Guide to Graduate Study in History

Updated December 2012

Outline of the Program

The normal duration of the Ph.D. program is five to seven years. The program is the same whether or not the student has received an M.A. degree in history from another institution. 

Students should be in residence at the University for at least three years. During this time students should complete the required coursework, take the general examinations for the Ph.D., work with undergraduates as a graduate teaching assistant, and complete a prospectus for the Ph.D. dissertation.  During the remaining years the student should research and write the doctoral dissertation. In the fourth year and beyond, the student can also continue to teach either as a graduate teaching assistant or, for the most advanced students, as an independent instructor of undergraduate courses.

The program is structured with an intensive focus on coursework during the first two years, transitioning to extensive supervised experience in college teaching as a complement to continuing research.

Financial Support

The graduate program in history is small, highly selective, and especially well supported by the University. If a student is admitted, the University will provide a competitive financial package that will include a stipend for living expenses, remission of tuition, and cover fees and health insurance.

Usually this support will be provided through the University; sometimes the support can be provided by an outside sponsor. Continuation in the program and of financial support is contingent on performance judged in annual assessments mentioned later in this Guide.

The University and the Department also provide other, limited, financial support for student research, including travel to archives, presentations of research at scholarly conferences, and language study beyond the minimum language requirement – whether at the University or at some other US or foreign institution.   

Coursework and the First Two Years

All students must complete twelve full graded courses of graduate-level work, 36 graded credit hours, before they can take the general examinations for the Ph.D.  We encourage students to take courses in other departments. But at least eight of their twelve graded graduate courses must be in history.  At least six of these must be 5000-level courses, 7000-level colloquia, or 8000-level research seminars. No transfer course credits can be applied to these requirements except for prior graduate-level coursework at the University of Virginia, with the approval of the Director of Graduate Studies. 

Ordinarily all this work should be completed during the first four semesters (two years) of study. Thus the typical student should enroll for three graded courses in each of those four semesters. In addition to these 9 hours (36 in total), the student should have one course of non-topical research (HIST 8999), for a total of 12 hours of enrolled credit in each semester. Some students may prefer to use this slot to enroll in a language course rather than in non-topical research.

Graded graduate-level courses fall in four categories:

Colloquia.  Numbered in the 7000-series, these are small courses with a mix of lectures, guided readings, and discussions.  Assignments often combine short papers and other topical work. Sometimes they may also be cross-listed in the 5000-series of courses, which are open to advanced undergraduate students.

Research seminars.  Numbered in the 8000-series, these seminars are devoted to in-depth work on a topic and usually require research and writing of a substantial, original paper that may draw extensively on primary sources.  As seminars, they feature collegial discussion of the participants’ work.

Augmented undergraduate courses.  Numbered as a 9960, this is an undergraduate course augmented with additional requirements, developed with the course instructor, to earn credit as graduate-level work. Such courses may be taken only in the special case where a necessary graduate course is otherwise unavailable.

Supervised reading courses.  Numbered as a 9961, this is another way to fill a gap in an exceptional case where a vital course is not available. These can be developed at the initiative of students or faculty, must be supervised by a member of the faculty, and must be approved by the Department Chair or the Director of Graduate Studies.

Specific Course Requirements:

  1. In their first semester of study, all students must take HIST 7001, “Approaches to Historical Study.”   
  2. Each major field of study has its own course and language requirements, some of which are listed below.
  3. At least two of the twelve graded courses must be research seminars. Ordinarily students should take one research seminar in their first year and at least one in their second year. The two research seminars should be taken from two different professors. The paper from a research seminar can be submitted, once suitably refined and endorsed by a second reader, as a Master’s Essay in partial fulfillment of the requirement for an M.A. degree in History.


Fields of Study

The Department offers a number of Major fields of study. A Major field corresponds to a broad segment of history encompassing a variety of problems and with a body of literature rich enough to nurture the development of a professional historian. It is an area that, at the conclusion of his or her studies, the student should be prepared to teach.

To complete the requirement for the M.A. degree and to be permitted to take the general examinations for the Ph.D., students must take at least three courses in the Major field – at least two colloquia courses (or the equivalent) and at least one research seminar. They must also demonstrate mastery in at least one foreign language.

Major fields for graduate study in the Department of History at this University include:

  • Ancient History. Students should pass mastery-level exams in French and German and pass the Classics Department M.A.-level exams in Latin and Greek. One of these four exams must be passed before the student will be allowed to take the General Examination for the Ph.D.
  • African History. The major field covers the entire history of the continent (the last 50,000 years, from the Mediterranean to the Cape of Good Hope) as the subject is commonly taught in American higher education. Minor fields in African history cover either Early Africa (before ca. 1900) or Modern Africa (after ca. 1800). The special field within the major field may be either of these,    depending on the research interests of the student. All African fields will include Africa's position in and contributions to global historical narratives. Students pursuing major fields in African history must demonstrate mastery of French, and advisers may require working familiarity with other languages, European as well as African, suited to their dissertation research. They are also encouraged to take formal coursework related to Africa in other departments of the University. Examiners for the qualifying examination include the student's supervisor, at least one other Africanist historian, and a faculty member in the minor/outside field.
  • East Asian History
  • European History.  Students will need to pass mastery-level exams in at least two European languages.  In the more modern period these are often French and German, but the requirements can vary depending on the particular area or time being studied. Students working on earlier periods will, for instance, typically need mastery of Latin as well. To prepare for the General Examination, students will need strong preparation in the history of two periods of European history, with an examiner identified for each segment. Along with their faculty adviser, students should thus identify two additional professors to help them develop a tailored program of study and point them toward the colloquia and research seminars that will help them get the preparation they need in these fields.
  • History of Science, Technology, and the Environment.  Students with this Major field will work with professors who may have a sole appointment in history or joint appointments between History and the School of Engineering, which has a program in Science, Technology, and Society. Language requirements will be adjusted to particular circumstances and students have, with permission, sometimes substituted mastery of a specialized technical or scientific vocabulary in place of a more traditional foreign language.
  • Latin American History. Students will need to be able to pass the mastery-level   exam in Spanish and Portuguese and, depending on country of focus, speak one or  the other with mastery, by the time they take the General Examination for the Ph.D. at the beginning of the third year. To prepare for the General Examination students will need strong preparation in both colonial and national periods, with one or more examiners identified for each segment. In consultation with their advisers, students will also prepare a program of study with respect to a topic defined geographically and/or thematically looking beyond the Latin American historiography. Each student will thus have up to four professors, including their main adviser, helping them develop a tailored program of study involving colloquia, research seminars, and independent readings.
  • United States History.  Students will need to pass the mastery-level exam in one foreign language before they can take the General Examination for the Ph.D. To prepare for the General Examination they will need strong preparation in US History during the periods before and after 1877, with an examiner identified for each segment. All students will have a committee, comprising a faculty adviser and two additional professors, to help them develop a program of colloquia and research seminars tailored to meet their needs.

This list of Major fields is not exhaustive. Depending on faculty availability, for example, the Department has trained and placed outstanding students in South Asian History. There are strong resources in other fields as well. In addition to the fields listed above, students can petition to create a Major field of study of their own design, working with interested faculty. 

In addition to the Major fields listed above, students should identify two Special fields. One of these will be a Special field within the Major field, specialized in theme, time, and/or place. 

In addition to other thematic topics, the Department is especially strong in the fields of World History and Global/International history. These are offered as Special fields to complement and enrich work in one of the Major fields. For instance, Legal History is another particular strength of the Department, but it is usually taken as a Special field complementing a concentration in U.S. History, European History, or Ancient History.

The other Special field must be outside of the Major field. It can even be outside of the Department, so long as it remains distinctly different from the Major field. The student should plan on taking at least two courses in this outside Special field.

A student thus prepares heavily in a Major field, complemented by two Special fields, one of which is outside of the Major area. If there are any questions about the designation and definition of a Major or a Special field, check with the Director of Graduate Studies.

Foreign language requirements.  Mastery in a required foreign language must be demonstrated by passing an examination, usually offered by the appropriate language department. Students should apply to take their examinations as soon as they feel ready, but in all cases they must take them before they can receive permission to take the General Examination. The Mastery exams usually consist of a short translation, a reading comprehension section (with short-answer questions), and a short essay.  Test results will be forwarded to the History Department. 


A Checklist for the First Two Years and the M.A. Degree

As the student prepares to start school and sits down with the student’s faculty adviser, the student should map out a notional course schedule for the first two years. Though such plans may often be revised, the student (and the adviser) should keep the following checklist in view:

  1. Are there a total of twelve graded courses, with HIST 7001 slotted into the first semester?
  2. Are at least eight of these courses in history?  And at least six of those in the 5000-, 7000- or 8000-series of colloquia and research seminars?
  3. Are there at least two of the 8000-series research seminars, usually one in the first year and at least one in the second – and taken from two different professors?
  4. Are there the two required colloquia (or equivalents) and at least one research seminar in the Major field?
  5. Are there at least two courses in the outside Special field?
  6. Is there a plan to accomplish necessary language study?

In this program the Master of Arts degree is ordinarily an incidental degree that can be granted on the way to full Ph.D. candidacy. It can also be awarded under other circumstances.  In any case, to be granted an M.A. degree in History the student must have completed:

  • at least eight graded courses (which, with two nontopical research courses would make up the required 30 credit hours);
  • the requirements of a Major field;
  • and a Master’s Essay approved by two readers. The Master’s Essay will usually be a paper originally produced for a research seminar. The paper must then be refined to win final approval by two readers as a Master’s Essay – a paper of the kind and quality that could be submitted as an article to a refereed journal for possible publication.

Students can apply to receive the M.A. degree once these requirements are complete. These requirements must be completed within two years.

Milestones and Candidacy for the Ph.D. Degree

The progress of all students will be reviewed by the Department’s Graduate Committee after they have completed their first two semesters of work. This first evaluation will determine whether the student should proceed with a full second year of work aimed at a doctoral degree. The first evaluation can result in a decision that the student should continue in the Ph.D. program with financial support; that the student should consider another path, perhaps leading only to the M.A. degree, and will receive no further support; or that the student should not continue in the graduate program.

Students must obtain the approval of the Graduate Committee to remain in the program and participate in graduate-level courses in history. The Graduate Committee will promptly review student progress again after the first four semesters (two years) have been completed. This second evaluation will determine whether the student should proceed to Ph.D. candidacy and take the general examinations, which would usually take place at the beginning of the fifth semester (Fall semester of the third year).

Permission to Take Comprehensive Examination Form

Permission to Proceed to the Doctorate Form

  • At this point all the coursework (the full checklist for the first two years itemized above) and language requirements should be completed or, perhaps in a few exceptional cases, on track for completion. Thus the student could apply to receive an M.A. degree.
  • In the graded courses, the majority of the grades must be A or A-.
  • The student should have a faculty adviser who has agreed to direct the research for the Ph.D. dissertation.

The General Examination.  Students should carry a heavy load of work in their first two years to attain a strong foundation of expertise in their chosen fields. The third year should thus begin with successful attainment of Ph.D. candidacy through passage of the general examination. The general examination tests the student’s acquaintance with the events and historiography of a given period or topic, grasp of major issues and questions, and the ability to follow, construct, and criticize historical interpretations.

The general examination has two parts, conducted by four examiners. The first part is a written examination in the Major field (2 examiners), a Special field within the Major field, and on a Special field outside the Major field. Once the student has completed all the other requirements for Ph.D. candidacy, the student’s adviser should arrange for the student to take the four parts of the written examination. 

This written examination will ordinarily be scheduled during the third week in August, just before Fall classes begin. Each part will pose a question or questions with responses that, taken together, are no longer than 4,000 words (or 16,000 words overall). The written examination is to be completed in designated hours, administered by the graduate secretary, and pledged under the University’s honor code.

If all four parts of the written examination have been completed satisfactorily, it will be followed as soon as possible by an oral examination, arranged by the student’s adviser and conducted by the same four examiners. The oral examination will ordinarily be scheduled in the fourth week of August, around the time Fall classes are getting underway. Following this examination, the four examiners will decide whether the student qualifies to pass, or pass with distinction, to the dissertation stage of the doctorate.  A student who fails the general examination can retake all of it, once.

To the Ph.D. Degree:  Teaching and Scholarly Research

As a Ph.D. candidate, a student in the third year concentrates more on experience as a college teacher, carrying a full load of courses and working with many students while maintaining a program of scholarly research. In the third year, students will work as graduate teaching assistants. During this same year students should complete the prospectus for their Ph.D. dissertation.

During the fall semester of the third year the student should take the following: nine credit hours of HIST 9999 Non-Topical Research (Preparation for Doctoral Research) and HIST 9011 The Practice of History.  HIST 9011 is a dissertation prospectus writing workshop led by the DGS that also features discussions led by visiting faculty on professional practices (conferences, grants, journals, and teaching). During the spring semester of the third year, students should register for twelve credit hours of HIST 9999 Non-Topical Research (Preparation for Doctoral Research).

The prospectus should be approved by the end of the third year. By the end of the third year the student should thus have completed a total of 72 credit hours.

During the fourth year (and beyond) the student can choose to remain in residence and apply again to teach as a graduate teaching assistant. 

Advanced students, usually in their fifth year or beyond, can also propose a course for the Department’s curriculum and apply to be appointed as the instructor for this course.

In the remaining years of work to complete the dissertation, students will shift back to a primary focus on research and writing. The Ph.D. candidate must write and defend a dissertation before a committee chosen by the student in consultation with the adviser. The dissertation should represent an original and significant contribution to historical knowledge, concise and well written, and displaying strong primary research. 

In addition to the adviser directing the research, the committee should include three other qualified members of the faculty, two from History and one from another department. If there is difficulty in identifying suitable readers, the Director of Graduate Studies shall appoint a member of the faculty to provide this service. If the dissertation is successfully defended, it can be approved as is or with suggested revisions. 

Two copies of an approved dissertation must be signed by the adviser and a second faculty reader. All requirements for the Ph.D. degree should be completed within seven years after enrollment in the graduate program. Exceptions to this time limit must be approved by the Director of Graduate Studies and by the Dean of the Graduate School.

In applying to receive the degree, the student should file the application with GSAS on one of their forms, keeping in mind their timeline for award of a degree in January, May, or August.


The Department’s Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) oversees the graduate program and the application of this Guide, advised by the Graduate Committee and the Chair of the Department. The Graduate Committee makes final decisions on admission to the program and continuation in the program. If a student seeks some exception to the rules in this Guide, a written petition should be addressed to the DGS.

Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
Nau Hall - South Lawn
Charlottesville, VA 22904

tel: (434) 924-7147; fax: (434) 924-7891
office: M-F 8 am to 4:30 pm
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