Last time we talked romance and passion. Great. Wonderful. We all love historic buildings.
But now it’s time to talk real life. Grad school is a beast of an endeavor, and the beginning of the pursuit is exciting, but very overwhelming. So let’s start with the basics:
Is preservation grad school a good idea?
Spoiler alert: I’m not totally sold on MSHP yet. One of the biggest issues I have faced thus-far is pure practicality. Even my father, a former history professor, was confused by my interest in grad school – he wondered why I wouldn’t just gain more work experience. The financial burden of school is massive, particularly considering most MSHP programs are preferably done on a full-time schedule – and many are exclusively so (Clemson University + College of Charleston joint program, Columbia, and Penn, to name a few). That means you’re taking out loans for not only for tuition, but housing, food, gas, and other daily expenses, and if you’re like me and have other debts, like a car payment, you have to factor that in as well.
So how do we do this in an economy that is struggling already to employ qualified preservationists? How realistic is it to invest tens (or hundreds!) of thousands of dollars in an education that may not provide us with career opportunities even well after graduation? Is our time better spent volunteering (say, with HistoriCorps) and/or working our way up?
The trouble is – and what your friends and family may not realize – it’s hard to go the distance in Pres without a Master’s. Even with a B.A. in HP, the discipline requires too much specified knowledge to progress to leadership positions without an advanced degree…or am I wrong? What do you think? I still don’t have the answer! This leads me to my second thought…
Examine all the dimensions of the field preservation.
(Sounds lofty, but I have a point.) Grad school is a mix of interest and marketability. Pres programs have a lot of avenues down which you can travel – the most obvious of which is straight up Historic Preservation, but even within HP, there’s planning, conservation, design, or theory. Then there’s an even wider purview of programs that have to do with things like sustainability, landscape conservation, or urban design/planning, which is especially important to consider if you already have a B.A. in HP. I never considered other facets until an admissions counselor at UC-Denver told me it didn’t seem like a smart move for me to get my Master’s in HP when I already have an undergraduate degree in the exact…same…subject.
“It’s basically telling your future employer that historic preservation is all you know how to do,” he said. My instinctual response is: “Duh.”
But he makes a good point. Maybe Urban Planning is worth a second glance, no?
Just take the GRE already.
Every MSHP program I’ve looked at requires the GRE so if you think you might apply to graduate school any time within the next five years (your scores expire after 5 years), you may as well get it over with. I have friends who bought classes online and attended $600 prep courses that lasted months. That’s all well and good, but if you’re broke as a joke, both on time and money, like I am, those options are not realistic.
My advice? Sign up for the GRE right now (and be prepared to kiss $160 bye-bye.) Register to take it six weeks from today, then pop on to Amazon and snag a copy of The Princeton Review’s GRE study book (seriously, get this specific book). It’s under $20 and gives a realistic approach to acing it. Giving yourself a short amount of time to prepare will force you to study, and ultimately, most of the information on the GRE is stuff you’ve already learned (or been taught, at least) several times throughout your education. Do the best you can, and move on. Grad school is a daunting enough task as it is – don’t let yourself get stressed over the preliminaries.
Ask everyone about everything.
Did your cousin’s roommate’s best friend go to the same program you’re looking into? Get her email address. As historians, we know it’s important to examine a multitude of sources, and this is no exception. As you’re drinking your morning coffee and stumbling through your favorite pres sites, take a minute to scan the staff bios. I’m not suggesting you stalk every preservationist whose name appears on a website, but most people are more than willing to give an honest overview of their graduate experience, particularly to a polite prospective student looking for advice.
In fact, 100% of the people (mostly strangers!) I’ve contacted have not only responded, but given me lengthy summaries of their programs and offered valuable insight as to what they would and wouldn’t do if they were to go back and do it again.
In the end, you’ve got to do what feels right for you, regardless of all that noise people throw at you, but I’ve also realized that I may never know for sure if this is the perfect choice. Going to grad school in America right now is a bit of a leap of faith, so you may have to prepare yourself for that level of instability, or at least uncertainty, in your decision.
Think it over, friends. Next time, we’ll start looking at specific programs.
Where, oh where, will I get my degree? (Coming in November!)
Claire L. Lanier is a native east coaster and studied Historic Preservation at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA. Last year she moved to Denver on a whim with some friends and can’t get over just how incredible the Rockies are. One day she hopes to restore and operate a historic movie theater where she can show Indiana Jones marathons and finally have her own Add-Your-Own-Butter machine.