MPhil in American History



Covering the history of what is now the United States from the colonial period to the modern era, the MPhil in American History helps you develop expertise and consolidate your knowledge in this expanding field of historical scholarship. At its core, the MPhil provides the opportunity to shape your own intellectual trajectory and questions through undertaking your dissertation in consultation with leading historians in the field. The individual and closely supervised dissertation work is complemented by coursework that will widen your intellectual range and by a dynamic weekly seminar.

The MPhil in American History offers taught courses and a dissertation over a 9-month programme.  Students take three courses in the first two terms – a common core course focusing on historiographical debates and thematic approaches, and two Option courses, which allow students to develop their interests and/or contextualize their dissertation research.

The 15–20,000 word dissertation is the centrepiece of the course, and will be planned and undertaken through close work with your supervisor. Regular supervisions will enable the identification of key questions and ideas to address, as well as archival sources and a sense of the wider significance of your research. The supervisor will be chosen prior to admission according to your research interests, and will assist you throughout the course to make the most of the intellectual resources that Cambridge can offer.

If you plan to continue onto a PhD in American History or simply wish to explore American History at a deeper level this course may be right for you.

At a glance

All students will submit a thesis of 15,000–20,000 words, worth 70 per cent toward the final degree.

Students also produce three 3,000-4,000-word essays, two in Michaelmas term and another in Lent term; each essay is worth 10% of the final degree grade.

All students admitted to the MPhil in American History will be assigned a supervisor to work with them throughout the course, but crucially on the dissertation. Students will meet regularly with their supervisor throughout the course.

Students can expect to receive:

  • regular oral feedback from their supervisor, as well as termly online feedback reports;
  • written feedback on essays and assessments and an opportunity to present their work;
  • oral feedback from peers during graduate workshops and seminars;
  • written and oral feedback on dissertation proposal essay to be discussed with their supervisor; and
  • formal written feedback from two examiners after examination of a dissertation.

If you have any questions, drop us a line on

Meg Roberts
Meg Roberts
MPhil student in American history
In the American History MPhil, I found a welcoming, generous and energised community of historians who supported me just as much as they pushed me to be a better scholar.

Course aims

  • offers students with some background in History the opportunity to consolidate their knowledge of modern American history. It is particularly appropriate for those who may wish to continue on to a PhD, at Cambridge or elsewhere, in American history.  It is also well-suited for those who seek simply to explore American history at a deeper level, and to develop independent research skills while pursuing questions within the field of American history.
  • provides an opportunity for students to undertake, at postgraduate level, researching and writing a piece of original historical research under close supervision by an acknowledged expert.
  • exposes students to the full range of intellectual and professional experiences offered by Cambridge’s extensive historical community, including over thirty specialist research seminars that meet weekly or fortnightly, plus interdisciplinary forums such as CRASSH (the university’s centre for humanities and social science research) and opportunities for outreach and dissemination of academic research, including work in digital humanities and multi-media.

 By the end of the programme, students will have:

  • knowledge of key debates and trends in American history and historiography;
  • skills in presenting work in both oral and written form;
  • research skills relevant to the specific area in which they will have written a dissertation; and
  • the ability to situate their own research findings within the context of previous and current scholarly debates in the field.

The course

Core Course: Debates in American History and Historiography (Required)

This course is required of all students so that students develop a foundational understanding of key themes in American history. Students acquire the skills needed to pursue advanced research in American history.

Combining the coverage of classic texts of American historiography with readings of new work in the field, so as to bring students up to date on central debates in the field, the course covers key themes in political development, labour and capitalism, foreign relations, borderlands, race, immigration, nationality, gender, sexualities, religion, and intellectual history.

Option Courses (in 2019-2020)

Drawing from a sampling of the most important scholarship on the American carceral state, this module asks students to consider, critically, how historians should define the carceral state, how we should understand its origin story, and how we should think about the relationship between the “carceral state” and the American state itself. In the process of studying the history of American carceral state, this module will also encourage students to revisit current scholarly understandings of other major developments in American history—everything from the abolition of slavery, to the rise of American welfare state, to protest movements in America, to the origins of urban crisis, to the rise of the New Right, to the impact of deindustrialization, to the role of privatization in America, Immigration in America, and more. Whether a student is inherently interested in the history of crime, punishment and prisons or not, this module will get them thinking about the historical problems they are interested in, in new ways. This module asks students to read a book, and several articles, a week. It also offers a supplemental reading list for students who would like to study the issues raised in this module in more depth.

What, where, and when is colonial America, exactly? And how and why does it matter? As recently as twenty years ago, “Colonial America” usually meant the thirteen British colonies on the eastern coast of North America in the years from 1607-1776. Much has changed in the last few decades, though. This class considers the ways this concept has been redefined, as well the transformation put in motion by contact, trade, and settlement in early modern America. Undeniably, colonization and settlement in North America brought all kinds of people, from all kinds of places, together, in new ways. The movement of people, plants, microbes, and animals resulted in devastating loss, giddying riches, creative re-alignments, and, arguably, the creation of modern worlds. This course will explore some of those contacts, and the ways they have shaped the American experience. What happened when previously disparate groups found themselves in contact in this world? How did colonialism function in these encounters? How should historians understand the nature of colonialism and its place in American history? How has colonial America grown and changed in the hands of historians of the last few decades? Readings will include some classic works but will also engage with new literature: books, articles, journal special issues, podcasts, and even hashtags (#VastEarlyAmerica).

Since the 2008 economic collapse, historians have revived debates about the development of capitalism in the United States, approaching older questions with new urgency and analytical perspectives. As these literatures underscore, capitalism is not an autonomous or natural system but rather is embedded in culture, institutions, social relations, and history. Is this story of American capitalism one of continuity or discontinuity? What are its major points of rupture and what do they teach us about capitalism as a particular political-economic form? Historians have approached these questions in different, often conflicting ways. This MPhil option will introduce some of these key historiographical debates, especially as they relate to capitalism’s historical contradictions and moments of transformation. We will consider, among other questions, how historians have understood the relationship between capitalism, slavery, and emancipation; the consolidation of corporate capitalism; the unevenness of capitalist transformation, especially in relation to race, gender, and the family; and the changing role of the state in social and economic life, including the rise and fall of the American welfare state in the twentieth century. Readings will open up theoretical and methodological questions about how to analyze the history of capitalism, beginning in the first two weeks with definitions of capitalism itself.

Since the 1980s, cultural historians have dramatically shifted the landscape of academic U.S. history. Subjects once considered outside the bounds of serious study—such as popular fiction, social dance, or television—have become legitimate topics in their own right, and historians of all stripes now routinely turn to cultural sources. As we read both recent and classic texts in the field, we will ask: how does our overall picture of U.S. history change when we acknowledge and incorporate cultural forms? What difference does it make when we locate some of the United States’ most fundamental institutions and events—plantation slavery, corporate capitalism, the Cold War—within American culture?

This seminar includes histories of cultural products and genres such as the amusement park, blackface minstrelsy, and swing dance. It also features studies that investigate culture as a set of everyday beliefs and practices that undergird all of American life. We will begin in the early national period and work our way forward. The class will serve as an overview of American culture itself (though by necessity, a very selective one), considering labor and leisure, region and subculture, national myth and memory. It will also function as an introduction to the methods of cultural historians. We will pay close attention to the approaches—sometimes drawn from other disciplines—that help historians to get at something as intangible as culture and help them chart its change over time.

The MPhil in American History combines taught and research elements over a 9-month full-time programme.

The taught elements include three modules, as well as training workshops and seminars, all of which are worth 30% of the final degree mark. There is also a long final thesis (15,000-20,000 words) worth 70% of the final degree mark.

Core Course: Debates in American history and historiography

  • Weekly Seminars
  • Assessment: Essay (3 -4,000 words)

Option 1

  • Teaching: Weekly seminars
  • Assessment: Essay (3-4,000 words)

Preparatory dissertation work

  • Independent research and 1-on-1 supervisor meetings
  • No assessment

Assessment & dissertation

The Cambridge MPhil is split into Part I and Part II.

Part I

Each of three modules in Michaelmas and Lent (one Compulsory Core, and two Options) will require a 3,000-4,000 words essay (or equivalent).  Each will count toward 10% of the final degree mark, for a total of 30%.  Taken together, these are Part I, and students must receive passing marks in order to move to Part II.

Students will also prepare a 2,000 word dissertation proposal essay due in the Lent Term. This essay will be unassessed but students will meet with their supervisor to discuss the essay and get feedback.

Part II

The Dissertation or Thesis is Part II of the course.  Each student on the MPhil will prepare a thesis of 15,000-20,000 words. The thesis will be due in early-June and will count for 70% of the final degree mark.

An oral examination will only be required in cases where one of the marks is a marginal fail.

The Dissertation, or thesis, is the largest element of the course, worth 70% of the final mark.

Students are admitted to the University on the basis of the research proposal, and each student will be assigned a Supervisor who will support the preparation of a piece of original academic research. Candidates must demonstrate that they can present a coherent historical argument based upon a secure knowledge and understanding of primary sources, and they will be expected to place their research findings within the existing historiography of the field within which their subject lies.

All students should be warned that thesis supervisors are concerned to advise students in their studies, not to direct them. Students must accept responsibility for their own research activity and candidacy for a degree. Postgraduate work demands a high degree of self-discipline and organisation. Students are expected to take full responsibility for producing the required course work and thesis to the deadlines specified under the timetable for submission.

Research Seminars & Training

The American History Seminar Series involves all faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, affiliates, and graduate students in a weekly discussion of research. The research is often presented by a visitor to the University, or may be the work of a lecturer or fellow in the American History Group. This Seminar has marked the University of Cambridge out as a global centre for American History scholarship. Students are required to attend.

In addition, the American History workshop typically meets weekly during Michaelmas and Lent terms and fortnightly during Easter term. The workshop is aimed at PhD students but MPhils are welcome to attend. The majority of workshop sessions are devoted to reading and discussing works-in-progress by PhD students; other sessions are devoted to research methods or professional skills. American History MPhil students have also benefitted from workshops run at the Faculty and University levels on oral history research methods and on Geographical Information Systems (GIS) technology.