Preliminary Certification

Before you can move on to candidacy for the Ph.D. (become ABD – "all but dissertation"), you must receive Preliminary Certification from the department. Preliminary Certification is confirmation by a committee of advisors that:

  • You have a strong conceptual grasp of the leading scholarship in the fields most relevant to your areas of interest.
  • You have developed independent positions on major historiographical issues or, in fields outside history, developed independent positions on major theoretical and methodological issues.
  • You are ready to teach topics within the fields.
  • You have the research tools, including language skills, and intellectual maturity to undertake independent dissertation research.

You will demonstrate your readiness to undertake independent dissertation research by submitting a portfolio of your best work to-date. The portfolio format, modeled on the tenure dossier, is intended to combine a set of minimum requirements (most of which is completed in the normal progression through coursework during years one and two) with sufficient flexibility to allow the students to display their historical knowledge, historiographical vision, and methodological skills to their best advantage. These minimum requirements include basic knowledge of historical methods, critical engagement with secondary literatures, ability to work with primary sources, clarity of written communication, and evidence of teaching ability.

NOTE: Ordinarily a student registered for full-time study should pass the preliminary examination by the end of the third year. If you have not passed your examination by this time, you must file with the Dean of the Graduate School a statement approved by the DGS in the major department, explaining the delay and setting a date for the examination. Except under unusual circumstances, extension will not be granted beyond the middle of the fourth year. For more information, see the Graduate School's Student Handbook.

Portfolio Timeline

One of the advantages of the portfolio system is that all work (potentially) counts towards the prelim. You will begin assembling your portfolios during your first year in the program, which is to say before you have finalized your choice of fields or faculty examiners. The process of organizing and reorganizing the material you produce in classes and in independent studies will help identify both your prelim fields and your examiners in a more timely manner. Though fields are intended to be subject-oriented, exceptional work of any sort that demonstrates the student's quality of mind or acquisition of relevant skills may also be included in the portfolio.

You and your examiners should agree upon the expected content of each field section of your portfolio when the faculty member agrees to examine you (i.e. during the your first two years in the program) and you should meet to discuss the student's progress as elements of their field section are completed.

Years One & Two

Most of a portfolio's contents will have been produced during your first two years in the program. Students typically write at least three historiographical essays, or the equivalent (annotated bibliographies and/or series of book reviews), during their first year. All students are required to take two research seminars in which they produce two research papers. Students also produce two undergraduate course syllabi as well as a videotaped lecture in HISTORY 703S Focusing on Teaching and Pedagogy.

End of Year Two

By the end of the second year, you will have determined your fields and found faculty members willing to direct each one. During the summer between the second and third year into the beginning of the third year, students formulate reading lists and present work completed to-date to the members of their committee.

Each field examiner will inform the student in writing of any revisions or additional material they would like to see displayed in their field section of the portfolio, as soon as possible and not later than October 15 of the student's third year. This communication between faculty and student takes the form of a contract, signed by the faculty examiner and submitted to the DGS for approval. After this contract is complete, faculty may not request additional material.

Year Three

The third year will be largely devoted to the dissertation prospectus, to writing any synthetic essays required by field examiners, and to making any required revisions of material in the portfolio. Students write broad synthetic essays in response to questions a faculty examiner may pose based on a previous preliminary exam format, but students may complete the essays without the time constraints of the actual exam format. Faculty examiners may also request revisions either have substandard work brought up to par or, in the case of already excellent work, to have it submitted for publication.

You must complete at least one field section of your portfolio by the end of the fall semester of your third year. Most students complete a draft of their dissertation prospectus in HISTORY 704S Focusing on Preparing Portfolios for Preliminary Certification and distribute the draft to each member of their committee at that time in preparation for spring defense.

All students must submit a draft prospectus to each member of their committee at least three months before the portfolio defense. The remaining field sections of the portfolio must be submitted to each committee member no later than four weeks before the scheduled exam.

All field supervisors must submit a detailed written assessment of their field to the student and to the committee members two weeks after they receive the student's material. A final version of a dissertation prospectus and an intellectual agenda must be distributed to all committee members at least two weeks before the portfolio defense.

When all of the Portfolio content requirements have been completed, the faculty examiner for each of the student's fields will evaluate the relevant field section of the student's portfolio, submitting a detailed written assessment to the student, the student's major advisor, and the DGS. Upon receipt of faculty assessments of all sections of the portfolio, the student's major advisor will review the portfolio in its entirety, including the dissertation prospectus and intellectual agenda, at which point they will notify the student, other committee members, and the DGS as to whether the student may proceed to the oral examination.

Portfolio Requirements

Every portfolio must contain:

  1. Thematically organized reading lists displaying the chronological, geographical, and topical contours of each of the student's fields.
    – Each student's portfolio will be divided into three or four fields of specialization.
    – Students will decide whether to prepare one or two minor fields in consultation with their major advisor.
    – These lists may be partially annotated should the student choose or the faculty examiner require. However, students cannot be required to annotate more than fifty entries on a major list field, twenty entries on a minor field list, or ten entries on an outside field list.
  2. Historiographic essays – at least one and no more than four, the equivalent in scope and length of a published review article in a journal.
  3. Research papers – at least one and no more than two, the equivalent in scope and length of a research based journal article.
  4. Book reviews – at least one and no more than five, along the lines of those published in scholarly journals.
  5. One grant proposal
  6. Teaching material
  7. Dissertation prospectus
  8. An intellectual agenda – this is a statement of no more than three thousand words explaining how the student's fields and proposed dissertation cohere.

In addition to the required material listed above:

  • Faculty examiners may ask you to write synthetic essays displaying a more comprehensive view of a field than is typically evidenced in papers written for more narrowly focused courses or independent studies. These essays would be similar to those currently submitted as written exams, but you would not have to work under the present time constraints. This requirement must be stipulated in the contract between you and your examiner submitted at the beginning of the third year, with the question or topic fully described therein. Students may not be required to produce more than two such essays, of no more than three thousand words each, for any one field.
  • You may also include an appendix of additional material such as conference papers, op ed or other journalistic interventions relating to your historical expertise, public history contributions, visual material, and the like, in short, anything you believe reflects favorably on your scholarly or teaching potential. The appendix may also include exemplary material produced in course work or elsewhere on topics outside the geographical or temporal parameters of your prelim fields.

Beyond serving as the preliminary certification rubric, our hope is that the portfolio will be of continuing use to our students. We encourage you to view the portfolio as a resource and continue to deposit any material you might wish to submit with job applications or that your might utilize for course preparation, research, and the like.

Field Types

How portfolio materials are distributed across a student’s fields will vary depending upon the kinds of courses offered in the different fields. The amount of material in each field section will also vary depending on whether it is the student's major, minor, or outside field.

The contents of outside fields will be considerably less than that submitted for major and minor fields. An outside field may be represented by a single essay written for a class or independent study or by an essay written in the third year describing how the field in question illuminates the student's intellectual agenda.

Students are required to submit one major field, one or two minor fields, and one outside field. A faculty examiner will evaluate each field and provide the student with written guidelines identifying the kind and quantity of material the student should display in their portfolio.

Major Fields

Major fields should be defined along the lines of an undergraduate survey course or job listing in AHA Perspectives. This is the primary teaching field, the one in which the student is most likely to be applying for jobs. Examples of a major field are:

  • Modern Britain, 1688-present
  • U.S. History
  • Modern Latin America and the Caribbean
  • Medieval Europe

Minor Fields

Minor fields are specializations within the broader major field or closely related to it. In consultation with their advisors, students will decide whether they need to prepare one or two minor fields. Using the major fields listed above, examples of minor fields might include:

Major Field (1)
  • Modern Britain, 1688-present
  • U.S. History
  • Modern Latin America and the Caribbean
  • Medieval Europe
Minor Field (2a)
  • British Empire
  • U.S. South
  • Afro-Latin American and Caribbean history
  • The Crusades
Minor Field (2b)
  • U.S. Labor History
  • Venezuela

Outside Fields

Outside fields will be significantly different from the major and minor fields in chronological period, geographical location, or discipline. These fields may provide comparative perspective or follow transnational connections; they may also provide interdisciplinary perspective or methodological training. Based on the examples listed above, a full slate of fields (some with three, some with four) might include:

Major Field (1)
  • Modern Britain, 1688-present
  • U.S. History
  • Modern Latin America and the Caribbean
  • Medieval Europe
Minor Field (2a)
  • British Empire
  • U.S. South
  • Afro-Latin American and Caribbean history
  • The Crusades
Minor Field (2b)
  • U.S. Labor History
  • Venezuela
Outside Field (3)
  • Colonial Africa
  • Pre-colonial Africa
  • African American Women
  • History of Islam

Approval of Portfolio Fields

Each field section of the portfolio must be approved by the committee member designated by you as the examiner for that field submitting a detailed written assessment to you, your major advisor, and the DGS. Upon receipt of faculty assessments of all sections of the portfolio, your major advisor will review the portfolio in its entirety, including the dissertation prospectus and intellectual agenda, at which point they will notify you, other committee members, and the DGS as to whether you may proceed to the oral examination. This approval will take the form of a written evaluation, signed by the faculty examiner and submitted to the DGS and committee chair.

If a faculty examiner refuses to approve their field section of your portfolio:

(A) You may proceed to the oral discussion of the prospectus if theirs is a fourth field and the other three fields have been approved by their examiners and the committee chair. Successful completion of the preliminary examination requires at least three affirmative votes and no more than one negative vote.

NOTE: The sole exception to this policy is that a negative vote cast by the chair of the examining committee will mean a failure on the examination.

A student who fails the preliminary examination may apply, with the consent of the full supervisory committee and Dean of the Graduate School, for the privilege of a second examination to be taken no earlier than three months after the date of the first. Successful completion of the second examination requires the affirmative vote of all committee members. Failure on the second examination will render a student ineligible to continue a program for the Ph.D. degree at Duke University. (See Duke Graduate School Ph.D. Degree Requirements for more information.)

(B) You may substitute another faculty examiner (which may or may not require redefining the field) if time permits. At least three months before the defense, the student must complete the Graduate School's Preliminary Committee Approval Form (available from the DGSA), and return it to be forwarded to the administration. The Associate Dean of the Graduate School must approve the Committee listed on this form at least two months before the defense, and any changes in the committee require the completion and approval of the same form again.

NOTE: Please be aware that these are Graduate School rules and the History Department cannot change them.

If more than one faculty examiner refuses to approve their field in your portfolio you have the option of convening the entire committee to appeal their decision and to defend orally your preparation to proceed to the dissertation phase of the program. If you fail the oral, you will be allowed to reschedule the exam but only if the entire committee supports this recommendation and with the approval of the Senior Associate Dean of the Graduate School.

Oral Discussion

Your entire committee will participate in the two-hour oral discussion of the prelim portfolio. In addition to field examiners, you may wish to include on the committees additional members whose involvement may be limited to their teaching material or to the dissertation prospectus.

Although the committee may wish to explore the relationship among your different fields as well as your overall historical vision or larger intellectual agenda during the oral, the dissertation prospectus will be the primary focus in most cases.

While ordinarily it is expected that a student whose portfolio has been pre-approved will pass on to the dissertation stage, graduate school regulation preclude the History Department from offering any assurances to a student that they have passed their preliminary examination until the oral examination has actually occurred. Therefore, it is only at the close of the oral that the committee may decide whether you have passed or failed their preliminary examination. Success is expected, but although regarded as unlikely, failure to pass may also be the result.

The oral discussion must take place no later than the last Friday of April for students pursuing certification at the end of spring semester and no later than the first Friday in December for students pursuing certification at the end of fall semester.

PLEASE NOTE: Students who fail to defend their portfolio by the end of their third year risk not being allowed to continue in the program. Permission to schedule an oral in the fall of their fourth year will be granted in exceptional circumstances only and requires the permission of the Senior Associate Dean of the Graduate School.