For Humanities Applicants: How to Contact Potential Advisors

By Bohan Zhang, PhD student in History

A professor lecturing to his students.

Ph.D. programs in humanities differ significantly from other Ph.D. programs. One of the most notable differences is that Ph.D. students in the humanities are not typically required to rotate in research groups. Instead, after completing their coursework, humanities PhD students will collaborate with a committee of 3 to 4 professors for their independent dissertation research. This unique structure also impacts how applicants should approach contacting potential advisors. Below is some advice specifically tailored to applicants for humanities programs.

1. Contacting Potential Advisors Is Crucial!

At Rice University, most humanities programs operate under a committee system for admission. However, you'll still need to contact professors. Early communication with professors may yield valuable "insider information," such as whether the professor you are interested in will be accepting students this year. Some professors may even arrange a Zoom meeting with you in advance or assist you in refining your applications. Furthermore, some instructors may also recommend you to other professors in the department whom they deem more suitable for your interests. You never know what results you may achieve after contacting a professor. The worst thing they could say is no. So, reach out!

2. You Should Contact Multiple Professors 

When the admissions committee decides whom to offer admission, it will consider whether the department can form a dissertation committee consisting of 3-4 professors for you. If your research interests closely match one professor but do not overlap with other professors in the department, your chances of being admitted are very low. When you contact multiple professors, you can indicate your preference to work with one particular professor. It would help if you also expressed your willingness to have other professors serve on your committee.

Student writing on a white board.

3. Don’t Give Up If You Found No Professor Matches Your Specific Interest

Always keep in mind that the academic interests of a professor may change. The shift in a professor's academic interests can sometimes be significant. The next research plan of a professor who has studied in a particular field may not remain unchanged. Similarly, a professor whose research interest is listed on their website as different from yours may be planning to work on a topic that is consistent with yours, so do not worry if your research interests are slightly different than the professors in the department.

Good Luck contacting professors!