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Requirements for Ph.D.

Training and degree requirements

The broad theoretical orientation of the faculty and their secondary areas of research make possible a solid general training in anthropological theory and methods. Especially intensive graduate training is offered in the archaeology, biology, social analysis, and history of Central America, Mexico, and South America. More specialized courses include training in Maya languages, pre-Columbian iconography, GIS, archival research methods, specialized artifact analysis, skeletal analysis, and epigenetics research. The Ph.D. requires three years in residence and forty-five hours of formal course work beyond the B.A. 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. degree also requires proficiency in Spanish or Portuguese, a comprehensive examination (“comps”), successful defense of a dissertation proposal (Qualifying Exam) to advance to Ph.D. candidacy, and a dissertation based on original field or archival research.

Graduate program guidelines

At least 72 hours of graduate work for credit are required, at least 45 of which should be in formal course work: graduate seminars (8000-level and above), undergraduate courses with extra work for grad students (2000-level and above), and independent study.

At least 18 hours of course work must be in 8000-level and above graduate seminars. During the first 36 hours of course work, students should be concerned with completing distribution requirements and filling gaps in their knowledge. After completing 45 hours of course work, the remainder will consist of dissertation research hours.

For new students holding MA degrees, transfer credit may apply to the hourly requirements for up to a maximum of 18 hours (~1 year) of course work. Exceptions will be considered on an individual basis. During the student's first year in residence, his/her advisory committee will coordinate with the DGS to determine how many and which courses will be considered 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 is approved for transfer credit, two semesters of stipend support will be subtracted from the five-year stipend award.

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 0 hours of dissertation research. Candidates for the Ph.D. degree who are away from the University must continue to register for 0 hours of dissertation research to remain in good standing. It is the responsibility of graduate students  to register for courses (including 0-credit hours of dissertation research) each semester, and to track their status to ensure that they have met all of the course requirements.

Course distribution requirements: 

A minimum number of hours is required in each of the four major sub-fields of anthropology. All students must take 9 hours of anthropological theory (Group I), 6 hours in their primary sub-field (Group II, III, IV, or V), 6 hours in one other sub-field (Group II, III, IV, or V), and 3 hours in each of the other two sub-fields (Groups II, III, IV, or V). In addition, at least one course in research methods is required.

Students choose the two sub-fields in which to take a minimum of 6 hours in consultation with their adviser and 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.

The minimum course distributions to be completed by all students are as follows: 

  • Group I: 9 hours of anthropological theory. This will include the two-course core sequence, "History of Anthropological Theory" (ANTH 8000 and 8001), to be taken during a student's first or second year in residence.
  • Group II: 3 hours of ethnography 
  • Group III: 3 hours of archaeology 
  • Group IV: 3 hours of linguistics (normally Anth 5602; other courses in this category may include epigraphy and Native American language or literature)
  • Group V: 3 hours of biological anthropology 
  • Group VI: 3 hours of research methods (may include a quantitative methods course taught outside the department)
  • 6 additional hours in two sub-fields (ie, 3 hours in one Group and 3 hours in another Group: Group II, III, IV, or V) 


Upon entry, a new graduate student meets with the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) and is assigned an adviser based on his or her primary interests. The student may choose a new adviser, if approved by the DGS, in accordance with changes in the direction of his or her work. The student should remain in close contact with his or her adviser.

Graduate Advisory Committee (3 faculty members): 

By the end of the second semester of enrollment, the student, in consultation with his or her adviser and the DGS, must form a three-member committee consisting of the student's adviser and two other faculty members. At least two different sub-fields must be represented on the committee. The committee will advise students on coursework, preparation for the comprehensive exam, the development of the dissertation proposal, and writing grant applications. In consultation with the DGS, the membership of the committee may change to better reflect the student's interests. The student must meet with the advisory committee at least once a year (in the spring). Following that meeting, a summary report of the meeting must be written by the student, approved by the adviser, and submitted to the DGS before the end of the academic year. It is the student's responsibility to initiate these meetings in consultation with his or her adviser. In addition to this mandatory meeting, students are expected to regularly consult with all members of the advisory committee throughout the academic year.

Ph.D. Committee (at least 4 faculty members; one from outside the department): 

At the time students schedule their dissertation proposal defense (ie, qualifying exams), and no less than one month before defending the dissertation prospectus (ie, taking the qualifying exam), a committee of four faculty members (including one from outside of the department) must be formed to serve as the student's Ph.D. committee. The Ph.D. committee will oversee the dissertation proposal defense and evaluate it. The student must complete the Graduate School paperwork for the Qualifying Exam at least two weeks before the dissertation proposal defense. (Coordinate with the department AA on submitting this paperwork.)

Director of Graduate Studies (DGS): 

The Director of Graduate Studies directs graduate studies for the department, maintains students' permanent files, organizes examinations, and acts as an arbiter of the graduate program requirements. The DGS will work closely with the graduate faculty advisers to keep track of student progress. The DGS will meet with all students in the Fall. All other duties will be conducted by the student's advisory / Ph.D. committee or the Graduate Program Committee. 

Graduate Program Committee (GPC):

Admissions decisions, departmental awards and recommendations, and general program guidance are provided by the Graduate Program Committee, composed of the DGS and two other departmental faculty members. Issues that cannot be solved by a student's advisory committee or the DGS will be referred to the Graduate Program Committee and/or Department Chair.

Teaching/Research Assistant Requirements:

All Anthropology graduate students receive five years of funding, conditional on very satisfactory performance in their coursework and teaching/research assistant (TA/RA) duties, a passing grade on the comprehensive exams, and successful defense of the dissertation proposal (Qualifying Exams). The TA/RA responsibilities apply each semester that the student is receiving a stipend. The Graduate School considers TA/RA assignments to be 20 hours a week. In Anthropology, we estimate that direct assistance to the professor averages approximately 12 hours per week. (Some weeks may be fewer than 12 hours, other weeks may be more than 12 hours, for example, when grading exams and assignments or preparing a guest lecture.) The Assistantship is part of the student’s academic and professional preparation; responsibilities may include assisting in preparing the course syllabus, exams, and other assignments, grading, managing class rolls and online content, meeting with students, background research, data entry, statistical calculations, preparing lecture materials for the professor, giving guest lectures, and leading discussions/labs, among other responsibilities. In some cases, a graduate student will assist with editing responsibilities for VUPA or the journal Ancient Mesoamerica, edit and manage content on the department website, or assist in running the Spatial Analysis Research Lab (SARL) or other labs.

Each semester, faculty will provide written statements to the DGS evaluating the performance of the TA/RA Assistants. The DGS will provide a summary to the student. Continued funding and successful promotion in the graduate program will depend on evidence of very effective performance as a teaching/research assistant.

All graduate students should TA for at least two of the introductory (1000-level) courses.

The Center for Teaching (CFT) offers numerous sessions on improving teaching and learning, and graduate students are encouraged to attend some of those events. The CFT also offers a Certificate in College Teaching for graduate students “whose goals are to become more effective educators and who want to prepare for future careers in higher education teaching”.

Language Requirement:

Before comprehensive exams can be taken, a language requirement must be completed. This may include one foreign language passed at a high level of proficiency in a test that involves a) an oral interview and b) a written translation test. Alternatively, a student may pass one of certain 2000-level Spanish or Portuguese courses with a grade of B+ or better. The DGS and adviser will determine which courses qualify. A student's advisory committee will determine whether any other further language requirements are appropriate.

Fourth Semester Research Prospectus:

During the fourth semester of academic residence, and no later than April 1, a student will submit a brief Research Prospectus (~10 double-space pages) detailing his or her research intentions. Ideally, this will constitute a "pre-dissertation" proposal relating to research that the student will conduct the following summer. Nevertheless, there is no requirement that the Prospectus will constitute the student's dissertation research in the program.

The prospectus should clearly outline the student's objectives and interest in conducting field and/or laboratory research for a particular anthropological project. It should include and clearly specify (not necessarily in this order):

  1. a summary statement (250 words or less). This should summarize the research project and indicate its broader anthropological implications. 
  2. a critical review of relevant research relating to the theoretical, methodological, and geographical domains of the proposed project.
  3. a research hypothesis that the student will evaluate via this research project.
  4. a clear statement of the project's research objectives. 
  5. a detailed outline of the methods to be employed to evaluate the research hypothesis and address the project's objectives. This should include clear statements of the particular data domains to be obtained or investigated and how they will specifically address each of the project's main objectives. 
  6. a timeline for the research project and a statement regarding how it is to be funded. 

The purpose of the Research Prospectus is: 1) to encourage a student to broaden his or her research experience and/or dissertation research; and 2) to provide his or her committee with a document outlining these developing interests. A student should seek internal and external funding for the proposed project. 

Comprehensive examination requirements

Clarifications on Comprehensive Exam vs. Qualifying Exam

Comprehensive Exam (“comps”): Masters level knowledge of Anthropology. After passing comps, a student can earn the MA degree. The student either continues in the program and goes on to take the Qualifying Exam to advance to PhD candidacy, or s/he departs the program with a Terminal MA. In either case, the student should file the form, “Notification of Intent to Graduate [with an MA]” with the Graduate School in order to obtain the MA. This form is typically due approximately seven weeks before the end of the semester. Watch the deadlines closely. Please coordinate with the department AA on submitting this form.
 (If the student does not pass comps, s/he will not earn the MA degree.)

Qualifying Exam (“quals”): This is the written dissertation prospectus and the oral defense of that prospectus. When a student has passed the qualifying exam (successfully defended the prospectus), s/he is identified as a “doctoral candidate” (ie, the student has advanced to PhD candidacy). The student must file paperwork with the Graduate School about one month before taking the qualifying exam (ie, before orally defending the dissertation prospectus). Go to this website to get the form “Request to Schedule Qualifying Examination”

 The Comprehensive Exam

After completing a minimum of 36 semester hours of course work, including all courses specifically required for the Ph.D., and satisfying the language requirement, the student may take the comprehensive examination (“comps”). The purpose of comps is to test student’s knowledge of anthropology in general and of their specific fields of specialization. The exam will assess the student's control of material from course work as well as overall familiarity with basic research in the discipline's subfields. It will also assess the student's preparation for future dissertation research and knowledge of the relevant background research and literature. Students are expected to demonstrate extensive knowledge in all four subfields of anthropology (cultural, linguistic, archaeological, and biological). In particular, students must demonstrate exceptional command in the theoretical, methodological, and cultural/geographical domains of their chosen field of specialization.

The Comprehensive exam questions will be formulated by the student's Ph.D. committee in consultation with the DGS. The examination will be graded by the student's Ph.D. committee.

There are two components to the comprehensive exam: Part 1) to test general anthropological knowledge, the student will write responses to four questions (see below for the themes). The four questions are selected by the Ph.D. committee; Part 2) the student will write a paper that helps him/her establish a deep understanding of a topic that is likely to become a part of his/her dissertation.

To prepare for the comprehensive exams, a student should put together a reading list as soon as possible (draft in the early part of the 4th semester) in consultation with his or her Ph.D. committee. This reading list will be divided into four sections relating to 1) theoretical, 2) subdisciplinary (methods or theoretical/thematic), 3) cultural/geographical themes of their main study area, and 4) cultural/geographical themes of a second study area. Literature should include texts read in courses and texts pertinent to student's dissertation proposal. Reading lists must include texts that draw on all four sub-fields of anthropology.

Timeline & Requirements

Language requirements must be met BEFORE comps can be taken. 

Comps must be taken in December of the student’s 5th semester. Students must adjust their calendar accordingly.

Part 1, Comps Questions: Four exam questions over one week (7 days). Take home format; open book. The four questions must be answered solely by the grad student taking the comps (ie, no editing or other assistance from any other individual).

Grades on Part 1 will be returned at the beginning of the spring semester. Part 2 of comps must be submitted one month after the grade is received.

Comprehensive Exam Format 

Q1. Anthropological theory (there will at least two general themes that the student prepares to answer, but the Ph.D. committee will select only one question for the student to address).

Q2. Subdisciplinary question, methodological or theoretical/thematic in focus (there will at least two general themes that the student prepares to answer, but the Ph.D. committee will select only one question for the student to address).

Q3. Culture/geographical area question centered on a particular theme (there will at least two general themes that the student prepares to answer, but the Ph.D. committee will select only one question for the student to address).

Q4. A second culture/geographical area question centered on a particular theme (there will at least two general themes that the student prepares to answer, but the Ph.D. committee will select only one question for the student to address).

The four comps questions should not be directly related to the Comps Paper topic (Part 2); however, it is acceptable if there is some overlap and thematic connections between the questions and the Comps Paper.  The response to each question should not be more than 3,000 words.

The student will receive all four questions at once. They will return the four responses after 7 days. For example, they will receive the four questions on Monday at 9am; they must email their adviser the four responses by the following Monday at 9am.

Part 2, Comps Paper: A 25-40 page manuscript (double-spaced, 12 pt. font, excluding tables, figures, bibliography). The grad student should seek substantive and copy editing feedback on this manuscript, just as one would do when preparing a manuscript for publication.  The manuscript is due one month after students have received their grade on Part 1. (They can also submit it sooner if they desire.) The student would have been working on this manuscript for the previous year, so it is reasonable to set this due date. We envision that this article-length manuscript will give us better insights into their ability to think and write like an independent scholar, which would qualify them to continue in the program and start writing their dissertation prospectus.

The manuscript (either a review paper or a data-analysis paper) would be on a topic that is likely to become a part of the dissertation. The manuscript should be seen as a draft of an article that could be submitted to an anthropology journal. The paper topic should be selected in consultation with the student’s committee.

The grade options for comps are: 

  1. High Pass and continue in the program;
  2. Pass with a terminal M.A.;
  3. 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 either 1) retake sections of the exam, or 2) submit a written assignment on a specified topic.

Note: Students who entered the program in Fall 2012, 2013, or 2014 and have not yet taken comps as of Fall 2015 will have the option to follow the requirements note above or follow the former requirements (eg, the 3-week long exam format).

Qualifying Exam: The Dissertation Proposal and Proposal Defense to Advance to Ph.D. Candidacy

After the student successfully completes the comprehensive exam, the student (in close consultation with his or her adviser and dissertation committee) will prepare and submit a dissertation proposal. This should outline the research and structure of the doctoral dissertation. The dissertation proposal should be titled (which will serve as a working title for the dissertation). As a guide to suggested length and specificity of the dissertation research proposals, students are advised to consult the guidelines for the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (NSF-DDRIG). The proposal should clearly state the theoretical issues to be addressed, the context of the research, the methodologies to be employed, the types of data to be collected, and the expected results and how these will address the central question. The proposal should clearly show the student's command of the relevant literature.

Other items to append to the dissertation proposal:

  1. An outline of the dissertation thesis, including preliminary chapter titles and summaries, in the fashion of a book proposal;
  2. A realistic schedule for research and writing;
  3. A bibliography of relevant sources (not just references cited).

The student should work closely with his or her Ph.D. committee in developing the proposal. A final version of the proposal must be accepted by a student's full Ph.D. committee before a defense can be scheduled. Any date set before the proposal is accepted by the full committee is simply a target date. The student must submit the “Request to Schedule Qualifying Examination” form to the Graduate School at least two weeks before the proposal defense. After the proposal defense, the student must submit the “Results of Qualifying Examination” to the Graduate School. Please coordinate with the department AA on submitting both of these forms.

The Graduate School regulations state that a student has a maximum of 8 semesters (4 years) to enter into Ph.D. candidacy (ie, defend a dissertation proposal, which is the Qualifying Exam for doctoral candidates). Failure to advance to Ph.D. candidacy within 8 semesters will result in probation and potential termination. Rare extensions are made for some students who may have extenuating circumstances, such as personal or family illness or other family or personal obligations. (See the page for Academic Standing in the Graduate Program for more details.) The results of the examination shall be reported to the Graduate School. The public proposal presentation will start with a brief (20 minutes) 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 his or her proposed research. At the end of the defense (ie the Qualifying Exam), the Ph.D. committee will vote to 1) pass the proposal as submitted, 2) require minor revisions and resubmission, 3) require a substantial revisions and a new defense, or 4) direct the student to complete the requirements for a M.A. degree. Students shall be informed immediately following the defense of the committee's decision.

After a student successfully defends the dissertation proposal, the student advances to Ph.D. candidacy and is colloquially classified as “ABD”. (“ABD” is not a degree; it stands for “All But Dissertation”). From this point, according to the 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.

Dissertation and dissertation defense requirements

Candidates for the Ph.D. degree in anthropology must present an acceptable dissertation based on original research that makes a substantive contribution to the field. According to rules set forth by the Graduate School, the dissertation must be completed within four years after a student has been admitted to Ph.D. candidacy.

With the approval of the student’s Dissertation Committee (usually after a complete dissertation has been written and reviewed by the Dissertation Committee), the student will petition the DGS to schedule a dissertation defense. The DGS shall notify the Graduate School in advance of the place and time of the defense and the title of the dissertation. The candidate will submit copies of the completed dissertation to the Ph.D. committee at least one month prior to the defense. The committee reviews the dissertation and conducts the final examination. 

The final oral examination and dissertation defense is administered by the student's Ph.D. committee and is on the dissertation and significant related material. The student is expected to demonstrate a mastery of the topic of research as well as an understanding of the larger context in which the dissertation lies. The public is invited to attend the defense, which will be announced in advance in the Vanderbilt Register and publicized within the department. The defense will begin with a presentation by the candidate followed by questions from the public and members of the committee. After the open question period, the defense will continue in closed session with the candidate and members of the committee. The candidate will be informed of the results immediately following the defense.

The Dissertation

A candidate for the Ph.D. degree must submit to the Graduate School a dissertation that gives evidence of original research and thinking. The dissertation demonstrates that the candidate has conceptual and technical competence in the field and has done research of an independent character. It must add to or modify what was previously known, or present a significant interpretation of the subject based upon original investigation. The subject of the dissertation must be approved by the student's faculty adviser and dissertation committee.

According to the Graduate School regulations, the dissertation must be completed within four years after a student has been admitted to Ph.D. candidacy. Upon petition to the Dean of the Graduate School, a one-year extension of candidacy may be granted. A student may be readmitted to candidacy after such period has expired only upon application to the Dean of the Graduate School and with approval of the program faculty. In such cases the student may be required, by the Dean or by the Ph.D. committee, to demonstrate competence for readmission by taking a qualifying examination or additional course work.

The candidate submits copies of the completed dissertation to the Ph.D. committee at least one month prior to the dissertation defense. Check with each committee member to ascertain whether they prefer a paper or digital copy of the dissertation (or both). The committee reviews the dissertation and conducts the final examination.

Two copies of the approved dissertation, with the original signatures of the Ph.D. committee members, and two copies of an abstract of not more than three hundred fifty words, signed by the student's adviser, must be turned in to the Graduate School no later than April 1 for May graduation (but check with the Graduate School for changing due dates). The Graduate School will publish the dissertation by microfilming. After microfilming, both copies of the dissertation are bound and presented to the Jean and Alexander Heard Library and will form part of the library's permanent collection.

The student must submit a “Notification of Intent to Graduate” form at least seven weeks prior to the end of the semester. Please attend to the deadlines, and coordinate with the department AA in submitting the paperwork.

The student must submit a “Notification of Intent to Graduate” form at least seven weeks prior to the end of the semester. Please attend to the deadlines, and coordinate with the department AA in submitting the paperwork.