PhD Program Overview and Timeline

The PhD Program

Most graduate students in history at Washington University proceed toward qualification in no more than three years, taking basic and specialized courses while preparing for an exam covering three scholarly fields. During this time, they also develop a dissertation topic.

A number of circumstances might alter the pace of the prequalification program. Students entering the program with a year or more of graduate study already completed at another institution are normally considered to be in the second year toward qualification. The heavy demands that language training imposes on students of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern history may throw their program out of sync with the European and American curricula.

Therefore, the requirements of the first two years may, for the Africanist, Asianist, or Middle Eastern specialist, be stretched over three years, thus extending the prequalification period to a maximum of four years. The need for an extra year will be determined by the student's adviser and the Committee on Graduate Studies upon the student's arrival, and will be contingent on continuous enrollment in language courses until research proficiency is attained.

Graduate students normally enroll for 12 units of academic credit each semester, which usually includes 4 units granted for educational teaching experiences after their first year (sometimes beginning in the second semester of the first year). Pro-seminars, research seminars, and lecture courses count 4 units each, and independent reading may be taken for 4 to 8 units.

As part of the qualification process, students prepare two research papers of publishable quality.  The theme or time period treated in the two papers may be related, as long as the papers demonstrate strong research competence in two distinct fields. Based extensively on primary sources, the research paper is often the basis of a student's first academic publication.  

Graduate Course Offerings

Literature of History L22 5471, offered each fall semester, serves as an introduction to the graduate study of history, and is required for all first-year students.  In addition, students must complete L22 5470, Writing Historical Proposals and Prospectuses. This seminar, offered each spring semester, is usually taken in the first or second year, though in special circumstances it may be taken in the third year.

Pro-seminars are devoted to intensive reading and critical discussion, largely of secondary literature. A pro-seminar and research seminar may be linked as a sequence, exposing the student to the literature regarding a historical field, period, or problem, before requiring a research paper in that area. They help to develop a broad understanding of current problems in the fields to be covered in the qualifying examination.

Research seminars are devoted to writing a major paper in a particular historical field, period, or topic, and train the student in analysis of particular historical problems, in research techniques, and in writing—the nuts and bolts of later work on a dissertation.

In some fields, students frequently enroll in tutorials (e.g., L22 610, Readings in East Asian History or L22 613, Readings in African History.  In tutorials, between one and four students work closely with a tenured faculty member (Associate Professor or Professor). 

Graduate students may also occasionally enroll in undergraduate courses to acquire a broader mastery of a specific field or topic. In doing so they must arrange extra course work with the instructor to qualify for full graduate credit. Most undergraduate courses open to graduate enrollment will have a corresponding course number at the 500 level to enable students to enroll for the full four units of graduate credit.

Interdisciplinary Study

Although work in an outside field (economics, political science, literature, women’s studies, etc.) is not formally required, students are strongly urged to become familiar with the methods and approaches of other disciplines. They may seek to define a projected dissertation in terms influenced by another discipline or acquire additional expertise to add potential for employment. Students may take regular courses or seminars outside the department or read independently under the guidance of a specialist. They may constitute such extra-disciplinary work as a third field for qualification.

The University offers special graduate certificates that formally recognize a student’s expertise in certain interdisciplinary fields of study. To receive this credential, the student completes a significant amount of coursework outside the home department. Certificates are now available in American Culture Studies. Please contact the Program in American Culture Studies for further information.

The First Year

The first year introduces the student, both broadly and deeply, to the study of history. L22 5471 The Literature of History, is the department’s core pro-seminar in historical theory and method, and is usually offered in the fall term.  In consultation with the primary advisor, the student may choose to take L22 5470, Writing Historical Proposals and Prospectuses in the spring semester of the first year.

First-year students in American history take a year-long pro-seminar sequence, “Introduction to the Graduate Study of American History,” a wide-ranging survey of genres of American historical writing and major historiographical problems (L22 5411 and L22 5412).

First year students fill out their remaining course load with pro-seminars, research seminars, and tutorials. This combination of pro-seminars, research seminars, and tutorials  helps students to identify a significant and manageable dissertation subject.

The Second Year

In the second year (in some cases in the second semester of the first year), the student usually begins training as a teaching assistant, continues preparing for the qualifying examination, and in consultation with her/his advisor, assembles an examining committee.

After the conclusion of the first semester of the second year, the Department conducts a comprehensive review of the student’s performance in the program.  At the conclusion of the review, the Department issues a letter to the student at the beginning of the spring semester.  In this second-year review, the Department clearly articulates the expected schedule by which the student will meet the requirements for being advanced to PhD Candidacy (see below).

Training in teaching is an essential part of the program. Teaching in the prequalification period is one more course of study and is completed in conjunction with readings assigned by the faculty member. Teaching carries 4 units of academic credit per semester: 2 credits in History 511 - Teaching in History, and 2 credits in Readings in History - selected from History 601 and above, thus leaving room for two other formal courses.

A mentored teaching experience (MTE) may involve either leading discussion sections of one of the introductory courses, or grading and other instructional duties in more advanced undergraduate courses. In the latter case, an MTE can include delivering one or two lectures and leading periodic class discussions, etc.

The student engaged in an MTE is guided and assessed by course instructors and academic advisors. Graduate students can also compile a “Teaching Portfolio” through the Teaching Center in Eads Hall which documents their teaching experience and skills for future employers. It is also advisable to enroll in or audit the lecture courses of the faculty member who is likely to be a dissertation advisor.

The Third Year

The third-year student, while in most instances continuing as a mentored teaching experiencet for 4 units of credit per semester, often works almost entirely independently in final preparation for the qualifying examination and, beyond that, for the dissertation. The pre-qualified student may take pro-seminars and advanced independent readings, and may be advised to audit appropriate lecture courses or enroll in seminars, especially if the latter are directly related to the dissertation. The student should also have acquired from outside the department any other skills necessary for his or her dissertation research.

Students should take the qualifying examination during the third year, in the fall term if possible, but in any case no later than the end of academic year (June 30). Students engaged in intensive language study may petition to delay their qualification exam by one to two semesters. Conversely, in some cases, particularly if they enter the program holding a masters degree from another institution, students may take their exam at the end of the second year.

Beyond the Third Year

Beyond the third year, after the student has achieved PhD Candidacy, expectations regarding timing will vary according to specific requirements of each field and dissertation.  Nevertheless, it will usually be the case that students are expected to conduct intensive dissertation research during the fourth and fifth year (including substantial work in libraries, in archives, or in the field) and in the sixth year to focus on completing the dissertation and finding employment upon completion of the degree.  Many of our students win outside grants to support dissertation research during the fourth or fifth year; all students are strongly encouraged to apply for such competitive grants and fellowships.