The Qualifying Exam

In order to be advanced to Ph.D. candidacy, in addition to completing the necessary coursework, a student must meet the following requirements:

1) The qualifying examination. This step in turn entails the following three requirements

     a) Successful completion of the qualifying examination, which consists of a written component and an oral component (see below)

     b) Two research papers that meet the approval of the committee (see below)

     c) Evidence, acceptable to the committee, of competence in foreign language(s) or other skills relevant to the proposed research

2) The dissertation prospectus (see below)

These two basic requirements may be met in any order, at the discretion of the student’s primary advisor.  That is, in consultation with the primary advisor, the student may either take the qualifying examination (plus research papers and language competency) before submitting the dissertation prospectus, or vice versa.  Please note that the examining committee and the dissertation committee will not necessarily consist of the same faculty members, although the student’s primary advisor will serve on both committees. 

The Qualifying Examination

The qualifying examination evaluates the student's competence in three fields of history, or two fields of history and one other discipline or program. The examining committee also assesses the student’s readiness to undertake independent research for the dissertation, as indicated by the student’s two research papers.  The qualifying examination takes place during the second or third year, and no later than the end of the third year, June 30.

The qualifying examination has both a written component and an oral component.  The written component is to be determined by the advisor in each field.  The written component may be a written examination.  The written examination in each field must be scheduled between three weeks and one week before the date of the oral examination.  Each examination will  have a maximum time limit of three hours.  Alternatively, the advisor may require a detailed course plan of a proposed course in the field being examined.  The course plan may include a syllabus, an annotated bibliography of works consulted in preparing lectures and discussions, and other items.  The precise requirements are at the discretion of the advisor.  The course plan must be submitted to the examining committee within one week before the scheduled oral examination.  Whether a student is preparing a given field in order to bolster future dissertation research or to cultivate an area of teaching expertise will factor into the decision to require a written examination or a course plan.

During the oral examination, the examining committee questions the student in each of the three fields.  The oral examination provides the student with an opportunity to elaborate on the written component, as well as other aspects of the field under examination that are not addressed in the written component. 

Based on its review of the student’s performance in the qualifying examination, the committee will declare whether in their judgment the student is qualified to proceed to Ph.D. candidacy, or whether further procedures are required. These additional procedures may take the form of written or oral examinations in one or more of the three fields, further written work prepared to the committee's specifications, or further courses of study. Subsequent meetings may be required to evaluate such work. In any event the qualification process, including any post-examination procedures, must be completed before classes begin the following fall term (the student's fourth year of graduate work).

Examiners do not formally grade performance in the qualifying examination except to indicate passage or failure. Passing constitutes qualification for the M.A. as a step toward the doctoral degree. A student who fails to qualify for dissertation research may nevertheless be recommended for a special terminal M.A. degree.

Qualifying Exam Form

The Qualifying Examination Fields

The student ordinarily prepares three separate and distinct fields for the qualifying examination. These fields may be defined in terms of areas and periods or of topics. This list indicates some conventional fields offered by the department. Other fields, of comparable scope, may be designed by the student and adviser, with the approval of the examining committee and the Committee on Graduate Studies.

The third field must be outside the geographic focus of the student’s major area of study. For instance, if the student’s major field is the history of the United States, the third field must be non-American. Furthermore, the student should avoid undue overlap between a “period/area” field and a “topical” field. A student presenting both imperialism and Europe since 1789 should, for the latter, stress aspects other than imperialism.


  • Africa
  • America to 1865 *
  • United States since 1865 *
  • 20th Century United States
  • Britain, 1485-1714 †
  • Great Britain since 1714 †
  • Early modern China (Ming-Qing)
  • Modern China
  • Colonial Latin America
  • Postcolonial Latin America
  • Medieval Europe
  • Early modern Europe
  • Europe since 1789
  • Modern Germany
  • Japan since 1868
  • Middle East since 1800
  • South Asia

*The two fields above may be taken as one: America

†The two fields above may be taken as one: Britain


  • African-American history
  • American Religious history
  • American Political history
  • Environmental history
  • Ethnicity and nationalism
  • Empire and colonialism
  • Gender and women's history
  • Globalization
  • Islamic history
  • History of medicine
  • Early modern Jewish history §
  • Modern Jewish history §
  • Medieval Christianity
  • Renaissance Italy
  • World history
  • Religious history
  • Knowledge Production
  • Cultural Studies

§The two fields above may be taken as one: Jewish history

Taking one of the large, "combined" fields allows a student to take another subsidiary or overlapping interdisciplinary field (e.g., African-American history or American Culture Studies, along with "America," or Literature and History with a British focus, along with "Britain"), while leaving room for a third field outside the student's major area of study (in these cases, non-American or non-British, respectively).

Interdisciplinary Fields

  • American Culture Studies
  • Literature and history
  • Modern international relations

The Language Requirement

The student's examining committee will ascertain, by the time of the qualifying examination, that sufficient progress toward acquiring these skills for dissertation research has been made.

The minimum requirement is normally competence in the language of the documents or culture in which the student proposes to do dissertation research, and competence either in one other language (not English) or in the practice of a quantitative or other technical skill. Students normally demonstrate competency by passing a translation exam supervised by a specialist approved by the Graduate Committee

The Research Papers

The examining committee also assesses the student's readiness to undertake independent research for the dissertation, as indicated by the student's two research papers.  The papers must be submitted to the members of the examining committee at least two weeks before the date of the oral component of the qualifying examination.  Earlier drafts of the research papers will have been approved by the instructor of the courses for which the papers were originally written. 

The two papers must be based on primary source materials and they must be 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.  These papers may, but need not, be related to proposed dissertation work.  They are often revised and polished by the student after completion of the seminars for which they were first written. Papers prepared in graduate work elsewhere, or papers written expressly for presentation to the examining committee, are also acceptable

Dissertation Prospectus

The dissertation prospectus is a detailed statement describing the dissertation the student proposes to write. The dissertation should make an original contribution to historical scholarship.  Before choosing a subject the student should consult the American Historical Association's list of theses in progress, to avoid duplication.

Dissertation Prospectus Form

In roughly 6-12 pages, the prospectus should answer, as explicitly as possible, the following four questions:

1. What are the major hypotheses or generalizations that the student expects to develop and test in the dissertation?

The prospectus should describe the historical phenomena (events, figures, situations, trends, or problems) to be explored. It should, however, look beyond mere narrative and description to the kinds of questions and potential answers the research itself will produce. In doing so, the prospectus should indicate the significance of the topic and hypotheses for the growth of historical knowledge. Since hypotheses are subject to the test of research, the prospectus may include tentative assertions that contradict as well as complement one another.

2. What is the present status of relevant historical literature? How will the proposed research contribute to ongoing debates in the field?

The answer will indicate how far the student has gone in thinking about the problem; demonstrate familiarity with secondary materials; and attempt to situate the student's own investigation relative to other scholars in the field. A bibliography should be appended to the prospectus.

3. What kinds of sources and data will the project involve, and what research procedures and techniques will be required?

The writer must have a conception of the resources needed, where they may be found and how they can be tapped and analyzed. Unexpected data or documents are sure to turn up, but the researcher must know where to begin. Some indication is needed of the documents, archives, published primary materials, and oral histories that will be consulted.

4. What are the specific limits to the research that will keep the dissertation within manageable scope and length?

Reasonable care must be taken to develop a practicable dissertation problem and research plan that can be brought to completion. The prospectus should include: information on any completed research work, manuscript drafts , and a tentative schedule for the project.

Since research alters the character of any proposed dissertation, the student is not bound to carry out the exact program described in his or her prospectus. But the student should be able to present a reasonable plan at this stage. Those intending to apply for Fulbright scholarships or foundation grants for their fourth year should have the prospectus ready at the beginning of the third year.

Dissertation Prospectus Defense

The dissertation prospectus is defended before the dissertation advisory committee.  The dissertation advisory committee consists of three faculty members.  The primary advisor (the faculty member supervising the dissertation) is the first reader and chair.  The student and first reader select appropriate faculty members to serve as second and third readers on the student’s dissertation advisory committee.  At least two of the three must be drawn from History Department faculty.