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Earning a Doctorate in History ~~ How Many Years Does It Take?

Updated on May 22, 2013
phdast7 profile image

Theresa Ast earned a PhD (Emory) in European History and has taught history for 20 years. "Confronting the Holocaust" available at AMAZON..


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


Your Comments are Welcome and Appreciated

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    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Thank you shanmarie for your generous comments. If I had been married to a man who made lots of money and clearly intended to support me and my children, I don't know that I would have kept going; there were so many times I wanted to quit. And I think most people's (or a lot of people anyway) will have those unexpected hurdles, so its good to think about them and be sure you want whatever it is you start pursuing. Because chances are its not going to be as easy as the "talking heads" say it will be. :) Thank you again for your kind words. Theresa

    • shanmarie profile image

      shanmarie 5 years ago

      Even though you're being so honest and realistic, it is still an inspirational story. I understand about displacement due to a house fire, especially, but life throws so many unexpected hurdles in the path and yet you still persevered. What an accomplishment!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      You are very kind Lurana. Even without crazy or unexpected crises, it take a long time and a lot of determination, which is really what I wanted to convey to my ex-student. It is a worthy goal and a great accomplishment, but seldom is there smooth sailing and I wanted him to be prepared. :) Have a wonderful weekend.. Theresa

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 5 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Wow, I am sorry to hear about your unfortunate circumstances, especially the house fire! It clearly took tremendous dedication to continue, and you are to be applauded. It is a true service to your student and others to be forthright about the challenges they may encounter (bad luck aside!). In admiration, Lurana

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 5 years ago from TEXAS

      It is evident that your parents left a legacy of love of learning to you and your siblings, along with the ability to accomplish much!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Oh, typos, they are my bailiwick. I am a dreadful, "watch my fingers" typist. Thanks for posting this to Facebook. :) Blessings.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      No worries Nellieana - I knew you had a teaching degree and I just thought you had managed an MBA as well. After all you are a woman of many talents and have led a well-rounded and interesting life. :) Tutoring someone else is indeed an education all on its own. And simply reading -- curiosity and reading, which I know you have and do. My father passed the GRE at 18 with his broken Polish/English and then spent the rest of his life reading and learning about all manner of things. He certainly passed his curiosity and love of learning on to his four children. :) Have a wonderful Sunday. Theresa

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 5 years ago from TEXAS

      Er - I've 'loved learning . . .' that is. Seems that my fingers love making typos! :-D

      I forgot to mention that I did post referral to your hub on my Facebook page, where it's received some comments.

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 5 years ago from TEXAS

      Oh, my! I didn't clarify and don't want to leave a false impression, Theresa! I've a speckled university background! A mere BS and a semester toward an MS in education while accomplishing my Texas certification as a secondary teacher. I've love learning and intellectual challenges all my life, too.

      I didn't proceed to the MBA after I had passed the GRE to enter the program at age 48, but took a different route.

      My further higher education has been a combination of personal pursuit and vicarious tutoring of my first husband all through his undergraduate and graduate degrees; all with no graduate degrees of my own.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

      Your review of what it takes to earn a doctorate in history should be helpful to many students, especially because it includes the stuff and such of life that can easily sidetrack if a student does not persevere down the path to their goal. Interesting, too. :)

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Good Morning Faith. It was a rough ten years, but I loved my studies, and my children, and eventually the results were that I ended up with a job I really love and that I could support myself and my children. Your daughter is a good example of what happens with a lot of young people -- after a very pricey education, they end up working in an entirely different field.

      I remember the up till 3:00 am days, I certainly sympathize with how incredibly difficult that must have been. People who haven't done it can't even imagine... Like you, I am glad those days are way behind us. Don't think I could do in my fifties what I did in my thirties. I actually need sleep now. :) Thanks for the comments and votes and I hope you have a wonderful weekend. :) Theresa

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Good evening Nellieanna. I didn't plan for it to be a spell-binder, but if you say so, then I am glad that it was. I just wanted Dan to realize that life happens and there is no way to know for sure how long something like that will take. There were a lot of struggles and tribulations, but what I didn't emphasize, and I should have, is that I love learning, reading, debating, researching, arguing even. It is all so intellectually invigorating to me.

      Losing Ruth was a tragedy I am sure, but I am glad she was pursuing something she wanted right up to the end. An MBA, by the way, is no small accomplishment. Good for you! Thank you for the congratulations-- sometimes I do forget what the three boys and I went through in those ten years. Quite a lot! :) Theresa

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Nelieanna - Just got home a few moments ago. It is absolutely not a problem at all. Theresa

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 5 years ago from TEXAS

      P.S. I rarely refer any hub to Facebook, but that is where my darlings meet and mingle; so I did post the link on my page there, Theresa! Let me know if that is any problem for you!

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 5 years ago from southern USA

      Whew!!! God bless you dearest Theresa!!! You certainly deserved it after all of that no doubt!!!

      My daughter received a degree in Fine Arts at the tune of over $100,000.00 and she is working in the field of Forensic Sciences! LOL

      Thanks for this interesting and thorough review of all the hard work that goes into getting a degree.

      I know I wound up going at night from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. four nights during the week, after working all day long at a full-time job, and having children too. So, I was up until 3:00 a.m. studying.

      Glad those days are long gone!

      Voted up ++++

      God bless, Faith Reaper

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 5 years ago from TEXAS

      When I began reading this excellent and thorough reply to the question you were asked, I hardly expected it to be such a spell-binder, Theresa! I almost felt I was personally experiencing the ups and downs, the triumphs and tribulations that surely are part of such a demanding ambitious course of action, so vividly clear are your accounts of it all!

      Now I realize why my dear sister, Ruth, who was actively pursuing her own PhD, hadn't completed it when she died last year. When I passed my GRE at SMU, it was only to pursue an MBA!

      In any case, I am much better educated by having read this extraordinary work. It ought to be distributed to all who would seek the highest degree, I'm thinking! With your permission, I think I'll forward the link to two of my granddaughter who are embarking on higher degrees!

      Congratulations on yours and on overcoming the many roadblocks that might have deterred a lesser person!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Thank you for commenting Frank - You have used a great metaphoric image to describe degrees (or any other kind of attainment) "stepping stones." I like that. You had a clever and bold student! :) Take care. Theresa

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Good Morning Billy. It does take a lot to earn one. Of course it is usually simpler and faster if you are unattached and have as few additional responsibilities as possible....probably why most people (not all, of course) get their graduate degrees in their mod to late twenties. I do have a problem with the "canned spiel" as you so aptly put it. :)

      Thanks for your faithful and supportive comments. Take care. Theresa

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 5 years ago from Shelton

      Well Phdast7 it is a comprehensive account on how you achieved a mild-stone.. I feel every educational degree is a stepping stone.. and the last step has to be the most difficult one.. The hard work and sacrifices assures reliability and integrity that comes with having a PHD in any field.. Makes me think of a student who made me laugh once. He recieved his BS.. and called it Bull-shi.. then his MS and he called it More Shi... finally his PHD and he said it was now Piled High and Deep...:: great hub. and good share

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Good morning Theater girl - You are half way there if you have a Masters. Good for you. :)

      I just wanted my former student, anyone for that matter not to assume the promotional materials put out by institutions are correct. They are only correct if your life is perfect and everybody supports you and nothing goes wrong...but life happens. You can still get there eventually, it just takes a lot longer. Thanks for your kind comments. :) Theresa

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      A very realistic account of what it takes to get a doctorate. Thank you for your honesty regarding this....true experiences are so much better than the canned spiel of a university. Well done, Theresa!

      blessings always,


    • Theater girl profile image

      Jennifer 5 years ago from New Jersey

      This is quite a story! I have only achieved a Masters in education but I aspire someday to earn a doctorate in teacher education. Your story is inspiring!


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