Guide to Graduate Study in History

Updated October 2018

Terms of the Fellowship 

Students admitted to the Ph.D. program are awarded fellowship packages renewable for up to five years, and they should aim to complete the Ph.D. within five years. The program is the same whether or not the student has received an M.A. degree from another institution. 

Students must be in residence at the University for the first three years of the program.  We do not offer an option of enrollment on a part-time basis. During this time students complete the required coursework, take the general examinations for the Ph.D., work with undergraduates as graduate teaching assistants, complete a prospectus for the Ph.D. dissertation, and begin dissertation research.  During the remaining years the student will research, write, and defend the doctoral dissertation. Students do not serve as teaching assistants during their first year of study.  They are expected, by the terms of their fellowships, to serve as half-time teaching assistants in six semesters, usually in years 2-4.  A funded student who receives an external award that pays the cost of living for a semester in which he or she would normally be expected to serve as a teaching assistant will not be required to teach during that semester. 

The graduate program in history is small, highly selective, and 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 the cost of University fees and single-coverage health insurance.  Continuation in the program and renewal of the fellowship is contingent on meeting standards for academic performance judged in the annual evaluations mentioned later in this guide.  The University and the Department also provide other financial support, awarded on a competitive basis for student research including travel to archives, presentations of research at scholarly conferences, and language study at the University or at some other US or foreign institution.   

Coursework and the First Two Years

Students must complete 12 graded courses of graduate-level work, equivalent to 36 graded credit hours, by the end of the second year.  Students will determine a course of study with their advisors, who have broad discretion to approve a course of study that best supports the student’s preparation for exams, research, and college-level teaching.  We give no credit for M.A. or Ph.D. coursework at other institutions, and no transfer course credits can be applied to these requirements except for prior graduate-level coursework at the University of Virginia, approved by the Director of Graduate Studies. 

This coursework 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.  While this course has no specific requirements, the advisor will use it to attest that the student is undertaking the necessary additional work to advance in the program by granting a grade of “satisfactory.”  Some students use this slot to enroll in a language course rather than in non-topical research.  Students who wish to take more than 12 hours of coursework in a semester must make an overload request to the Director of Graduate Studies. 

Graded graduate-level courses fall into four categories:

Colloquia.  Numbered in the 5000- or 7000-series, these are small courses with a mix of lectures, guided readings, and discussions.  5000-level courses are open to advanced undergraduates as well as graduate students.

Research Courses. We offer a single taught research course as part of our graduate curriculum.  Master’s Essay Writing (HIST 8001) is a faculty-led workshop taken by first-year students in the spring semester.  Students meet individually with their advisors throughout the first year as they propose, research, and write the master’s essay, an article-length work of original scholarship suitable for submission to a scholarly journal in the field of history.  Before the end of the first year, the advisor assembles an ad hoc seminar in the student’s research area attended by graduate students and faculty, to which he or she presents a pre-circulated copy of the completed master’s essay for review and discussion.

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.  With the approval of the advisor, the student must petition the Director of Graduate Studies to register for this course.  (Undergraduate courses taken for graduate credit outside of History must be created and approved by that department.)

Supervised reading courses.  Numbered as a 9961, these courses 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 Director of Graduate Studies.  Students typically take a section of HIST 9961 in the fall semester of the second year to revise the master’s essay for publication, undertake directed reading in the literature of the intended dissertation, or conduct other research-related work.  Students typically take a section of HIST 9961 in the spring semester of the second year as a guided readings course under the direction of a member of their exam committee when they have scheduled to take exams in that semester.

Specific Course Requirements

  1. In their first semester of study, all students must take HIST 7001, “Approaches to Historical Study.” 

  2. In their second semester of study, all students must complete HIST 8001 (Master’s Essay Writing) or its equivalent and present a pre-circulated copy of the master’s essay to an ad hoc seminar meeting convened by the advisor no later than May 1 of the first year.

  3. Students must complete the language requirements as specified in the relevant descriptions of programs of study listed below. 

Foreign language requirements.  Mastery in a foreign language, when required, must be demonstrated by passing an examination, usually offered by the appropriate language department.  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. 

For descriptions of programs and fields of study, click here

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

  • Are there a total of twelve graded courses, with HIST 7001 slotted into the first semester?

  • Has the student taken HIST 8001 or its equivalent in the second semester and presented the master’s essay to an ad hoc seminar by the end of the first year?

  • 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:

  • 12 graded courses;

  • and a completed Master’s Essay—a paper of the kind and quality that could be submitted as an article to a refereed journal for publication—approved by the advisor and a second History graduate faculty member.

Students can apply to receive the M.A. degree once these requirements are complete.

Milestones and Candidacy for the Ph.D. Degree

The progress of all students will be reviewed by the Department’s Graduate Studies Committee after they have completed their first two semesters of work. This first evaluation will determine whether the student should proceed to a full second year of work aimed at a doctoral degree.  In addition to grades and faculty reports, the master’s essay will form a basis for evaluation.  To be in good academic standing after the first year, students must meet the minimum requirement that a majority of their grades be A or A-.  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 not continue in the program, or that the student may continue in the program without financial support to pursue the M.A. degree only.  Students must obtain the approval of the Graduate Studies Committee to remain in the program and participate in graduate-level courses in history.

The committee will review student progress again after the first four semesters (two years) have been completed. This second evaluation will determine whether the student should proceed with a full third year of work aimed at the doctoral degree.  In addition to grades and faculty reports, the written and oral exams will form a basis for evaluation (or, in cases in which students have scheduled exams during the third year, a substantial portfolio of student writing should be submitted for review). The second evaluation can result in a decision that the student should continue in the Ph.D. program with financial support; or that the student should not continue in the graduate program but may apply for the M.A. degree if qualified to receive it.

  • At this point all the coursework (the full checklist for the first two years itemized above) and any language requirements should be completed or on track for completion as described in the rules for the student’s program.  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 General Examination.  Through their courses and independent reading over the first two years, students should attain a strong foundation of expertise in their chosen fields.  Students will take their general exams before the end of the spring term of their second year.  In cases in which the advisor determines that the pedagogical demands of the fields of study require more extensive coursework and language preparation, the DGS can grant exceptions to this exam schedule on a case-by-case basis or a specific exam schedule can be specified in the summaries of program requirements in this guide.  To remain in good academic standing in the graduate program, such students must take their written and oral exams no later than September 30 of their third year. (Exception: Students in Ancient/Medieval History must complete the general exam by January 31 of their third year.) 

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 consists of three written exams, conducted by three examiners, including the advisor, covering three separate fields of study. Once the student has completed all the other requirements for Ph.D. candidacy, the student’s advisor should notify the graduate coordinator to arrange for the student to take these three written examinations. 

Each field examination will pose a question or questions to which students will write responses that, taken together, are no longer than 5,000 words (the total writing for all three fields exams should not exceed 15,000 words).  Each of the three written examinations is to be completed within an eight-hour period, administered by the graduate coordinator, and pledged under the University’s honor code.  Once cleared by the advisor to take their exams, students may schedule the specific days on which each exam is given, but must complete all of them within a one-week period.  If—and only if—the examiners agree that all three parts of the written examination have been completed satisfactorily, the advisor will schedule an oral examination as soon as possible following the submission of the written exam at which all three examiners must be present (preferably in person, but by video conference if necessary).  Following this oral examination, the three examiners will decide whether the student qualifies to pass, or passes with distinction, to the dissertation stage of the doctorate.  A student who fails the general examination can retake those parts of it (one or more of the written exams or the oral exam) deemed unsatisfactory, but only once, and must do so within four months of the date of the original written exam submission.  If the student passes the written portion of the exam after retaking that part of it deemed unsatisfactory for a second time, the full examination committee must convene as soon as possible for an oral examination.  The second evaluation can proceed as scheduled before an unsatisfactory exam is retaken, and the Director of Graduate Studies can request a writing portfolio as a basis for evaluation.

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

As a Ph.D. candidate, a student in the third year focuses on dissertation research and continues his or her development as a college teacher as a graduate teaching assistant. 

During the fall and spring semesters of the third year the student should take the following: twelve credit hours of HIST 9999 Non-Topical Research (Preparation for Doctoral Research).  By the end of the third year the student should thus have completed a total of 72 credit hours.

During the third year, students should apply for external and internal (UVA-sponsored) grants and fellowships that can fund their research and writing in the fourth year.  Receiving such fellowships allows students to engage in sustained archival research away from Charlottesville.  Students supported by five-year fellowship packages typically teach in each semester of the fourth year.  Those awarded financial support sufficient to defray the costs of their living expenses through such grants or fellowships will not be required to teach during that external funded period.   Such awards reduce the overall teaching expectations.  A student receiving such a fellowship for one semester, for example, would teach for five rather than six semesters overall during over the course of the five-year fellowship; a student receiving external support that covers living expenses for the full academic year would teach four rather than six semesters overall.

In the fifth year of the program, one fully funded without teaching obligations, students will focus on dissertation writing. The Ph.D. candidate must write and defend a dissertation before a committee chosen by the advisor in consultation with the student.  The advisor should appoint a dissertation committee, set an intended date for the dissertation defense (no later than one week prior to the final deadlines for submission of the approved dissertation on December 1, May 1, or August 1), and set a date for the submission of a final draft to members of the committee (typically three-to-four weeks prior to the defense).  At minimum, the committee, chaired by the advisor, must consist of three current members of the graduate faculty in History as well as a UVA member of the graduate faculty from another department who serves as the “dean’s representative.”  Other qualified members, from within or beyond the University, may be appointed in addition to this required minimum.  If there is difficulty in identifying suitable readers, the Director of Graduate Studies shall appoint members of the faculty to provide this service.  The dissertation should represent an original and significant contribution to historical knowledge, be concise and well written, and display strong primary research.  If the dissertation is successfully defended, it can be approved as is or with required revisions completed. 

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.


The Department’s Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) oversees the graduate program and the application of this Guide, advised by the Graduate Studies Committee and the Chair of the Department.  The Graduate Studies 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.

A Timeline for Graduate Study

Year 1

Students should meet with advisors early in the first semester to determine a provisional list of three exam fields (as well as the faculty members who will examine them) as well as a topic for the master’s essay.  In addition to necessary language instruction and two topical courses at the 5000- or 7000-level each semester, all first-year students will take HIST 7001 (Approaches to Historical Study) and HIST 8001 (Master’s Essay Writing) (or its equivalent as detailed under the program descriptions in this guide or by approval of the DGS).  They will also meet regularly with their advisors to discuss the research and writing of their master’s essay.  All students enrolled in HIST 8001 (“MA Essay Writing”) are required to give a presentation of the MA essay in a forum that normally will be organized by the instructor of record and which all department faculty and graduate students normally will be invited to attend. Students exempted from 8001 should give their presentation in an ad hoc forum organized by the advisor before May 1.  Before the end of the year, students will meet to discuss reading lists and expectations for their exams with each of their examiners.  First-year students who are required to demonstrate mastery in one or more foreign languages are encouraged to apply for summer language instruction support through the department.  The Graduate Studies Committee reviews the student’s progress in the program in the first evaluation and must approve his or her advancement to the second year of study.

Year 2

Students will begin their work as graduate teaching assistants for the first time in the fall semester.  In addition to taking two topical course at the 5000- or 7000-level each semester, second-year students typically register for one section of HIST 9961 (independent study) in the fall semester to engage in a directed course of reading in the intended dissertation research area, to revise the master’s essay for publication, or to engage in other research-related work as approved by the advisor.  In the spring, they typically register for one section of HIST 9961 (independent study) with a member of their general exam committee, a course that involves, at a minimum, meetings with each of the examiners to review reading lists and discuss preparation for the exams.  Second-year students are encouraged to apply for summer research funds and support for summer language instruction through the department.  They must satisfy their required language exams as detailed in this Guide under their program of study.  Students will complete the written and oral portions of the general exams no later than September 30 of the third year (unless an alternate exam schedule has been specified in program descriptions in this Guide or the DGS has granted an extension, in which cases they must complete the exams no later than January 31 of the third year).  The Graduate Studies Committee reviews the student’s progress in the program in the second evaluation and must approve his or her advancement to the third year of study.

Year 3

Students serve as graduate teaching assistants during the third year.  With their required history coursework completed, their work outside of the classroom focuses on dissertation research.  Students must submit a dissertation prospectus, approved by the advisor and two additional members of the History graduate faculty, to the graduate coordinator no later than December 15 (September 15 for Ancient/Medieval History students) (or, if they are permitted to take their exams after this date, no more than two months following the completion of exams).  After completing the prospectus, they should apply for grants and fellowships that can support their research goals in year four.  The department maintains a list of external support relevant to graduate research and the DGS and graduate coordinator provide regular updates via email regarding the deadlines of internal, UVA-funded fellowships and research grants.  Third-year students are also encouraged to apply for summer research funds through the department.  With the advice of their advisors and other faculty mentors, students should conduct a sustained program of research from Charlottesville, revise the prospectus, and produce preliminary writing toward the dissertation over the course of the third year.

Year 4

Students are expected, by the terms of their fellowships, to teach in both semesters in year four.  Based on our students’ strong track-record of receiving external awards, however, many will earn grants and fellowships that provide the cost of living support for one or both semesters.  In such cases, the student may rely on the department to fund the costs of tuition, fees, and insurance so that they may accept such an award and use that funded period to undertake intensive archival research away from the classroom.  By the end of the fourth year, the student should have completed most of the research for the dissertation and should aim to have at least one chapter drafted for the advisor’s review.  Fourth-year students are encouraged to apply to the department for support to present their work at academic conferences.

Year 5

Students spend the fifth year, one fully funded by the department, undertaking additional research and completing and defending the dissertation.  At the beginning of this year, students and advisors should meet to determine a schedule for the review and revision of dissertation chapters.  Fifth-year students preparing to complete the degree also submit applications for academic positions and other employment in consultation with their advisors and the graduate placement officer.  They are encouraged to apply to the department for support to present their work at academic conferences and to interview for professorships and postdoctoral fellowships.