Published Date

January 1, 1962

From The Education of Historians in the United States (1962)

A majority of history departments training Ph.D.s agree that the aim of doctoral training should be the education of “scholar-teachers.” But, while 7% “put more emphasis upon teaching,” one-fifth avowedly “put more emphasis upon research.” Thus the quality most demanded in doctoral candidates is “research skill and zeal.” This is mentioned as a top quality twice as often as any other. “Interest in teaching” and “general intellectual curiosity” are tied as the second most desired qualities, and these are closely followed by “skill in teaching.”

These variations in the aims of doctoral education are manifested in the detailed provisions of Ph.D. programs. This chapter shows how history faculties are currently training Ph.D. candidates. It describes the scope of Ph.D. study through a review of “field” requirements, surveys the forms of study, shows how student performance is tested in various examinations, and points to changes that are being contemplated.


What Is Studied: Field Requirements

Ph.D. candidates are usually expected to enroll in at least three academic years of graduate study (“residence”) and it is common to specify that one academic year “in residence” must be spent at the institution awarding the doctorate. In actuality, however, it is a rare student who completes Ph.D. training in three years of study. The usual “full course load” for first- and second-year graduate students in Ph.D.-training departments varies from 12 hours—i.e., four courses (reported by 58% of the departments)—up to 15 hours (one-third of the departments) and down to 9 hours (one-tenth of the departments). Just how much study is expected in terms of credit hours the history faculties are reluctant to state explicitly, for in doctoral studies evidence of qualitative scholarship is considered the goal and quantitative efforts only means toward the desired end. Two-fifths of the departments report that they “require” or “recommend” that doctoral candidates take 60 or more semester hours of graduate study, and almost two-thirds (62%) report 48 semester hours or more. The largest requirement reported-90 semester hours-was cited by one of the least well-known departments. Only a small minority expect more than 70 hours of course work.

The basic intellectual dilemma now involved in planning units of study for doctoral candidates was well stated in the early nineteenth century by Leopold von Ranke: to understand universal history one must first know the specific events of history; but to know the specific one must first understand the universal. The accumulation of knowledge since Ranke’s time has made the problem enormously more difficult than it was in his day. One cannot master all of history. Deciding how much mastery Ph.D. candidates should demonstrate is complicated by practical considerations. First, the able Ph.D. candidate should earn the doctorate in no more than four years of full-time graduate study. Second, as a potential research scholar and teacher of advanced college students, he needs depth-the mastery of facts and materials in a specialized field of history. The units of historical study must be relatively small if this mastery is to be achieved. But, third, as a man, as a citizen, and as a teacher giving instruction in broad survey courses-and also as a scholar doing research and writing-the Ph.D. candidate needs breadth. This can be acquired most readily in the study of broad units of history.

Large or small, the units of study in Ph.D. programs are usually called “fields.” A number of very good Ph.D. programs define these fields broadly and have students study two fields. Some departments require Ph.D. candidates to show some degree of mastery in three, four, five, or even six fields of history, each broadly defined (e.g., all of United States history as one field). Most departments, unwilling to accept the superficial acquaintance with fields so broadly defined, divide history into several relatively small units of study. The divisions sometimes are (or may be) topical as well as geographical or chronological. Through the study of several relatively small fields in differing cultural areas and different periods of time, it is hoped that the Ph.D. candidate will acquire a sense of the universal in history. At the same time he is able to achieve considerable mastery in the field of his specialization, which is also restricted in size.

Definitions of the fields of history and the number to be required of Ph.D. candidates have never been uniform. By the late 1930s the number of history fields required in various institutions ranged from 1 to 6, and most institutions also required 1 or 2 fields in cognate disciplines.1 Striking variations currently exist in field requirements. Data from the history Ph.D.s of 1958 show that when only 2 fields are required history departments usually define fields broadly (e.g., all of United States history as 1 field; all of modern history as 1 or 2 fields). Departments requiring 3 fields of history tend to define fields of medium scope (e.g., United States history as 2 fields; modern European history as 2 or 3 fields). In departments that require 4 fields the fields are likely to be small (United States history is usually treated as 2 fields but frequently as 3; modern European history is more often treated as 3 than 2). History faculties that require 5 or 6 fields of history restrict the fields even more; they tend to divide United States history into 3 fields and modern European history into 3 or 4.

A survey of the 1959-1960 graduate school bulletins of 49 Ph.D.-training universities shows that 57% require 5 fields or more; 38% require 3 to 4 fields, and only 2 require only 2 fields (these numbers include fields in related disciplines when they are specifically required). Only one-fifth (18%) of the 49 institutions define fields broadly (e.g., all of modern European history as one field). While less than half (21) of the 49 Ph.D. programs in history require as few as 2 to 4 fields, all but 1 of the top-prestige programs require 2 to 4 fields. Since the top-prestige programs train the largest numbers of Ph.D.s, it is not surprising that two-thirds (64%) of the 1958 Ph.D.s took 2 to 4 fields of history.

Usually history faculties demand that Ph.D. candidates achieve greater mastery in one field than in others. This is known variously as the “field of concentration,” the “first field,” or the “major field.” Less concentrated work is expected in other fields (“minor,” “first minor,” or “second field”; and thus followed by “third field,” “fourth field,” etc.). When graduate study in another discipline is required it is sometimes described as a “minor,” but also often as an “outside field.” The bulletins of more than half the institutions (57%) explicitly require one outside field. Two-thirds of the Ph.D.s of 1958 were “required” (58%) or “encouraged” (8%) to study at least one outside field, and another 14% took such work on their own volition. While 5% more took work in two outside fields on their own volition, 6% were “discouraged by the faculty” from studying any outside field.

Two surveys of recent Ph.D.s in history show that political science is the most popular cognate field. All other cognate fields are reported much less frequently. They include English, American, or other literature; economics; religion; philosophy; Education; sociology; and anthropology.2 In the combined samples of 325 recent Ph.D.s in history, none reported any graduate-level study of psychology, a field in which historians might profitably seek insights.3 In general, like history majors and master’s candidates, Ph.D. candidates have tended to study cognate fields that call for relatively little intellectual reaching out on their part.

Forms of Study

The program of study for the Ph.D. in history typically involves a combination of different types of instruction. Departments offering doctoral training generally agree that lecture courses should constitute no more than half the “full course load” of graduate students, and less during the second than during the first year of graduate study. In an introductory “methods course”4) or in research seminars the student becomes acquainted with the tools and techniques of critical historical research and develops his capacity for writing history. Students, it is generally agreed, should be enrolled in research seminars during the first and second years of graduate study. One or more courses in historiography or the philosophies of history provide an awareness of the development, theories, potentialities, and limits of historical scholarship. Nine-tenths of the 1958 Ph.D.s believe a course in historiography or philosophies of history should be required of all doctoral candidates.

With usually a minimum of guidance and supervision from a faculty member, Ph.D. candidates in directed reading courses-especially in the second year of graduate study-expand their acquaintance with historical literature and sharpen their ability to judge it critically. Many Ph.D. candidates are introduced to college teaching through participation in survey courses of the department in which they are studying for the doctorate. In some departments their part-time instruction is critically supervised, and at least 11 departments offer either a course, a noncredit seminar, or an informal student-faculty colloquium on college teaching.

Meanwhile, the Ph.D. candidate begins and carries out an intensive research project, presenting the results in a substantial treatise-the Ph.D. “thesis” or “dissertation.” There is, too, always a great amount of independent reading required of him in preparation for the various examinations that stand between the candidate and the Ph.D. degree. Departments tend to agree that “individual reading” or “directed research” should constitute less than half of the Ph.D. candidate’s program during the first and second years of graduate study, but more than half during the third year.

In practice, lecture courses frequently make up half or more than half the course loads of first- and second-year graduate students. At their best, these lecture courses are given exclusively for graduate students and have relatively small enrollments. Three-fifths of the Ph.D.s of 1958 as graduate students took no courses in which over 50 students were enrolled, and the overwhelming majority of those who did take them agree that they were not as valuable as classes in which fewer than 30 students were enrolled. Asked to rate nine types of work in terms of their value as “preparation for college teaching,” the recent Ph.D.s rated lecture courses enrolling only graduate students seventh while lecture courses enrolling graduate students and advanced undergraduates were rated eighth. Only research seminars enrolling 11 or more students were rated lower than lecture courses.

The Ph.D.s of 1958 emphasized the central importance of research seminars, however, by giving first rating to research seminars enrolling fewer than 11 students. In this strong preference for small seminars the recent Ph.D.s are in general agreement with the training faculties: the overwhelming majority (about four-fifths) of the departments state that a seminar should have no fewer than 3 students but no more than 12. As Robert G. Albion put it in the May, 1960, issue of the History Department Newsletter of Harvard University, “the ninth or tenth student joining a seminar does something to damage its effective intimacy.” Nine-tenths of the departments report that their research seminars usually enroll no more than 10 students, but large numbers of students and limited faculties cause frequent exceptions to be made. Half the departments report giving at least one seminar in the period 1956-1959 with 13 or more students enrolled.

A majority (55%) of the Ph.D.s of 1958 took at least four semesters (or equivalent quarters) of research seminars for credit; 25% took two semesters and 14% took three semesters. Three-fifths (61%) of the 1958 Ph.D.s took research seminars in two or more fields of history, and three-fourths (75%) state that all candidates should be required to take research seminars in at least two fields. (But in many programs United States history, e.g., is two or even three fields.) Half the 1958 Ph.D.s who took fewer than four semesters of research seminars report that “Ph.D. candidates should be required to take more terms of research seminars than I took.”

The Ph.D.s of 1958 were asked to describe the characteristics of a seminar that they found “most useful.” Their comments suggest that in an outstanding seminar some or all of the following factors are present. The instructor is provocative, demanding, critical, and yet encouraging. He is himself engaged in research and is informed about the history of the period and topic of the seminar. Introducing students to the bibliographical aids, key sources, and major depositories of his field, the instructor somehow manages to convey to them the intellectual challenge and excitement that he himself finds in his work. He encourages a balance between initiative and aggressive competition on the one hand and, on the other, caution, humility, and a strong sense of responsibility toward past and present. By seeing that papers are prepared by deadlines and within specified space limitations, he develops disciplined work habits. He requires bibliographical and progress reports and, usually, one substantial research paper of each student. The instructor makes certain that each student’s paper is criticized by all students in gentlemanly but vigorous and straightforward fashion, and adds his own critique. Comprehensiveness of research, critical use of evidence, logical inferences, technical competence, and literary style are thoroughly evaluated and improved.

The 1958 Ph.D.s acknowledge that the success of a research seminar depends upon the students as well as upon the professor. The qualities needed in students if a seminar is to be outstanding are enviable ones. Among them are: superior intelligence; vigorous interest in the subject area; capacity for hard work under general supervision; a creative, imaginative, inventive turn of mind, tempered by critical faculties; initiative in finding sources and facts; courage to make decisions coupled with caution against making them prematurely and without necessary qualifications; systematic habits in organizing research and collecting data; competence in the use of foreign languages if the seminar treats the history of a foreign area; and ability to write lucid and vigorous prose concisely and in a well-organized pattern. All these qualities are needed as the research project is developed and the paper is prepared. Ability to perceive and accept correction, and sufficient resilience to capitalize upon self-disillusionment—these additional qualities are useful when the student’s paper is exposed to criticism.

These qualities in instructor and students can make a research seminar one of the most rewarding of all educational experiences, an apprenticeship that forms the very core of the education of historians. In seminars Ph.D. candidates come to know the excitement as well as the drudgery of scholarly research, the fun as well as the effort of historical writing. But too many or inadequate students and a slow-witted or uninterested professor can make the experience a dreary travesty of scholarship.

Directed reading courses for small groups are rated the third most valuable form of formal instruction by the Ph.D.s of 1958-the first being small seminars and the second, “individual study or research under faculty supervision.” As noted in Chapter 6, three-fourths of the Ph.D.-training departments offer directed reading courses. Whether in reading courses or independently, most Ph.D. candidates do much reading. Two-fifths (41%) of the 1958 Ph.D.s estimate that they were expected to read more than 60 books in their first field “apart from dissertation research.” But one-third (37%) estimate that they were expected to read less than 40 books in their first field. In each field that is added somewhat less reading is done, as is shown by Table 7-1. Most reading is done in English-language material: 58% of the 1958 Ph.D.s read fewer than 2 books in foreign languages while in graduate school. On the other hand, 25% read more than 10.

Table 7-1. Number of Books Recent History Ph.D.s Believe They Were Expected to Read in Various Fields of History

FieldNo. of Ph.D.s reporting for each field% of total Ph.D.s taking each field and reading—
0–20 books21–40 books41–60 booksMore than 60 books


The Ph.D.s of 1958 rate the doctoral dissertation as the fourth most valuable phase of training for college teaching. Four-fifths of the 1958 Ph.D.s (82%) strongly believe that the dissertation should be a part of the training of “college” teachers of history, and there is no disagreement about this between the group teaching in colleges and the group teaching in universities. But members of graduate faculties may be surprised to learn that only one-fifth (22%) of the recent Ph.D.s in history describe the dissertation as an “indispensable” part of the training of “college” teachers. The percentages would probably have been different if the recent Ph.D.s had simply been asked to rate the value of their training experiences without regard to the value of these as preparation for teaching. Putting the question that way, Berelson found that the recent recipients of the Ph.D. even more often than graduate faculty members-and three-fourths or more of both-regard the dissertation as the most valuable of all the facets of Ph.D. training.5

The dissertation is a major part of Ph.D. training. Graduate history faculties generally agree that it should represent twelve to eighteen months of full-time work at research and writing. Dissertations often require more effort than this, and some faculty members strongly believe that they should require more. But a majority of graduate faculty members agree that doctoral dissertations usually should be no longer than 300 typed pages in length (i.e., about 75,000 words); and although there is abundant opposition to setting an arbitrary limit on the length of dissertations, a number of high-prestige Ph.D. programs have set 300 typed pages as the maximum acceptable length. The average (median) history dissertation of 1957-1958 seems to have been about 350 pages in length, longer than those in most other disciplines. The shortest history dissertation of 1957–1958 was 145 pages long; the longest was over 1,000 pages in length. History dissertations of 2,000 pages, while mercifully rare, have been approved by graduate faculties. Faculties training doctoral candidates generally agree, however, that dissertations should be evaluated according to qualitative rather than quantitative standards (see Table 7-2).6

Table 7-2. Average Lengths of Doctoral Dissertations of 1957-1958 in Various Disciplines

DisciplineLength in pages
Political science357
Source: Adapted from Bernard Berelson, Graduate Education in the United States (New York, McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., 1960), 181.


What, then, is the dissertation supposed to be? It is, in the opinion of the training departments, at once a training experience and evidence of scholarly attainment in research, critical analysis, and writing. Two-thirds of the departments require students to explore original topics. A majority expect the dissertation also to be a contribution to knowledge, but only one-fourth demand the use of unpublished sources in dissertation research. Dissertations usually are detailed descriptive narratives. A few of the departments encourage works of synthesis (10%); a few encourage critical editing or translation (11%); but one-third (34%) of the departments state that works of synthesis are “not permitted” and at least half do not accept critical editing or translations as fulfillment of the dissertation requirement.

A few graduate faculty members believe that the dissertation should be a publishable book. A larger number (but still a minority) think it should be a work of publishable quality though it need not be published. About 1 out of 3 believes that the dissertation should be considerably reduced in scope and length and frankly viewed as a training exercise. It is worth noting, however, that the recent recipients of the Ph.D. surveyed by Berelson were less willing to regard the dissertation primarily as a training exercise than the graduate deans or members of graduate faculties; about half the members of all three groups favored less ambitious dissertations.7 A majority of graduate faculty members in history favor somewhat reducing the scope and length of dissertations while continuing to demand that they be substantial scholarly contributions.

Most members of Ph.D.-training history faculties believe students should start work on dissertation research fairly early in their graduate study. Most are willing for students to work on aspects of the dissertation in seminars or in doing the master’s thesis, and a majority encourage this. For almost one-third (31%) of the Ph.D.s of 1958, the dissertation was, in fact, an outgrowth of the master’s thesis; and two-thirds (64%) developed dissertations out of seminar research. Special dissertation-writing seminars exist at Princeton, Notre Dame, the University of Washington, and perhaps at a few other institutions. Two or three faculty members participate in the thesis writers’ seminar at Princeton, in which chapters of dissertations are presented and constructively criticized. In most Ph.D. programs, however, the student works almost exclusively under the guidance of a single faculty member (his “sponsor” or “director”) in preparing a draft of the dissertation. A faculty committee supervises the completion of the dissertation and is ultimately responsible for its acceptance or rejection.

The doctoral dissertation, net product of student and faculty labor, is fairly often the only substantial work of research scholarship in which the history Ph.D. engages in a lifetime. The dissertation is rarely a historical masterpiece but it is sometimes the beginning of one. In preparing the dissertation all Ph.D. candidates test, refine, and make sustained application of the principles of historical craftsmanship that they have been taught in research seminars. Since this process yields insight into history and historical writing that enriches college-level teaching, the dissertation stands with the research seminars at the very core of the training of historians. The student who completes one with adequate but restrained faculty help has achieved considerable maturity as a scholar.


Coming at intervals during the other work for the doctorate in history are a series of formal examinations that, by their nature, contribute to the training of Ph.D. candidates.

Foreign language examinations constitute major obstacles on the way to the Ph.D. for many candidates. Though only about 14% of all high school students in the nation (1958) study even one foreign language,8 most Ph.D. programs require candidates to pass reading knowledge examinations in two foreign languages. French and German are usually those preferred, but most Ph.D. programs allow the candidate who has good reasons for doing so to substitute another language (e.g., Russian) for French or German. Very often it is specified that the languages must be from different language groups (thus ruling out a combination of French and Spanish, two Romance languages). At least one institution requires one ancient and one modern language. In a few institutions, including some excellent ones, members of the history faculty give the foreign language examinations, and in a few cases they are administered by a graduate school committee. More generally, however, the examinations are given by the respective foreign language departments. In many universities they are based upon historical literature. Quite commonly students are allowed to use dictionaries for part or all of these examinations.

Several departments have tried to ease the burden of the requirement without eliminating one of the languages. At Harvard, where formerly Ph.D. candidates were given only “pass” or “fail” on their examinations, letter grades of A to E are now assigned; it is possible for a candidate whose dissertation demands little or no use of foreign languages to pass the examinations with low grades. Still other institutions have made it possible for some or all students to complete the Ph.D. with a reading knowledge of only one foreign language. At Chicago and Northwestern only one foreign language is required. A few other institutions allow the substitution of other types of graduate training for one foreign language examination. Thus at Stanford the candidate may substitute cognate courses for one of the foreign language examinations: “the proposed courses must form a coherent group and contribute more toward the candidate’s proficiency in history than would a second foreign language.” Still other Ph.D. programs, instead of reducing the language requirement, have demanded early demonstration of competence in foreign languages. Cornell and, more recently, the University of California (Berkeley) require students to pass one language examination before taking history courses for graduate credit. At least three other Ph.D. programs require that two foreign language examinations be passed before the student begins a second year (or the thirty-first credit hour) of graduate study.9)

Because of the foreign language requirement, some students do not go beyond the master’s degree; for others the master’s examination is the first insuperable obstacle. Three-fourths of the doctoral programs report that by the end of one year of graduate study or upon completion of the master’s degree they formally discourage students who appear to lack promise of completing the Ph.D. degree. One-fourth of the programs seem to wait until the major Ph.D. comprehensive examination to offer formal discouragement to unpromising students. Some graduate history faculties might well ask themselves, therefore, if they are screening students as early, as continuously, as systematically, and as rigorously as they should. Faculty time and institutional funds as well as the student’s investment are lost when a Ph.D. candidate, after three or more years of graduate study, fails to pass the major examination for the Ph.D. The loss is especially serious when the place the failing student has filled might have been occupied by a successful Ph.D. candidate.

To avoid this loss, some 22 departments have established a special examination to screen candidates, test their progress, and discover shortcomings while there is time to remedy them. It is sometimes given early in master’s training, but more often it is interposed between the master’s and the major Ph.D. examination. In some departments this examination is especially designed for new students who have completed the master’s degree in other institutions. It is usually relatively brief and sometimes informal, but in one institution it consists of an all-day written test plus a two-hour oral test. At Chicago this examination is written; it can simultaneously serve as an examination for the master’s degree and (if passed at a sufficiently high level) pass the doctoral candidate in two of the five fields required for the Ph.D. This examination is known variously as the “validating,” “qualifying,” or “preliminary” examination.

The terms “preliminary” and “qualifying” are more commonly reserved for a more advanced examination, often also known as the “general” or “comprehensive” examination for the Ph.D. This is the major examination for the doctoral degree. A third of the Ph.D.s of 1958 know it as the “preliminary” examination, though the somewhat less common but second most prevalent term, “general,” is more accurately descriptive of the usual scope of the examination. It is taken after two or more years of graduate study, normally after all course and foreign language requirements have been met, but before the dissertation has been completed. Usually the student is officially “admitted to candidacy” for the Ph.D. only after this examination has been passed; it is “preliminary” to admission to candidacy.

In most Ph.D. programs the general examination (as it will be called here) is given in two parts, written and oral. But there are variations. In five institutions the student’s faculty committee can decide to make the test oral only, written only, or both; in a number of other institutions it is always one or the other, not both. The examinations, written and oral alike, test the candidate’s knowledge and understanding of fields of history, not simply of history courses that have been taken. Princeton and perhaps a few other universities move the candidate from a written examination over several fields to an oral examination covering only the major field of history. A few other universities partly accomplish the same result-narrowing the scope of the oral examination-by giving a written examination over some of the fields and orally examining the candidate over the other fields (cf. the Chicago practice, cited above). Several universities waive both the written and oral examination in one or more (but never all) of the required fields of study (Brown, Clark, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Princeton, Tufts, and Tulane).

But for some reason, when both a written and an oral test are required as parts of the general examination, the oral usually covers more fields than the written examination. This can be illustrated from the experience of the Ph.D.s of 1958. Only one-third of those who were required to take work in 5 to 6 fields report that they took a written examination over that many fields; but half (47%) of them had to stand oral examination over 5 to 6 fields.

Though it tends to cover more fields, the oral examination (usually lasting about two hours) is almost always briefer than the written examination. It appears that the written examinations always last at least four to five hours; in a number of departments they amount to twenty-five or more hours of work, sometimes distributed in two, three, four, or five parts. The written examination typically includes broad questions designed to elicit long interpretative and comparative essays in which generalizations are supported by precisely stated factual information. Both written and oral tests usually seek bibliographical as well as factual knowledge.

The number of professors present at the oral examination varies from one institution to another (three, four, five, six, or more). What the oral examination in history is like has been well summarized in the description George Lyman Kittredge once gave of the examination in English literature: “Questions test … the candidate’s reading and thinking; … his ability to give a good oral account of himself and of what he knows and thinks. Questions are very varied; some are minute, some general, some specific, some vague. Some call for learning, some for nimbleness, some for thought.”10 The character of the oral examination helps to explain why the Ph.D.s of 1958 rate preparation for it above lecture courses as a valuable part of Ph.D. training.

In short, the general examination is demanding. Ph.D. candidates fear it, learn from preparation for it, and complain about it. The complaints most often heard are those Marcus W. Jernegan voiced in 1927: that the general examination often covers “more ground than should be expected of the candidate, and more minute memory-knowledge, in particular portions of the subject of history, than should be exacted.”11 Student fears of the examination are often exaggerated. Usually the examination can be taken a second time if it is failed on the first attempt. An initial failure somewhat delays the progress of the candidate toward the degree, but students who have survived several years of graduate study are not often permanently barred from access to the doctorate by one failure in the general examination. And it should be reassuring to Ph.D. candidates to know that 93% of the 1958 Ph.D.s passed the general examination in only one attempt.

When the general examination is out of the way and the dissertation has been completed, in the classical pattern of doctoral training the candidate must “defend his thesis.” Today this usually is done prosaically and in detail, chapter by chapter, as the dissertation is written. Thus some departments believe that the final examination for the Ph.D. has become a superfluous formality. At Harvard and at Michigan the candidate’s faculty committee can waive the final examination if the student’s capacity has been proven in a satisfactory fashion. At Brown the final examination is not required. But in at least 60 Ph.D.-training departments (and probably more) an oral final examination follows completion of the dissertation. In 50 of the departments it normally covers only the dissertation or the field of the dissertation. But in 10 departments it covers two or more fields; and one department at this point even adds a field over which the candidate has not previously been examined.

Several years may elapse between the passing of the general examination and the passing of the final examination, for the dissertation is often slowly completed by Ph.D. candidates who teach full time in colleges with high teaching loads and inadequate library resources. In the fall of 1958, when Ph.D.-training departments reported 1,955 Ph.D. candidates (post-master’s students) as “enrolled and on campus,” they reported 1,210 others as not on campus but working toward completion of the Ph.D. In the fall of 1959 the U.S. Office of Education asked departments offering doctoral training to estimate the number of Ph.D. candidates who had completed all requirements except the dissertation “at least 3 years ago” and whom they would be willing to recommend for a one-year fellowship “to enable them to finish the dissertation.” History departments (58) reported 315 such persons, more than in any other discipline except Education and English-and-dramatic arts.12 Financial support for these people would enable many college teachers to complete the degree and thus raise their own morale along with the degree qualifications of the faculties on which they serve.


Research seminars and the dissertation constitute the core of Ph.D. training in history. A majority of history Ph.D. candidates take at least four semesters of research seminars and a large majority of the recent Ph.D.s would supplement these with a course in historiography or philosophies of history for all doctoral candidates.

The dissertation continues to be an original and a substantial study in which the Ph.D. candidate proves his capacity for critical research and literary craftsmanship. But there is a growing conviction in this as in other matters involved in graduate education that emphasis must be placed on quality of performance rather than on quantity of effort.

Most history Ph.D.s now study several fields of history of medium or small scope, but only about one-third study more than four fields of history. About five-sixths study at least one cognate field. Research seminars are often taken in at least two fields. Lecture courses play a major part in doctoral training but are not popular among recent Ph.D.s.

Most Ph.D. programs continue to require candidates to demonstrate reading knowledge of two modern foreign languages. But two different types of modifications have been made in this requirement in recent years: (1) a few Ph.D. programs have required examination in one foreign language for admission to graduate study in history, or have set early deadlines by which an examination must be passed; but (2) a few other Ph.D. programs have reduced the requirement to one foreign language. It appears that few doctoral candidates offering United States history as a major field read foreign language material as part of their doctoral training, and interviews reveal that few use foreign languages in postdoctoral research.

Most Ph.D. programs try to discourage students who show in master’s training that they lack ability to do satisfactory work for the Ph.D. But some Ph.D. programs need to screen students earlier and more rigorously than they do.

The general examination continues to be a serious trial for history doctoral candidates, though more than nine-tenths of all those who actually earn the Ph.D. degree pass it in only one attempt. What follows-completing the dissertation-is the obstacle in doctoral studies that most prolongs the process of earning a Ph.D. Financial aid that will enable Ph.D. candidates to complete the dissertation before accepting regular teaching appointments is the only real solution to this basic problem, though somewhat less ambitious dissertation topics can sometimes help.

Candidates who complete satisfactory dissertations seldom-it appears-fail the final examination for the Ph.D.; its partial or complete abolition has been accomplished by at least three Ph.D. programs and is being considered by others.

Until a few years ago direct efforts at teacher training had no part in Ph.D. programs in history, but many departments now make some attempt to prepare candidates as teachers of history (see Chapter 9). There is a widespread belief that more should do so, as the next chapter shows.

Next section: Major Criticisms of Ph.D. Training


  1. Hesseltine and Kaplan, “Doctors of Philosophy in History,” 769-770. []
  2. Prepublication data on 143 Ph.D.s from a study by the Southern Regional Education Board, 1958-1960; our own data on 182 Ph.D.s of 1958. []
  3. See the American Historical Association presidential address by William L. Langer, “The Next Assignment,” American Historical Review, LXIII (January, 1958), 283-304; and the similar recommendation by Wilhelm Dilthey in the late nineteenth century. []
  4. A survey of a related discipline in 1951 recommended that a course in scope and method during the first year of graduate study should be “an inflexible requirement of all graduate institutions.” (From Dimock and Hawley [eds.], Goals for Political Science, 266. []
  5. Berelson, Graduate Education, 176. []
  6. The reader may readily form an impression of the scope of doctoral dissertations in history and current trends by consulting the lists published periodically by the American Historical Association. See, e.g., List of Doctoral Dissertations in History in Progress or Completed at Colleges and Universities in the United States since 1955 (Washington, 1958). []
  7. Berelson, Graduate Education, 174. []
  8. Report by William R. Parker in Byrnes (ed.), The Non-Western Areas in Undergraduate Education in Indiana, 56. James Bryant Conant’s observation during an intensive study of American high school education needs to be repeated here: “Almost without exception, I found a deplorable state of affairs in regard to foreign languages.” (From The American High School Today: A First Report to Interested Citizens [New York, 1959], 69.) In 1958 only 44% of the public high schools of the United States offered foreign language instruction. By contrast, every secondary school child in the U.S.S.R. received instruction in one foreign language for six years, beginning in the fifth year of schooling. U.S. Office of Education, Soviet Commitment to Education, 10. []
  9. It may be worth noting that a committee of the American Political Science Association in 1951 recommended that “if there is any validity” in the foreign language requirement “it should be rigidly enforced, and at the very beginning of graduate study.” (From Dimock and Hawley [eds.], Goals for Political Science, 274. []
  10. Quoted by Wilson, The Academic Man, 47. []
  11. Jernegan, “Productivity of Doctors of Philosophy in History,” 15. []
  12. Chase, Doctoral Study, 31. []