PhD Program

The Department of History offers doctoral degrees in three fields: African, American, and European history.  Our program distinguishes itself by the strength of its faculty and by our commitment to training our students broadly and as a community.  To that end, all incoming doctoral students take a core of classes together that includes courses in African, American, and European historiographies.  No matter the field you intend to specialize in, learning about histories and methodologies outside your chosen field will help you contextualize the particularities of your own field.

There are six components to the PhD program.  In the first two years, students are asked to complete their coursework: specific courses, major research papers, and language examinations.  By the end of their third year, students must pass a qualifying oral examination and submit a dissertation prospectus.  After they have completed their dissertation, they engage in a dissertation defense.  These components are explained in the following sections.

Program Requirements


Coursework refers to the work undertaken by doctoral students before taking their oral exams.  It includes the required courses, original research papers, and certification of language proficiency as described below.

  • Course Requirements: Students entering the program with a bachelor’s degree take a total of 16 courses for 64 credits, or roughly 4 classes per semester at 4 credits each.  Of these, 14 courses (or 56 credits), including the four required courses that all graduate students must take, consist of seminars, lecture courses, directed research, and directed study taken prior to the qualifying oral examination.  The remaining 8 credits are reserved for four semesters of a two-credit Dissertation Workshop course (GRS HI 900) taken after the oral exam.

Note that students entering with an approved master’s degree from another institution are offered 16 transfer credits, or the equivalent of 4 courses; they will take 40 credits prior to taking the qualifying oral examination.  Students admitted to the PhD program will obtain an M.A. as part of the process of completing work towards the PhD.

  • So that our graduates can participate fully in the historical profession, the Department of History familiarizes graduate students with historiographical and methodological paradigms in fields beyond their own area of expertise.  All students in the PhD program (including students who have earned an M.A. at another institution) are thus 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 and research courses on historiographical issues and approaches in the areas where the department has special strengths.  In contrast, The Historian’s Craft (HI 801) is a research seminar designed to help students move from the original conception of a problem to a publishable article.

Note that at least one of the historiography courses (HI 800, 850, or 870) must be taken prior to taking HI 801, which is offered every year in the spring semester.

  • PhD students may take selected courses (numbered at the 500-700 level) that are open to undergraduates toward their degree requirements.  Students are also permitted to take two graduate level courses in relevant disciplines other than history.  These courses must be selected in consultation with the student’s advisor.  Moreover, PhD students are encouraged to take Directed Reading and Directed Research Studies with their advisors and other faculty members of their choice.
  • Students may also take approved courses within the Boston Consortium.  Normally these courses are selected in consultation with the student’s advisor and respective Consortium faculty.
  • Note that a grade of B or lower counts as a failing grade.  Students who fail two classes or whose GPA falls below 3.3 will automatically be placed on academic probation, which is considered in violation of the definition of “satisfactory academic progress” described here.  Academic probation will endanger their funding.
  • After completing all other course requirements and the qualifying 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 work or research related to the dissertation 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.

  • Original Research Papers: Every doctoral student must write two major research papers between 25 and 40 pages.  Students with an approved master’s degree from another institution are only required to complete one major research paper.

The papers must be based on primary sources and meet professional standards of documentation, citation, argument, and structure.  The paper completed in HI 801: The Historian’s Craft qualifies as one of the research papers.  The second paper may be developed in a research seminar or directed research study.  A copy of each paper must be approved by the student’s advisor and then submitted to the Director of Graduate Studies to determine if it meets these requirements.  Approved papers remain in the student’s file.  Students may not schedule their oral examination without having completed this requirement.

  • Language Requirements: The Department aims at graduating world-class scholars capable of conducting research in languages other than English.  Students working in African and European history must conduct primary research in languages other than English.  But given that significant secondary literature is produced outside the English-speaking world, the Department believes that it is important for all of our doctoral students, including Americanists, to demonstrate a genuine ability to read research in foreign languages.  To this end, we require that all doctoral candidates demonstrate a graduate-level reading knowledge of two relevant foreign languages.  Students may not schedule their oral examination without having completed this requirements.

  • Language examinations.  Students are given an excerpt from a scholarly text and asked to translate as much as they can as accurately as they can into good English (a dictionary is permitted).  These exams are administered during the semester in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies.  Because scheduling an exam may take some time, students should plan accordingly.
  • Language courses.  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 requirement for the language in question.  Note that these courses may not be taken for credit toward the degree.
  • Prior graduate school certification.  If the candidate has passed a reading examination at another accredited graduate school and submits evidence to that effect to the Director of Graduate Studies, the departmental requirement will be waived in most instances.

  • PhD Students who have already earned an MA: Incoming PhD students who have already earned an MA receive the following credit upon approval:
    • 4 courses toward the 16 courses required to advance to candidacy;
    • Credit for one of the research papers upon submission of the relevant document to the Director of Graduate Studies.  It is worth noting that most students usually write two papers, one in the required course HI 801 and one through a directed study with their advisor;
    • Credit for proficiency in one foreign language if certified by another accredited graduate school, contingent on the approval of the Director of Graduate Studies.

Qualifying Examination

Admission to candidacy for the PhD degree in most doctoral programs entails passing a qualifying examination.  In the History Department at BU, this exam is taken in the form of a two-hour long oral examination covering four historical areas.  The exam’s oral form tests the student’s knowledge as well as their ability to communicate information on the spot, skills that are central to any career as a scholar, teacher, or researcher.

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.  They must take the exam no later than twelve months after the completion of coursework.  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.  

Qualifying Examination

This exam is taken in the form of a two-hour long oral examination covering four historical areas.  The exam’s oral form tests the student’s knowledge as well as their ability to communicate information on the spot, skills that are central to any career as a scholar, teacher, or researcher.  It last two hours long, is administered by four faculty members in the Department of History, and is normally scheduled before the end of classes during the semester.


  • Students must have successfully completed both language requirements and research papers, as well as all coursework.
  • Students must take the exam no later than twelve months after the completion of coursework.

The Exam

  • General Character.  The qualifying oral examination has one major field that shall be comprehensive and cover any and all phases of the subject, and one minor field that lies outside the major field and is less comprehensive.  In consultation with their advisor and the DGS, students may elect to define the minor field by a discipline outside history.  All examiners in the major field must be faculty in the Department of History at BU except in the case of Africanists, whose major field comprises a related discipline.
  • 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 primary major field will ordinarily be the field within which a dissertation topic is chosen.  The fields of specialization are: Africa, the United States, and 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 field, students may also define a field with national emphasis (for example, on British, German, or Russian history), or a topical emphasis such as social, intellectual, or economic history.  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.  If the minor field lies within the discipline of history, it should be outside the period or outside the country covered by the major field.  Minor fields should be more broadly defined and span no less than a century.  Appropriate minor fields might be the European Renaissance, Germany since 1871, European thought in the nineteenth century, Russia in the twentieth century, United States history since the Civil War, or modern Latin America.  These fields should be the equivalent of a survey course that the student might later teach.  In consultation with their advisor, students may decide to be examined in a field outside the discipline of history, such as literature, philosophy, anthropology, economics, or the law.
  • Composition and Approval.  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.  Students wishing to schedule their oral exam must submit the PhD Qualifying Oral Examination Form to the department at least two months before the exam is to take place.  This form confirms that the student has fulfilled the coursework, research seminar, and language requirements prior to taking the exam.  It also lists the members of the examination committee, and defines the character and scope of the major and minor fields and examiners.  The Director of Graduate Study will not schedule the exam if the student has not completed both language examinations and research papers as well as all course work.  The examination committee may postpone the exam if it believes the candidate is not adequately prepared.
  • The Examination.  Students may choose the order in which they wish the examiners to proceed.  Each examiner will question the student for half an hour.  The entire two-hour examination must be given on one occasion.  All examiners are required to be present for the entire period.
  • 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.

ABD (“All But Dissertation”)

  • Prospectus: The prospectus is 20 double-spaced pages (excluding bibliography) that explores four aspects of the PhD candidate’s dissertation topic: the intellectual relevance of the topic chosen, previous scholarship on the subject, the techniques and methods the dissertation will employ, and the primary and secondary sources it will consult.  Within four months of successfully completing the oral qualifying exam, PhD candidates must submit their dissertation prospectus to their first and second readers for approval.  First and second readers must be members of the Graduate School Faculty at Boston University.  Once both readers have approved the prospectus, it must be submitted to the Director of Graduate Studies for final approval, along with the Dissertation Prospectus Approval Form, which will be submitted to the Graduate School upon approval by the DGS.
  • Dissertation: The dissertation is written under the supervision of the first and second readers who approved the prospectus.  It is a work of original research on a topic approved by the dissertation advisor.  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.  It should also display a creative use of sources, interpretive independence, and the clear presentation of complex arguments.  The dissertation should form the basis for a scholarly monograph that will make a significant contribution to existing scholarship.
  • Dissertation Defense: Upon completion of the dissertation, candidates for the degree defend their dissertation before a faculty committee.

In consultation with the first reader, the student assembles the Dissertation Defense Committee, which consists of at least five faculty members.  These scholars must be members of the Graduate School Faculty of Boston University, either by regular or special appointment.  After all revisions have been made to the satisfaction of the first and second readers, the student may begin the process of scheduling the defense.  The final version of the manuscript must be provided to all committee members at least four weeks before the defense.  To schedule the defense, students must first submit an abstract of no more than 350 words that summarizes the dissertation for other researchers to the first reader, the Director of Graduate Studies, and the Department Chair.  After their approval, students must then submit the abstract and a scheduling request to the Records office.  The student will be notified of the approval of the abstract or if revisions are required.  Upon final approval by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the student and first reader schedule the defense.

The exam usually lasts for at least one hour.  In consultation with the Chair of the Dissertation Defense Committee, BU faculty and graduate students may attend the exam.  However, only the defense committee members may participate.  To open the proceedings, the student must make a 10-minute presentation summarizing the findings contained in the dissertation.  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.  Upon successfully defending the dissertation, the student must provide the History department administrator with a copy of the dissertation abstract, including whatever corrections have been agreed upon at the time of the defense.  The department administrator will circulate the abstract among History faculty and graduate students to mark the event.

  • Applying for Graduation: Students must file an application to graduate with the Graduate School office (check with this office for deadlines).  Note that an application is only good 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).

Program requirements to keep in mind

  • Funding: The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Department of History offer all PhD students who maintain satisfactory academic progress five years of guaranteed full funding.  Funding is restricted to students in the PhD program.  This support will be in the form of teaching, non-service, and research fellowships.  There are also internal grants available aimed at supporting research during the summer or academic year.  Graduate students are also strongly encouraged to apply for external funding for their research priorities.  For more details regarding funding, see the Financial Assistance page and the Graduate Student Resources page.
  • Satisfactory Academic Progress: The Department of History is committed to ensuring that all PhD students fulfill their requirements in a timely and successful manner.  Note that financial aid is linked to continued academic progress.  The Director of Graduate Studies, in consultation with the Department Chair and the student’s advisor, will normally award financial aid only to those students who are making satisfactory and sustained progress toward the completion of their degree within specified time periods.  For an explanation of “satisfactory academic progress” and a detailed breakdown of program requirements and deadlines for completion, consult the links below.
  • Residency: After students have completed their courses, they must still register and pay the Continuing Student Fee each semester until they are awarded the 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, paternity, or other major disruptions.

Students have the responsibility of notifying the Graduate School and the History 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 may consider withdrawing from the department.  Students who withdraw must wait two years before applying for readmission.  They must present clear evidence of new scholarly accomplishment and a strict schedule that will ensure the completion of degree requirements.

  • Academic Advisors: All entering students are referred to an appropriate member of the faculty for advising.  They can and should also consult the Director of Graduate Studies in matters concerning their intellectual and professional development.  Students may change advisors at any time should the student’s intellectual interests change.  Normally, the faculty advisor sits on the qualifying examination committee and serves as first reader for the dissertation.

Resources for graduate students

Recent Graduates