The Catholic University of America has a strong tradition of graduate education in history, stretching back almost a century to the granting of the university’s first PhD in History. Today, an accomplished faculty, strong resources on campus and in the Washington, DC, area, and a low student-faculty ratio create an ideal environment for graduate study.

Program Overview

Requirements for the PhD include: 54 hours of course work (18 courses beyond the BA); demonstration of proficiency in foreign languages; successful completion of comprehensive exams; and completion of the dissertation. The structure of the program is laid out below.

University regulations specify that a maximum of 8 courses (24 credit hours) can be transferred from another institution toward the PhD at CUA. In order to transfer credits, students must meet with the Director of Graduate Studies, and provide syllabi for the courses they would like to transfer. Formal approval for the transfer of credits is granted by the Associate Dean in the School of Arts and Sciences.

The time for completing the degree can vary dramatically, but it is the normal expectation that a full-time student can complete course requirements for the PhD in three years.

PhD students must take History 601, and four research seminars (for one of which they can substitute History 603). Other courses are typically colloquia, internship classes, and directed readings/research. Medieval historians should take the History 609/610 sequence.

PhD Students without an MA:

All students entering the graduate program without an MA who wish to continue to the PhD must make a formal application to do so. By 15 April of their first year of study, students must submit to the Director of Graduate Studies an application consisting of an unofficial transcript, a short essay of about one page explaining their broad academic interests and a rough sense of a possible project, and the endorsement of a faculty member willing to supervise the PhD. Students should submit the transcript and essay to the Director of Graduate Studies via email or paper copy, and should arrange for the faculty member willing to supervise their work to contact the Director of Graduate Studies directly. The Department will look for evidence of success in coursework thus far, with the expectation that graduate students applying to continue should have at least an A- average in their History classes. The Department will also consider the quality, originality, and cogency of the proposed research interests, and the extent to which the proposed project can be successfully completed at CUA (with attention to the willingness of faculty to supervise the project). On the basis of these standards, the Director of Graduate Studies will prepare a set of recommendations to the faculty, to be voted on at the final Department meeting of the year. Students will be informed of the Department’s decision by the end of their first year, so they can plan for their exams appropriately.


Planning the PhD program is essential. One critical aspect of this planning is the colloquy. This is a formal meeting involving the student, the professor most centrally involved in the student’s preparation for the major examination field (and who will serve also as the student’s dissertation director), and additional faculty members who will be involved in the major and minor fields (usually a total of three or four faculty). It generally takes place in the second or third semester of a student’s residence in the PhD program, although this may vary widely depending on previous graduate work, the number of courses a student is taking, the time planned to complete the degree, and other factors. The student should discuss the timing of the colloquy with the faculty advisor upon entering the program.

The members of the colloquy discuss the student’s interests insofar as a dissertation topic is concerned, the major and minor fields for the comprehensive examination—as well as the faculty who will organize and write the questions—and set up a tentative timetable for the completion of the degree requirements. The chair of the committee draws up a formal report of the colloquy. The formal transfer of course credits from another institution requires specific departmental and School approval (as described above), and this should take place prior to the colloquy.

Language Requirement

As a requirement for the degree, students must submit evidence of foreign language proficiency (a computer language is not an acceptable alternative). For PhD students in US and Early Modern/Modern European history, proficiency in two foreign languages is required; in Medieval European History the requirement is three languages, one of which must be Latin (through Latin 561, as explained above). This can be accomplished in the same manner as outlined above for the language requirements for the M.A. degree.

The Language requirement must be completed before the comprehensive examinations can be taken (or during that semester).

Comprehensive Examinations

The program of studies for the PhD is tailored to each individual student’s interests and background. The student is being prepared to complete the comprehensive examinations in one major and two minor fields, as well as to develop the foundation for the dissertation. For this reason, the complete schedule of courses to be taken must be worked out carefully as far in advance as possible.

It is important for each student to understand that the degree program is not just an accumulation of credits, but rather preparation for the two specific tasks outlined above. Faculty will not permit students to take the comprehensive examinations until they are convinced that the student is prepared both for the examinations, and to complete the independent research involved in a dissertation. More than the minimum number of credits may be required to reach those objectives.

Comprehensive exams are taken in a major field and two minor fields, each defined by the individual student in consultation with advising faculty. Establishing the shape of these fields is a major goal of the colloquy.

The major field is defined by the student’s specific interests and possible dissertation topic. It is usually defined both chronologically and topically (High Medieval Social History, 1100–1350; Twentieth Century U.S. Political; Early Modern European social and economic; Modern German political; intellectual; etc.).  In the Medieval Section, the major field is examined by two professors.

The selection of minor fields (second and third fields) is more widely construed. The student is free, with departmental approval (granted by the adviser and Director of Graduate Studies), to pursue fields with faculty available in other departments of the University and within the Washington Consortium. One of these fields, as well, may be entirely outside of the discipline of history if the preparation it offers is judged to be important to the area of intended dissertation research.

The purpose of this requirement is to give the student some breadth and comparative perspective, both for intellectual as well as for practical reasons (preparation for a teaching position after graduation, ability to take a job in a Humanities organization, such as the NEH, etc.).

The three comprehensive examinations defined by the Colloquy (see above) must be taken on consecutive days (the date is set by the Department a semester in advance). For each field, students will complete a four-hour written examination. The major field examination is taken on the first day; the minor fields on the subsequent days in whatever order the student selects.

There is also an oral examination for the PhD. Within two weeks of the completion of the written comprehensives, there follows a one-hour oral examination on the material covered for the major field. The examiners will consist of the major professor, as chair, and two other readers of the written exams (for medievalists or others with four examiners, the two professors who supervised the major field will serve on the oral exam committee; the third member can be the professor from either minor field, at the chair of the committee’s discretion). The examiners must submit a grade of pass for the completion of the requirement. As with the written exams, a student failing the oral examination will be permitted to re-take it a single time.

The student is not judged to have completed the requirement for the comprehensive examinations until the student has satisfactorily passed both the written and oral examinations. Success or failure is reported to the School of Arts and Sciences.

PhD comps will be assessed for the student’s content knowledge and use of evidence, command of the historiography, argumentative and analytical skills, and for the writing and organization of the exam. Full grading rubrics can be found in the appendices. Comps can be marked as satisfactory (pass), unsatisfactory (fail), or as pass with distinction, an honor awarded only to truly exceptional exams. The entire exam is read by all examiners. If a student is judged to have failed the examination in one or more fields, he/she has the right to re-take the examination (with the same readers but with different questions) once, and this would ordinarily be in the following semester. Students are re-examined only in the field(s) failed at the first examination.

Students are not allowed to sit for comprehensive examinations until all other degree requirements are met (or are in process), including the language requirement and the research papers (which must be submitted to the Director of Graduate Studies prior to sitting for exams). In order to sit for PhD comps, students must register for History 998A (Doctoral Comprehensive Examination with classes) or History 998B (Doctoral Comprehensive Examination without classes), as appropriate.

Students who entered the PhD program without an MA will be awarded one upon successful completion of their comprehensive exams.


The next stage for PhD students after successful completion of the comprehensive examinations is to advance to candidacy for the PhD. Advancement to candidacy is not automatic. The Department will review each student’s transcript, seminar papers turned in for research credit, and performance on the comprehensive examinations. It is expected that the candidate will also have been accepted for supervision by a PhD advisor. On the basis of these criteria, the Department will vote on allowing students to proceed to candidacy. Candidacy for the doctoral degree begins formally on the first day of the semester following successful completion of the comprehensive exam and subsequent Department approval. The student has five years from this date of formal admission to candidacy to complete, defend, and deposit the dissertation.

The application form for admission to candidacy can be found here:

The Dissertation Proposal

The PhD dissertation topic must be submitted and approved within two calendar years after the date of admission to candidacy. However, the Department prefers students to present proposals the semester after they complete comprehensive exams. The development of the topic is the responsibility of the candidate working together with the professor who will direct the dissertation, and at least two additional faculty members who will serve as dissertation readers. When the student has defined the project to the satisfaction of the committee, he/she formally prepares a proposal which in no more than two single-spaced pages describes the issues the dissertation will address, the contribution to the literature it will make, and the sources and methodology to be employed. The proposal also includes a brief bibliography of the relevant background literature on the subject (a link to the guidelines is included below). Once the committee has approved this proposal, the student presents it at a colloquium attended by all members of the Department, faculty and graduate students. The proposal will be pre-circulated. At the colloquium, the student will orally introduce the project (speaking for about ten minutes) and take questions. On the basis of this discussion, the student will revise the proposal for submission to the Department. This revised proposal, together with the names of the faculty members who will constitute the dissertation committee, is then considered for approval by the entire voting faculty of the Department. When that approval is given, the proposal is forwarded to the School of Arts and Sciences.

Students should note that once a proposal has been approved, the School of Arts and Sciences requires that the committee and the topic (even the title) of the final dissertation conform exactly to that of the originally approved proposal, or else a formal application for change must be made to the School. Any changes, therefore, have to be brought to the attention of the School administration, via forms for that purpose, prior to the submission of the final draft of the dissertation.

All necessary forms related to preparing the dissertation may be found here:

Time Limits and Continuous Registration

The candidate has a total of five years from the time of entering candidacy to complete all of the requirements for the degree. If the final oral defense of the dissertation is not completed within the five years, the student must petition the Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences in writing for an extension. Unless there has been a leave of absence granted during the five year period, the extension can be granted for no more than one year. Be aware that these time limits are taken seriously and that a student who does not conform to them may be dismissed from the program.

It is equally important that the student be continuously registered during the five-year period. The ordinary expectation is that the student will enroll for a one-credit course (History 996: Doctoral Dissertation Guidance) each semester during dissertation writing. The only exception arises in situations stemming from serious reasons approved by the school (e.g. serious health problems, required military service, major family difficulties) which result in involuntary interruption of graduate studies. In such cases the student is permitted to take a leave of absence, which costs no tuition but presupposes that the student will not have academic guidance from his/her dissertation committee (and a leave of absence also means that a student loses access to library and computer facilities during the leave). In order to do so, a student must apply to the Associate Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, using a form that can be accessed from this link: Students are cautioned that the reasons for the leave are reviewed quite carefully and approval is given for only a single semester at a time.

Students should note that if continuous enrollment is broken, the student is automatically dropped from candidacy by the university. The result is that the student must re-apply to the PhD program.

There is another serious implication of these rules for the dissertation student: the financial implication. Students must expect that they will be required to register for the equivalent of a one-credit course for each semester during which they are working on completing the dissertation. Moreover, university regulations require that the student must be registered for full dissertation guidance during the semester when the dissertation proposal is submitted, and during the semester when the dissertation is submitted for committee approval; not even the extenuating circumstances set out above can alter this. Moreover, students must also be aware that under current rules the University does not regard a leave of absence as constituting full-time student status, and therefore will not certify such for the purposes of postponing repayment of student loans. It is vital that all graduate students plan ahead financially for these circumstances. The Department tries to support students during the final stages of writing; to that end, each year, dissertating students are invited to apply for a scholarship to cover their one-credit per semester of tuition. The number of scholarships available does vary, but is usually sufficient to provide for all students who are not otherwise receiving tuition from the University.

Writing the Dissertation

The process of writing a sustained piece of historical research (typically of 250 pages or more) is at the heart of a doctoral program in History. Doing so effectively requires designing a feasible and appropriate project (hence the long process of approval detailed above), sustained independent research by the student, and an engaged relationship between student and committee. It is the responsibility of the student to stay in contact with faculty, to devote significant time and attention to their research and writing, and to meet agreed deadlines. It is the responsibility of the adviser and committee members to read submitted work promptly and carefully, to offer their honest assessments of the work, and to be available, within reason, for consultation with students even when on leave. The dissertation involves a contract between students and faculty that requires all to do their part.

Completion of the Dissertation

The University has complex regulations regarding the style of the completed dissertation and the details of the final oral defense.  The University regularly updates the handbook for dissertation writers. Students are responsible for knowing and following all the regulations set out in the handbook, which can be found here:

After the dissertation has been completed to the satisfaction of the dissertation committee and the committee has certified in writing their approval, the final stage in the requirements for the PhD is an oral defense of the dissertation, which is normally a two-hour examination conducted by the dissertation committee plus a defense Chair and Secretary chosen from outside the Department and assigned by the School of Arts and Sciences. A student must pass the defense of the dissertation, which is regarded as a separate act from the completion of the dissertation itself, in order to proceed to the degree.

Dissertation defenses are regulated by School and University rules, summarized here: It must be noted that a defense is a discussion and review of a completed project. The defense is not the chance for the student to discuss a draft with his/her committee, with the expectation of revising it afterward. The revision done after the defense is purely on the level of small errors and typos, akin to final proofs of a book. Therefore, students should not ask faculty to sign off on a dissertation until it is fully complete (title page to bibliography), and faculty should not do so until they can verify that all necessary revisions have been made and the work is in fact finished. Defenses can only be scheduled during the fall and spring terms, and only during the period in which classes are taught. Defenses must be scheduled at least three weeks in advance. Students should thus note that in order to defend, their dissertations must be fully complete at least a month before the end of classes. The possible defense dates for each academic year are announced by the Dean of Arts and Sciences in the summer before the year begins.

The University’s guidelines for submitting the dissertation can be found here:

The requisite copyright and open access forms can be found here: