The First Two Years


During the first two years of graduate study in history at Harvard, candidates must take at least eight letter-graded four-credit courses, chosen in consultation with the faculty advisor, and History 3900 Writing History: Approaches and Practices, which is graded satisfactory/unsatisfactory. Six of the eight letter-graded courses must be in history, and of these six two must be research seminars in history. A minimum grade of B is required in each course. Students are required to take History 3920: Colloquium on Teaching Practices, which is also graded satisfactory/unsatisfactory. Students take this course in their first year as Teaching Fellows, which is ordinarily their third year of study. For more information, see History 3920hf: Colloquium on Teaching below.


Candidates admitted to graduate study in history will be required to show a satisfactory reading knowledge of at least two foreign languages. Students who focus on U.S. History may demonstrate reading knowledge in just one language, as long as they can do so at the “proficient” level. They must take at least one departmental language examination just prior to the start of the fall semester in first year of study, and just prior to the start of the second semester that year if more language requirements must be fulfilled. All language requirements must be fulfilled prior to the General Examination. (Refer to “Higher Degrees in History” for a listing of language requirements, and further regulations regarding the timing of the language examinations.)

Policy on Incompletes

It is expected that students will ordinarily complete coursework in the term of enrollment in the course. For the GSAS rules regarding Incompletes, see Grade and Examination Requirements in this handbook.


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 a primary advisor with whom they consult from the point of initial enrollment. The primary 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 graduate program coordinator must be informed. The advisor must ordinarily be a permanent member of the department.

Master of Arts (AM)

The Department of History admits candidates for the PhD only. The AM is ordinarily awarded to candidates for the PhD after they have met the coursework requirements outlined above, completed two years of academic residence, and have satisfied the language requirements specified for their field of study.

General Examinations

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 thirty 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 four 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 they have 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 a student fails the General Examination with no bar to reexamination, then they 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 Registrar. It is used when assessing departmental nominations for Harvard fellowships, but will not be a part of the candidate’s dossier for applying to academic positions.

History 3920hf: Colloquium on Teaching

Usually taken in the third year, the Teaching Colloquium is a required course for the PhD degree. The course meets several times in both the fall and spring terms, and is led by a senior faculty member and a teaching fellow. The course is an introduction to teaching both at Harvard and beyond, and helps students gain familiarity with a range of techniques and styles of teaching.


As soon as possible after passing the general examination and no later than two terms after passing it, all PhD candidates must identify a dissertation director and dissertation committee, settle on a topic and, with the dissertation 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 expected to present their dissertation proposals in a conference of faculty and graduate students. Beginning in their fourth year, all students will present an annual progress report 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 satisfactory progress is being made in research and writing. An unbound copy of the completed dissertation must be distributed to each member of the dissertation committee. There is no formal deadline students must meet, but the department recommends that students send a final or near-final copy of the dissertation to their committee members approximately four weeks before their defense. The final dissertation manuscript should conform to the requirements described online in the GSAS policy pages on dissertations

Students are required to defend their dissertations. The defense committee consists of the student’s dissertation committee plus one additional member drawn from the history department, another Harvard department, or outside the University. The defense itself should last approximately two hours. It is 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 sign the dissertation acceptance certificate. The oral defense is optional for students who entered the program before the 2009–2010 academic year.


Dan Bertwell
Graduate Program Coordinator