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Online PhD Degree Programs in History

Discover what it takes to earn a doctoral degree in history online. Learn about the prerequisites needed, how a dissertation works, available fields of study, possible careers, and helpful organizations.

Online History Ph.D. Programs Overview

Doctoral programs require students to work closely with faculty in order to conduct research, receive formal training, attend seminars, teach undergraduate courses, and take an oral examination. For this reason, very few doctoral history programs exist exclusively online.

However, many schools do offer individual courses online for students to take in addition to campus courses. Depending on the school you attend, you may be able to speak with an academic advisor about which courses you can take online.

How Long Does a History Ph.D. Take?

A Ph.D. in History can take around 7 or 8 years to complete, but the length of time ultimately depends upon the school and the student's research. Some schools will allow students to complete their degree in shorter or longer periods of time. The first 3 years are usually dedicated to seminars, courses, and training. Then, a student advances to candidacy, where they will spend about 4 years researching and writing their dissertation.

Available Concentrations in History Ph.D. Programs

A student's doctoral education is usually shaped by the topic they choose to research and write about for their dissertation. Some schools offer formal concentrations, also known as fields of concentration or fields of study, for students to choose in order to focus their research. They can also do this through courses that are specific to their topic of interest, such as choosing a course in Asian history. A field of study can similarly be chosen by pursuing a minor. Some schools require students to choose a major field of study and a minor field of study.

Though availability will vary by school, some concentrations can include:

  • American History
  • Latin American History
  • Modern or Early Modern European History
  • African History
  • Medieval History
  • Women's and Gender History
  • World History
  • Environmental History

Courses in History Ph.D. Programs

Ph.D. students must usually earn around 39-44 credits. These credits can be earned through courses, seminars, and colloquia. A major part of earning a Ph.D. includes taking courses related to your chosen field(s) of study. For example, a student whose field of study is medieval history would take courses related to that subject. Therefore, there are many possibilities as to what types of courses you can expect to take.

Some of these may be taken online. Online courses are usually offered through a portal on the school's website where you can access assignments, lectures, and discussions. You can also contact your professors this way. It can vary by school, but not every course will be offered online every semester. Some may only be available during the summer. Be sure to talk with your academic advisor so you can schedule your courses accordingly.

Ph.D. students are also required to attend research seminars. Additionally, if a university requires students to teach for a semester, they may be required to participate in teacher training. These usually cannot be done online.

Some Ph.D. programs also require students to study a foreign language or minor in a program outside of the history department. It may be possible to fulfill those requirements online while you fulfill your major requirements on campus.

What Are Qualifying Examinations?

Around their third year of study, students must take a qualifying exam, also known as a comprehensive exam. This is typically an oral exam, where the student will be questioned on the fields of study they have chosen by faculty members from those fields. The exam usually lasts around 2-3 hours, and a written component may also be required, depending on the school.

Students usually have at least 2 chances to pass their qualifying examination. They must pass or they will not be approved for candidacy and not be able to continue in the program.

How a History Dissertation Works

Once a student has been approved for candidacy, they can begin the dissertation phase. A dissertation is an original research paper written by a student. It acts as a sum of the last years of their program and is a professional, as well as academic, achievement.

The Dissertation Proposal

Students must submit a proposal for their dissertation before they can begin working on it. This may be done within a few months of achieving candidacy. If the student does not produce a proposal within the allotted time, they may have to retake their qualifying exam, but this depends on the school.

The proposal is for the student to once again stand in front of a committee of faculty advisors, state their dissertation topic, and state why they think it is important to pursue. They must also include the relevance their chosen topic has in regards to history overall, provide legitimate resources for their reasoning, and submit a proposed timeline for the research and writing to be done. Depending on the school, students may be required to attend a dissertation seminar where they will learn and practice how to write a dissertation proposal.

If a Proposal Is Rejected

If a student's dissertation proposal is rejected, they will receive an allotted time in order to try again. If they are rejected a second time, it is usually up to the school to decide if the student will be allowed to continue with the program or not.

History Ph.D. Prerequisites

A bachelor's degree is the minimum prerequisite for applying to Ph.D. programs. The degree does not always need to be in history, but applicants may need to take additional history courses if this is the case.

Some universities will require Ph.D. applicants who do not hold a master's degree in history or a related field to fulfill their course requirements through the history department's master's degree program. In this case, successful completion of the master's degree may automatically result in acceptance to the Ph.D. program, but this can vary by school. It may be possible to take prerequisite courses online.

Admissions Requirements for Ph.D. History Programs

Because of the advanced nature of doctoral programs, considerably more requirements are needed than for other types of degrees. Most universities include these in their admissions requirements:

  • Official Transcripts: For any college attended, applicants must provide transcripts.
  • Personal Statement/Statement of Intent: A statement, usually in 1,000 words or fewer, is needed explaining or describing an applicant's professional goals and research interests and how they are related.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Usually 3 letters of recommendation are required. Some schools may require the letters to be from previous history professors.
  • Writing Sample: A writing sample, such as a term paper, published article, or thesis, that demonstrates an applicant's ability to communicate and present topics and research is needed. There is typically a maximum limit of 30 pages, with some schools requiring the sample to be a minimum of 15 pages. International applicants who may speak other languages typically must submit the sample in English.
  • GRE Test Scores: The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) must be taken before applying. There is usually no required scores or subject area, but some schools do require the scores to be no older than 5 years.
  • TOEFL Scores: The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) may be required for international students whose native language is not English. A minimum score is usually required and can vary by school.

Some schools also have internal fellowship programs and may require applicants to submit an application in addition to the general application. This may be done so that faculty members can nominate students for an internal fellowship. Some universities also encourage applicants to get to know, or at least be able to identify, faculty members from fields of study they are interested in before applying.

Career Opportunities for History Ph.D. Students

Doctoral history programs generally train students to hold positions in research and academia. A student's specialty or field of study may determine where they focus their career. For example, a student whose specialty is Latin American history may go on to research or teach on the subject. Below is a list of careers for doctoral graduates.

Career Title Median Salary (2018)* Job Outlook (2018-2028)*
Postsecondary History Teacher $74,590 6%
Historian $61,140 6%
Archivist $52,240 9%
Curator $53,780 10%

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Postsecondary History Teacher

Postsecondary teachers, also known as college professors, teach students at community colleges and universities. The courses they teach are related to their specialty. A typical work day may involve giving lectures and lessons, handing out and grading homework, projects, papers, and assignments, and forming lesson plans. They also give exams and may form or modify the curriculum for their department with other faculty members. Some professors may be allowed to conduct their own research in addition to their teaching duties.

Postsecondary teachers need a Ph.D. in the subject area they teach. Opportunities for advancement include becoming a tenured professor by making considerable contributions to the school through teaching and research, or advancing to an administrative position, such as a dean.


Historians study the past in order to research, analyze, write about, and interpret it. They usually focus on one topic or historical figure and conduct research to give this knowledge to the public. This can be done by publishing a book, website, paper, or article, or forming a museum exhibit or educational program. Historians may work for government agencies, nonprofit organizations, businesses, historical associations, or individuals.

While some historians may only need a master's degree, a doctoral degree is preferred. Research positions, especially in government, require one. The research a historian performs usually depends on what they studied in their Ph.D. program.


Most archivists work in museums and preserve important historical documents and records. These can include photos, videos, manuscripts, and audio recordings. They also coordinate public outreach and educational programs, such as museum tours, classes, and lectures. Sometimes, they may work with historians on their chosen topic or collection. Archivists can also specialize in a specific era of history in order to better understand the documents and other items they have in a collection from that period.

Archivists usually need a master's degree, but a doctoral degree may be required for larger institutions or advancement opportunities due to these positions being sought after by many people.


Curators are in charge of collections often found in museums, from authentication to acquisition, storage, and display. Their duties may include researching the items to verify their authenticity, negotiating a loan, purchase, or sale, and ensuring the items are properly stored when not in an exhibition. In addition to overseeing a collection, curators may have administrative duties, such as managing educational programs and research projects or representing their institution in the public eye. Depending on the size of the museum, curators may specialize in a specific field, such as history.

The minimum requirements for curators is a master's degree, but a doctoral degree may be preferred when seeking advancement or working for a large institution.

History Associations and Organizations

Pursuing a degree or career in history can be challenging. Luckily, there are organizations available to support students and professionals.

American Historical Association

The American Historical Association was founded in 1884 to protect the right to academic freedom and the promotion of historical studies. In addition to setting professional standards for the field of history and defending the importance of historical study, it provides members with the opportunity to network with each other through online discussions and in-person conferences.

Organization of American Historians

The Organization of American Historians is dedicated to the study and teaching of American history. It is committed to advancing the teaching, practice, and access to history and historical resources, and promote professional integrity. Membership is open to students as well as professionals in the field.

National Council for History Education

The National Council for History Education promotes the appreciation, learning, and teaching of history. Members receive an annual newsletter, membership to the Time Traveler's Network, access to the organization's career center, and discounted admission to the NCHE conference, museums and other historical sites across the country. Members additionally have exclusive access to archives and other historical data on the NCHE website.