Best Online PhD Programs in History

Programs, Resources and Timelines for History Students

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Pursuing an online PhD in history can mean exploring a complicated world of interwoven stories with both reliable and unreliable narrators. Online doctoral students of history often learn to question historical documents with a critical curiosity and express their own ideas as part of an ongoing academic debate. A doctoral degree in history may provide a chance for students to explore different career options that call for heavy research, dedication and communication. Find the best places to earn an online PhD in history, see what a timeline for earning the degree looks like and learn more about what history doctorates do after graduation here.

Earning a History PhD Online: Timeline

Earning an online PhD in history often requires attention to time and culture, research practices and biases, as well as writing and rhetoric. Students accepted into these intensely self-motivated, time-consuming programs typically commit to building something original out of historical documents and contributing to the fellowship of historical scholars. After being accepted into a program, doctoral students can expect to deepen their understanding of a specialized field through extensive research and a dissertation. From application to graduation, see what a typical three-year timeline for an online PhD in history looks like below.

Application Process

Online history programs usually look for students who know what they want to get out of their PhD. Applicants who have chosen a specialized area of study, completed preliminary research and know why they want to study a particular subject are more likely to be accepted.

Completed Master’s Degree and Transcripts

Online PhD programs usually expect an applicant’s previous degree to be in the field of history they intend to study at a doctoral level, and the degree should typically be earned through an accredited institution. Applicants are usually required to have all higher learning institutions that they attended send official transcripts to their prospective doctoral programs.

Letters of Recommendation

Programs will often ask for a certain number of letters of recommendation, usually three, from sources familiar with the history PhD applicant’s academic work. Prospective PhD students should consider asking history professors from their time in a master’s program, employers who are linked to the field and members of the community who are familiar with the applicant’s passion for history.

Resume or CV

An online PhD program in history often considers a student’s previous employment, extracurricular activities, community service, education and academic or professional honors, so these should be included on a résumé or curriculum vitae.

Statement of Purpose

Applicants can elaborate on their future plans in their history PhD’s statement of purpose. They should be specific about their reasons for choosing the online history program they are applying to and cite relevant academic, professional and personal experiences that influenced their decision to pursue a PhD in history.

Writing sample

The sample of writing an applicant chooses should demonstrate research skills using primary sources and pertain to the specialized field of history the applicant is interested in pursuing. History PhD programs may ask for a sample between 25 and 35 pages in length.

Year 1 Milestones

Students may have to take a basic knowledge course to establish an online program’s expectations for students in the history PhD program. They will typically spend most of the first year researching, reflecting, writing and exploring their chosen history concentration.

Language Requirements

Online history PhD programs often require students to have reading competency in at least one language aside from English. Language requirements may vary depending on what area of history a student has chosen to study.

Research and Writing

Students typically learn how to work with and analyze primary sources, how to build a bibliography and how to apply their knowledge in an area of history, including foreign language experience if documents are not in English.

Reading

Programs will usually introduce students to major historical problems and walk them through the principal literature, common interpretations, relevant bibliographies and important issues historians are currently exploring.

Year 2 Milestones

While continuing to build experience with primary sources, academic writing and research as they did in their first year, students in their second year of online history doctoral study often begin to prepare for their dissertations. They should be familiar with the faculty in their chosen area of history studies and be able to select an advisor who can help them succeed academically.

Narrow Down a Possible Thesis

History PhD students usually select the area of history they would like to explore as a potential dissertation topic during the second year of study. Typically, the earlier they choose a specialization to focus on, the faster they will be able to begin work on their dissertation and earn their degree.

Choose a Faculty Advisor to Help Define a Course of Study

After deciding on an area of concentration, a PhD level history student should select an appropriate faculty advisor who has experience with the student’s chosen topic. This faculty member will usually be their dissertation supervisor and help them choose courses, seminars, fields of study and a dissertation topic.

General Exam

Before students can start working on their dissertation, some online PhD programs require them to demonstrate that they have completed all writing, language and course requirements for the past few years of study. There may be only a written exam, but some doctoral history programs may require both a written and oral exam, depending on the technology an online program uses.

Year 3 Milestones

Online history PhD students typically spend the majority of their time in the program researching for their dissertation. They often draw on primary materials, established discussions and other academic discourse, but ultimately, they will be expected to draw their own conclusions and create new work in the field.

Dissertation Prospectus and Approval

Programs usually require students to submit a proposed course of research for their dissertation. There may be classes that prepare students to write this research outline, but typically, all history PhD candidates must have their dissertation approved before they can proceed in the program.

Training Modules

Because history involves human participants, students may choose to interview living people about historical events. Online history PhD programs may provide human research training to students interested in pursuing this kind of research.

Dissertation Research

PhD students generally spend the rest of their graduate careers preparing for their dissertations and presentations. Faculty advisors can help find sources and discuss avenues of study, but students are often required to complete original work on their dissertations.

Final Public Examination Application

Before students graduate, they typically need to apply for and schedule a final public oral exam. The format for this differs across online history PhD programs, but a student will generally have to defend their work in front of a committee of program academics.

Graduation Requirements

Online history doctoral programs typically have only a few large graduation requirements instead of many small requirements for students to meet. Online PhD programs may vary in how they address and enforce these final requirements before a student receives their PhD, so be sure to refer to your desired program to discover specific requirements.

Language Exam

History PhD candidates typically need to prove they have completed an online program’s language requirements. Programs usually require reading fluency in at least one language aside from English.

Dissertation

A student’s final history dissertation should meet doctoral level writing requirements and be polished to the point where it could be published. Length requirements are often flexible and depend on the program, but the dissertation should typically be the length of an article, a series of articles or a book.

Final Examination

Students will likely be quizzed on the area of study they wrote about in their dissertation. In a standard history PhD program this is intended to be a public, oral examination of a student’s expertise, but formats for online program final exams may vary.

Core Principles & Skills Learned in an Online History PhD Program

PhD in History

  • Context

    Online PhD programs often encourage students to explore particular aspects of history while also retaining a sense of the whole, greater context of events and writings. These programs typically encourage attention to interdisciplinary investigation, primary source examinations and conversation between students as well as between students and faculty.

  • Critical Thinking

    History can be filled with biased writings, opinions of the times clouding source materials. Programs often teach students how to look through documents with a critical eye, drawing their own conclusions rather than relying on other ideas.

  • Communication

    Students typically learn to write clear and informative papers with well-supported arguments and also learn about communication between cultures. Online history doctoral programs often encourage students to delve into unexplored or unconsidered areas of history and express their ideas as part of the larger historical discussion.

2017's Best Online PhD Degrees in History

A recent American Historical Association study states earning a PhD in history from a top institution improves the odds of making it onto the tenure track at a research university. Students can begin researching the perfect PhD program by taking a look at the following list of top-ranked schools for a PhD in history. Sort student-to-teacher ratio, cost and graduation rate to discover what puts each at the top of their class.

University of Delaware

The PhD in History offered at the University of Delaware allows students choices in a breadth of fields including American History, World History, and World & Comparative History. In addition to the three concentrations, students can complete minors in African, Asian, Ancient, Middle Eastern and Latin American history. Doctoral students must undertake 30 credits of graduate work, including 24 credits in history. Students complete five reading seminars, two research seminars and they maintain a professional development portfolio to qualify for third-year Qualifying Exams. To graduate, students must complete and defend a scholarly dissertation that advances research in their chosen field.

  • In-State Tuition$12,342
  • Student Population22,852
  • Percentage of Students Receiving Financial Aid58%
  • Number of Students per Instructor15
Kansas State University

The Department of History at Kansas State University offers a PhD in a number of advanced fields. Its areas of emphasis/expertise at the doctoral level are in Military History and 20th Century Studies, Agricultural and Environmental History, and Religious History. Kansas State’s Military History PhD includes options for interdisciplinary studies in conjunction with the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. KSU's Chapman Center for Rural Studies is host to the doctoral program in Agricultural and Environmental History with a focus on the historical contexts of Kansas communities. The doctorate in religious history is supported by KSU’s annual Parrish Colloquium.

  • In-State Tuition$9,034
  • Student Population24,146
  • Percentage of Students Receiving Financial Aid57%
  • Number of Students per Instructor19

After Your Degree: What to do With a PhD in History

While some graduates from an online history doctoral degree program may go on to teach college-level history, studying and publishing papers in their field, this career is not the only one available. Institutions teaching about history range from museums to archives to state and local governments, and graduates can even often find work outside of the field of history if they choose to leverage their research, communication and critical thinking skills.

Browse PhD in History Careers
Anthropologist

Historians typically work in the state and local government or with research firms, though they may also work in museums, archives and historical societies. They usually research, preserve, analyze and interpret historical documents, relics and other sources of information on early humans or human origins. They often present and preserve records and other information on human culture, behavior and development.

Job Growth (2014-2024)

4%

Median Annual Salary (May 2015)

$61,8220

Interpreter or Translator

Extensive knowledge of languages and cultures can easily evolve into a career converting language as a translator or interpreter. From work for governments and diplomats to international private sector consulting, translators or interpreters work in all facets of spoken and written languages, and many work as self-employed contractors.

Job Growth (2014-2024)

29%

Median Annual Salary (May 2015)

$44,190

Sociologist

Sociologists typically study behaviors within larger social structures, including what kinds of people and ideas exert social influence, how and why social groups form and how a certain law may affect a specific section of the population. They most often work with research organizations, colleges and state and local governments.

Job Growth (2014-2024)

-1%

Median Annual Salary (May 2015)

$73,760

Archivist, Curator or Museum Worker

Archivists typically examine, value, catalog and preserve historically valuable documents. Curators usually oversee collections of artwork and historical artifacts and may come up with public programming around exhibits. Museum technicians and conservators often prepare and restore a museum's collection of items and documents. All of these positions usually find employment in museums, historical sites, colleges or corporations.

Job Growth (2014-2024)

7%

Median Annual Salary (May 2015)

$46,710

Source: BLS

Additional Resources

History PhD scholars often explore specific eras and empires, and the communication and research skills it takes to earn this degree may apply to many different jobs. Below are free online resources and historical membership organizations that have networking resources for history doctoral program graduates seeking careers outside of academia.

The American Historical Association

This society celebrates the range, variety, and ever-changing nature of history, accepting members from all history specializations and professions.

National Council for History Education

This membership organization connects historians, teachers, education specialists, professors, community leaders and history-based institutions to increase the quality of history instruction in schools.

Organization of American Historians

A professional society dedicated to American history, this organization encourages discussion of historical questions and quality scholarship, teaching and presentation in the subject of American history.

Sources for Alternative Careers for Historians

This handout created by Karen Phoenix has links to informational websites, career postings as well as potential books and articles that history PhDs can use to expand their job search.

Voice of the Shuttle

Part of a website providing access to information in the humanities, this page focuses on online resources for history, ranging from prehistory and country-specific histories to history conferences and publications.

The World History Association

This community encourages members to teach, research and publish about cross-cultural, comparative and global history approaches.

15 Minute History

The University of Texas at Austin hosts this podcast on history topics. There are many other reputable history podcasts for students interested in expanding their knowledge or finding free resources.