Ph.D. FAQs

What should I do before I show up for my first semester at GW?

  • Learn about the full-time faculty and read the recent publications of those whose interests overlap with your own. Graduate study is more collaborative than undergraduate study, and it is important to know your collaborators as well as they know you.
  • Get to know cutting edge historical research by reading academic journals. Academic history writing may be different from the kind of history you are used to reading. Every journal has research articles and shorter book reviews; both are good ways to learn about the discipline.
  • You can access most major journals electronically with your GWid. These include the The American Historical Review, the discipline's flagship publication, as well as more specialized periodicals such as The Journal of Asian Studies, The International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, The Journal of American History, and The Journal of Modern History (for Europeanists).
  • Sign up for a GW email account and NetID using this online application. Remember that this will be your professional email for years, so chose something based on your initials or your first initial and last name.
  • Subscribe to the History Grad Listserv by emailing your new GW address to Evelyn Burns, Executive Aide of the History Department.
  • 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, watch films, etc.
  • Register for your courses:
    • Go to My GW
    • Click on the "gweb info system" tab on the left.
    • Enter your User ID (your GWid number at first) and your PIN (for first-time users, your PIN will be your birth date in either MMDDYY or MMYY99 format, where M=Month, D=Day, and Y=Year (Example: for March 5, 1983, try 030583 and 038399).
    • Once you are logged in to the GWeb system, follow the prompts to register.

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What important information should I familiarize myself with?

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Which Courses Should I Enroll in and Why?

To get a Ph.D. in history you have to complete at least 72 hours of course credit. Of this total, at least 48 must be suitable courses and at least 12 must be HIST 8999 (Dissertation Research).


Which Courses Should I Enroll in During My First Years in the Program?

  • If it is your first semester at GW, you should enroll in HIST 6005.
  • If you are a GTA, you may take HIST 6006 (Teaching History) up to two times. This gives you course credit for your teaching experience and pedagogical discussion.
  • You must take one research seminar in your first year and one in your second year. A research seminar is history graduate course for which you write a research paper. If it is not clear from the course title, ask the instructor whether it is a research seminar.
  • Students concentrating in Imperial and Colonial Studies should take the required HIST 6128 and 6050 the first semester they are offered, since they are taught only in alternate years.
  • Discuss the courses you plan to take each semester with your advisor.
  • 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.
  • Pending approval of the instructor, you may earn graduate credit for undergraduate courses at the 3000-level by completing additional work. Typically, this entails extra reading and more sophisticated paper assignments.
  • Language classes below the 6000-level will not count toward the required number of credit hours for the doctorate. Language courses at the 3000-level can count toward the number of hours required for graduation only if approved by the Dean. This approval is usually not a problem so long as you provide a reasonable explanation of the course's relevance to your program of study.
  • You may enroll in courses in departments other than history as long as they are related to your program of study at GW.
  • You may enroll in four courses (12 credit hours) at a consortium of ten universities in the DC area. Click here to register for these courses. The following stipulations apply:
    • Any hours of transfer credit for graduate courses taken elsewhere before arriving at GW will be deducted for the number of consortium course hours you are permitted to take.
    • You may not enroll in a consortium course if it duplicates a GW course offered in the same semester.
    • You should enroll in HIST 8998 for 6 to 9 credit hours at a minimum to prepare for your comprehensive examination.

How many courses should I enroll in?

  • If you are a full-time student you should take three courses (nine credit hours) each semester until you have completed at least 48 credit hours. This adds up to about three years of full-time coursework.
  • If you work more than 20 hours a week you may not take more than two courses (six credit hours) each semester.
  • Students registered for fewer than six hours in a given semester, however, are considered “less than half time” and may encounter problems with student loans and, if a citizen of another country, their student visas. 
  • If you are taking a light course load because you are almost done with coursework or because you are researching or writing a thesis, you can apply to be certified as half or full time even though your registration falls short of that definition.  International students get the certification form at the International Services Office; others get it from the Registrar’s Office.

What do I enroll in when I'm done with my 48-60 hours of coursework?

  • Enroll for 9 credits of HIST 8999 (Dissertation Research) each semester until you have completed both 72 hours of credits total and 12 hours of HIST 8999.
  • If you have completed 72 credit hours and the required 12 hours of HIST 8999 you should enroll in one hour of CCAS 0940 (Continuing Research) each semester until you have completed the program.

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Can I get credit for graduate work I've already done in another GW program or at a different university?

Yes, under certain conditions outlined in the University Bulletin. Keep in mind some of the most important points:

  • Transfer credits must be for graduate courses you took at an accredited institution within the two years prior to enrolling at GW.
  • You must have earned a B or better in the course.
  • The credits must not have been applied toward the completion of requirements for another degree. One exception to this rule is that students entering the Ph.D. program with an M.A. in history or a related field may transfer up to 30 credits.
  • You will probably be allowed to transfer all credits for graduate courses taken at GW, other than thesis research.
  • The Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) must confirm that the courses to be transferred were directly related to the student's current program of studies in history.
  • To transfer credit you should bring an official transcript to the DGS, who will help you petition the college.

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Who is my advisor? What does my advisor do?

  • Your advisor should be a full-time faculty member whose research interests are close to your own.
  • Your advisor determines your course of study and must approve of your plans for comp exams, language/tool exams, and other decisions in your course of study.
  • It is possible to have two co-advisors.
  • Your advisor becomes your dissertation director when you begin writing your dissertation.
  • You must ask a faculty member to be your advisor. It is best to take a course with a professor whom you would like to be your advisor before asking.
  • You should have a very good intellectual rapport with your advisor. Your advisor will write the main letter of recommendation for you when you apply for academic jobs.
  • When you first arrive at GW you will not have an advisor. Until you do, you should consider the Director of Graduate Studies your advisor.

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What is my committee? What does it do?

  • You dissertation director, or co-directors will help you choose two additional faculty members to make up your dissertation committee.
  • Like your advisor, your committee members should have research interests close to your own.
  • Normally, both committee members are in the GW history department, although one may be a member of another department who has appropriate expertise.
  • In most cases, committee members will read your dissertation proposal and chapters only after your advisor has read them.
  • The committee will be the one to run your dissertation proposal defense.
  • Along with two outside readers, this committee will also run your dissertation defense.
  • You are also welcome, of course, to discuss your research with any member of the department outside your committee.

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What do grades mean in a Ph.D. program?

  • Most GW faculty consider an “A” or an “A-“ the only satisfactory grades for a Ph.D. 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 do a successful Ph.D. dissertation.
  • Be sure to discuss any grades below “A-“ with both the faculty member who gave you the grade and your advisor. 
  • Doctoral students must maintain a 3.5 GPA to remain in good standing.  Student with more “B” and “B+” grades than “A” and “A-“ grades will likely not be advanced to candidacy and have to leave the program.

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What is an incomplete and what are its perils?

  • 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.
  • If you take an incomplete, it is your responsibility to ensure that the professor submits your final, updated grade before that deadline. Remember that faculty often have many commitments at the end of a semester, and they will not be willing to drop everything they are doing to meet your deadline for work that was due a year earlier.
  • If your remaining work is not completed, graded, and reported to the registrar within one year, the "I" will automatically become an "F." No amount of petitioning will alter this.
  • 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.
  • Incompletes can ruin your vacations and interfere with the next semester's coursework.
  • In the past the Dean has rejected fellowship nominations or withheld fellowship renewals for students with two or more incompletes.

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What do I have to do before I can begin writing my dissertation?

You have to advance to candidacy, which requires you to:

  • Complete at least 48 hours of coursework.
  • Pass a two-hour oral examination in three fields. (Students who entered the program before Fall 2008 may instead pass three written comprehensive examinations.)
  • Complete language exams required for your area of specialty.
  • Pass a dissertation proposal defense.
  • Ask the director of graduate studies to file the appropriate paperwork.

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What language exams are required to advance to candidacy?

  • You should discuss your language study with your advisor. Completing individual dissertation projects might require the study of additional languages beyond the requirements for candidacy.
  • 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 in US history do not have to pass a language examination.
  • Students focusing on any other region must pass an examination in their primary research language.
  • 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.

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What do I need to know about comprehensive exams (comps)?

  • You must pass a single two-hour oral examination in three fields with the three faculty members with whom you prepared those fields.
    • If you entered the program without an M.A., you must take this examination at the beginning of your sixth semester in the program.
    • If you entered the program with an M.A., you must take this examination at the beginning of your fourth semester in the program.
  • Comp exams are based on a bibliography of important historiography in a particular field, made out in consultation with a professor specializing in that field.
  • You should determine your fields in consultation with your advisor.
  • Your fields typically consist of  one major and two minor fields, although this can vary.
  • 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.
  • You should sign up for HIST 8097 to prepare for your comprehensive examinations.
  • Comps are graded High Pass, Pass, Bare Pass, Fail.
  • Students who entered the Ph.D. program before Fall 2008 may choose to follow the old procedures, in which students took separate closed book essay exams in each of the three fields, typically spread out over their second and third years in the program.

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What is a dissertation prospectus? How do I write and defend mine?

In consultation with your advisor, you should choose a dissertation topic and write a prospectus that includes the following components:

  • 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 Dean's Office.

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. Let the DGS know that you are ready to advance and get started on your dissertation.

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What do I do while I'm writing and researching my dissertation?

  • Send your advisor a progress report once a month and consult with your advisor regularly.
  • You should keep in touch with your 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. 
  • All footnotes and bibliographies must be formatted according to the Chicago Manual of Style (15th edition).  Use the style the Manual calls "Documentation One" unless told otherwise by your advisor.  Learn these early on, not just before the defense, as some faculty will not approve a dissertation for defense unless it meets all the style requirements. 
  • The department does not set minimum or maximum page numbers for dissertations.  These are set by the thesis advisor in consultation with the student.     

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How and when do I finish my Ph.D.?

You should budget at least four months between completing your dissertation and depositing it. Keep in mind the following considerations:

  • Faculty members need at least one month to read your dissertation carefully.
  • You will likely need at least one month to make revisions based on their suggestions.
  • 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.
  • Check well in advance to make sure your advisors and committee members will be available during your finishing months.

Month 1

  • Submit your final draft to your dissertation advisor, who will read and suggest revisions before it is ready to go out to the committee.

Month 2 (or more)

  • Complete revisions suggested by your advisor.

Month 3

  • Distribute dissertation to committee + two outside readers (a total of five or six) and schedule the defense.

Month 4

  • 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.

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Help! I'm panicking!

Graduate school, like all academic work, is challenging, rewarding, and stressful, in equal portions. How do you think some professors end up so neurotic?

  • You can ask any professor, whether or not he or she is your advisor, for advice on academic and career matters.
  • If you are having a problem with your advisor, talk to the Director of Graduate Studies, who will help you and promise confidentiality.
  • If you are having a problem with the DGS, talk to the department chair, who will be equally discrete.
  • If you are overwhelmed by personal matters, take advantage of the free counseling available at GW.

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