As someone in a math-heavy field, the advice one is generally given if one's preparation for potentially going into graduate school is poor boils down to the following:

  • Do better in a class that succeeds the class you did badly in. The example, I think, was something like "if you did badly in algebra, take algebraic topology." But in undergraduate humanities programmes, there isn't necessarily as obvious a succession unless one looks at course numbering and intensity (e.g. presumbly a small seminar in the high 200's will be more intensive than a large survey introductory lecture class).

  • Do RA work for a year or two after one's undergraduate years (which might allow one to take discounted classes). But I am unsure if RA work is as plentiful among, say, scholars of Marx or medieval theology as it might be to biochemists or economists. Naturally, it would seem that there's probably some demand for translators or archivists, and I know people who have interned at museums as researchers, so maybe I'm not aware of something.

So I feel like it's hard to map advice in more overly structured programmes that may also emphasize things like hard data more to the humanities.

Is this true, and if so, what would be good advice for such situations?

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    I find it curious that, although I am in the math-heaviest field, neither of these pieces of advice is familiar to me. The first one seems a bit strange: it is good advice in the technical sense (i.e., if successfully followed, good things will happen) but it seems less helpful than the completely obvious Do well in the classes you are currently taking. I certainly do not generically advise students who did badly in algebra to take algebraic topology: if they succeed it looks good, yes, but for the students I know it is much more likely to fail dramatically. Jun 15 '15 at 5:26
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    The second piece of advice is totally unfamiliar: what you do after your undergraduate years if you are interested in going to grad school is to apply to and then attend grad school. I know of little or no RA (I'm assuming this means "research assistant"; that's how unfamiliar it is!) opportunities for people with BA's in mathematics who are not graduate students. Can it be that the only advice you've been given for grad school in a math-heavy field is so unfamiliar to a tenured professor of mathematics?!? Surely we should try to nail this down before extrapolating to the humanities. Jun 15 '15 at 5:30
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    @PeteL.Clark RA work is very common (and can be extremely beneficial) in economics (and related fields). I know applicants who went from getting into top 30-40 schools to multiple admits with funding to top 10 programs after 2-3 years of RA work. I believe it's also fairly common in many sciences (e.g. psychology, biology).
    – Roger Fan
    Jun 15 '15 at 15:29
  • @PeteL.Clark: I suspect it might be advice more common in fields with more "hard data", which probably wouldn't quite include math. The first suggestion was actually given to me once, and probably founded on the assumption that I had done badly only for issues of focus, and not because I was completely incapable of doing well in the earlier classes.
    – user34009
    Jun 15 '15 at 16:46

Humanities prof in the US here. You are indeed correct that there aren't, generally speaking, research assistantships available at the undergraduate level in humanities. It's just not that easy even for a very capable, very motivated undergraduate to contribute much meaningful to the writing of a scholarly paper in most humanities fields.

The best advice is to figure out exactly why you did poorly in the earlier course, correct the problem and then work very hard is a subsequent humanities course. You want to show that the one bad mark is an outlier.

More generally, the best advice for success in humanities courses and applications to humanities graduate programs is to learn to write really well. If you can learn to write careful, focused, clearly argued essays that people actually enjoy reading, you'll have a definite leg up on the competition. Your bad marks might keep you from making the cut at some programs, but if you blow the writing sample away, you might become very competitive at programs that treat their admissions more holistically. (My sense, which is not very reliable, is that admissions decisions in the humanities tend to be a bit more holistic in general than in the sciences, since UG programs tend to vary much more in the humanities than in the sciences.)

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