, aesthetic, political, ecological, religious, psychoanalytical, and cultural understandings of skin.  Thinking skin calls upon cultural horizons, religious traditions, flesh, haptics, signs, texts, images, biopolitics, screens, sounds, and surfaces.  From the earliest writings on medicine and religion to more recent theories of race, sexuality, gender, class, and ethnicity, how might thinking or making skin inform the global cultural experience from North to South, East to West, South to South.  We invite research projects across historical periods, disciplinary boundaries, geographic territories, and social contexts.

For classical traditions, skin plays a role in representing the breadth of mythological empowerment, from the Occidental classics and Ancient Egypt to Navajo culture. Theoretical and philosophical approaches might dwell on the contrasts between tactility and opticality or as the membrane of intersubjective and global connectivity.  Psychoanalysis theorizes skin as the figure of touch, desire, trauma, and “the skin-ego,” while theorists of affect and haptics might study configurations of aging, sexuality, gender, queer and transgender studies.

Also welcome are biopolitical considerations ranging from torture and subjugation to race, eugenics, and genomics whose representations have been central to the arts.  Scholars of the arts and technology might emphasize tattooing, surface architecture, technoskins, prostheses, nanotechnologies, and the touch of mobile devices, connectivity, gaming, and mobile media.

Scholars of “medical humanities” might study questions of the complex place of skin in disease, contamination, and contagion, just as these problematics are important in the history of travel literature, geopolitical tensions, and literary and artistic fascinations with the viral.

Congratulations to Cornell’s 2015 Archaeology Graduates!

Image result for cornell commencement capThe CIAMS faculty and staff wish all the best to Cornell students being graduated with Archaeology Majors and Master’s degrees in Spring 2015
The Undergraduate Majors are Morgan Michel-Schottman, Alexander Morgan, Eliizabeth Napper, and Zachary Peterson.
And the Master’s in Archaeology are William Breitweiser, Cynthia Kocik, Nicholas Lashway, and Katherine Seufer.

Congratulations, and good luck to all of you!

New archaeology journal focused on publishing student research

From Gonzalo Linares, Oxford
The International Journal of Student Research in Archaeology-IJSRA (link to flyer) is an open-access, peer-reviewed journal, edited by a team of students from more than 30 top institutions in 13 countries. The aim of this publication is to be a global reference point in archaeology, as well as to serve as an international forum for the exchange of excellent scholarship in an atmosphere of constructive dialogue and inclusivity. Ultimately, we aim to enhance the academic experience, scholarly presence, and recognition of students worldwide. This Journal accepts papers addressing any topic and time period of archaeological interest. Research may be based in any geographical area, engage with any methodological and theoretical framework, and include integrative insights and evidence from any discipline.

This Journal aims to foster global participation and to attract the submission of the best student research in archaeology, regardless of academic institution, nationality, gender, ethnicity or religion, in order to enhance international cooperation and mutual understanding. Therefore, this Journal does not charge submission or publication fees. Assistance with academic English of those publishable articles written by non-native speakers will be provided.

The intellectual property of anything published in the Journal remains the respective authors’, who are free to reproduce it in whatever way, upon acknowledging this Journal as the first place of publication.The publication of previously unpublished data should be authorised by the relevant academic tutor/supervisor.

The deadline for submissions for the first issue is September 1st 2015. E-mail for submissions:editor.ijsra@gmail.com

Call for Papers available here: https://www.academia.edu/12218246/I_Call_for_Papers_-_International_Journal_of_Student_Research_in_Archaeology

More information is available in our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ijsra

Kind regards,

Gonzalo Linares
Executive Editor of the International Journal of Student Research in Archaeology
BA Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Oxford (UK) https://oxford.academia.edu/GonzaloLinaresMatás

Strong reaction needed to avoid deep NSF funding cuts

Dear Colleagues,
As many of you will know via messages from various societies, next week Congress will debate a bill – America Competes Act of 2015 (H.R. 1806) – which if it were to become law will cut NSF social sciences funding – i.e. including archaeology – by 45%, i.e. destroy its support from its already rather pathetic level. This is back to the issue of the past 18 months and is again led by Lamar Smith (R, Texas).

Please voice your opposition by calling or writing your representative; you can also send a message to Congress here: http://www.cossa.org/advocacy/take-action/.
[You will know this worked when you receive a form-letter response from your Congressman]

Some information via the Consortium of Social Sciences (COSSA) is available at: http://www.cossa.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/House-COMPETES-Analysis-April-2015-2.pdf?utm_source=Need+for+Immediate+Action%3A+Potential+NSF+Cuts&utm_campaign=NSF+eBlast&utm_medium=email

As last time (late 2013-2014) we should all look to find ways to oppose and to ARGUE why this is bad thing – versus just be against or say ‘bad Republicans’. In particular we should advocate ‘why Archaeology’ as our part of this campaign.

Please write to your Representative.
Last year this worked for our local Republican. Doing nothing will only assist in the destruction of what little federal support there is for archaeology – so please react.

Thanks,
Sturt Manning

Paula Turkon, Mexican Dendrochronology

Turkon dendro MexicoNYSAA: Paula Turkon (Ithaca College), “Dendrochronology in Mesoamerican Archaeology: Preliminary Findings from Northwestern Mexico.” Thursday, May 7th, 2015, at 6:30 pm in room 208 of the Center for Natural Sciences at Ithaca College. The research is a cooperative effort involving Paula Turkon (Ithaca College), Sturt Manning (Cornell University), and Carol Griggs (Cornell University). Continue reading

CIAMS Awards Over $30,000 in Student Funding for Research and Travel

bresto headerWith the generous support of the Hirsch family, this Spring CIAMS awarded over $15,000 for archaeology-related travel to Cornell undergraduates and graduates, and over $15,000 to graduate students for archaeological research projects.  These funds will help Cornell archaeology students work around the globe, in New York, Belize, Italy, Georgia, Israel, Tunisia, and Cyprus. Congratulations and good luck to all awardees.

Classics: Rubina Raja, Urban Archaeology in Jordan

Raja Classics Amman_BW_2Classics:  Rubina Raja  (Professor,  Classical Archaeology and Art, Institute for Culture and Society, Aarhus University, Denmark), “Changing the Urban Picture Through High Definition Archaeology: Urban Development in Jerash (Jordan) from the Roman to the Mamluk Period,” Friday, April 17, 2015 4:30 PM, 122 Goldwin Smith Hall, with reception to follow in 119 GSH.

CIAMS End of Year (almost!) Reception

fish pizzaCIAMS End of Year Reception: Following Sergey Makhortykh’s talk, Join CIAMS students and faculty to celebrate (prematurely) the end of the school year, beginning of summer and the adventure ahead. We’ll have locally obtained wine, cheese and the proven combination of pizza and sushi. Wed, Apr 29, 2015 in the Art History Lounge (Goldwin Smith G08).