The graduate program at UIUC consists of three stages. In a rough estimation, students typically spend 2-3 years taking courses, then 1 year completing preliminary examinations, and, finally, 3-4 years researching and writing the dissertation. You should take the time that you need to do well in your coursework, examinations, research, and writing. For many PhD candidates, however, the longer that they are here, the more difficult the program is to complete.
You may hear about expectations of completing the PhD in 5 to 7 years. We urge you to keep in mind the following points, if you choose to adopt that timeline. First, while you should get through the program in a timely manner, you will want to maintain your sanity. Sanity may involve finding a balance between studying, working, and socializing that will probably be different from the balance you struck as an undergraduate, an employee, or in various other livelihoods. Second, graduate school serves as a forum for reading and really absorbing the fields that you will need to know for success on the job market. Gaining knowledge of a field is an enormous task for which you will not have time after you get a job. Finally, this should be a time when you make connections with your colleagues, in order to have a scholarly community within the department and the university, and with scholars at other institutions by attending conferences, workshops, etc.
It is important to keep in mind the paperwork involved in maintaining registration, funding, and financial aid if your studies go to 7 or 8 years and beyond. Departmental guidelines are flexible to an extent. Nonetheless, be sure to acquire written approval for any variation in the program to avoid confusion and delays. You will certainly want to file all paperwork pertaining to this process in a safe place.
Stage 1: Coursework
You must maintain at least a 3.0 GPA in all semesters. Generally, a B+ or lower in a graduate course indicates some problem such as miscommunication between the student and professor, too many time commitments on the part of the student, substandard work, etc. In “problems courses,” you will generally be expected to read one monograph paired with several required articles per week and to produce a historiography paper. In “research seminars,” you will also produce an original research paper similar to a publishable-quality article. There is more information about courses below.
You will also have to fulfill foreign language requirements; these courses do not count towards credits for the degree. If you are an Americanist, a student of U.S. history, you must demonstrate language proficiency in one foreign language. For everyone else, you must demonstrate language proficiency in two foreign languages. Some fields require an additional foreign language or languages that are not regularly offered through courses. “Language proficiency” usually means achieving an adequate reading knowledge of a language relevant to your field of study. Although UIUC offers a great array of languages, you can sometimes do more intensive language study during the summer at other universities, which may have funding sources. Consult with your advisor or experienced students in your field for advice on the best way to meet the department’s requirements and actually gain the necessary expertise to conduct research in a foreign language.
No graduate history courses are offered during the summer. It is possible, however, to arrange a reading course, designated as History 597, with a willing professor during the summer months. Teaching Assistantships are particularly difficult to come by in the summer because there are few TA positions, therefore some people take summer jobs. You should also be aware of the university pay schedule: you will get your first check in mid-September and your last paycheck in mid-May. If you are not planning on another source of income, you will probably need to save throughout the year. Moreover, many summer jobs at the university do not begin payment until July 16th, which means you may not receive a paycheck between May and July even if you are working at UIUC for the summer.
The department does not offer a terminal MA degree as such, but if you decide that continuing in the PhD program is not for you, it is important that you leave UIUC with at least an MA, or you may feel that you wasted those years of school. If you make the decision to leave, the department is generally supportive, but you should talk to the DGS as soon as possible.
Stage 2: Prelims
Most of the coursework that you will take in your first 2 or 3 years of the program should prepare you to demonstrate, in both written and oral examinations, your knowledge of three fields and should prepare you to conduct dissertation research in your major field.
After you have completed the course requirements, you will begin taking prelims. Preliminary examinations are written tests of your competence – for teaching, interviewing for jobs, and attending conferences – in each of your three fields. Keep this in mind when choosing your courses, even in the early stages of coursework. As you select your examiners, the professors who will write and assess your prelims, in consultation with your major advisor, you want to be sure to take classes with them. You have to have at least 5 different examiners for the 3 written exams. Your advisor must be one of the examiners for your major field. Remember that fields are generally broad, so you will not want to cluster all of your coursework around one geographic, thematic, or chronological area. See the documents titled “Guidelines for Preliminary Examiner/Examinee Relations” and “Demystifying the Preliminary Examination” as well as the “Degree Requirements” section of the graduate studies page on the History Department website for more specific information on prelims.
As you begin to prepare for prelims, talk to the professors you want to write your exams. A variety of factors can prevent you from getting your first choice, i.e. a professor may be going on leave. It is also a good idea to talk with students who have weathered the storms and understand recent trends in each field. Your colleagues are also excellent sources for tracking down reading lists for some fields. In fact, this developmental stage is part of the process. You will want to organize ideas and themes in your own mind and establish the approach you, as an individual, will take to mastering them. If you fail in your first attempt at a prelim, you can petition the DGS to retake the prelim. People have been known to fail an exam the first time around and retake it successfully. The HGSA typically hosts in the fall a panel of graduate students who have passed their prelim exams.
Also, while preparing for your prelims, you should be developing a dissertation proposal. At your oral preliminary examination, explained below, you will be expected to address both your answers on the written prelim exams and your dissertation proposal. History 597, with approval from your advisor, provides a useful way for you to work on your proposal while receiving credits.It requires you to participate in the dissertation proposal writing workshop, which is usually held each semester. Workshop participants typically meet once a week under the direction of a professor. This workshop provides a valuable opportunity to get feedback from students and faculty on your research proposal, and it forces you to write the dissertation proposal, which will be important for grant applications, departmental funding, the oral prelim, etc. Many students in the past have benefited from multiple sessions of the workshop.
The oral examination is, by the designation of the Graduate College, the official preliminary examination. The written prelims do not fulfill the requirements of the Grad College. However, oral prelims in the History Department are usually less involved than the written prelims, although they should not be taken lightly. You must have at least one faculty member from each of your fields on your oral preliminary examination committee, plus a fourth faculty member who may be one of your written prelim examiners or who may come from outside the department. Schedule the oral prelim as soon as possible after the written prelims; it must occur during the semester in which you take your final written prelim. Clearance of this date from the Grad College can take 2 to 3 weeks, so do not wait until the end of the semester to schedule your oral or you may run out of time. You must have a dissertation proposal available for your four examiners one week prior to the oral prelim. After completing coursework, prelims, and the oral prelim, you are considered ABD, or All But Dissertation. As always, policies are subject to change, so consult the DGS for the most current departmental and university requirements.
Stage 3: The Dissertation
This stage consists of researching, writing, and defending your dissertation. You must establish your Doctoral Examination Committee within 1 year after reaching the ABD status. You will develop this committee in consultation with your advisor. It can be the same as your oral preliminary examination committee, but many students choose different committees at this stage to reflect the changing needs of research and writing. While writing, you may wish to participate in the dissertation writing workshop, in informal writing groups, in grad college writing workshops, and in departmental reading groups (which often read and discuss chapters). Before your final dissertation defense there will be a "predefense," in which your committee members will review and discuss a draft.