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Ph.D. Admissions

With more than 40 full-time faculty members, the Department of History trains graduate students in a wide range of fields and methodological approaches, covering periods from antiquity to the present.

Graduate students in history benefit from a high faculty-to-student ratio, which enables us to provide more individual attention than many other programs. The size of each entering class varies slightly from year to year, with eight to 10 students being typical. In all, we have approximately 50 students, a talented and diverse group who come from many parts of the United States and the world.

Vanderbilt University offers many opportunities for interdisciplinary engagement. The Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities houses on-going seminars in areas ranging from Circum-Atlantic studies to postcolonial theory, science studies, and pre-modern cultural studies. Other centers and programs whose activities would be of interest to history graduate students include the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latinx Studies; the Department of Medicine, Health, and Society; the Max Kade Center for European and German Studies; the Department of African American and Diaspora Studies; the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies; and the programs in Asian Studies Program, American Studies, and Jewish Studies. The Department of History strongly encourages interdisciplinary work.

Please note: The Department of History does not accept external applications for a terminal master’s degree. The M.A. is usually earned en route to the Ph.D. It is also available to Vanderbilt undergraduates who enroll in the 4+1 program in history.

Director of Graduate Studies and Admissions: Jefferson Cowie
Graduate Administrator: Mary Lyn Albritton

If you have any questions regarding the graduate application process that are not answered here, please email us.

Application

The Vanderbilt history department offers the Ph.D. degree. Students normally earn the M.A. following two years of coursework, fulfillment of the research paper requirement, and satisfactory performance on language examinations. The department does not offer a free-standing terminal M.A. degree.

The application deadline for Fall 2023 admission is December 1, 2023. Applicants for whom the $95 application fee presents a financial hardship are encouraged to apply for a fee waiver from the Graduate School.

Foreign applicants or applicants who do not qualify for a fee waiver from the Graduate School should contact historygraduatestudies@vanderbilt.edu. These applicants should explain briefly in their email why the fee presents a financial hardship. Requests for a fee waiver will be assessed and forwarded to the College of Arts & Science. If a fee waiver is granted, the applicant will be notified.

Applicants should have an undergraduate degree from an accredited institution, domestic or international.

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Application Components

As part of the online application, candidates will provide:

  • Statement of Purpose (please be specific about your research goals and provide names of faculty members with whom you would like to work, and why. In addition, please explain how your interests and goals may connect with our Areas of Excellence).
  • A minimum of three letters of recommendation (and no more than five).
  • An unofficial, scanned college transcript(s) and graduate transcript(s) if applicable. Admitted applicants will be instructed to submit official and final transcripts as a condition of enrollment at Vanderbilt.
  • TOEFL and IELTS scores are accepted for international students whose native language is not English. For more information, read the Graduate School’s Language Proficiency policy.
  • Candidates are required to upload a writing sample of no more than 25 pages as part of the online application process. The option to upload the writing sample is made available immediately after entering your test scores into the online application. Please note that until this writing sample has been uploaded, your application will be considered incomplete. Research papers and theses, especially those that explore a historical topic and show facility in using original and/or archival materials, are of most use to the admissions committee in making their decisions. Co-authored writing samples are not accepted.
  • GRE scores are not required for admission.

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Areas of Excellence

Graduate students will select an area of excellence from a drop-down menu in the online application; prospective advisers will submit a note to the admissions committee explaining the candidate’s fit. Therefore, applicants are strongly encouraged to reach out to prospective advisors to figure out how their interests could connect with our areas of excellence initiative and to explain in their Statement of Purpose how they envision benefitting from it.

The Vanderbilt History Department offers a rich setting for the study of the history of economy, widely conceived, including labor and business history, the history of capitalism, trade networks, and general questions of economic development as they connect with politics, culture, religion, and social history. Ranging temporally from the classical/medieval era to the modern world, and geographically from the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Europe and the United States, the Vanderbilt History faculty is interested in the study of commodities, thought, empire, trade, free and unfree labor, finance, cultures, and the global development of capitalism. Our view is capacious, with wide interest in legal, political, and regulatory regimes that influence such processes. Working with faculty across the department, we encourage comparative and transnational forms of historical inquiry. Vanderbilt also offers connections with a robust team of formal economic historians in the Economic Department and a strong undergraduate Economics-History major.

Vanderbilt is home to a thriving community of legal historians. We range chronologically from the ancient Mediterranean to the twenty-first century, and our faculty and graduate students have written on topics as diverse as ancient violence, the history of prostitution, racial passing, citizenship, Islamic law, policing, capital punishment, sovereignty and state building, privacy law, American slavery, and the intersections of religion and law.

Our community is centered on the Legal History Colloquium, a trans-institutional seminar that brings together faculty and students from the Law School, the Divinity School, and the College of Arts & Sciences working on legal historical themes. The colloquium strives to be international and comparative in methods and scope. Students in Legal History take a graduate seminar on Methods in Legal History, which introduces them to the wide-range of work done by legal historians. Working in consultation with their adviser, students of legal history write one of their two graduate seminar papers on a legal topic; they also have opportunities to serve as teaching assistant to faculty in diverse areas of legal history.

Vanderbilt’s History Department focuses on complex histories of racial formation, as well as race and migration. The unique history of African peoples dispersed by the Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades is of particular interest. Deploying local, national, transnational, and transdisciplinary approaches, students work closely with accomplished scholars in the History Department—as well as other academic departments, such as African American & Diaspora Studies—to study a wide array of interrelated topics.

These include race as a concept, ideology, and system, as well as the role of race in shaping identity and culture in the Americas and other parts of the world. Likewise, students examine theories of race & diaspora, encompassing historical phenomena such as settler colonialism, racial enslavement, labor migrations, deportation, colonialism, and post-colonialism. In addition, research can extend to the analysis of subsequent mass demographic movements and the creation of “new” racialized peoples, homelands, communities, cultures, and ideologies as historical groups responded to upheaval and sought opportunities. Therefore, scholarship on race and diaspora also attends to manifestations of social, religious, economic, and political oppression and social control, and the attendant struggles of resistance and adaptation. This, in turn, leads us to scrutinize race alongside state formation, racialized citizenship, capitalism, state-building, and surveillance. As with all work on race, centering analyses of gender and sexuality is a priority in order to provide a deeper understanding of racial identities and structures. In addition, examining race and diaspora from the ancient world through the 20th Century and in relationship to Native American, Asian, and Jewish diasporas is also possible.

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Research Areas

Vanderbilt boasts a dynamic group of scholars in Ancient and Medieval history. The faculty represent a range of geographic and chronological periods, including the Roman Empire, Ancient/Medieval Syria, medieval Europe, Judaism, Islam and Asia. The faculty share a mutual interest in reconstructing past through rigorous, source-driven historical reconstruction, with specializations in legal, religious, economic, cultural and military history. They work closely with a distinguished cohort of early modern historians, and in collaboration with the programs in Classical and Mediterranean Studies, the Legal History Seminar, Jewish Studies, Women and Gender Studies, the Pre-Modern Cultural Studies seminar (Robert Penn Warren Center); the departments of English, French & Italian, German, Russian and East European Studies, History of Art, and the Graduate Department of Religion.

We welcome applications from potential graduate students interested both in particular subject areas, but also in the questions and methods shared by all historians of pre-modern societies – how to work with patchy or fragmentary evidence, how to reconstruct the world of culture and symbols, how to push beyond the learned texts that predominate in our records, and how to ask meaningful questions about the past.

There is no prescribed graduate curriculum; students are invited to craft their own program within the framework of the History Department Ph.D. requirements during coursework. Particular scrutiny is given, in evaluating applications, to a candidate’s prior preparation (including knowledge of languages necessary to undertake Ph.D. level research) and a candidate’s writing sample. Applicants are encouraged to contact potential supervisors in advance.

Vanderbilt University's History Department continues to diversify geographically and thematically, with African history being the latest doctoral field to be added to our offerings. Our doctoral program in African history is designed to produce scholars and teachers who possess a simultaneously broad and deep knowledge of the African past. We train academic historians of Africa who are grounded in the historiographies, methodologies, and debates that animate the field, but who also recognize and account for Africa's connections to the rest of the world and to global events.

We welcome applications from prospective graduate students who desire rigorous training in the core historical methodologies as well as in ethnographic approaches to the African past. Graduate students will be trained to mine and make sense of archival, oral, ethnographic, linguistic, and other unconventional sources as well as to utilize clues offered by Africa's vast material culture to reconstruct and interrogate the past. The goal is to develop our students into producers of new knowledge about Africa and effective teachers of African history.

Students can expect to be trained in the social, economic, and political histories of the continent while exploring themes as diverse as gender, technology, trade, religion, colonialism, nationalism, healing practices, slavery, intellectual production, among others. Students will be trained to appreciate the dominant dynamics of Africa's precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial histories while recognizing the parallels and overlaps between these periods. Our courses explore trans-regional patterns but also cover the peculiar historical features of particular regions.

The small number of our Africanist faculty means that we are able to devote considerable time to independent studies, collaborative learning, and mentorship. We perform traditional mentoring tasks, but we are also able to provide consistent support as students identify research fields, apply for research grants, and apply for jobs during the dissertation phase of their training.

Vanderbilt hosts an accomplished faculty in Asian history and is particularly strong in the twentieth century, early modern, and medieval periods. We emphasize global interconnections and broad comparative approaches both within the department and in affiliated programs across campus.

With a small cohort admitted each year, students benefit from close mentorship with Asia faculty, including one-on-one independent study and directed research. Students will be expected to take history department courses in other regions (Europe, US, Latin America, Middle East, Africa) and methodologies (including Visual Culture, Spatial Histories, Empire, and History of Science). Students can also explore related topics with Asia faculty in History of Art, languages and literature (Asian Studies), Religious Studies, Sociology, English, and Political Science.

South Asia: Vanderbilt is emerging as an important location for the study of early modern and modern South Asia, especially in the fields of political history, religious history, and the history of western India (Samira Sheikh). Graduate students admitted to study South Asian history may be supported by faculty in related fields, such as Indian Ocean history (Tasha Rijke-Epstein), the history of the British empire (Catherine Molineux), and the Islamic world (Leor HaleviDavid Wasserstein). Distinguished South Asia specialists elsewhere at Vanderbilt include Tony K. Stewart, Adeana McNicholl and Anand Vivek Taneja in Religious Studies, Tariq Thachil in Political Science, Akshya Saxena in English, and Heeryoon Shin in History of Art. Those interested in premodern links between India and east Asia may benefit from scholars of Buddhism and Chinese architecture (Robert Campany/Tracy Miller).

Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Northeast Asia: With specialists in the cultural and intellectual history of modern/contemporary Japan (Gerald FigalYoshikuni Igarashi) and modern China/Northeast Asia (Ruth Rogaski), Vanderbilt is an excellent place to train in topics such as colonialism and empire, war, history and memory, contemporary culture, and history of the body and medicine. Faculty in U.S. History (Tom SchwartzPaul Kramer) also maintain strong interests in Sino-U.S. relations. Associated faculty include Guojun Wang in Chinese literature, Lijun Song in Chinese medical sociology, and Brett Benson in contemporary Chinese politics.

Early and Middle-period Imperial China: Vanderbilt hosts a strong faculty in the political organization, military history, and material culture of the Song dynasty (Peter Lorge), with the capacity for comparative study in other medieval societies (Europe, Middle East, South Asia). Students can also explore topics as diverse as sacred landscapes, regional networks, and religious identities with affiliated faculty in History of Art (Tracy Miller) and Chinese religions (Rob Campany).

Vanderbilt ranks among the nation's top twenty research universities and boasts a diverse and dynamic History Department. One of the newest and most exciting areas of faculty research and graduate training at Vanderbilt is Atlantic World History. Graduate students who choose to complete a major or minor field in Atlantic World history at Vanderbilt will be introduced to a wide range of literature addressing the interactions among European, Native American, and African peoples. Working closely with our Atlantic World historians, students develop a dissertation topic and prospectus during their fifth and sixth semesters.

From their first semester, we encourage doctoral students in our field to become actively engaged in the profession through field research, networking, collaborative projects, grant writing and publishing. We also encourage training in digital humanities and our students have worked on projects such as the Slave Societies Digital Archive, the Manuel Zapata Olivella Collection and Enslaved: Peoples of the Historic Slave Trade.

Our students have presented their research at numerous national and international conferences including the American Historical Association, the Conference on Latin American History, the Brazilian Studies Association, the Forum on European Expansion and Global Interaction, the Omohundro Institute of Early American History, the African History Association, and the Association of Caribbean History, among others. Over the last decade our students have won many prestigious research awards, including the Fulbright, Social Science Research Council, American Council for Learned Societies, and Rotary fellowships.  Our students have conducted research in areas as diverse as Angola, Barbados, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Germany, Ghana, Jamaica, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.

Graduates of our Atlantic World History program have earned tenure-track positions in history departments at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Florida, Michigan State University, the University of West Florida, the University of Birmingham, UK, the University of Arkansas, Queens College, Georgia Gwinnett College and the University of Texas-Arlington.

Vanderbilt has a vibrant group of scholars in Early Modern history. Faculty research and teaching interests include geographic specialists in England/Britain, France, Germany, Italy, eastern Europe, India, and China. Among the areas of inquiry are legal, religious, economic, cultural, and gender/sexuality history. The Early Modern faculty work closely with historians of antiquity and medieval history, and in collaboration with the programs in Classical and Mediterranean Studies, Jewish Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, the departments of English, French and Italian, and German, Russian and East European Studies, History of Art, and the Pro-Modern Cultural Studies Seminar (Robert Penn Warren Center.)

We welcome applications from potential graduate students interested in particular subject areas as well as in the questions and methods shared by all historians of early modern societies, including how to work with incomplete, fragmentary, or (deliberately) misleading evidence, how to reconstruct the world of culture and symbols, how to push beyond the learned texts that predominate in the historical record, and how to ask meaningful questions about the past.

There is no prescribed graduate curriculum; students are invited to craft their own program within the framework of the History Department Ph.D. requirements during coursework, but an applicant’s prior preparation, including knowledge of languages necessary to undertake Ph.D. level research, and the writing sample, are particularly important factors. Applicants are encouraged to contact potential supervisors in advance.

Vanderbilt University trains graduate students in all periods of Islam's history, from its origins in late antiquity to modernity, and in various regional settings.

Our faculty works in multiple fields, including law, business, religion, imperialism, and nationalism. They have written on topics as diverse as early Islamic death rituals; politics and society in al-Andalus; Jewish-Muslim trade in the medieval Mediterranean; the political, religious and economic landscape of early modern Gujarat; Jewish identity in the Ottoman Empire; Islam in the modern Balkans; Nigerian responses to colonialism; and the rise of ISIS.

Vanderbilt University has one of the oldest programs in Latin American studies in the United States. Our doctoral program focuses on developing scholars and teachers with both a broad knowledge of Latin American and Caribbean history and intensive training in research and writing in their specialty. Doctoral students normally do four semesters of classes, then take their qualifying exams at the end of their fourth semester or the beginning of their fifth semester. Working closely with our historians of Latin America and the Caribbean, students develop a dissertation topic and prospectus during their fifth semester.

From their first semester, we encourage our doctoral students to become actively engaged in the profession through field research, networking, publishing, collaborative projects, and grant applications. Our students have presented their research at numerous national and international conferences including the American Historical Association, Conference on Latin American History, Latin American Studies Association, Brazilian Studies Association, Association of Caribbean Historians, and the Southern Historical Association. Over the last decade our students have won many prestigious internal and external research awards (ACLS, Mellon, Boren, SSRC, and Fulbright).

Since 1989, 39 students have entered our doctoral program. Twenty-three have completed their dissertations, and ten students are currently in the program. The average time to completion of dissertation has been six years. Close individual supervision of our students has been key to the timely and successful progress of our students. 

Vanderbilt University has a distinguished tradition in Latin American and Caribbean history beginning with the hiring of Alexander Marchant (and four other Brazil specialists) and the creation of an Institute of Brazilian Studies in 1947. Among other noted historians of Latin America who have taught at Vanderbilt are Simon Collier, Robert Gilmore, J. León Helguera, and Barbara Weinstein. Close individual supervision of our students has been key to the timely and successful progress of our students.

Vanderbilt is home to a thriving community of legal historians. Our faculty expertise ranges from ancient Rome to the contemporary United States, and we place a strong emphasis on comparative and thematic inquiry. Faculty have written on topics as diverse as ancient violence, the history of prostitution, racial passing, Islamic law, American slavery, and law in early modern empires.

Our community is centered on the Legal History Workshop, an invited speaker series that runs throughout the year. The workshop features some of the most exciting new perspectives on legal history and strives to be international and comparative in methods and scope.

In addition to coursework in their geographic and chronological areas of expertise, students are encouraged to take the Methods in Legal History seminar, which runs every other year. This team-taught seminar introduces students to the range of work done by legal historians and runs in conjunction with the workshop.

Vanderbilt's doctoral program in Modern Europe focuses on developing scholars and teachers with a broad knowledge of European history and its relationship to the world. Graduate students are rigorously trained in both the national historiographies of their regional and linguistic specializations, as well as in related transnational and thematic fields, such as environmental history, nationalism and nation-building, law and empire, the history of music, minority politics, history of religion, mass violence, and the history of science and technology.

With a small, competitive cohort accepted each year, doctoral students in Modern Europe at Vanderbilt benefit from close mentor relationship with their advisors and other senior faculty, both through small seminar-style coursework and close individual supervision during the dissertation process. Mentorship extends beyond the classroom to include support in grant-writing, preparation for the job market, and opportunities for teaching assistantships in related fields. Collectively, the department's European faculty has supervised more than 40 theses in modern Europe and helped to place students in prestigious fellowships and tenure-track jobs in the United States and Europe.

Vanderbilt is home to a robust and diverse community of historians engaged in the study of Science, Technology, and Medicine (STM). Students in STM are exposed to both the intensive historiographies of STM fields as well as a broad and deep training in the relevant historical locations and periods. Vanderbilt STM students are encouraged to imagine themselves as both scholars and as historians.


Our faculty expertise ranges across time, place, and topic; from material culture in Africa, to medicine in China, to intellectual and cultural history in the West.  Faculty have written on topics as diverse as modern privacy, the young Darwin, Diabetes, Albert Einstein, Qi, clinical trials—even the future of technology.


Our community is centered on two workshops, one designed by graduate students for the STM scholars within the department, and the other designed to engage the broader Vanderbilt community, recognizing the inherently interdisciplinary nature of STM studies.  

Students in our doctoral program are trained broadly in the historiography of the United States in the nineteenth, twentieth, and now twenty-first centuries. They also have ample opportunities to work in transnational and thematic fields, including African American history, diplomatic history, environmental history, intellectual history, legal history, political history, and religious history as well as the history of capitalism, gender and sexuality, popular culture, race and racism, and science, medicine, and technology. The department has a strong profile in the field of U.S. and the world, and offers students training in transnational approaches. Graduate students and faculty meet regularly as a group to discuss research work in progress in the department's informal Americanist Seminar.

With a small, diverse cohort accepted each year, doctoral students in U.S. history at Vanderbilt benefit from expert supervision and guidance. Our faculty is committed to excellent mentoring in both research and teaching. Graduate students enjoy close working relationships with their advisors and other faculty inside and outside the department, whether in the Law School or Peabody College of Education or in the departments of medicine, health and society, sociology, philosophy, or religious studies. Faculty assist students as well with grant-writing, conference presentations, article drafting, and preparation for the job market. The department has helped to place students in prestigious fellowships and tenure-track jobs as well as significant research and policy positions outside the academy.

 

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