Degree Requirements

The principal formal requirements for the PhD in history are as follows:

  • Completion of 18 courses during the first two years of study, including two quarters of work each year in an intensive research seminar
  • Passing of examinations in three areas (a general field, a specialization within that field, and a minor field) during the second and third year of study
  • Demonstration of proficiency in the primary research language
  • Submission of a dissertation prospectus or proposal by the end of the third year of study
  • Demonstration of proficiency in additional languages as necessary
  • Completion of History 560 (Teaching History) by the end of the fifth year
  • Presentation of an approved dissertation.

Satisfying the first three requirements leads to admission to candidacy for the PhD; approval of the dissertation prospectus is the next major milestone; and approval of the dissertation by the responsible faculty committee results in the award of the degree.

Within the framework of these general requirements, students develop individual programs of study and research with designated advisors and advisory committees, subject to the approval of the department's graduate program committee. These faculty advisors help students define fields, select an appropriate combination of specific courses, design and schedule suitable language study and examinations, and develop dissertation projects.

Fields, Courses, and Examinations

The general field is, in most cases, one of the six areas of research training in the Department of History: African history, American history, medieval and early modern European history, early modern and modern European history, East Asian history and Latin American history. However, in keeping with the department's tradition of promoting global and comparative work, individually designed programs are arranged with appropriate faculty advisory committees when a student's anticipated doctoral research requires focused study in more than one general field.

Students take four to six courses in their general field, including at least two appropriate general field seminars that must be taken for a grade, not P/N. The written examination that follows is evaluated by at least three members of the faculty. During the weeks preceding this exam, students have an opportunity to consult with their advisory committee concerning the format and the questions it will contain.

The specialization is the specific area of study within the general field in which the student expects to write a dissertation. The specialization is defined by agreement between the student and the appropriate advisory committee led by a major advisor. Examples of specializations include colonial North America, preindustrial southern Africa, medieval religious and intellectual history, the Italian Renaissance, eastern and central European history, modern France, the history of the American South, U.S. empire, North American frontiers and borderlands, and slavery in west-central Africa.

Students take four to six graded courses in their specialization field, followed by an oral examination evaluated by at least two members of the faculty. The course work includes at least two quarters of research as well as such work in other departments and programs as is deemed appropriate.

The total number of courses taken in the general field and the specialization must add up to 10.

The minor field is an area of study in which the student wishes to acquire teaching competence or which he or she selects out of methodological or topical interest. The definition and courses of study in the field are established by the student during the first year, in consultation with his or her advisor and other relevant faculty members. The field must be concerned with a geographical and/or thematic area completely different from the student's general field, unless it is a comparative field. Examples of minor fields include early modern Europe, the early modern Islamic world, modern China, comparative empires, twentieth-century international relations, the history of race in Africa, Jewish studies, the history of medicine, global Christianity, comparative slavery, the history of science and technology, environmental history, and gender history.

Students take three courses in the minor field. At least two of the minor field courses are graded. The minor field sequence is completed by an oral examination, unless the committee deems a written exercise more useful. Ideally, the courses entail working with more than one faculty member; minor field exams are always administered and evaluated by two or more professors.

In addition to the 13 to 14 courses that relate to the three field examinations, all graduate students take two courses in methodology and theory. Most students satisfy two of the remaining units of required course credit through teaching assistantships during two quarters of the second year; students not scheduled to teach take more free electives.

A minimum of three individuals must serve on the dissertation committee. At least two members of the committee, including the chair, must be members of the Northwestern University Graduate Faculty. At least one member of the committee must have a primary appointment in the History Department.

Foreign Languages

All graduate students are expected to demonstrate proficiency on a departmental examination in the foreign languages necessary to their research. For specialists in American history, this may mean none. For those concentrating on African history, it generally means at least one indigenous and one European tongue (including English, in the case of non-native speakers). For students of continental European history, it usually means at least two languages, but for students of British history, normally only one.

Students are expected to demonstrate competency in their primary research language during their first year. Students are best served if they demonstrate proficiency in all necessary languages by the end of the third year. Allowances may be made, however, for cases in which the acquisition of additional languages is particularly difficult.

All first-year students create a language exam agreement that states which languages the student needs in order to complete the Ph.D. program, how the student will demonstrate proficiency, and when the student plans to take all necessary language exams. The agreement must be signed by the student and her adviser and submitted to the graduate assistant by the end of fall quarter of the student's first year in the program. Subsequent revisions of the agreement must be approved by the adviser and submitted to the graduate assistant.

Grading and Year-End Review

Students take most of their graduate courses (generally one-half to two-thirds of the 18 required) on a graded basis. All courses taken in the first year must be graded. Other courses may be taken as 490 tutorials on a Pass/No Credit basis. At the end of each academic year, the faculty meets to review the performance of those first-year students whose work has not reached the standards expected of graduate study. The determination of whether to review will be based on course grades (including the 570 paper) and the ability to complete work in a timely manner. Although the review can result in a recommendation to discontinue, in most cases the faculty will address ways to help students improve their graduate work.

All students are reviewed by the faculty at the end of their second year, in order to assess whether they should continue in the program and to share information useful to faculty's further guidance of students. A faculty committee will conduct an initial review of students and prepare a report for the full faculty's consideration. The students' full two years of work will be considered. Decisions will be based on the totality and trajectory of a student's record. Continuation is not guaranteed, but review begins with the assumption that students warrant continuation unless a case to the contrary has emerged. Of paramount concern is whether the student is likely to become a good research scholar and to proceed successfully to and through the dissertation phase of the PhD. Specific criteria for review are:

  1. Acceptable progress through the end of the second year in meeting requirements of the student's field, as measured in part by acceptable grades in course work (graded and otherwise) and successful completion of relevant exams. Students with a record of chronic and belatedly fulfilled incomplete grades will elicit special concern.
  2. Demonstrated research and writing abilities as seen in the 570, 580, and other written work. All students, but especially those who struggled in their 570 work, will be expected to complete the 580 in a timely and successful manner.
  3. Evidence of developing teaching competence (or for the occasional student not funded through teaching in the second year, the promise of such competence).

All students in the third year and beyond submit an annual report on their progress. The reports are due during spring quarter each year.

Teaching History

In addition to the above requirements, students must complete History 560: Teaching History by the end of the fifth year. This requirement applies to the incoming class of fall 2015 and all subsequent classes. The department considers it advisable for students to take the class in the third year, but students have the option of taking it in either the second, third, fourth, or fifth year. History 560 does not carry credit and does not count as one of the 18 courses required to graduate; it is an add-on, or 19th, class. It is graded satisfactory/unsatisfactory. Passing History 560 is not a requirement for advancing to candidacy, but it is a requirement to graduate.

History 560 is offered by the department once a year, in either the fall, winter, or spring quarter. The course serves as a primer to pedagogy for graduate students in History. Students will reflect on what goes into preparing a good syllabus, an effective lecture, and a meaningful classroom discussion.

Satisfactory Progress toward the Doctoral Degree

Students in the program must adhere to The Graduate School's criteria for satisfactory academic progress, and they must also meet the Department's internal requirements.

The three substantive exams (minor field, general field, and specialization) may be taken in any order. All students must pass the three exams and defend the dissertation prospectus by the end of spring quarter of the third year. Expectations for demonstrating language competency are given above.

The deadline for completing exams and the prospectus is extended for students who must master a language such as Arabic, an East Asian language, or another less commonly taught language. With permission of the Director of Graduate Studies, students may take that language as one of the three courses required per quarter during their graduate training. Because they must still take the required 18 courses as outlined above, their coursework may take longer than that of other students.

Students may appeal formal decisions made by a member of the faculty that relates to their progress through the graduate program (short of exclusion from the program). This includes decisions made by any individual faculty member or by any departmental committee or by the department as a whole. To appeal a decision, students should submit a request in writing to the Director of Graduate Studies within thirty days of the date on which the student was informed of the decision. In cases where the DGS was involved in the original decision, the student will have the option of appealing to the Department Chair rather than the DGS. If the decision is upheld by the DGS or Chair, then the student can appeal to the Graduate Affairs Committee by making an appeal in writing to the members of the committee within thirty days of having been informed of the decision of the DGS or Chair. All decisions of the Graduate Affairs Committee are final. In case of any conflict of interest, the Department Chair will be authorized to substitute a faculty member who was not involved in the original decision. Cases of exclusion from the program are handled separately—in those instances, students who wish to appeal the decision should follow the procedures established by The Graduate School for such cases.