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Department of History
An Introduction to Graduate School


Eden Knudsen McLean

Eden Knudsen McLean

Joseph A. Kicklighter Endowed Associate Professor

Director of Graduate Studies

So You Want to Go to Graduate School?

Graduate school can be one of the most exciting and fulfilling times in a scholar’s life: you will be surrounded by other students who are also passionate about history; you will engage in original research and study closely with some of the leading scholars in their fields; you will be pushed to think about history, teaching, and public engagement in new ways. But what is graduate school all about?

This page is meant to help give you a short primer on what graduate school is all about and help you choose the appropriate program for yourself. It is broken up into the following topics:

What is an M.A.?

A Master of Arts degree in history from Auburn University can prepare you for a variety of scholarly and professional paths. Our M.A. degree program offers students a deeper exploration of the field and practices of history beyond what you can get from an undergraduate program. Our program will be of particular interest to:

  • Those interested in more historical training before undertaking doctoral work at Auburn or another institution.
  • Those interested in a professional credential in public history.
  • Those interested in teaching history in secondary schools.
  • Those who want to transition to further study or work but who are coming from a background other than history.

The M.A. degree in history at Auburn requires the completion of 31 course hours and a master’s thesis. Full time students usually complete the degree in two academic years.

The Master’s Thesis

All M.A. students in our program need to complete a culminating project to complete their degree. We offer two options based on the individual needs and interests of our students.

  • Traditional M.A. theses are works of original scholarship designed to have students participating in existing scholarly debates. Students work with their primary advisors to determine the length of their thesis based upon their scholarly and professional goals. Theses can be excellent writing samples for admission to further graduate study, stand-alone publications, or the kernel for a longer project to be undertaken at the doctoral level.
  • Students may also opt for an applied project as a capstone to their master’s work. These are often useful for public history students who hope to go immediately into work in that field.

What is a Ph.D.?

A Doctor of Philosophy degree is a terminal degree—meaning there is no higher degree in the field—for historians. Receiving a Ph.D. usually requires 5-7 years of graduate study beyond that required to get a bachelor's degree. A Ph.D. from Auburn University requires the completion of coursework and comprehensive exams, as well as the writing of a dissertation—a book-length treatise of a single topic based on original research by the graduate student.

In general, Ph.D. students at Auburn start by taking two or three years of classes (depending on the prior completion of an M.A. in history). These courses help prepare students to pass their comprehensive exams and write their dissertations (more on that later). Early in their third or fourth year (depending on whether they come to Auburn with an M.A.) students take comprehensive exams to demonstrate their mastery of their chosen fields of study. These exams are administered by a committee of four faculty with whom the student requests to work. These exams serve to demonstrate that the student is capable of teaching at a collegiate level in three historical fields and is ready to undertake their own work of original historical scholarship.

The Dissertation

To complete the Ph.D., students must conduct the research for and write a book-length piece of historical scholarship called a dissertation. If the goal of the comprehensive exams was to demonstrate a breadth of knowledge, the goal of the dissertation is to demonstrate an ability to do original historical research and writing (many historians edit their dissertation into a book after graduate school). Once the dissertation is drafted and read over by the student’s primary advisor and committee of professors, a formal defense of their research and historical arguments occurs. This formal defense is the final step of the program and is followed by the candidate becoming a doctor of philosophy and earning the title of Dr.

Graduate Advisors and Advisees

The relationship between an advisor and advisee is quite different in a graduate program than it is in an undergraduate program. Who your advisor will be is an important aspect in choosing a graduate program to apply to and attend. While an undergraduate advisor might focus on making sure you have the requirements to graduate, graduate advisors often become lifelong mentors after guiding their students through coursework, exams, research, and writing the thesis. All Ph.D. and M.A. students are initially assigned to an advisor, who is an expert in their intended field of study, when they are admitted to the program. That is why we ask you to mention any prospective advisors you think you might want to work with in your personal statement. Without an obvious prospective advisor (or even a few potential advisors) you are much less likely to be admitted. Many Ph.D. applicants find it productive to email potential advisors before the application deadline to communicate about potentially working with them. This correspondence often helps you determine if Auburn is a good fit for you.

In addition to your primary advisor, each student will form a committee of three to four additional professors who are experts on your topic or related topics who also help you work on your thesis.

What do people mean when they say “It is a funded program”?

Graduate programs in Auburn’s Department of History are funded programs and most students are admitted with funding! M.A. students are usually offered two years of funding, while those entering the Ph.D. program are offered five years of funding. The funding includes a living stipend, health insurance, and tuition remission, in exchange for being a teaching assistant (GTA) or research assistant (GRA). This means that instead of paying to go to graduate school, Auburn will pay you.

What does a Ph.D. prepare me for?

Lots of things! While doctoral programs are often seen as training for college-level teaching positions, graduates of our program have gone on to pursue a wide range of careers, including college teaching, museum, library, and archival work, governmental and consulting work, and teaching at the secondary level. While a doctoral degree is never just a professional credential, we also want to make certain that you leave Auburn with a range of professional options and a sense of how to apply your training as a professional historian. We have a particular strength in training graduate students for careers in public history, but unlike many programs, we also have faculty with experience and expertise in a wide range of other professional fields. Our doctoral training will give you hands-on, direct training to best mentor and prepare you for whatever comes after you complete your graduate degree.

What is a Public History Certificate?

For five decades, we have trained students for careers in public history. Public history refers to a broad range of professions including (but not limited to) archivist, curator or other museum professional, preservationist, or park ranger. Our graduates have gone on to work for the Smithsonian, the National Park Service, and the Alabama Department of Archives and History in addition to dozens of other agencies and institutions.
The Public History Certificate is a professional credential that you can complete as part of an M.A. or Ph.D. degree at Auburn. Students complete a combination of courses and a required internship that train them in the fundamental practices of a wide range of public history positions and provides significant professional experience that strengthens anyone’s resume.


Eden Knudsen McLean

Eden Knudsen McLean

Associate Professor

Director of Graduate Studies