PhD Admissions & Student Resources

Three History Department faculty members standing with new PhD Mark Alexander after his dissertation defense.
History faculty with new PhD Mark Alexander (second from right) after his dissertation defense.

Find the information and guidance you need regarding advising, research requirements, plan of study, departmental guidelines on dissertations and more. For further details, consult the Columbian College CCAS Doctoral Student Policies.

CCAS Doctoral Student Policies


Prospective Students

In addition to the Columbian College’s application requirements, graduate program applicants should follow these guidelines.

1. Apply early.

Applying ahead of the deadline allows time to send in any missing information or further details that might strengthen your application before the deadline. It also gives reviewers more time to read your application carefully before the final rush, and ensures that your application will be considered before all the slots for a given year are filled (whether or not you apply for financial aid).

Apply to GW

2. Get relevant letters of recommendation.

Because we seek to determine your potential as a historian, letters of recommendation should be solicited primarily from historians with whom you have worked during your academic career. If you did not major in history and therefore cannot get many (or any) letters from historians, then letters from professors in the field in which you majored are the next best thing. Letters of recommendation from employers, family friends and the like are useless to us, unless your employer or friend is a historian (or perhaps an archivist or a curator), has a graduate degree in history (or a related field) or works closely with historians.

3. Write a focused statement of purpose.

Your statement of purpose must answer three questions:

  • Why do you want a graduate degree in history?
  • Why are you qualified to study history at GW? Discuss previously completed coursework, theses, research projects and anything else that explains why you have the necessary background to do advanced work in history at GW. If you are planning on studying a non-English speaking area of the world, describe your language preparation.
  • What area of history do you want to study, and why is GW the right place for you to study it? Ph.D. applicants must discuss which faculty members they hope to work with, and who might become their dissertation director. You need not tell us what you want to write your dissertation about (in fact, we would probably frown upon that), but identify a field of study (such as 20th-century America, the modern Middle East or early modern Europe) and a particular interest within that field (such as Cold War diplomacy, the Arab-Israeli conflict or 18th-century French social history).
4. Include an impressive writing sample.

We prefer a history paper written during an applicant's undergraduate or master's studies, and research papers are especially helpful to the admissions committee. Between 10 and 20 pages is ideal, though longer is acceptable.

5. The GRE general test is NOT required.

Accepted Students

In addition to the Columbian College’s Doctoral Student Handbook, doctoral program applicants should follow these guidelines.

How to Prepare Once You Are Accepted
  • Read the Columbian College Doctoral Student Handbook for background on credits and timeline, course load, general and final examinations, dissertation requirements and much more.
  • Learn about the full-time faculty and read the recent publications of those whose interests overlap with your own. Use GW’s library resources to browse journals like The American Historical ReviewThe Journal of Asian StudiesThe International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies and The Journal of Modern History.
  • Read academic articles and book reviews to learn more about the areas of history the relevant full-time faculty are interested in as academic history scholarship can be quite different from other history writing.
  • Work on your research languages, especially if you plan to write a dissertation focusing on sources in languages in which you are not yet fluent. Read magazines and watch films in that language.

The advisor determines your course of study and signs off on comprehensive exams, advises on the dissertation and helps make other decisions throughout the degree program. The advisor will also write your main letter of recommendation when you apply for jobs. It is therefore important to develop a strong intellectual rapport with your advisor.

When you first begin the PhD program, you will work with the director of graduate studies until you are assigned an advisor. Spend some time learning about the full-time faculty and recent research that overlap with your interests. Graduate study is collaborative, and it is important to invest some time getting to know the faculty who will guide your work.

Choosing Courses

Give priority to 6000-level reading and research courses taught by faculty members likely to serve on your committee or as your advisor. You should also prioritize courses in areas related to your comprehensive exams.

You may enroll in consortium classes or courses in departments other than history as long as they are related to your program of study at GW.

Grading and Incompletes
  • Contrary to the Columbian College’s general PhD requirements, doctoral students in history must maintain a 3.5 GPA to remain in good standing. Students with more B and B+ grades than A and A- grades will likely not be advanced to candidacy and have to leave the program.
  • Most GW faculty consider an A or an A- the only satisfactory grades for a PhD student. Even a B+ should be taken as a warning that your professor does not think that the work you did for the course reflects the ability to complete a successful dissertation. Be sure to discuss any grades below A- with both the faculty member who gave you the grade and your advisor.
  • If you do not complete your work for a course by the end-of-semester deadlines, the instructor may allow you to submit it at a later date, within up to one year. In that case, you will receive an “Incomplete,” and an I will appear on your end-of-semester grade report. It is your responsibility to ensure that the professor submits your final, updated grade before that one-year deadline. If your remaining work is not completed, graded and reported to the registrar within one year, the I will automatically become an F. The I will remain on the transcript even after you complete the work for the class. If the completed work is deemed worthy of an A, for example, the final grade on your transcript will be IA rather than A, in order to show that you took more time to complete the work than did other students in the class.
Comprehensive Examinations
  • All PhD students should enroll in Advanced Reading and Research (HIST 8998) for six to nine credit hours at a minimum to prepare for the comprehensive examination (also called the general examination).
  • The comprehensive examinations consist of a single oral exam that lasts approximately two hours, with all three of your examiners present.
  • If you entered the program
    • without an MA, you must take the examination at the beginning of your sixth semester in the program.
    • with an MA, you must take the examination at the beginning of your fourth semester in the program.
  • Comprehensive exams are based on a bibliography of important historiography in a particular field, made out in consultation with a professor specializing in that field. There is no set number of books or articles to read; however, as a general guideline, students usually study approximately 50 works for the major field, and approximately 30 for each minor field.
  • Your fields typically consist of one major and two minor fields, although this can vary. You should determine your fields in consultation with your advisor.
  • Major field exams are typically broader and based on longer bibliographies than minor field exams. Comp fields are much broader than your dissertation research topic — “Modern Europe,” for example, rather than, “The History of German Anthropology.”
  • Your advisor should be in charge of your major field.
  • Comps are graded High Pass, Pass, Bare Pass, Fail.
  • Completing individual dissertation projects might require the study of additional languages beyond the requirements for candidacy.
    • Students in U.S. history do not have to pass a language examination.
    • Students in European history must pass one examination in their primary research language and one in a second foreign language. The primary research language might be English.
    • Students focusing on any other region must pass an examination in their primary research language.
    • Discuss your language study with your advisor. Your advisor will determine the level of proficiency at which you should be tested. Language tests might include an exam proctored by a GW language department or a particular GW faculty member.
Preparing a Dissertation Prospectus

In consultation with your advisor, you should choose a dissertation topic and write a prospectus (proposal) that includes:

  • A clear statement of the dissertation topic, explaining the scope of coverage
  • An explanation of why the subject is important to academic history
  • A description of the existing scholarship on the subject and why your contribution to it will be original and significant
  • A brief overview of the available primary sources that make the project feasible
  • A summary of any tentative conclusions or working hypotheses you have reached at this point in your research
  • A tentative chapter outline, with a few sentences describing the planned content of each chapter
  • A timeline that specifies the months and years for each stage of your research and writing, the deadline for submitting a draft to your advisor and the start of the three-month period between submitting your final draft to the committee and depositing the post-dissertation defense in the CCAS Office of the Dean.

The typical dissertation prospectus is 15–20 pages long, plus a bibliography. Ask your advisor for a more detailed explanation of what he or she expects.

Once your advisor has approved your prospectus, you should distribute it to your committee members at least two weeks before the defense. There they will question you to determine the feasibility of your project. If the committee approves your prospectus, you may advance to candidacy.

Requirements to Advance to Candidacy

Before starting to write their dissertation, PhD students must:

  • Complete at least 48 hours of coursework.
  • Pass a two-hour oral examination in three fields.
  • Complete language exams required for the area of specialty.
  • Pass a dissertation proposal defense.
  • Ask the director of graduate studies to file the appropriate paperwork to advance.
Final Examination

See the appropriate section in the Doctoral Student Handbook.

Dissertation Writing Guidelines
  • Send your advisor a progress report once a month and consult with your advisor regularly.
  • Keep in touch with additional readers too so they, too, can advise you. Some readers like to see early drafts of chapters; others prefer to read your work only after you have made edits based on the advice of your director. Ask your committee members what they each prefer.
  • Format all footnotes and bibliographies according to the latest Chicago Manual of Style edition. Use the style the manual calls “Documentation One” unless told otherwise by your advisor. Your director or department may have certain style requirements or preferences; you should follow that style consistently throughout your work. Learn style early on, not just before the defense, as some faculty will not approve a dissertation for defense unless it meets all the style requirements.
  • Work with your thesis advisor to set the minimum or maximum page numbers for your dissertation. The department does not set these numbers.
Dissertation Defense Timeline

You should budget at least four months between completing your dissertation and depositing it. Check well in advance to make sure your advisors and committee members will be available during your finishing months. Your advisor should read and comment on your dissertation before you distribute it to the entire committee.

You should distribute hard copies of your dissertation to all readers. Your dissertation should be formatted, proofread and footnoted perfectly before you distribute it to your committee. It should be a draft to your readers but a finished product to you. You will be judged on the dissertation you hand in, not what it might become by the time you deposit your final draft.

Month 1: Advisor Review
Submit your final draft to your dissertation advisor, who will read and suggest revisions before it is ready to go out to the committee. Faculty members need at least one month to read your dissertation carefully.

Month 2: Revisions
Complete revisions suggested by your advisor. You will likely need at least one month to do so.

Month 3: Committee Review
Distribute dissertation to the committee and two outside readers (a total of five or six), and schedule the defense.

Month 4: Defense
Defend your dissertation, make any required changes, format it according to specific university requirements and deposit it. The dissertation defense is an oral examination that normally lasts about 90 minutes. Your director presents you at the defense but does not participate in the questioning, which is done by the other committee members.

Once the examination part of the defense is completed, you leave the room while the examiners and your director evaluate your work. They may choose to accept the dissertation as is or recommend revisions, which could entail anything from fixing a few typos to a major overhaul.

Dissertation Submission

Follow the GW online submission guidelines.