Degree Programs



The dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences admits candidates to the Graduate School for advanced study in history only upon the recommendation of the History Department. The department considers applications only for the PhD degree. Strong preference will be given to applicants who are adequately prepared to meet the language requirements for the doctorate. The GRE General test is required. For a complete listing of the elements of a complete admissions application, consult the Prospective Students page.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Academic Residence — The minimum academic residence requirement of graduate study in history at Harvard is two years of full-time study. For information on financial residence see the Prospective Students page.

Advising – When applying, students often make quite explicit statements regarding their research interests and the faculty with whom they wish to work. Based on this information, students are assigned an advisor with whom they consult from the point of initial enrollment. The advisor must approve the student’s plans of study in the first four terms, and is often the chair of both the general examination and dissertation committees. Effecting a change of advisors typically involves conversations with both the new advisor and the original advisor. Once an agreement has been reached, the coordinator of graduate studies must be informed.

Plan of Study — A candidate upon entering the first year must, before filing his or her study card with the registrar, submit a formal Plan of Study, approved by his or her faculty advisor, to the director of graduate studies. This plan will state the candidate’s choice of courses and language examinations during the first two years.

During these years, the candidate must take at least nine half-courses, chosen in consultation with his or her faculty advisor. Of these half-courses, at least six must be in history, and of these six half courses, two must be research seminars in history with letter grades. A minimum grade of B is required in eight courses; a grade of satisfactory is required in “The Writing of History: Approaches and Practices” in the fall term of his or her first full year of residence.

It is expected that students will ordinarily complete coursework in the term of enrollment in the course. Incompletes are not permitted in any course, unless there is a certified medical excuse.

Languages — Candidates admitted to graduate study in history will be required to show a satisfactory reading knowledge, met by a performance judged proficient or satisfactory on the departmental language examination, of at least two foreign languages. All incoming first-year students must take at least one language examination in September of their first year of graduate study, and the second in January of that year. All examinations must be completed prior to taking the General Examination. The required languages, based on the candidate’s historical field of research, are listed below:

One European language (preferably French); Arabic or another African language

Ancient Greek; French; German; Latin

French or German; one other European language

Byzantine Greek; French; German; Latin

At least two European languages (modern and/or ancient), to be chosen in consultation with the graduate advisor

Two East Asian languages. Or, one East Asian language and one of the following: German, French, Russian.

Two major international languages (e.g., Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Russian) that are related to proposed dissertation research and approved by the advisor

Spanish and Portuguese; and a third language if the dissertation supervisor determines it is necessary

French, German, Latin

French; German; one Middle Eastern language

French or Russian; German

French or German; two approved languages pertinent to the area studied

Russian; French or German

Russian; Old Church Slavonic; French or German

Two South Asian languages. Or, one South Asian and one non-South Asian language (e.g., French, German, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic)

Two foreign languages at a Satisfactory level. Or, one at a Proficient level.

French; German

These examinations will be graded “proficient,” “satisfactory,” or “unsatisfactory,” and the grades will be part of the candidate’s record. Candidates who receive a grade of “unsatisfactory” on an examination will be required to take that examination again, ordinarily the next time it is offered. In case of another failure at that time, the candidate will be permitted to remain registered but will be expected to follow a program giving emphasis to further language preparation, ordinarily including a course offered by the appropriate language department. Failure to meet the requirement following this term of remedial study will oblige the candidate to study the language intensively during the fourth term. The candidate may be required to spend this term full-time in the study of the language not yet satisfactorily known.

No more than two half-courses in a foreign language will count for credit toward the degree.

Certification of competence in languages in which the Department of History does not offer examinations may be made by other departments or committees of the University.

Before approving a student’s dissertation topic, the chair, in consultation with the prospective dissertation director, must be satisfied that the candidate commands the necessary languages for the projected research.

General Examination — The purpose of the general examination is to expand and deepen students’ general historical knowledge, provide them with the tools to conduct research in history, and prepare them to teach. The examination is composed of four fields; the candidate is examined orally in each field for 30 minutes, so that the entire examination occupies two hours.

Guidelines for constructing fields:

1. Field definitions should be constructed with the guidance of the candidate’s advisor and individual examiners and must be approved by the director of graduate studies. Fields may be defined temporally within regions, nations or empires (e.g., Byzantine Empire, colonial Latin America, China since 1800) or thematically or comparatively (e.g., European intellectual history, comparative empires, comparative gender history, diasporic histories). Within each field, an encyclopedic knowledge of detail is not expected, but the candidate should demonstrate familiarity with the important problems and substantial mastery of the basic literature in each field.

2. Since the purpose of the general examination is to achieve breadth of knowledge, the selection of the four fields should be made with the aim of achieving range across time and space. Students are required to include an early and a modern field (with chronological coverage suitable to the particular regional frame). It is strongly recommended that all students present a field that includes a region of the world beyond their area of specialization.

3a. Students whose main pursuit is European history will ordinarily cover three of the following four periods in their choice of fields: ancient, medieval, early modern, modern. If one examination field is outside the history of both Europe and the United States, however, fields in two of these temporal periods will suffice.

3b. Students whose main pursuit is United States history will ordinarily cover fields in the US to 1815 and the US since 1815. If one additional examination field is outside the history of both Europe and the United States, these two fields will suffice for temporal diversity.

3c. It is strongly recommended that students in Asian, African, Latin American, or Middle Eastern history, in addition to the early and modern fields in their area of specialization, present at least one field outside these areas, or an international or comparative field.

3d. Students are permitted to present a field outside the history department comparable in scope to departmental fields.

3e. A candidate may not present more than two fields in a single national history.

Preparation for Examinations
Candidates prepare for General Examinations both by taking graduate seminars and by arranging for reading courses (History 3010) with the faculty members who will serve as examiners in the several fields. Faculty members may conduct History 3010 either as individual tutorials or as small-group discussions (when several students are simultaneously preparing similar fields for examination). The four fields are prepared with four different faculty members, one of whom is ordinarily the primary advisor.

Candidates may select a faculty member at the assistant professor level or above and must consult the graduate coordinator if proposing to select a faculty member outside the University.

The examination is taken late in the fourth term. Candidates may petition the director of graduate studies for extension to the fifth term. The last possible extension, to the sixth term, requires a petition to the director, subject to the approval of the department. Candidates make examination arrangements with the graduate coordinator.

A candidate’s advisor ordinarily chairs the examination committee. The candidate determines the order of fields to be examined. At the conclusion of the examination, the chair will ask the candidate to wait outside the room while the committee deliberates. The candidate will be informed directly after the examination whether he or she has passed, and the department will follow up with official notification. The grade is final. The overall grade may be requested from the graduate coordinator one month after the examination date.

Interpretation of the Final Grade
The passing final grades are Excellent, Good, or Fair, and a plus or minus can be attached to each grade. A candidate can be failed with no bar to reexamination, or failed without the possibility of reexamination. If one fails the General Examination with no bar to reexamination, he or she will be allowed to take the examination a second time in the fifth or sixth term. The mark of Excellent is rare and represents an exceptional performance. A mark of Good shows a solid grasp of the historiography and problems of each field, with no significant weaknesses, although varying (Good Plus to Good Minus) in articulateness. A mark of Fair indicates significant weaknesses in at least some fields, and some difficulty in articulating historiography and problems.

The grade does not become public record; it is held internally by the department, not by the Office of the Registrar. It is used when assessing departmental nominations for Harvard fellowships but will not be a part of the candidate’s dossier for applying for academic positions.

Master of Arts (AM) – The interim AM degree is ordinarily awarded, by formal application, to doctoral candidates after they have met the coursework, language, and residency requirements.

Dissertation — As soon as possible after passing the General Examination, and in no case later than two terms after passing it, doctoral candidates must identify a dissertation director, a dissertation committee, settle on a dissertation topic, and, with the director’s approval, present a proposal on the subject of their projected dissertation to their committee members. The committee is composed of the director, who should ordinarily be a permanent member of the department, and two others, one of whom may not be a permanent member.

After the fifth term, candidates are required to present their dissertation proposals in a conference of faculty and graduate students.

Beginning in their fourth year, all students will present an annual statement of progress to the members of their dissertation committee.

A prospective sixth-year or more advanced student must have a written statement from the supervisor of the dissertation indicating that there is satisfactory progress in research and writing.

An unbound copy of the completed dissertation must be distributed to each member of the dissertation committee no later than December 1 for the degree in March, April 1 for the degree in May, or September 1 for the degree in November. The final dissertation manuscript should conform to the requirements described in The Form of the PhD Dissertation.

Beginning in academic year 2009-2010 incoming students will be required to defend their dissertations. The defense committee will consist of the student’s dissertation committee plus one additional member drawn from the History Department, another Harvard department, or outside the University. Prior to the oral defense, each member of the defense committee will write a detailed report on the dissertation. The defense itself should last approximately two hours. It will be open to the intellectual community of faculty and graduate students as well as the friends and family of the student. Once the dissertation has been successfully defended, members of the committee will sign the dissertation acceptance certificate. The committee’s written reports will be appended to the certificate. The oral defense is optional for students who enter the program before the 2009-2010 academic year.

As of May 1994, an overall Graduate School of Arts and Sciences policy has been established that students will not be permitted to register beyond their tenth year in the Graduate School.

If eight years after passing the General Examination a candidate has not completed all the requirements for the degree, he or she may be dropped from candidacy. A candidate who has been dropped can be reinstated only by formal readmission to the Graduate School and to the Department of History.

More Information

Further information about graduate study in history may be obtained by writing to the Coordinator of Graduate Studies, Department of History, Harvard University, Robinson Hall, Cambridge, MA 02138; or by visiting

Applications for admission and grants, and information regarding admissions procedures, may be obtained by writing to the Admissions Office, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center 350, 1350 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138. We encourage online submission of the application. See

Members of the Department of History