Department of History

Information for Prospective Students

Learn about admission to the Ph.D. program in History at Brown University.

Applicants to the History PhD Program are advised to read the information here carefully. The PhD Program Overview highlights what is distinctive about the Department’s approach to graduate instruction. Organization of the Program provides a summary of the different stages and important milestones of the PhD program. Financial Support directs applicants to sites that explain the guaranteed funding of graduate study as well as the opportunities to apply for grants and fellowships that support research and travel. Admissions describes the application process.

Ph.D. Program Overview

The PhD program in History trains students in the skills of conducting original historical research and crafting original historical arguments. In the course of their work as historians, Brown scholars draw on a wide range of methods and engage with a variety of audiences. While training emphasizes the core skills of academic research, writing, and teaching at the college and university level, the program’s goals do not end there. Many Brown PhD students explore teaching and writing for different settings and prepare for a breadth of careers that value the skills that obtaining a PhD in history entails. 

Students are expected to complete Brown’s PhD program in five to six years. As a mid-sized program, the Department values and cultivates attentive and hands-on faculty who work closely with students throughout their progress towards a degree. Critically, students in an entering cohort proceed through the program together, so that discussions across fields, geographies, and chronologies are built into the PhD program.

Students accepted into the History PhD program who remain in good standing are guaranteed funding for six years. PhD students not supported by external fellowships work typically as teaching assistants in the second, third, and fifth (and, if relevant, a portion of the sixth) years of their program. There are also opportunities to apply for conference, research, and study grants either through the History Department or the Graduate School.

The information presented here is a summary of the PhD program. For a more detailed description, see the Department of History Graduate Handbook. Prospective students should also read carefully the information supplied on the website of Brown’s Graduate School

Organization of the Program

The program is divided into two stages:

Stage 1: Coursework and preparation for the Preliminary Exams (Years 1-3) 

During the first and second years, students take seminars that introduce the major historiographical questions and methodologies of various subfields and develop their research skills. They identify the three fields for their Preliminary Exams and begin preparation for the exams, which are usually taken in December of the third year. Students are expected to teach as teaching assistants in their second and third years.


History offers five types of PhD courses, typically to be completed within the first three years of a student’s program:

  1. Required seminars (4): “History Now” features cutting-edge historical research and writing, including that being written by History faculty members; “The Roots of History” traces the development of the historical profession, focusing on the major methodological and theoretical landmarks in that development; an advanced workshop, “Writing History,” guides students through the writing of a publishable paper; a Dissertation Prospectus Seminar culminates in the student’s defense of the dissertation plan and proposal.
  2. Field Seminars offer a broad overview of the historiography of particular fields (e.g., Early Modern Europe, Modern East Asia).
  3. Thematic Seminars provide opportunities to explore a particular theme or methodological frame from a transnational and transtemporal perspective. 
  4. Special Topics Seminars focus on the historiography of a particular nation or region, historical “event,” or historiographical debate. They allow for focused, close training, including specialized skills and readings in languages other than English.
  5. Independent Study courses, by arrangement with the instructor, offer students, individually or in small groups, opportunities to explore special interests in depth.

In addition, students will receive course credit for attending “The Practice of History,” a series of professionalization workshops that provide guidance in grant-writing, applying for jobs, developing inclusive teaching practices, constructing effective syllabuses, etc.

Students typically take four courses per semester. Up to two graduate courses (exclusive of language courses) may be taken outside the Department. 

A typical schedule looks like this: 





Year 1

“History Now” +

2 seminars +

flex slot

“Roots of History” +

2 seminars +

flex slot

Language skills +


research project

Year 2

TA +

“Writing History” +


TA + “Practice of History” +

seminar +

Independent Study/

Group Independent Study

Pre-dissertation research +

grant writing +

exam preparation

Year 3

TA +

grant writing +

exam preparation

(exams in December)

TA +

Dissertation Prospectus Seminar

Dissertation research

Year 4




Year 5

TA +


TA +



Year 6

TA either Fall or Spring + dissertation

TA either Fall or Spring +



Preliminary Examinations 

By the end of the first semester, students should have identified three fields (one major and two minor); these are usually subfields of the primary and secondary fields listed under Fields of Study). These will be the areas examined in the Preliminary Examinations, usually taken at the end of the fifth semester.  [1-2 more sentences on preparation]

Language Requirement

Language requirements are set by the fields of study.  They must be completed before the preliminary examinations are taken at the end of the fifth semester. 

Stage 2: Prospectus and advancement to candidacy (Years 3-5/6)

After the successful completion of all coursework, the language requirement, and the preliminary examinations, the student, usually during the course of the sixth semester, develops a dissertation prospectus. Once the prospectus is approved by the student’s dissertation committee, the student advances to candidacy and devotes full effort (outside of work as a Teaching Assistant) to researching and writing the dissertation. 


In the sixth semester, students take the Dissertation Prospectus Seminar, which provides a collaborative structure for the process of identifying viable dissertation projects, selecting a Dissertation Committee, articulating the project in the form of a dissertation prospectus, and, when appropriate, developing grant proposals based on the prospectus.  The prospectus, in roughly 15 to 20 pages, states the dissertation topic, sets it in the context of the relevant secondary historical literature, explains the significance of the study, outlines the methodology to be followed, describes the types of primary sources to be used, and provides a tentative chapter outline, a bibliography, and a research plan. During the Dissertation Prospectus Defense, usually held in May or June, the Dissertation Committee reviews the prospectus and provides suggestions and advice to the student. Once the prospectus is approved, the student proceeds to conduct research on the dissertation.


Dissertations can vary significantly between students and among subfields.  Students should consult regularly with their advisors during the dissertation research and writing process, to report progress and to ensure agreement on expectations for the dissertation. The most basic standard for a dissertation is that it makes an original contribution to the body of relevant scholarship in its field. The doctoral dissertation should be completed within four years after the student passes the preliminary examinations.

The Dissertation Defense is conducted by the graduate advisor and other members of the Dissertation Committee. Its purpose is to provide a forum for a general discussion of the dissertation—its strengths and weaknesses as a contribution to knowledge and its future prospects.  If the dissertation is approved by the Dissertation Committee, the student has completed the final requirement of the PhD program and can prepare to graduate. 


Candidates for the PhD must normally demonstrate satisfactory performance as a Teaching Assistant in undergraduate courses at Brown, or in teaching at another institution approved by the Department. A Teaching Assistant usually works as a grader and section discussion leader under the guidance of the faculty member teaching the course. PhD students not supported by external fellowships typically work as Teaching Assistants in the second, third, and fifth years of their program, and one semester in their sixth year.  Explanation of the rights and responsibilities of teaching assistants may be found in the Department of History Graduate Handbook

Financial Support

Students admitted to the History PhD program who remain in good standing are guaranteed six years of funding; the Graduate School provides the first five years of funding, and the Graduate School and the History Department share responsibility for sixth-year funding. In their first year, students receive fellowship support, which includes tuition remission, health insurance, the health-services fee, and a stipend. In the second, third, and fifth years and one semester of the sixth, students, unless they receive external funding, are supported primarily by teaching assistantships or proctorships, which include tuition remission, health insurance, the health services fee, and a stipend. The Graduate School provides additional summer stipends for five years of a student’s program.

Incoming PhD students receive a relocation stipend to help cover the costs of moving to Brown. 

All students are encouraged to apply for outside fellowship support as they move into the dissertation phase of the program (usually years four through six). The university will continue to support those who are not successful in winning such fellowships with a combination of research/dissertation fellowships and teaching assistantship/proctorship support, provided they remain in good standing and are making good progress toward the PhD.

In addition, the Graduate School and the History Department provide several opportunities for students to apply for funding for research, conference participation, and language study.  The Graduate School invites applications for Conference Travel, Doctoral Research Travel Grants, Joukowsky Summer Research Awards, International Travel Funds, and Global Mobility Research Fellowships. The History Department offers Research and Travel Funds, History Graduate Open Funds, support for language or research-skill acquisition, and aid for the purchase of technology or materials necessary for research.

Consult the Financing & Support page of the Graduate School site for comprehensive and up-to-date information on stipends, insurance subsidies, cost of living in Providence, and other useful planning resources. Internal Funding & Appointments also explains Brown’s six years of guaranteed financial support and provides some information on the travel and research grants managed by the Graduate School.

For more information about funding specific to the History Department, consult “Funding” in the Department of History Graduate Handbook.


Every year the faculty of the Department of History at Brown University receives many questions from prospective students from around the world about our PhD program and the process of applying to the program. The History graduate admissions director, with input from the History faculty, has developed this guide for prospective students. Its first goal is to suggest how you should consider your interest in graduate study of history and, more specifically, in the Brown History PhD program, so that you can make an informed choice about whether to apply to the program. Second, we supply an overview of the application and the materials that you are asked to submit if you do decide to apply. Third, we include a brief description of the admissions process. Please read these recommendations before contacting the graduate admissions director or specific History Department faculty members.

1. Before Applying: What do I want to study — and is Brown right for me?

It’s important that you think through carefully what you hope to achieve in a history graduate program and what program will work best for you, given your interests and goals. We recommend that, before you contact either the graduate admissions director or individual 6 faculty members with questions about the Brown History graduate program, you be able to answer these three important questions:

a) What particular set of historical problems or themes do I want to study? What region(s) of the world, in what time period(s), do I want to make my area of specialization?

b) What are my qualifications for advanced work in history, and particularly in the problems, regions, and periods that I have identified as my areas of interest?

c) Is the Brown History PhD program a good fit for me, given my specific interests and past training in history? Are there scholars on the History faculty who work in my area of interest?

To elaborate:

a) In order to make a persuasive application and in order to know which faculty member(s) you would like to work closely with at Brown, candidates have to be able to explain what particular historical questions they are interested in investigating; and in what region(s) of the world, over what time period(s). Stating simply a general interest in history or even a general interest in one particular period and place—for example, the Italian Renaissance — is not enough. What is it about the Italian Renaissance that is of interest? How would your study of a particular theme or problem relevant to the Renaissance contribute in a new and original way to our understanding of that topic?

The application will ask that you identify one and possibly two fields of interest; and the statement of purpose (also part of the application) will ask you to explain in some detail what your specific interests in history are. If you are admitted to the program, you will find that you will have many opportunities to explore fields outside your areas of interest. Students are in fact encouraged to enroll in seminars outside their particular specializations — the History faculty believes that much can be learned, in terms of theory, methodology, and potential for fruitful comparison, from participation in class outside a specific field. Additionally, the relatively small size of the History program means that students often have to learn from work done in fields outside their own area of focus. But, in thinking about your career in a graduate program — and in writing an effective application — it is important to be able to write persuasively about the particular historical questions and issues that engage your interest and that motivate you to apply to a PhD program.

b) What are your qualifications for advanced historical study in your field(s) of interest? What kind of knowledge base do you bring to your topic? What kind of course work have you done in history that is relevant to your area of interest? If languages other than English are required for research in your topic of interest, what progress have you made in learning those languages? Has any research or work you have done either inside or outside the academy strengthened your knowledge or your expertise in historical research? Your statement of purpose should include some reference to your qualifications. Additionally, the writing sample that you are asked to submit should be a paper of roughly 20-25 pages that reflects your ability to do historical research, to analyze primary sources, to synthesize evidence from both primary and secondary sources in a persuasive historical analysis — and, of course, to write clearly and construct a well-organized argument.

c) Is the Brown History PhD program a good fit for your interests and qualifications? The faculty, in assessing applications, wants to make sure that graduate students will be able to find the resources and faculty guidance that they need to pursue their research projects. If there is no one on the faculty who can adequately advise a student, then we reluctantly have to decide not to accept them into the program, no matter how brilliant their record in history is or how interesting their questions are. It would not be right to admit a student interested in Enlightenment Europe to the program, for example, if no faculty member teaches that field. For this reason, it is important that you learn as much as you can about the History program by consulting the History Graduate website.   

Look at the "Fields of Study" page to see what fields the graduate program offers. Click on the field titles to see the faculty members who work in each field; and then click on the faculty members’ names to learn more about the scholars working within each field. This kind of research will help you learn the strengths of the Brown History program and help you decide whether it is a suitable program, given your own particular scholarly interests. You might also want to look at the "Current PhD Students" page, as that will give you some idea of what our students are doing now. You may also want to consult scholars you have worked with in the past, at college or university or in an MA program; they might be able to help you decide if the Brown program would be a good choice.

Remember, too, that you want to think about how the program as a whole suits your interests. You will be working with one faculty as your primary advisor, but you will also take courses with other faculty members (some of whom will also be on your preliminary exam and dissertation committees). Do you find enough in the way of faculty resources to provide you with a broad base of intellectual support for your program of study?

Next steps: Writing to faculty members you might wish to work with

Once you are able to articulate your own interests in and goals for your advanced study of history (a), have assessed your qualifications for and previous experience in the study of history and can explain their relevance to your proposed program of study (b), and have learned more about the program and have identified faculty members in your field of interest (c), you should write the faculty member(s) that you believe would be best qualified to advise you in the PhD program. Write to introduce yourself and to inquire if the faculty member(s) is accepting graduate students. Explain as precisely as possible what your interests are; and ask any questions you have about the program in your area(s) of interest. Remember that faculty members are likely very busy during the semester: try to make your questions precise and focused (that is, do not request that a faculty member tell you generally about the program — you should have done enough research ahead of time to be able to ask more specific questions).

2. Applying to the Brown History PhD Program

The online application through the Graduate School website is due on December 15th of each year. It consists of the following components:

a) Standard form requiring basic information about applicant’s background and educational record. On the form applicants are asked to identify their primary and (if desired) secondary fields of study. Note that the History Department does not require GRE scores. TOEFL/IELTS scores are required only if English was not the language of instruction at the college or university granting the BA or MA degree. For more information, see the Graduate School's Language Proficiency page

b) Transcripts from colleges and universities attended.

c) Statement of purpose, a 3-to-5 page (double-spaced) essay (see below)

d) Writing sample (see below)

e) Three letters of recommendation (uploaded separately, by your recommenders). We strongly recommend that these letters be from scholars familiar with your academic record.

The parts of the application that receive the closest attention from the faculty are "c" the statement of purpose, and "d," the writing sample. The statement of purpose (3-5 double-spaced pages) should first state your particular historical interests — as explained above, the particular issues or questions that you are interested in investigating and in what field(s); describe your strengths and aspirations as a historian; and explain the ways you think the Brown History Department, both individually and communally, is suited to support you in pursuit of your interests and goals. We are committed to creating a diverse and inclusive department, and welcome applicants to comment, if they wish, on how they might contribute to that goal — whether personally, in their work, or in their community building.

*Please note that your application will be read both by faculty members in your prospective field and faculty members outside your field (see below).

It is important, then, while stating your specific interests in history, to make your statement accessible to faculty members not in your area of interest. The writing sample should be an essay (or a chapter from a senior or MA thesis) that demonstrates your ability to do historical work—that is, to do research in primary and secondary sources, forge a historical argument from your analysis of these courses, present the argument clearly and effectively, and explain its significance to the relevant field of historical study. There is no strict page limit on the writing sample; we suggest a paper of between 20 and 25 pages, double-spaced.

3. The Admissions Process: How the History Department decides whom to accept into the PhD program

We look for applicants who are asking provocative historical questions and who are interested in exploring such questions in a rigorous and diverse intellectual community. From a diverse applicant pool of approximately two hundred applicants, we carefully choose a class of about 8- to-12 PhD students whose interests and strengths seem to fit particularly well with the intellectual configuration of the department.

Applications to the PhD program are first reviewed by the faculty members in the field(s) of each applicant. For example, if you have listed Latin America as your first area of interest and Science, Technology, Environment and Mathematics as your second field, your application will be reviewed first by the Latin American faculty; and second by the STEaM faculty. They will decide which candidates they would like to admit and present a ranked list of these candidates to the central History Graduate Committee, which is composed of faculty from a variety of different fields. Application files are thus reviewed both by faculty members in the fields identified by the candidate and a committee of scholars most likely outside that field of specialization. The Graduate Committee reviews all the recommended applications and selects from them a draft final admissions list. Because the Graduate School limits how many applicants we can accept into the program, the Committee cannot accept all the applicants recommended by the specific-field faculty. After this list is approved by the Department of History and the Graduate School, candidates are notified whether they have been accepted or not, usually in February.


Cynthia BrokawQuestions about the application process should be addressed to the Graduate Admissions Director, Cynthia Brokaw ( Please note that the director does not decide who is admitted to the program.

Questions about the program in your field(s) of interest should be directed to the faculty members in that field (as explained above, consult the "Fields of Study" page of the Department of History Graduate Handbook