Earning a Doctorate in History ~~ How Many Years Does It Take?
What the Catalog Says
Recently, a former student of mine who is considering graduate school asked me for some information about how long it would take him to earn a Ph.D. He recently earned a B.A. in history and I know he is very intelligent and a disciplined and motivated student, but I also know he wants and needs an honest answer about what the next four to seven years will be like if he pursues a doctorate. So here is what I told Dan about Emory University and my experiences there.
The Official Emory Catalog Answer from the 1980's - 1990's regarding their M.A. / Ph.D. Program. You will need to take two full years of coursework (four history courses per semester plus enough language courses to pass two translation exams) and write two seminar papers (40-70 pages each instead of a thesis) to meet the Master of Arts qualifications.
Without taking a break you continue your studies by (1) writing a prospectus for the dissertation (15-40 pages outline and summary of your “planned dissertation” including a list of sources and archives to be used and visited, (2) contact and convince four senior Emory faculty to serve on your dissertation committee / read your work / make editing suggestions, etc.
And (3) begin reading and studying (3-6 months) in order to take your comprehensive exams seven essays in seven hours - five on one day, two on the next, oral questioning for three hours by all four professors on your committee on the third day. If you fail your comprehensive exams, there is no re-do or re-take, what you receive at that point is your Masters and you must leave the program.
Having passed those hurdles, you have one and a half to two years in which to complete your research and write the dissertation. In the same time period you also design, prepare, and teach an introductory course one semester and serve as a professor’s teaching or research assistant for a year - about ten hours a week. So Emory describes it as a four year program and they do provide a stipend for four years if they offer you a full scholarship.
What History Graduates Say
You can choose to go on your own dime, but it cost over 60,000 dollars when I was there and it is now over 100,000 dollars – that is what it costs for a degree in the Arts and Humanities. It is considerably more for a law or medical degree. It is a very expensive school, but when I was there they were generous...full scholarship and 12,000 a year stipend to live off of for four years.
My personal experience answer based on the History Graduate Program and an entering class of “twelve.” In the 1990’s most entering classes in History had 10-12 students; that was the maximum number that Emory could financially support at the time. Two of my peers did indeed graduate in exactly four years; they were doing American history dissertations and had no need to travel or conduct research overseas – they were also both single.
Two of the cohort finished in five years, two in six years, two in seven years, and two never finished at all so they left with an M.A. They either failed their Comprehensive Exams or couldn’t pass the two language translation exams, for example my two languages were German and French, someone else’s might have been Russian and Ukrainian. Failing comps or the translation exams are the two most common reasons people leave graduate school without completing their doctorate.
Which leaves two, me and my best friend at Emory. So I want to be honest about how long it took us, but I also want to explain our circumstances, and truthfully everyone’s circumstances are different. You will need to be a realistic planner. Do not plan on working more than 10-15 hours a week. Emory only accepts full-time students and honestly, it was easily twice the reading and writing load of my undergraduate studies at Kennesaw State University.
Unanticipated Circumstances Intervene
Except for extreme lack of sleep and exhaustion, things went well the first two years of the program. But I had three sons and my 12 year old was playing with matches and set the house on fire. Thank fully, no one was injured and our three cats survived, but that is another story. We moved out of the house for four months and lived with friends while the house was being rebuilt.
Fortunately, my computer with all my research survived and all the rest of my notes and books were locked in a tiny study carrel in the Emory Woodruff library. Two of my grandparents died that same year and I had a lot of family obligations because my mother had died some years earlier. Due to these circumstances I was permitted to take my comprehensive exams six months later than usual as a result, which simply meant that almost three of my four years were already behind me.
I started doing intense research and applying for research grants and awards. I won two awards which allowed me to spend five weeks one summer conducting research at the National Archives and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and six weeks the following summer at the United States Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.
The fall of my fourth year I taught my required course and continued doing research. Early in December one of my professors, Dr. Judith Miller a French Historian, was diagnosed with leukemia and the History Department asked me to teach her spring course, Western Civilization (she recovered and continued teaching at Emory).
Two weeks later my Dr. Douglas Unfug, my dissertation director ’s, wife suddenly died and I took over his senior level Modern Germany course. I had never taught these courses before so it was all I could do to be prepared and stay ahead of my students. Research, reading, and note-taking took a back seat in my life for most of that semester.
More Unexpected Circumstances
I probably had two of eight planned chapters written by that point. The summer after my fourth year at Emory my husband filed for divorce and moved to New York to become the next great American Poet. I could keep working toward my dissertation as long as I paid Emory 250 $ every semester, but their financial support for me was over.
So while staying calm, cursing in private, and watching out for my three sons’ emotional and mental health, I began an intense search for a job. I am a terrible typist, a very average cashier and nobody much wanted a Twentieth Century European Historian – almost. I sent out application letters and resumes to the twenty colleges closest to Atlanta.
Mercifully, a temporary position came open at the State University of West Georgia (seventy minutes from my house – not great, but doable) and I was hired as an instructor and taught there for two years. The department chair, faculty and staff were very good to me and I was able to support my family with no trouble.
The next two years were very difficult because I taught as an adjunct part-time instructor for terrible compensation – about nine dollars an hour, at three different colleges. I took out a twenty thousand dollar educational loan (I was technically still enrolled at Emory) to get through those two years when all three of my sons were in high school.
Reinhardt and Ruth - Triumphs and Travails
Then I was hired full - time at Reinhardt College. Each summer between teaching, I basically managed to write one chapter of my dissertation. My dissertation director was incredibly supportive and patient. Early in my second year at Reinhardt, the new President informed me I would be terminated at the end of the year if I hadn’t finished my dissertation and graduated by May.
He actually threatened two of us who were in ABD status (all requirements completed except dissertation) so at least he wasn’t just out to get me. (By the way, at the end of the next year, with the help of the college faculty, the Board of Trustees removed him because of all his improper and perhaps illegal behavior while president.)
With the extraordinary support, help, and kindness of the Social Sciences Division Director, my supervisor, Dr. Curt Lindquist, I managed to write the final chapter, conclusion, and works cited / bibliography pages (67 pp) while teaching that year at Reinhardt. I received my PhD May, 2000. So it took me four years at Emory, five summers and a semester while I was at Reinhardt to finish – ten years total, but seven devoted to the degree.
My friend Ruth also had a long and winding path. She sustained a back injury at the end of her second year and had to delay her comps for six months. Next, she spent 18 months living in France doing research. When she came home she got pregnant and had a baby – still doing research but at a much slower pace.
Ruth's Future and Your Future
Ruth's husband an anesthesiologist finished his studies at Emory and they moved to Columbus to establish his practice. As she was already thirty-five, she chose to have two more children before she turned forty, which meant her dissertation was on hold for several years. In her early forties she home-schooled her eldest son for three years, then returned to her research and finished the dissertation in time to graduate in 2003. She teaches part–time and now has a houseful of teenagers.
Because it took us so long, Ruth and I once looked up the statistics. Business PhD’s average three to four years, English and Religion about five, History and Philosophy about seven. So if seven is the average, then the normal range really is four to ten. That made us feel a little bit better about ourselves. :)
I want you to know as you embark on a Graduate Studies adventure, that Emory is an amazing university, but they are very selective and the cost is insane unless they give you a scholarship.
Getting a scholarship will largely depend on (1) your grades (2) the essay you write about your experiences and future plans as an educator (3) faculty recommendations from RU (that will be no problem) and (4) your GRE scores.
I have a lot of advice about the GRE, so come by the office and let’s talk. Sorry for the lengthy response. I am excited for you whatever you decide to do. :) Dr. Ast
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