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Degree Requirements

Our students receive a solid general training in anthropological theory and methods based on the broad theoretical orientation of our faculty and their secondary areas of research. We offer intensive graduate training in the archaeology, biology, social analysis, and history of Central America, Mexico, and South America, as well as scholarship in Caribbean and North American anthropology. More specialized courses include training in Mayan languages, pre-Columbian iconography, GIS, archival research methods, specialized artifact analysis, skeletal analysis, stable isotope analysis, and genetic research.

Overview | Language Requirements | Degree Requirements | Guidelines | Essay | Exam | Essay Defense


The Ph.D. requires 72 hours of graduate credits, at least 45 of which should be in formal course work beyond the bachelor’s degree. Candidates entering with a master’s degree or previous graduate coursework may transfer up to 18 hours of credit, which would then reduce the number of semesters of funding accordingly.

The Ph.D. also requires proficiency in Spanish or Portuguese or another relevant language (such as French in the Caribbean), a comprehensive examination, successful defense of a dissertation proposal (Qualifying Exam) to advance to Ph.D. candidacy, and a dissertation based on original field, laboratory, or archival research.

Anthropology PhD Requirements

Language Requirements

To obtain the M.A. and advance in the program, the language requirement must be completed by the fourth semester. This may include one foreign language passed at a high level of proficiency in a test that involves:

  • an oral interview, and
  • a written translation test.

The oral interview will be conducted by either an anthropology or CLACX faculty member (or a faculty member with the requisite language experience to evaluate the student). The written test consists of translating three to four pages of written work from the non-English language to English.

Alternatively, a student may pass one of certain 2000-level Spanish, Portuguese, French, or other relevant language courses with a grade of B+ or better. The DGS and adviser will determine which courses qualify. For students who are native speakers of a language relevant to their research, that is persons who have spoken the language in question from childhood, the student’s adviser or when available, a native speaker of that language, will certify their language ability and report the findings to the DGS. The student’s advisory committee will determine whether any other further language requirements are appropriate.

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Degree Requirements

The four subfields in anthropology are archaeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology/ethnography, and linguistics. All students must complete the following:

  • 6 credits: Anth 8000: History of Anthropological Theory I (3 credits) and Anth 8001: History of Anthropological Theory II (3 credits), to be taken in the student’s first or second year.
  • 6 credits: Primary subfield
  • 6 credits: Secondary subfield
  • 3 credits: Tertiary subfield
  • 6 credits: Two electives in anthropology or two Independent Study courses in anthropology (or one of each). These two courses are meant to form the basis of the two comprehensive exam essays (see description of the comprehensive exam below).
  • 3 credits: Anth 9000: Research Design Graduate Seminar. This class should be taken in the student’s third or fifth semester (it is typically offered in the fall). If it is taken in the fifth semester, another graduate seminar can be taken in the third semester to ensure that the student earns 36 credits total by the end of the second year.
  • 6 credits: Two electives (e.g., anthropology courses in any subfield; courses outside the department for the CLACX certificate; courses in other departments deemed appropriate for the student’s training; quantitative methods in another department, etc.)

Total after two years: 36 credits (i.e., three courses per semester for two years)
These 36 credits must be completed by the end of the fourth semester of enrollment. They are part of the requirement to earn a master’s degree in passing and advance in the program.

Students must also pass a Comprehensive Exam, which entails writing two substantial essays (written primarily in the two elective/independent study courses). These must be submitted by the last day of class (i.e., before the exam period starts) in the fourth semester of enrollment.

In the fifth semester, the student must complete nine more credits of coursework. These can be Independent Study courses or other courses that the student and committee deem appropriate for their training. This will bring the student up to the required 45 credits of coursework for the Ph.D.

Students who did not take ANTH 9000: Research Design in their third semester should take it in their fifth semester.

Students choose their primary and secondary subfields in consultation with their advisory committee. Depending on a student’s background and research interests, committees may require specific additional course work, including more preparation in other sub-fields, languages, and research methods.

After completing 45 credits, the student should enroll in ANTH 8999: Non-candidate Research credit hours. After the student achieves doctoral candidacy, they must enroll in ANTH 9999: Ph.D. Dissertation Research for credit hours every semester. When the student reaches 72 credit hours, they must enroll in zero hours of ANTH 9999: Ph.D. Dissertation Research to stay enrolled in the program. It is the student’s responsibility to register for courses in a timely manner. Stipends and TA-ships cannot be allocated for students who have not registered for courses at least one month before the semester begins.

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Graduate Program Guidelines

Seventy-two (72) hours of graduate credits are required, at least 45 of which should be in formal course work: graduate seminars (8000-level and above) and independent study. On occasion, undergraduate courses with extra work for graduate students (3000-level and above) will be accepted as graduate course work.

At least 21 hours of course work must be in 5000-level and above graduate seminars. During the first 36 hours of course work, students should be concerned with completing requirements and filling gaps in their knowledge. After completing 45 hours of course work, the remainder will consist of either pre-dissertation research hours or dissertation research hours, depending on the status of the student.

Full-time students are expected to enroll in the Graduate School during each fall and spring semester. After completion of the required 72 hours for the Ph.D. degree, full-time students register for zero hours of dissertation research. Candidates for the Ph.D. degree who are away from the university must continue to register for zero hours of dissertation research to remain in good standing. In addition, all students must have Vanderbilt University health insurance every semester that they are enrolled, unless they file a waiver showing that they have health insurance from another source. This other source of insurance must be approved before the deadline in August every year.

It is the responsibility of graduate students to register for courses (including zero credit hours of dissertation research) each semester, to track their status to ensure that they have met all of the course requirements, and to maintain their health insurance coverage according to university rules.

Students Entering With a Master’s Degree

For new students holding M.A. degrees, transfer credit may apply to the hourly requirements for up to a maximum of 18 hours (~1 year) of course work. During the student’s first year in residence, their advisory committee will coordinate with the Director of Graduate Studies to determine how many and which courses will be approved for transfer credit. However, the number of course hours approved for transfer will be subtracted from a student’s total stipend award. That is, if two semesters (18 hours) of coursework are approved for transfer credit, two semesters of stipend support will be subtracted from the five-year fellowship award.

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Dissertation Proposal Essay

The Dissertation Proposal Essay is a comprehensive bibliographic review of the literature relevant to the dissertation topic. The student, in close consultation with their adviser and dissertation committee, will prepare and submit a DPE. The DPE should include a summary and critical analysis of that particular theme and associated debates. It should also present the proposed dissertation research to be conducted by the student. Parts of this document may follow an expanded version of the National Science Foundation-Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant. Please consult the relevant NSF-DDRIG website for more details (e.g., Archaeology, Biological Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, or Linguistics).

The proposal should clearly state the theoretical issues to be addressed, theoretical framing of the study, context of the research,  methodologies to be employed, relevant preliminary findings, types of data to be collected, and expected results and how those results will address the central questions of the study. Throughout the proposal, the student should clearly demonstrate their command of the relevant literature. These guidelines are not comprehensive, and an advisory committee may require additional content. It is the student’s responsibility to consult with their advisor and advisory committee on the format and expectations for this document.

Other items to append to the dissertation proposal essay:

  • An outline of the dissertation thesis, including preliminary chapter titles and brief summaries
  • A realistic schedule for research and writing

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Comprehensive Exam

The student must complete the Comprehensive Exam by the end of the fourth semester. The purpose of the Comprehensive Exam is to establish the student’s knowledge of anthropology in general and of their specific fields of specialization. To pass, the student must write two substantive essays. These are synthetic literature review essays in specialized domains of scholarship. Each essay is a summary and critical analysis of that particular theme and associated debates. It should reflect the current state of the field, based on a comprehensive understanding of the literature. Students must work closely with their faculty adviser and committee to develop the topics and bibliographies. These essays should build on coursework that was aimed at developing each manuscript (students may take Independent Study courses in semesters 3 and/or 4 to develop the essays). Students should start planning for these essays in their first semester of enrollment. The two essay themes should not be identical to the dissertation topic. The Comprehensive Exam essays will be graded by the student’s advisory committee.

Comprehensive Exam essay examples include Anthropology of the Body; Anthropology of Food; Anthropology of Violence; Social Bioarchaeology; Historical Archaeology; and Political Economy, among others. This list is not exhaustive, and we expect that students will think creatively and critically as they develop their two major essay topics.

The grade options for Comprehensive Exam essays are:

  • High Pass and continue in the program (both essays must receive a High Pass if the student is to continue in the program)
  • Pass, which qualifies the student to receive a terminal M.A. and depart the program
  • Fail and depart the program with no M.A.

Even with a score of “High Pass,” the committee may decide that the student demonstrated a need for improvement in a particular study area. In this case, the committee can require that the student rewrite sections of the comps essays.

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Oral Defense of the Dissertation Proposal Essay

The public proposal presentation will start with a 20-minute presentation by the student followed by questions from the general audience. The closed examination by the Ph.D. committee members will commence immediately afterward. The student should be prepared to answer questions regarding all aspects of their proposed research. The Ph.D. committee will vote on the proposal and will inform the student of their decision within 24 hours.

The Ph.D. committee will vote on the Qualifying Exam (the Dissertation Proposal Essay and the oral defense of it) and select one of the following options:

  1. Pass and advance to doctoral candidacy
  2. Fail. If a student fails the Qualifying Exam, there are two possible outcomes:
  • The student will have the opportunity to do substantial revisions and schedule a re-take of the Qualifying Exam within one semester; or
  • The student will be dismissed from the program.

The student will advance to Ph.D. candidacy as soon as the Graduate School receives the paperwork communicating a positive evaluation.

The student should work closely with their Ph.D. committee in developing the DPE and the dissertation proposal. A final version of the dissertation proposal must be accepted by a student’s full Ph.D. committee before the oral defense can be scheduled. Any date set before the proposal is accepted by the full committee is simply a target date.

Paperwork: The student must submit the Request to Schedule the Qualifying Exam form at least two weeks before the proposal defense date.

After the oral exam, additional paperwork must be filed indicating whether the student passed or failed the Qualifying Exam. Please coordinate with the department administrative assistant on submitting both of those forms.

After a student successfully defends the dissertation proposal, the student advances to Ph.D. candidacy. From this point, according to Graduate School requirements, the student has four years to submit an approved final dissertation to the Graduate School. Extensions can be requested for extenuating circumstances.

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