Department of History

Ph.D. Program Outline

The Ph.D. program in History is designed to train students in the skills of conducting original historical research and crafting unique 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. Thus although we begin with the core skills of academic research and writing and teaching at the college and university levels, we do not end there. Many Brown doctoral students explore teaching in and writing for different settings, and prepare for a breadth of careers that value the skills that a obtaining a Ph.D. in history entails.

The Brown Ph.D. program is intimate and rigorous, and students are expected to complete in five to seven years. One of the program's hallmarks is a series of required courses in which an entire cohort is trained in core professional skills. This series is composed of: (1) a methodology colloquium that introduces the students to a wide range of theory and historical practice; (2) an advanced writing workshop in which students write an article-quality paper; (3) a professionalization seminar in which students are trained in the habits of mind and skills of the profession; and (4) a dissertation prospectus seminar. Critically, students in an entering cohort proceed through these courses together, so that discussions across fields, geographies, and chronologies are built into the doctoral program.


The program is divided into two stages

  1. During the first and second years students take seminars that introduce the major historiographical questions and methodologies of various fields and that develop their research skills; they write an article-length paper based on original archival research; they take a professionalization course that introduces them to the principal tasks and cultures of the profession (grant writing, for instance, and conference presentations); and they form an exam committee and begin preparation for the preliminary examinations.
  2. After passing the examinations by the end of their fifth semester, students develop a prospectus for and research and write their dissertation. The dissertation is typically completed in the fifth or sixth year (though some students take longer). 


The department offers four types of Ph.D. seminars:

  • Field Seminars (2970s) offer students a broad overview of a field, typically an exam field.
  • Required Seminars are the four seminars required of all Ph.D. students: Colloquium, Writing Workshop, Professionalization, and Prospectus.
  • Special Topics Seminars focus on the historiography of a particular nation or region, for example, a particular historical “event,” or historiographical debate. They allow for focused, close training, including specialized skills (e.g. paleography), readings in languages other than English, or extensive examination of the scholarship on a particular problem.
  • Thematic Seminars (2980s) offer students the opportunity to explore a particular theoretical/methodological frame in a transnational and transtemporal perspective.

The First and Second Years

First Year

In their first year, students take 3 seminars in the fall (2 plus the colloquium) and 3 seminars in the spring. Ideally, the courses should be a mix of Field and Thematic seminars, with the inclusion of a Special Topics seminar where appropriate. The colloquium is required of all first-year Ph.D. students and constitutes the basic introductory methodology and theory course for the degree.

Any student who wishes to do so may, after consultation with her or his advisor, substitute an independent reading course offered by a member of the department or a graduate-level course outside of the department.

Research Paper

During the spring semester of the first year, each student begins work on their research paper. Production of the paper is a year-long process that begins in a spring-semester Thematic seminar and concludes in the subsequent fall in the Graduate Workshop. Students designate one of their Thematic seminars as the foundation for the paper and compose a research prospectus as the final project in the course (the prospectus should include a literature review and a discussion of archival sources). Students engage in archival research during the summer and enroll in the Graduate Workshop in the fall, in which they write the final paper.

By the end of the first year, students are expected to have assembled a three-member exam committee.

Second Year

In their second year, students will serve as teaching assistants and will continue to take a mix of Field, Special Topics, and Thematic seminars. In addition, each semester they take one required course: in the fall, the Graduate Workshop, in which they write their research paper, and in the spring Professionalization, which focuses on the principal professionals tasks and expectations they will encounter in a career as a professional historian.

The First Two Summers

Students are required to make progress toward the completion of their degree during the summer months. The department recognizes that for some students progress will take the form of language training, while for others archival work or other research-related projects might be appropriate, along with reading for preliminary exams. During their first summer, all students are expected to complete significant archival research for their research paper.

Third Year

During the third year, students must pass their preliminary examinations by the end of the fifth (fall) semester. Exams are typically scheduled for early December.

Preliminary Exams

By the end of the first year of study the student submit a departmental form that lists three fields in which she/he will be examined. The student will indicate the field in which her/his dissertation will be written. This will be the major field. The others will be minor fields. No more than two fields may be in the history of the same national culture. Normally, all three examiners will be members of the Department of History, and the fields will be chosen based on consultation with the examiners and the Director of Graduate Studies. A student may petition the department to prepare one field in another department or program.

Based on the foregoing, the first three years of the Ph.D. program for a typical student would look schematically like this

Fall Semester Spring Semester Summer
  1. Colloquium
  2. Field Seminar
  3. Field/ST/Thematic Seminar
  1. Field/ST/Thematic Seminar
  2. Field/ST/Thematic Seminar
  3. Thematic Seminar
Research, Language study
Fall Semester Spring Semester Summer
  1. Teaching Assistantship
  2. Field/ST/Thematic Seminar
  3. Writing Workshop
  1. Teaching Assistantship
  2. Field/ST/Thematic Seminar
  3. Professionalization Seminar
Exam Prep, Language
Fall Semester Spring Semester Summer
  1. Teaching Assistantship
  2. Exam prep (exams in December)
  1. Teaching Assistantship
  2. Prospectus Seminar

Fourth Year

The fourth year is typically a fellowship year, during which students conduct dissertation research wherever their work takes them.

Fifth Year

The fifth year is typically funded as a teaching assistantship, during which time students continue research and writing of the dissertation.

Students in the fourth year and beyond register for HIST 2990, Thesis Preparation.

Additional Ph.D. Information

The capstone, and most critical, project of the Ph.D. program is the doctoral dissertation.
We welcome applications for potential Ph.D. students in the fields listed, where links to individual faculty pages will describe our department's expertise and scholarly projects in detail.
Learn about financing and support for graduate students, research and travel funding, emergency loans and sixth year funding.