Progress Toward Degree Requirement

In History, the time needed to prepare a dissertation varies widely. There are intellectual variables (e.g. background preparation, availability of research materials, need for special language or computational skills) which when combined with less scholarly, but no less important considerations (e.g. travel needs, finances, health, loved ones, the political and economic state of the world), influence the dissertation research and writing process.

Ordinarily a student registered for full-time study should receive preliminary certification by the end of their third year. A student who has not been certified by this time 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. 

The Graduate School has a firm policy on unfinished dissertations, expecting completion in History within four calendar years after passage of the preliminary exam. If the dissertation has not been submitted within four years of the preliminary exam, a student must request a continuation extension through the DGS. If you are beyond the deadline, the DGS and the Graduate School will contact you in the spring semester and ask for:

  1. A detailed work plan and an expected date of completion.
  2. A supporting letter from your advisor.

The DGS will then write a recommendation and submit the materials to the Dean of the Graduate School. The Graduate school usually makes continuation decisions in mid-summer. If this extension is granted and the dissertation is not submitted and accepted by the new deadline, a student's situation becomes precarious in the following ways:

  • First, a student may be dropped from candidacy by the Graduate School though petitions for further extensions are sometimes possible.
  • Second, the Graduate School may require that a student must pass a second preliminary exam, as determined by the DGS, to be reinstated as a candidate for the degree.
  • Third, if more than five years elapse between the preliminary and final examinations, the Graduate School can require the department to submit to the Dean specific requirements for revalidating course credits.

Progress Goals for Ph.D. Students in Their First Three Years

The following discussion deals with the pedagogical assumptions of the graduate curriculum, suggesting general guidelines for your intellectual trajectory in the Duke History Department in your first three years. We hope these guidelines will help orient your and make sense of your coursework; we similarly hope that the guidelines will assist faculty as they develop either readings or research seminars for our graduate students.

Obviously, not every graduate student will hit these intellectual milestones at exactly the same times or in the same combinations. In some fields, foreign language study, methodological training, and/or the need to travel to distant archives may result in a different pace through the program. In a similar vein, the terms of some students' grants may preclude experience in teaching until after the first few years in the program. We nonetheless believe that you will greatly benefit from having a clear sense of the general logic of the department's curriculum, and its more specific academic goals, as you proceed through the program. We similarly believe that the members of the graduate faculty should keep these goals in mind as they counsel to their advisees and teach their graduate courses.

By the end of the first year, a student making good progress in the program should have developed a basic familiarity with what distinguishes history as an academic discipline and how the concepts and methodologies used by historians overlap with and diverge from those of other disciplines. You should have ranged outside your primary fields of interest in coursework, while also building on preexisting knowledge in a primary field, developing a familiarity with crucial scholarly debates in that field. By this time, you should be developing an independent scholarly agenda, reading beyond assigned books and articles, and forming at least tentative ideas of your likely preliminary examination field, as well as the likely membership of your preliminary examination committee.

A graduate student who has entered the Ph.D. program without pursuing a Master's degree elsewhere should have moved well beyond the intellectual horizons of even the best undergraduates, seeing themselves as an individual who is learning how to create and disseminate historical knowledge.

As a READER, your should demonstrate the ability to:

  • identify the central arguments of particular scholarly works
  • assess the use of evidence by historians
  • relate a given piece of history to larger intellectual trends and debates
  • interpret primary sources imaginatively and with attention to context

As a WRITER, you should demonstrate:

  • the capacity to fashion clear and engaging prose
  • skill in executing key disciplinary genres, such as the book review and the historiographic essay

As a RESEARCHER, you should demonstrate:

  • creativity in devising strategies to corroborate evidence in a primary source
  • familiarity with a range of research methodologies, including some approaches that extend beyond previous experience in historical research
  • familiarity in finding and using a wide range of historical primary sources – archival, printed, visual, oral, and virtual
  • familiarity in identifying scholarship on a particular subject, through both traditional library techniques, and the use of web databases
  • familiarity with note-taking software, extending to significant experience in using such software to organize research work and assist in research-related writing
  • facility in developing compelling research questions from rich historical documents or from vibrant scholarly debates
  • facility in connecting those questions to plausible research agendas, with sensible methodological approaches, clear historiographic relevance, and accessible primary sources

As a SEMINAR PARTICIPANT, you should demonstrate the ability to:

  • ask good questions – of historical works, of pieces of historical evidence, and of other members in the seminar
  • engage in constructive criticism of research methodology and use of evidence
  • think on your feet
  • disagree agreeably, and listen constructively to the agreeable disagreements of others

At the end of the second year of courses, we expect you to have identified clear fields of study, ones that balance intensive intellectual focus with chronological and geographic breadth. Students making good progress should have a deeper grasp of the relationship between history and its related disciplines in the social sciences and humanities, and a sharper sense of how to relate wide-angle synthetic views of the past to more particular scholarly inquiries.

As a READER, you should show:

  • a more sophisticated capacity to assess the strengths of scholarship, along with its weaknesses
  • greater skills in conceptualizing particular historical fields – in periodizing change within those fields, and relating specific developments to more global contexts
  • significant progress toward fulfillment of the department's language requirements

As a WRITER, you should demonstrate the ability to:

  • conceptualize a complex historical argument
  • complete two strong essays based on original research and reflecting solid historical logic; these essays will typically constitute the research component for the M.A. degree
  • engage effectively with constructive criticism – when advisable, reconceive the basic contours of an historical argument, rework narrative flow, and/or tighten up presentations of evidence or historiography

As a RESEARCHER, you should have:

  • demonstrated the ability to craft and refine a research problem of appropriate scale for a semester-long project
  • developed extensive familiarity with Perkins-Bostock Library and its databases, building on the training provided in the first-year course on research methods (HISTORY 702)
  • had some significant experience in working in archives beyond Duke, subject to the availability of funding to support such work
  • pursued extended detective work, both bibliographic and archival, in the research for the year's two research papers
  • kept track of "data" in a system (e.g. database software) that works for the individual student
  • placed research findings within broader historical and historiographic frameworks, shown the capacity to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the methodologies used in the two research papers, and as a result come to possess a healthy respect for the difficulties of connecting historiographical debates to concrete research agendas

As a TEACHER, you should have begun:

  • to develop the basic skills of leading section discussions, fostering close readings by students, and responding constructively to student writing
  • to develop the crucial skill of synthesizing large amounts of material into accessible public presentations, such as the lecture
  • to find your way around the key information technologies used in the collegiate teaching of history
  • the process of developing syllabi
  • the process of developing innovative assignments
  • to develop the basic skills of overseeing undergraduate research


  • developed the skill of leading a discussion in a graduate seminar context
  • engaged substantively, intensively, and constructively with the research and writing of fellow students, particularly in the context of research seminars
  • honed the skill of posing challenging questions in public settings, whether in seminars or public presentations
  • participated regularly in departmental, university, and area intellectual events, such as a lectures, seminars, or workshops


  • developed grant-writing skills, and applied for at least one competitive grant beyond Duke
  • attended at least one professional meeting, whether regional, national, or international

After your first year of study at Duke, you are required, as a condition of your enrollment, to file an annual written report with the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) that discusses your progress towards the Ph.D. degree.

Process and Timeline

The DGS will circulate a letter no later than May 1 outlining what types of information this report should encompass.

Your annual report should be submitted to the DGS by May 15.

The department (through the DGS) must subsequently certify to the Associate Dean of the Graduate School that this report has been received and that it shows you have made satisfactory progress in the academic year just concluded. If the DGS has any doubt that satisfactory progress has been made, she/he will forward a copy of report to the faculty members of the Graduate Committee, and to your doctoral committee for further consideration and discussion. The Graduate School tracks annual reports as a “milestone” in your official record. Failure to submit an annual progress report will jeopardize your continuation in the graduate program.

If you have not completed coursework or preliminary certification, your report should identify the likely schedule of courses still to be taken, the likely dates at which you will submit a portfolio for preliminary certification, and plans to fulfill language requirements if not yet completed.

If you are ABD ("all but dissertation"), the report should describe progress on your dissertation research, identify any portions of completed written work, establish a clear timeline for completion of any remaining chapters of the dissertation, and set a target date for final defense.

At the beginning of every academic year, advisors must meet with their ABD advisees.  Together they should draw up a shared set of goals, which will be forwarded to the DGS.  These goals are non-binding and informal but will serve as a benchmark when reflecting on progress over the year. 

At the end of the year, advisors will reflect on the year in a report to the DGS similar to the annual reports that ABD students currently produce (see above); they may consult their advisee’s report when doing so.  Advisors’ reports will be due May 20 and will describe how advisor and advisee have collectively progressed toward their shared goals