Prospective Students

For Prospective Graduate Students

Applying to PhD programs in the humanities can be a bewildering process.  Unlike professional schools, which have more standardized application processes as well as advising programs that support applicants, potential PhD students often find themselves alone as they examine the various ways that graduate programs are organized.

It is with this experience in mind that we have prepared this section.

This section is intended to answer most of the questions that occur to prospective and current applicants regarding the graduate program in History at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL). For questions not addressed here, prospective students may contact the Graduate Program Assistant or the Director of Graduate Studies.

Deciding to Pursue a PhD in History

For people dedicated to reading, researching, and writing about change over time in the past, pursuing a PhD in History can be rewarding. A graduate program in History provides the means to spend years learning about the craft, an education that culminates in the completion of an original piece of historical scholarship, the dissertation. Skills acquired during this process can be put to use in many different careers. To gain a sense of the career paths of our students, please click here.

In the History Department at WUSTL, students are admitted directly into the PhD program. Students earn an MA on the way to the PhD but there is no stand-alone MA program. The PhD program requires students to devote themselves to full-time and continuous study, usually for six years. It is not possible to attend part-time.

Working with the Office of Graduate Studies in the College of Arts and Science, the History Department strives to provide funding to all of its PhD students, for a maximum of six years. Students are granted tuition remission, meaning they do not have to pay tuition for the courses they take. Students receive a yearly stipend to cover living expenses and subsidized health insurance. They are required to live St. Louis for at least the first three years of the program and attend classes in person. Students are required to complete six semester-long Mentored Teaching Experiences (MTEs), usually by serving as an Instructional Assistant for History and related courses.

The Department admits students who are able to demonstrate that they have a good sense of what it takes to produce original historical scholarship. These applicants show that they have, or are in the process of acquiring, the skills that are necessary for successful scholarly work. Many History PhD students arrive with an undergraduate degree in History, although that is not a pre-requisite. People who studied other topics in college, from foreign languages to anthropology to political science to chemistry, have become successful historians. Nevertheless, applicants who submit a writing sample consisting of a senior honors thesis or similar that is based on historical sources and that asks and answers a productive historical question have an advantage during the admissions process.

Potential applicants should consider discussing their plans to apply to graduate school with instructors from their previous institutions. Most college professors hold PhDs and can provide advice on whether and where to go to graduate school. Applicants need three letters of recommendation from faculty. Asking for advice as well as letters can be informative.

Historians need to be able to read the languages used in the time and place of their object of study. Students applying to write about places that use languages other than English need to know those languages or have plans for mastering them before beginning to research the dissertation. As an example, students aspiring to write about the history of Germany should be able to read German or be in the process of learning to do so. Foreign language abilities need to be documented with transcripts and / or proficiency exams. In their writing samples, students should also demonstrate strong analytical writing skills in English.

The Department welcomes applications from international students. Students whose primary language of education is not English must submit TOEFL scores. As required by the graduate school, the score should be above thresholds determined by the OGS. We may require that students who are non-native speakers of English attend ESL courses at WUSTL to improve their academic writing and presentation skills.  The Department has been fortunate to include a growing number of excellent international students in our graduate cohort, and they have had highly successful outcomes from their graduate training.

Students who already hold an MA from another institution are encouraged to apply. It is possible, although not always recommended, to receive credit for past work. This can be addressed after admission.

Exploring the History PhD Program at Washington University in St. Louis

Once students have decided to pursue a PhD in History, they should strive to find an appropriate program and advisor. At WUSTL, we train students in fields ranging from early America to the History of Medicine to world migration. Applicants should read the faculty biographies here. Once applicants have identified a potential advisor, they should familiarize themselves with faculty research interests and read some of their scholarship. This will help in the process of determining whether faculty and student research interests are aligned. Students should consider writing to potential advisors to share a brief summary of interests and ask whether they are accepting students.

Contact

For questions not addressed here, prospective students may contact the Graduate Program Assistant, Cassidy Cooley.  They may also contact the Director of Graduate Studies, Lori Watt.

Submitting an Application

Applications to the graduate program should be submitted using WUSTL’s online application system. For more information, visit the admissions page for the Office of Graduate Studies. After receiving and processing applications, the OGS then turns the applications over to the History Department for review. The Department recommends applicants for admission, and the OGS admits them.

Application Deadlines

The admission deadline of the Office of Graduate Studies is December 15. Admitted students enroll in August of the following year.

Application Form

The three-page application form submitted through the Office of Graduate Studies contains important data that the History Department needs in order to consider applications. These forms are more or less self-explanatory. Here is some additional information that may help students complete a strong application. 

Statement of Purpose

The Statement of Purpose is an opportunity for applicants to provide an intellectual biography that explains to the reader how they arrived at the decision to apply for a PhD in History and how they anticipate that their interests will unfold in the future. Applicants should craft their statement as they see fit, but here are some of the questions the reader may be asking:

Does the applicant know how to ask and answer a historical question? Do they have a sense of how historical questions might be answered? Are they engaged with current historical debates in the field? Do they relate their life history, ranging from special challenges or unorthodox work experiences, to their plans for future study? Do they have a realistic sense of what must and can be accomplished during a six-year program? Do they have the skills and drive to eventually complete a dissertation? Who would be their secondary advisor? Why are they applying to the program at WUSTL?

Applicants in non-U.S. history should provide evidence as to competency in relevant languages, and, if applicable, living or travel experience in the region of interest.

Writing Sample

The History Department requires a writing sample as part of the application. Ideally it will show strong analytical writing ability as well as historical thinking and research abilities. Good choices of writing samples include senior theses, capstone projects, or an MA thesis in History or a related discipline. It should be a polished piece of writing that showcases the applicant’s abilities.  In many cases, the best writing sample is not necessarily on a subject related to an area the applicant plans to study in graduate school.  For example, a long paper rooted in secondary sources written for an advanced undergraduate seminar may better demonstrate research and writing skills than a short paper based on secondary sources for a large survey course, even if that survey course is in the field the applicant plans to study.

 Transcripts

Applicants should upload complete transcripts of their grades for all work in institutions of higher education.

Graduate Record Examination Scores

The Department has not required GRE scores since 2020, but students may choose to submit their scores.

The TOEFL exam is required for many international applicants.

Letters of Recommendation

Applicants to WUSTL’s History PhD Program are required to submit three letters of recommendation. The most valuable letters usually come from recommenders who hold a PhD in History and who teach and research about the past. Letters from professors in other disciplines can also be helpful if they attest to the academic abilities and work ethic of the applicant. People who have been out of school for some time may submit a letter from a supervisor, especially if the letter highlights skills and habits that may be helpful in a demanding six-year program. Applicants returning to school after a long absence may want to take a history course on a non-degree basis as a way of testing the waters and becoming acquainted with an instructor who may be able to write a letter. Letters of recommendation must be submitted electronically through the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences application process.

Notification of Applicants

Members of the Graduate Studies Committee in History begin reviewing applications soon after the December 31 deadline. Then they consult with relevant members of the Department and colleagues at the Office of Graduate Studies. The OGS typically sends formal offers of admission to admitted applicants in late February. The OGS will also inform applicants if their applications were unsuccessful. In some cases, applicants will be placed on a waiting list. Offers to applicants on the waiting list can be made at any time between February and the April 15 acceptance deadline.

The deadline for successful candidates to accept or decline the Graduate School’s offers of admission and financial support is April 15. This is a universal deadline to which all signatories to the Council of Graduate Schools resolution, which includes over 350 institutions in the U.S., have agreed to. If you are considering an offer from another program and are asked to accept an offer of financial support before April 15, it is likely that this deadline was imposed in error or in ignorance of this resolution. You are perfectly within your rights to insist on the April 15 deadline. Concerns about an early deadline from another program should be directed to our department’s Director of Graduate Studies.

Deferral of Enrollment

Barring unforeseen circumstances, the History Department does not typically allow admitted student to defer enrollment.  Applicants who do not accept offers of admission for the upcoming Fall semester, but are interested in entering the program in the future, will be encouraged to reapply without any special guarantee of admission.

Reapplication

Candidates not accepted for admission may reapply in subsequent years. New applications should highlight differences from the previous application, in terms of skills or degrees acquired, or other changed circumstances.

Frequently Asked Questions

In addition to the topics we have discussed above, here are a few of the questions we often receive from potential applicants:

  • Does the program meet in-person, remote, or hybrid?  The graduate program at Washington University is an in-person program.  Like most educational programming, we pivoted to remote instruction during COVID, but we returned to in-person instruction in Fall 2021.  Other aspects of graduate occasion are conduct remotely as need be.  Graduate students often meet with faculty rather than in person when that arrangement works better for both.  Remote communication has enabled graduate students to be in regular and direct contact with faculty while conducting research out of St. Louis.  Dissertations have also been conducted online when in-person has not been possible.ß
  • Should I contact members of the Department faculty?  If you have questions about the application process or general questions about the graduate program (application deadlines, funding, etc.), you should contact either Lori Watt or Cassidy Cooley.  Many applicants find it useful to contact faculty with whom they might study to discuss possible areas of interest.  This sort of contact is not necessary, but can prove helpful in determining whether to apply.
  • Can I receive a graduate fellowship even if my income may not qualify me for other forms of financial aid?  Yes.  Whenever possible, the Department provides full funding for all entering PhD students, regardless of their own financial resources.  It is therefore important for applicants to complete all financial aid application materials.
  • Can I travel during the three-year residency period in St. Louis?  Yes.  Students regularly take vacations and visit family.  But they also attend conferences, conduct archival research, and participate in educational program throughout the U.S. and around the world.  The residency requirement is in place so that students are available for classes in person.