The entrance to the Department of History’s office in Sidney Smith Hall

Program Requirements

There are five main requirements in the PhD program in history:

  1. Fulfilment of the residence requirement
  2. Fulfilment of course requirements
  3. Fulfilment of language requirements that vary according to the student’s major area of study
  4. Successful completion of comprehensive examinations
  5. The writing and successful defence of a dissertation

Most PhD students begin the program with a completed Master of Arts (MA) degree.

Direct-entry PhD students (those without an MA) will be required to complete more coursework.

We also offer a number of collaborative PhD programs.

As a PhD candidate, in order to receive funding from the University, you must live close enough to visit the campus regularly and participate fully in activities associated with your program – unless you are away conducting research. If you are a PhD student with major external award(s), you must be in residence until you pass your field examinations.


All candidates for the PhD must maintain a minimum average of B+ throughout their coursework.

You should choose courses that help you prepare for your comprehensive field examinations.

If you are a PhD student entering with an MA, you will complete four half-year courses during your first year of study.

Direct-entry PhD students must complete nine half-year courses. Ideally, you will take four half-courses in each of your first two years, in addition to HIS1997H or HIS1201H in your first year. You must maintain an A- average in your first four half-courses in order to continue in the direct-entry program. If you are unable to do so, you may transfer to the MA program and complete the requirements for that degree.


All History PhD students must fulfill a language requirement in at least one language other than English. In some fields, students are required to fulfill additional requirements; specific requirements are determined by the student’s choice of major field for the comprehensive exam. Language requirements must be completed before the student proceeds to the comprehensive examinations.  

Note that students who choose the option of two comprehensive major fields will be required to do the most stringent language requirement but not the requirement for both fields (e.g. if a student does one major with a requirement of two languages and a second major with one language, the student must fulfill two languages but not three).

You may carry forward language requirements you fulfilled at the MA level at the University of Toronto.

All language requirements are subject to approval by your supervisor and the associate chair, graduate.


European Area:

  • Two European languages, normally French and German, or other languages more relevant to your research areas approved by your supervisor.

International Relations Area:

  • Two languages other than English most relevant to your research area.

Russian/East European Area:

  • Two languages other than English, one of which would normally be Russian or another Slavic or Fenno-Ugric language.
  • NOTE: Russian PhD applicants should have two years of Russian before entering the program.

Medieval Area:

  • Medieval Latin, French and German. You may be able to substitute a modern language that is more appropriate to your research for French or German.
  • [NOTE: PhD students must demonstrate advanced proficiency in Latin by passing the Latin exams set by the Centre for Medieval Studies (CMS). You must pass the CMS Master of Arts Latin exam before the comprehensive examination. You must also pass the PhD-level exam before you defend your dissertation.]

Chinese Area:

  • Chinese.

Other Areas:

  • At least one language other than English, normally French, approved by the supervisor and associate chair, graduate.


The comps process has many purposes: to introduce you to the key questions in your chosen fields, to build a solid grounding in key texts and readings, to provide foundation for current and future teaching and to form the basis of research in the area.

Comps are rarely completely comprehensive, but they should build breadth and depth in your key fields. The process culminates in the comprehensive field examinations, which consist of separate written examinations in each field and a common oral examination covering all fields.


  • View our fields of study

Structure of Comprehensive Fields

Two basic options are available:

  1. Two major fields, typically one based on geography or time and one based on theme.
  1. One major and two minor fields.

Major Fields:

  • A major field generally represents the geographical region or thematic area in which your dissertation topic will be situated.
  • Thematic majors should normally be genuinely transnational in coverage, including significant material from more than two geographic areas.
  • Typically, you will read the equivalent of 100 books for a major field. Major fields are overseen by two faculty supervisors. Your thesis supervisor will normally serve as the supervisor for one major field while another faculty member serves as a second reader.
  • You must choose your major field(s) from the list of approved fields.

Minor Fields

  • Minor fields serve to broaden your knowledge of history and historiography, and therefore should be in areas substantially different from your major.
  • Typically, you will read the equivalent of 40-60 books for a minor field.
  • A minor field is overseen by one faculty supervisor.
  • Normally, you will choose minor fields from the list of approved fields. However, you may prepare one “self-named minor field” that does not appear on the approved list. Self-named minors require approval of your field supervisor and the associate chair, graduate.

Reading Lists

  • An important part of preparing for your comps is deciding which books you will read.
  • We assume that you and your supervisors will shape your reading list to your own needs and interests. You and your supervisors should balance breadth and specificity with an eye to the key questions of the field, future teaching and research, the job market and your intellectual development.
  • In particular, your major field(s) should help you situate your dissertation project within the historiography, and in combination with the two minor fields, should lay the foundation for your future teaching.
  • We encourage you to tap into course materials to build your reading lists.

Pathway to Comps

  • At the Beginning of Your First Year: In consultation with your supervisor and the associate chair, graduate, you should begin considering fields (and the associated language requirements).
    • We urge you to take field seminars in your respective fields where available, since these explicitly prepare you for historiographical coverage and breadth.
  • In April of Your First Year: By this time, you should have fields and comp committee set. You should meet with your comprehensive exam committee to agree on a plan of study.
  • During Your Second Year: Typically, you will have regular meetings with professors in advance of the exam, preparing and rehearsing different sub-categories within a field (this sometimes takes the form of reading groups).
    • If your dissertation supervisor is not your major field supervisor, your dissertation supervisor will oversee your overall program and is expected to participate in supervisory committee meetings that take place before your dissertation committee is formed.

Scheduling the Exams

  • You are required to take your field examinations by the spring of your second year in the program, but you are strongly advised to take them as soon as possible after the completion of your coursework.
  • Examinations organized by our graduate office are held in October, January and April. Examinations cannot be postponed beyond the spring of the second year without permission of the associate chair, graduate.

Comprehensive Examination Formats

The comprehensive examinations are both written and oral.



  • Oral Examination: The oral examination lasts about two (2) hours and covers all comps fields. It takes place soon after the written exams.



  • Written Examinations: You may choose from the following options:



    • Examinations Written Under Supervision at Our Department



      • Major fields are designed to be written within three (3) hours; you will have up to four (4) hours to complete the exam(s). Minor exams are designed to be written within two (2) hours; you will have up to three (3) hours to complete the exams. You will get to keep a copy of the questions and your answers.



    • Take-Home Examination



      • You may choose the take-home format for any or all of your fields. The maximum length of a major exam is 6,000 words; the maximum length of each of the minor exams is 4,000 words. If you choose to write all three exams as take-home exams, you will have a total of eight (8) days to complete your work. You must complete each minor field take-home exam in 48 hours, and major field exam(s) in 96 hours. You will get to keep a copy of the questions and your answers.



Minor Exam Alternative: Series of Papers

  • With the permission of your minor field supervisor, you may substitute a series of papers for a minor field’s written examination.
  • If you choose this option, you must write at least two papers of approximately 15-20 pages.
  • The papers should cover broad themes in the field and include a substantial historiographical component.
  • You must complete the required papers well in advance of the written exams in the other field(s).
  • At the oral exam, which includes all fields, you will be examined on the papers you submitted, as well as the general content of your reading list.

Minor Exam Alternative: Teaching Dossier

With the permission of your minor field supervisor, you may substitute a teaching dossier for a minor field’s written examination. While you are still responsible for mastering a reading list required for a minor field, the written part of this exam option involves the following components:

  • A course syllabus, including outlines of lectures, themes for tutorial discussion with required readings, suggested essay topics and a sample final exam.
  • Three (3) to five (5) sample lectures, drawn from across the course syllabus, suitable for an undergraduate course in the field. The length should be equivalent to a one-hour lecture and you can include illustrative material.

You must complete the teaching dossier well in advance of the written exams in the other field(s). At the oral exam, which includes all fields, you will be examined on the content of the reading list, not the structure of your teaching dossier.

Comprehensive Examination Policies

  • Examinations are marked on a pass/fail basis, but in exceptional cases, the committee of examiners can declare that the comprehensive examinations have been passed “with distinction.”

Written Examinations

  • If you fail the written portion of a major field or of both minor fields, you must repeat the written examination in all fields before your oral examination may take place.\
  • If you fail the written portion of one minor field, you are not required to take the written examination again in the two fields you successfully passed. However, your oral examination will not be held until you have passed the minor field exam you previously failed.

Oral Examination

The oral examination covers all fields. If you fail to pass any field of the oral examination, the examining board will recommend to the associate chair, graduate, either that:

  • You will begin again and retake both written and oral portions of the comprehensive examinations in all fields, or
  • You will retake only the oral phase of the examination in all fields.

Retaking Your Comprehensive Exams

You are allowed two attempts to pass the comprehensive examinations.The chair of your examining board (who is normally your major supervisor) will inform you of the results of your examination. The board will recommend timing of the second examination (if necessary) to the Associate Chair, Graduate. The board appointed to conduct the second examination should, as far as possible, include the same members who examined you in the first place.


In the extremely rare event you fail to pass either the written or the oral examination at the second attempt, you will be recommended for termination from the program. You may withdraw from the program at any time before your termination is approved by the School of Graduate Studies.


You will be assigned a supervisor when you are admitted to the PhD program.

During your second year, you, in consultation with your supervisor, must form a dissertation committee consisting of three (3) U of T graduate faculty members, including your supervisor. Faculty members from other units with appropriate expertise may be invited to join the committee. This committee collectively oversees the writing of the dissertation, although members’ roles will vary.

Typically, students meet with their dissertation committee each fall.

Throughout your program, you will be guided primarily by your principal supervisor. Your supervisor is responsible for receiving and commenting on drafts of your thesis chapters in a timely manner.

The two other members of your dissertation committee will also assist you. They may be qualified to provide you with expertise that supplements that of your supervisor. They should obtain annual progress reports from you, offer counsel and otherwise assist you in developing your thesis.


Thesis Proposal

Choosing a thesis is of fundamental importance in your professional career. To help you make wise decisions at this early stage in your work, we require you to submit a dissertation proposal.


Your proposal must be five (5) to six (6) pages and should:


  • Include the major questions addressed in your thesis
  • Outline the historiography
  • Discuss archival collections and other potential sources
  • Suggest methodological techniques
  • Indicate a tentative schedule for research and writing

You should submit a draft of the proposal to your dissertation committee within six weeks of completing the comprehensive examination.


Normally, if you write comprehensive exams in April of your second year, the entire dissertation committee will meet in September of your third year to approve the final version of your proposal. (This target date will be adjusted if you are writing comprehensive exams at a different date.)

We will register new dissertation title with the Canadian Historical Association each fall to inform other historians that you intend to undertake research on that subject in the near future.


Annual Progress Meetings and Reports

You must prepare your first report on your research in progress for your dissertation supervisor, preferably by the end of your third PhD year and no later than your fourth PhD year.


The report should be approximately 25 pages and may take several forms, including a chapter of your dissertation. The report will normally be discussed at your dissertation committee’s annual meeting.

Thereafter, the committee must meet at least once a year, typically in September, and submit to the graduate office a formal report regarding the student’s progress. The graduate office provides a progress report form to the supervisor and the report will normally be due on September 30. The progress report is essential to both the department and the School of Graduate Studies.


Research Abroad

If you need to go abroad to conduct research, you should take the following steps when making arrangements:



  • Start with the graduate administrator’s office to arrange for the appropriate documentation and approvals for your research trip, and ensure that your direct deposit is set up.
  • Register with the Safety Abroad office. Consult the Graduate Office and the Centre for International Experience for more information.
  • Some archives and libraries will require letters of reference for admittance. Consult your thesis supervisor and the associate chair, graduate for requirements in your area of study.

[Note: You must apply for external fellowships (OGS, SSHRC) even when abroad.]



Preparing Your Thesis

The final copy of your thesis must follow SGS regulations.



Defending Your Thesis (Oral Examination)

The Examination Committee

Your thesis examination will be conducted by a committee nominated by the associate chair, graduate, in consultation with your supervisor, and approved by the School of Graduate Studies. The examination committee will consist of four to six voting members, along with a non-voting chair appointed by SGS. The voting membership includes up to three members of the supervising committee, and at least two (preferably three) examiners who have not been closely involved in the supervision of your thesis, including an external appraiser from another university who prepares a written report. The examination will be run according to SGS guidelines.



After Your Defence

After you have successfully defended your thesis in an oral examination, you must submit:



  • One digital copy of your thesis to the School of Graduate Studies
  • One bound copy (navy blue cover) to the Department of History’s graduate office, with your name and the year of the oral exam on the spine. (See: the School of Graduate Studies’ guide to producing your thesis.)
  • An abstract of the thesis (maximum 350 words) to the Department of History’s graduate office. The abstract will be printed in Dissertation Abstracts.

The digital copy of the thesis is sent to the Archives in Ottawa and to University Microfilms in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The thesis becomes available to interested scholars relatively quickly. You may postpone the publication of your work in this form for a limited time if you are in the process of finding a publisher for it (see the School of Graduate Studies’ policy on embargoes on thesis release).



Collaborative Programs

As a Department of History PhD candidate, you have the option of applying to a collaborative doctoral program in one of the following areas of study. Please contact the graduate office for more information.