PhD Program in History Rules and Guidelines

*Updated July 2021*


The Ph.D. in History prepares students for careers in college teaching, digital media, publishing, educational administration, public history, and historical research. Students gain expertise in both conventional historical methods and web-based technologies. Major fields of study include U.S. history, European history, and world/comparative history.

Students may organize their program of study to suit various career objectives, such as: 

  • College/university teaching: For students seeking a career in teaching or research at the community college or university level.
  • New media and information technology: For students seeking careers in new media (for example, in publishing, educational technology, or as a technology coordinator in a college or university setting).
  • Public and applied history: For students interested in museums, archives, historic preservation, documentary editing, or other applied fields. Students may be at the beginning of their careers or already working in the field.
  • Professional development: For students working in educational or professional areas (high school principals, community college instructors) where the attainment of an advanced degree will enhance their intellectual breadth and marketability.


Admissions Requirements

Degree Requirements

Required Core Courses

Dissertation-Related Courses

Minor Fields and HIST 804

Major Field, HIST 803, and the Comprehensive Oral Exam

18-Hour Review

Foreign Language and Computer Proficiency Requirements

Dissertation Prospectus-HIST 998

Advancing to Candidacy


Administrative Structure of the PhD Program

Admissions and Funding

Funding for PhD Students

Application of Credits from other Degrees or Institutions 



Admissions Requirements

In addition to meeting all admission requirements for graduate study at George Mason University, applicants for the Ph.D. in History should submit: 

  1. Three letters of recommendation from professional colleagues or academic mentors
  2. A goals statement that explains the applicant’s academic credentials, professional background, particular interest in Mason’s Ph.D. program (including new media), and ultimate career goals. Please note faculty with whom you wish to work and whether you intend to attend part-time or full-time. The latter generally receive financial support from the department, while part-time students do not receive funding.
  3. A writing sample consisting of a history essay, research paper, or professional publication.

The university uses an on-line application system for all academic programs. For information on the application process, go to For the Ph.D. in History, offers of admission are typically made in early March. 

Degree Requirements

Candidates for the Ph.D. in History must complete a minimum of 72 graduate credits to earn their degree. Students must advance to candidacy within six calendar years of their initial enrollment in the Ph.D. program and they must complete and defend the dissertation within nine calendar years from the time of their initial enrollment in the Ph.D. program.

The Graduate Office maintains an official file for each student, documenting the fulfillment of requirements on an individualized Program of Study form.

In addition to the required core courses (minimum 21 credits) and dissertation-related courses (18-21 credits), Ph.D. students must complete coursework in a major field of study (15 credits) and two minor fields (9 credits each). In addition to earning credits, students also pass two minor field exams and a comprehensive oral exam in the major field, satisfy applicable foreign language and computer proficiency requirements, write an acceptable dissertation prospectus, and complete and defend the dissertation.

Each of these degree requirements is described in a separate section below.

Required Core Courses

  • History 610 The Study and Writing of History (3 credits): Research techniques; methodology of the historian; genres of historical analysis; and historiographical interpretations. 

  • History 696 Clio Wired: An Introduction to History and New Media (3 credits): A basic overview of the uses of new media and new technology in history. It includes an examination of the history of media and technology, theories of hypertext, and critical evaluation of digital history.

  • History 697 Creating History in New Media OR HIST 698 Programming for History OR HIST 688 Topics in History and New Media (3 credits): A seminar in which students create original historical projects in digital media.

  • History 797 (3 credits) Research Seminar in U.S. History/European History/Global History: Research in specialized topics using primary sources. The seminar is organized around a significant topic or theme. Topics vary from year to year.

  • History 810 Doctoral Colloquium (1 credit per semester for a min. of 4/max. of 6 semesters): Students must enroll in this one-credit course until they advance to candidacy (a minimum of four semesters and a maximum of six semesters). This course is designed to enhance professional development and to provide a focal point for students in the Ph.D. program. Colloquium meets in alternating weeks and is scheduled so as not to conflict with other graduate classes. Events may include presentation of faculty and student research, workshops on various topics, and visiting speakers. Local students are required to attend in person for the duration, though non-resident students can participate in absentia by submitting written work after two semesters in residence.

  • History 811 Doctoral Research Seminar (3 credits): Advanced research seminar intended as preparation for dissertation research and writing. Students pursue individualized projects with goal of producing publishable scholarly articles. Unlike the M.A. research seminar, this course allows students to do research in their particular area of specialization rather than in the instructor’s specialty. This course is open only to Ph.D. students.

Dissertation-Related Courses

  • History 998 Prospectus (minimum 3, maximum 6 credits): An independent study taken while writing the dissertation prospectus. Although the initial registration must be for 3 credits, subsequent credits can be taken one at a time. Students may use a maximum of 6 credits of HIST 998 toward the Ph.D. Once registered for HIST 998, a student must maintain continuous enrollment every semester (excluding summers) until they graduate. Students register in HIST 998 by contacting the History Graduate Office to request a Course Record Number (CRN) so they can register through PatriotWeb. Registration requires the approval of the student’s advisor and the Graduate Director. While registered for HIST 998, students receive a grade of IP, which is converted to S/NC once the dissertation committee approves the prospectus.
  • History 999 Doctoral Dissertation (minimum 15 credits): Once the prospectus has been approved and all other requirements except the dissertation have been met, students may register for HIST 999. Once registered for HIST 999, a student must maintain continuous enrollment every semester (excluding summers*) until they graduate. Students must register for 3 credits per semester until they have amassed 15 credits, at which point they may register for 1 credit per semester. To register for HIST 999, students must advance to candidacy (see below) and then email, using their Mason email account, to request a code number by providing the following information: name, G#, program, dissertation chair, and how many credits for which they need to register.

*If you defend your dissertation in summer, you are required to enroll in at least 1 credit of HIST 999 that summer.



Minor Fields and HIST 804

For in depth instructions on choosing an 804 topic and instructions, please click here. 

Suggested steps for organizing and completing a minor field are as follows:

  1. Select a minor field in consultation with your advisor.
  2. Complete 6 credits of coursework pertaining to the minor field you selected. (A student may have earned some or all of these credits before entering the Ph.D. program.)
  3. The semester before you plan to do HIST 804 (Minor Field Readings) you must consult with your advisor to choose a faculty member with whom you wish to work and ask that faculty member to be your instructor for HIST 804 (and also the first reader for your minor field examination).
  4. In consultation with your instructor for HIST 804, draft a brief minor field proposal (typically 1-2 paragraphs) and a bibliography of roughly 50 books, please notate books you have already read with an asterisk *.
  5.  Both the first and second readers must approve your proposal and bibliography and sign the Minor Field Proposal Approval Form in time to submit both paper and electronic copies of all three to the Graduate Committee during the semester before you plan to do HIST 804.
  6. Submit your materials to the Graduate Committee for approval. Note that the Committee may ask you to revise your proposal and/or to amend your bibliography.
  7. If the committee approves your proposal, you will enroll in HIST 804 for the following semester. Because HIST 804 is an individualized reading course, you must enroll through the Graduate Office.
  8. You must complete the written minor field examination at the end of the semester in which you are registered.
  9. After you complete your exam, your two readers will complete the Minor Field Examination Form to report your grade.

Major Field, HIST 803, and the Comprehensive Oral Exam

The major field requires the completion of 5 courses (15 credits), including at least 2 independent readings courses (HIST 803). At an appropriate point in their program, students will take, and must pass, an oral examination covering the major field. There is no written major field examination.

The general standard for passing the comprehensive oral exam is the attainment of knowledge sufficient to teach a survey course in the student's major field. Students are expected to demonstrate a broad familiarity with the historical literature—including key historiographical debates—in the selected field. Contents of the oral exam will not be limited to course material. Students are expected to work with their major field advisor and other committee members to develop a list of books and topics for which they are responsible.

                Major fields include, but are not limited to:

  • American history.  Origins to the present.
  • European history.  The Graduate Committee and the major field advisor must approve the specific period focus of a European history field (either pre- or post-1789).
  • World/comparative history. e.g., comparative cultural history, industrialization, Latin America, Islamic world. The Graduate Committee and major field advisor must approve the specific scope and/or chronology.

Steps for completing the major field and comprehensive examination are as follows:

Choose your major field advisor, who will chair the major field examination committee.  Typically, but not always, students choose their dissertation director as their major field advisor.

  1. Complete the major field coursework (15 credits total). Students typically complete 9 credits of regular graduate-level coursework before enrolling in HIST 803. Two sections of HIST 803 will address deficiencies in students' knowledge of their major field.
  2. In consultation with your major field advisor, choose the two additional members of the examination committee. In general, committee members are faculty with whom the student has taken HIST 803 or another course.
  3. Consult with committee members to compile appropriate reading lists for the major field examination. The three reading lists should include a total of 75-100 books.
  4. Contact the Graduate Office at least one month in advance to schedule your examination and to reserve a room for it.
  5. If possible, meet with committee members individually before the examination to discuss the readings and some practice questions.
  6. Bring a Major Field Oral Examination form to the exam. On completion of the examination, committee members will sign this form, which the student must submit to the Graduate Office.

The oral examination will last approximately two hours. The student will be examined by the entire committee, and other faculty are welcome to attend. Any questions within the scope of the major field are permitted, but the focus will be on testing the student’s mastery of the key historiographical, interpretive, and theoretical debates in the field. After the conclusion of the exam, the student will leave the room and the committee will confer. Possible grades are Pass, Fail, and Distinction. (A mark of superlative achievement, a grade of Distinction is rarely awarded.) After the committee has concluded its deliberation, the chair will inform the student of the result.

A student who fails the oral examination can retake it no sooner than three months and no later than six months after failing it. Oral exams can only be taken a total of three times.  Three failed attempts will result in dismissal from the program. 

18-Hour Review

The Graduate Committee reviews the status of students in the Ph.D. program. Students entering with only a B.A. degree will be reviewed at the completion of their M.A. All students will be reviewed at the completion of 18 credit hours of post-M.A. coursework. For these reviews, there are three possible outcomes: continuation, dismissal, or probation with another review after 6 additional credit hours. After assessing the student's transcripts and other credentials, the Graduate Committee informs the student of the review's outcome.

Foreign Language and Computer Proficiency Requirements

  • Foreign Language Proficiency: Although students are not required to pass a formal written examination, those who need a foreign language (or languages) for their research must demonstrate to their dissertation director that they possess sufficient language skills before they will be allowed to advance to candidacy. There is no foreign language requirement for students whose research materials are entirely in English.
  • Computer Proficiency: All students must complete the two-course sequence in digital history.  These courses assume basic computer literacy, but no specialized knowledge.  Students seeking to deploy particular digital methods for their research need to demonstrate sufficient technical skills before they advance to candidacy.

 Dissertation Prospectus (HIST 998)

A dissertation prospectus should explain your topic and its significance to a non-specialist audience and should show how you intend to execute and complete your project. The prospectus is a preliminary overview of the dissertation you intend to write and not an unalterable blueprint for the project. The prospectus can also be the basis for grant applications and fellowship proposals. The complete prospectus should be approximately 20 to 25 pages, plus a tentative bibliography.  

 Steps for completing the dissertation prospectus are as follows:

  1. Choose your dissertation committee in consultation with your dissertation director. A dissertation committee must include a minimum of three faculty members, at least two of whom must be graduate faculty in the Department of History and Art History.
  2. Ask the faculty members you have chosen if they are willing to serve on your committee.
  3. Write a proposal that is acceptable to your dissertation director.
  4. Submit the proposal to the other members of your committee and revise the proposal in response to their comments (or otherwise address their concerns).
  5. When the committee agrees that the proposal is ready for approval, you need to schedule a Proposal Approval Meeting with your committee. This meeting will be closed to the public, and should last approximately 45 minutes to one hour.  It can be held either in person or remotely via video conference.
    1. The format of the Proposal Approval Meeting is up to the Committee, but the time should be devoted to questions about and discussion of the proposed research rather than a formal presentation.
    2. After the Proposal Approval Meeting, the committee will sign the dissertation Proposal Approval Form and the Committee Formation Form
  6. Have the Ph.D. Director sign the Proposal and Committee Formation forms
  7. Submit the signed Proposal and Committee Formation forms to the Graduate Coordinator who will include them in your file.
  8. Give an oral presentation of your proposal to the Doctoral Colloquium (HIST 810).
    1. If advancing in the Fall or Spring, you need to present in the semester you are advancing. (Presentation of proposals typically occurs during the last two meetings of the semester)
    2. If advancing over the summer, you need to present in the Fall semester after you advanced.

The following outline includes basic components of a prospectus. Note that this list is best used as a starting point for discussions with your dissertation director, who may have other suggestions. You may arrange the sections of your prospectus in any logical order, only one example of which is represented below. A relatively efficient way to produce a prospectus is to write what you perceive to be the easiest pieces first, though eventually you will need to assemble your pieces into a seamless whole.

  • Introduction (One paragraph to give readers the briefest introduction to your dissertation topic—the historical problem you will address—and to make them want to read more.)
  • Research question and thesis/argument (What questions will you be asking about your topic? Why are they significant? This section should also include your informed speculation about the answers to these questions, which constitute your dissertation's tentative thesis.)
  • Historiography (What have scholars written about your topic? How will your research support or challenge their interpretations? Will your work examine a neglected topic and thereby fill a gap in the existing literature? What historiographies and scholarly debates does your work address? This section is where, by your knowledgeable discussion of secondary sources, you demonstrate that your dissertation will be a significant contribution.)
  • Sources and methodology (What primary sources will constitute the core of your dissertation research? How accessible are these sources and where are they located? What sorts of information or data do you expect to get from each of these sources? This section should be one of the least difficult to write.) If you are doing a project with a special methodology—such as new media or quantitative—you should explain it here.
  • Organization of chapters (In this section, you will explain how you will divide your material into chapters. You should probably devote one paragraph to summarizing the contents of each chapter.)
  • Schedule to completion (Here, you explain the current status of your project—what have you done so far?—and then present a detailed schedule for your future work. When will you do your research, write, revise, and finish? What is your target date for defending your dissertation?)
  • Bibliography (Divided into primary and secondary sources. Citations must conform to the Chicago Manual of Style.)

Advancing to Candidacy

A student officially becomes a Ph.D. candidate on completion of all the degree requirements outlined above—in other words, everything except the dissertation. In addition to completing the coursework, minor and major field examinations, and dissertation prospectus, the student must fill out the Dissertation Committee Approval Form and submit it to the Graduate Office to formalize the composition of their dissertation committee. This form requires the signatures of all committee members, as well as that of the Ph.D. Director.

Once the College of Humanities and Social Sciences receives this signed form, along with the student's other credentials, the Dean of Graduate Academic Affairs will formally recognize the composition of the committee and the student will be advanced to candidacy. Student-initiated changes in the composition of the dissertation committee may occur only under extenuating circumstances and with the approval of the dean in consultation with the dissertation director. Faculty may resign from a dissertation committee with appropriate notice by submitting their resignations to the dean in writing.

Students must advance to candidacy within six calendar years of their initial enrollment in the Ph.D. program and they must complete and defend the dissertation within nine calendar years of their initial enrollment in the Ph.D. program.


The dissertation is a piece of original scholarly writing that demonstrates a Ph.D. candidate's mastery of subject matter, methodologies, and conceptual foundations in the chosen field of study.

Steps for completing and defending the dissertation are as follows:


  1. Meet with your dissertation director to establish a plan for submitting and revising your chapters. Typically, the dissertation director reads and approves all the chapters before they are submitted to other committee members for their suggestions and comments.
  2. Familiarize yourself with the required format for all Mason dissertations. This information is available online at Students completing dissertations are required to schedule a formatting review with the Dissertation and Thesis Coordinator in Fenwick Library (703-993-2222 or
  3. In consultation with your dissertation director and other committee members, choose a date and time for your defense.
  4. At least 20 days before the defense, you must provide the History Graduate Office with the following information: your name, department, dissertation title, committee chairperson, date, time, and place of defense. You must also submit an electronic version of your abstract to the History Graduate Office. The department, in turn, sends this information to the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, which announces the defense, which is open to the public.
  5. At least 15 days before the defense, you must provide the Gateway Library (formerly known as the Johnson Center Library) with a complete draft of your dissertation on regular copy paper. 
  6. Defend your dissertation. The oral defense should demonstrate your intellectual command of the chosen topic and its larger significance in the field. You will spend 10-15 minutes presenting you dissertation before taking questions from your committee. Dissertation defenses are open to the public.
  7. If all committee members agree that you have defended your dissertation successfully, they will sign the cover page. If one or more committee members refuse to approve the dissertation, the student or any member of the committee may petition the dean for a review. The dean may seek the advice of outside reviewers to provide assessment of the work. In such instances, the dean's decision is final.
  8. After a successful defense, you still may need to make changes before submitting the final text. You are responsible for making changes and using the correct paper and format. For detailed information on these requirements, see and also the Graduation Checklist at Dissertation due dates are 5:00 p.m. on the last Friday before the last day of classes in each semester.

Administrative Structure of the Ph.D. Program

  • The Department Chair has ultimate authority over matters relating to the Ph.D. program.
  • The Director of Graduate Studies is the chair of the Graduate Committee, which is responsible for ongoing evaluation of Ph.D. students. The Graduate Committee confers departmental prizes and awards, vets minor field proposals, and evaluates students after completion of 18 credits of Ph.D.-level work and, if necessary, after completion of the M.A. In both cases, the Committee must make a recommendation for continuance, termination, or probation. Students in the Ph.D. program in History are terminated after receiving more than one unsatisfactory grade (defined as C and/or F). The Director of Graduate Studies notifies students of the results of the committee's evaluations.
  • The Ph.D. Director convenes and chairs the Ph.D. Admissions Committee, advises and recruits prospective students, oversees the Ph.D. colloquium, advises students on matters pertaining to administrative aspects of the Ph.D. program, and oversees the completion of the Program of Study.

Admissions and Funding

  • Admissions Committee

The Ph.D. Admissions Committee consists of the Ph.D. Director, who chairs the committee, and at least three other faculty members, who are appointed annually by the Department Chair.

As soon as possible after the application deadline, the Ph.D. Director will circulate applicants’ files among their prospective faculty advisors, whose comments will be forwarded to the Admissions Committee.  Working independently, committee members rank candidates based on background, goals, and merit (including professional accomplishments as well as more conventional measures of academic achievement). The committee shall then meet as a group to arrive at a collective ranking, which will determine the amounts and kinds of financial aid awarded to students who are offered admission to the program.

The Ph.D. Director ordinarily sends admissions letters during the first week of March.  

Funding for Ph.D. Students

Full-time students in the program are eligible for funding, which is chiefly in the form of graduate assistantships. The Ph.D. Admissions Committee awards assistantships to incoming full-time students on a competitive basis. Students with assistantships work 20 hours per week in either research or teaching in exchange for a stipend, student health insurance, and a tuition waiver. Graduate assistants must enroll in a minimum of 6 credits of graduate-level work in both the fall and spring semesters.

Application of Credits from Other Degrees or Institutions

Although the Ph.D. requires the completion of a minimum of 72 credits, there are two ways that students can apply credits previously earned toward the Ph.D.

  • Transfer of Credits

Students entering the program with relevant coursework from another institution may transfer up to 12 credit hours to apply toward the Ph.D. if

  • The credits are not more than six years old.
  • The credits have not been used toward another degree.
  • The student received a grade of B or better in the courses.
  • The student earned graduate-level credit for the courses.
  •  Reduction of Credits: Students entering the Ph.D. program with an M.A. or other graduate degree may apply as many as 30 credits toward the Ph.D. Credits earned toward another relevant graduate degree may be applicable even if the student earned them more than six years previously. The degree and the credits need not be in History, so long as the credits are relevant to the student’s program of study.  The Ph.D. Director reviews requests for reduction of credit after a student is admitted to the program, preferably during the first year of enrollment. The Ph.D. Director will review student transcripts to determine the extent to which the previous courses apply to the current program of study and to discern whether any requirements may be waived. As per university regulations, a student must take at least 36 credits at Mason.  In other words, the total number of transfer credits and reduced credits, in whatever combination, may not exceed 36.


In the event that any departmental rules conflict with CHSS or university rules, the CHSS or university rules shall prevail.