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Documentary Film Graduate Programs

Documentary film graduate programs are for students looking to receive an advanced education in the theories, history, and tools required to create non-fiction film narratives. Discover some of the common coursework and requirements for admittance.

Documentary Film Graduate Programs: An Overview

Documentary film graduate programs can be suitable for students looking to further their knowledge of the techniques, theories, and history of documentary film while also gaining practical hands-on training in the medium. Typically, these are master's degree programs that can take two years to complete, but there are Ph.D. programs available. Below is a listing of some classes that may be found in these programs with brief descriptions of each.

Cinematography and Sound

These classes typically give an overview of the tools available to filmmakers and include hands-on laboratory work. Students attend lectures that can cover the principles of storytelling, the established visual language of film and sound design, as well as the way filmmaking equipment is used to express this language. Some of the equipment learners might gain experience using in a cinematography and sound class include cameras, tripods, various types of lighting, different styles of microphones, and sound recording equipment.


Documentary film graduate students enrolled in an editing class usually undertake an examination of the role played by the process of film editing as well as the theories, aesthetic principles, and techniques that create structure and a narrative arc. These classes often demonstrate the way on-camera interviews, off-screen narration, and sound design can be woven together to create a compelling non-fiction film. In some instances, classes include the screening of classics in the genre to demonstrate these various styles and techniques, plus hands-on work in a laboratory setting.


Students in these classes can expect to be presented with an overview of effective storytelling techniques for the medium as well as practical training that may include the production of a short film. In many instances, a class on documentary directing may also take a deep dive into the history of the genre. Topics that might be discussed include varieties of directing styles, methods for conducting interviews, relationships between filmmakers and their subjects, and methods for approaching tone and style.


These classes tend to present students with a big picture view of all of the day-to-day job requirements that come with being a producer during a film shoot. Topics can include pitching a project, preparing a budget, and managing a crew. There may also be an emphasis placed on contracts in regards to understanding the language in them and negotiating with all parties involved, from vendors and crew to distributors. In some cases, documentary film graduate students are required to act as a producer of their own thesis project.

Documentary Film History

The objective of these classes typically is to give learners an overarching view of the way documentary filmmaking has developed over time. In some cases, documentary film history courses present information about specific genres, including creative documentary, television news film, and cinema verité. Themes can also include the styles and techniques of the genre, the ways documentaries have been used to fulfill social and political objectives, and the changes that have occurred within documentary filmmaking techniques. Also included in some documentary history courses are critical evaluations of classic documentary filmmakers and the ways their style and point of view shaped the films they made.

Documentary Film Graduate Program Admittance Requirements

Students who are seeking admission to a documentary film graduate program will need a bachelor's degree. They are also typically asked to provide each of the following:

  • Transcripts from all undergraduate and graduate institutions attended
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • A resume or curriculum vitae
  • A statement of purpose that speaks to an applicant's goals for being in the program and why they are attracted to that particular program

Usually, prospective students are also asked to provide a portfolio of their work, but in some cases this is not a requirement. In the cases where it is required, students are usually asked to provide a film or segment of a film they have worked on in some capacity. Other creative work, such as photography, writing, and visual arts, might also be acceptable.

A documentary film graduate program can give students a wide-ranging professional-level education in the theoretical and practical aspects of creating documentaries. The programs typically take two years to complete and usually provide students with plenty of opportunities for hands-on experience.