PhD Program

There are six components to the PhD program: language examinations, course work, major research paper(s), the qualifying oral examination, the prospectus and dissertation, and the final oral examination. These components are explained in the following sections.

Language Requirements

The doctoral candidate shall demonstrate a reading knowledge of two relevant foreign languages. This regulation emphasizes the need for genuine ability to use foreign languages in advanced courses and in certain kinds of research. Language examinations, consisting of one or more passages to be translated (a dictionary is permitted), are given in September, January, and April.

If the candidate has passed a reading examination at another accredited graduate school and submits evidence to that effect to the chair of the Graduate Studies Committee, the departmental requirement in most instances will be waived. The Department of Modern Foreign Languages offers reading courses for graduate students in French (GRS LF 621), German (GRS LG 621), Italian (GRS LI 621), and Spanish (GRS LS 621). Passing one of these reading courses fulfills the department’s language requirement.

A candidate beginning post-BA doctoral work shall qualify during the first year in at least one—and is urged to do so in both—of the languages required. Beyond the end of the third semester of full-time study, financial aid may be discontinued and/or the student may be required to take a reduced course load until the language requirement is fulfilled. A post-MA candidate shall fulfill the requirement in both languages during the first semester of full-time study, or be subject to the same conditions noted above. With the permission of the Graduate Studies Committee, candidates in certain areas of concentration may substitute a two-semester course in statistics or in another tool subject for the second of the two foreign languages.

Course Requirements

All students in the PhD program are required to take the following four courses:  GRS HI 800: European Historiography, HI 850: American Historiography, HI 870: African Historiography, and HI 801: The Historian’s Craft. HI 800, 850, and 870 are reading courses focusing on historiographical issues and approaches in the areas where the department has special strengths and a sizable array of courses. HI 801 is a course that focuses on research and is designed to enable students to move from the original conception of a problem to a publishable article. At least one of the reading courses (HI 800, 850, or 870) must be taken prior to taking HI 801, which will be offered every year in the spring semester. Students entering the program with a bachelor’s degree take 64 credits, 56 of which should be taken in seminars, lecture courses, directed research, and directed study prior to taking the qualifying oral examination, preferably over a period of four or five semesters. Beginning Fall 2015, students entering with an approved master’s degree are offered 16 transfer credits. They will take 40 credits prior to taking the qualifying oral examination.

Under ordinary circumstances students are permitted to take two graduate-level courses in disciplines other than history that is related to their interests. These courses must be selected in consultation with the student’s advisor.

PhD candidates may count selected courses (up to 16 credits—4 courses) that are open to undergraduates toward their course requirements.  These courses are offered at the 600 or 700 level and ordinarily have 200 or 300-level equivalents. Only courses with numbers 500 or above count as graduate courses.

After completing all other course requirements and the qualifying oral examination, every doctoral student is required to complete four semesters of a two-credit Dissertation Workshop course (GRS HI 900). The eight credits count toward the 64-credit requirement for PhD students. This course, presided over by a departmental faculty member, meets every two weeks for a presentation of a significant piece of dissertation research by a current graduate student, a roundtable discussion on an important research issue, or a topic relating to a career in college teaching. Although students in Boston are expected to attend the course regularly, students need not be in residence to enroll in HI 900. However, every dissertation student must present his or her research once a year, either in person or by some other means when appropriate.

Major Research Paper

Each year of full-time residence, every student must write at least one major research paper between 25 and 40 pages in length, based on primary sources, and meeting professional standards of documentation, argument, and literary structure. The paper completed in GRS HI 801 (The Historian’s Craft) counts as one of the research papers; students entering the program with a bachelor’s degree must complete a second paper, which may be developed in a research seminar or in directed research with a faculty member. Research papers will be graded by the instructor of the course for which they were written, after which a copy of each paper must be submitted to the Graduate Studies Committee to determine if it fulfills the research requirement. An accepted paper remains in the student’s file.

Qualifying Oral Examination

To be admitted to candidacy for the PhD degree, a student must pass a two-hour qualifying oral examination. The examination may be taken as soon as the candidate has completed the basic work in residence and has secured a sponsor for an approved dissertation topic; it must be taken no later than twelve months after the completion of course work. Qualifying examinations are not ordinarily administered after the end of classes in any given semester. The initial preparation for this examination begins early in a student’s career. Students should choose courses and make personal contacts with faculty members with their oral examinations in mind. They should have a general idea of their examination fields by the time they complete course work and should then undertake intensive reading in those fields under faculty direction. Each oral examination is unique, for the examination is intended to test the knowledge of a specific student. However, there are certain regulations and norms to which all examinations must conform:

  • General Character. The qualifying oral examination has one major field, which shall be comprehensive and cover any and all phases of the subject, and one minor field. Students may choose the order in which they wish the examiners to proceed, and each examiner will question the student for half an hour. The entire two-hour oral examination must be given on one occasion. All examiners are required to be present for the entire period. Both language examinations, research paper(s), and all course work must be completed before an oral examination can be scheduled.
  • Composition and Approval. Each student should submit an approval form at least two months before the exam is scheduled to occur. This form lists the members of the examination committee and defines the character and scope of the major and minor fields and examiners. The examination committee consists of four persons, three of whom must have expertise in the student’s major field and one in the minor field. The chairperson of the examining committee, in consultation with the candidate and the members of the committee, is responsible for arranging the time and place of the examination. The examination committee may postpone the exam if it believes the candidate is not adequately prepared.
  • Definition of Major Field. The definition of the scope of the major field is primarily the responsibility of the examining faculty, in consultation with the student. The major field will ordinarily be the field within which a dissertation topic is chosen. The fields of specialization are: Africa, the United States, Europe (medieval; early modern, 1500 to 1815; or modern, 1789 to present). It is also possible, in consultation with the faculty advisor and the Director of Graduate Studies, to define a field that is not geographically specific and would allow for the exploration of a particular theme, or themes, in a transnational context. Within the European fields students may also define a field with national emphasis (for example on French, British, or German history), or a topical emphasis such as social, intellectual, or economic. The major field in African history requires regional specialization plus knowledge of a related discipline, such as anthropology or economics.
  • Definition of Minor Field. The precise scope of the minor field is primarily the responsibility of the examining faculty, in consultation with the student. The minor field should be outside the period or outside the country covered by the major field. Minor fields should be broadly defined so that they span no less than a century. Appropriate minor fields might be the European Renaissance, Tudor and Stuart England, Germany since 1848, European thought in the nineteenth century, United States history since the Civil War, or modern Latin America. These fields should be the equivalent of a survey course, which the student might later be able to teach.
  • Performance. At the conclusion of the qualifying oral examination, in the student’s absence, the chair shall poll the committee on the student’s performance. The student must perform satisfactorily in all fields, the major and the minor, and satisfy all examiners, in order to receive a grade of Pass. The examiners may also award a grade of “Pass with Distinction,” which will be recorded in the student’s departmental file. In the case of a vote of failure, a candidate is entitled to a second examination, at a date decided by the examination committee and the Director of Graduate Studies. In the case of failure at the second qualifying oral examination, the student’s file is sent to the Graduate Studies Committee; this committee will decide whether the student’s degree candidacy should be terminated. If a student’s performance in the minor field is deemed unsatisfactory, the examination committee may decide that the student must retake only that portion of the examination.

Prospectus and Dissertation

Each student is required to submit a detailed prospectus or dissertation outline to the Graduate Studies Committee for approval within four months of the successful completion of the qualifying examination. This prospectus may be prepared in a Directed Study with the prospective dissertation advisor during the last semester of course work, or it may be prepared after all course work has been completed. The prospectus, distributed in written form, must be approved and signed by the prospective first and second readers of the dissertation before submission to the Graduate Studies Committee. The prospectus explores succinctly four aspects of the dissertation topic: the issue to be addressed, the historiographical context, the methods to be employed, and the sources to be consulted. Approved prospectuses are kept on file in the department and at the Graduate School office.

The dissertation should demonstrate the candidate’s ability to assemble all the available historical material bearing on the subject, to analyze and evaluate the material critically, and to interpret the evidence with impartiality and insight. The candidate is expected to demonstrate not only industry in research, but also marked ability in the interpretation of historical data and in the presentation of the results in readable fashion.

The dissertation abstract, which must be submitted at least three weeks before the defense, must be approved by the Director of Graduate Studies, the department chairman, and the Associate Dean of the Graduate School.

Dissertation Defense

A final oral defense will follow the successful completion of the dissertation.  Graduate School regulations require a minimum of five committee members, and all must be members of the Graduate School faculty at Boston University, either by regular or by special appointment. In addition to the grades of Pass or Fail, the examiners may award a grade of “Pass with Distinction,” which will be recorded in the student’s departmental file.

Applying for Graduation

Students must file an application for graduation in the Graduate School office (check with this office for deadlines). Note that an application is good only for the specified date; if a student must postpone a dissertation defense, a new application must be filed. Note also that a student must be registered for the semester in which he or she graduates and in the preceding one and that a student must be registered for any semester in which a degree requirement is completed (such as submission of the research paper or passing the language examination).

Progress toward the PhD Degree

Students should work closely with their dissertation readers to devise a compact schedule for research, writing, and revision. Faculty and students share responsibility for adhering closely to this schedule. A PhD candidacy expires on its fifth anniversary; under certain circumstances extensions of time to complete degree requirements are given, upon the approval of a petition to the Committee on Academic Standards of the Graduate School. However, the Graduate Studies Committee strongly encourages all students to complete language examinations, course work, and the qualifying examination as quickly as possible. It suggests as well that students apply early for outside funding for a year’s research, so that the dissertation will be promptly completed. Finally, the committee will normally award financial aid only to those students who are making satisfactory and sustained progress toward the completion of their degree within the specified time periods.


Students should note that after their courses have been completed they must register and pay the Continuing Student Fee each semester until the award of their degree. With the approval of their advisor or the Director of Graduate Studies, students may petition for a year’s leave of absence. If such a leave is granted, during that period the student need not pay tuition charges or the Continuing Student Fee. Additional leaves of absence may be granted by the Committee on Academic Standards of the Graduate School in the case of serious illness, military service, maternity, or other major disruptions.

Students have the responsibility of notifying the Graduate School and the department of changes of address, so that registration materials and other official announcements reach them promptly.

Students whose personal or financial circumstances make it impossible to make satisfactory progress toward the degree should consider the option of withdrawal from the department. Students who withdraw must wait two years before applying for readmission and must present clear evidence of new scholarly accomplishment and a strict schedule for the completion of degree requirements.


Academic Advisors

All entering students are referred to an appropriate member of the faculty for advising and should also consult the Director of Graduate Studies. Advisors may be changed at any time as the student’s academic interests are clarified. Normally the advisor sits on the qualifying examination committee and serves as first reader for the dissertation.

Recent PhD Graduates