PhD in History

woman reading a book


The PhD is taught by individual supervision.

There are lots of opportunities on offer: you can gain instruction in specialist disciplines, such as palaeography, languages, and computing; you can undertake training in professional skills appropriate for historians; you will be able to attend research seminars and workshops, and lots more. There is also now training available in transferable skills, such as communication, self-awareness and team-building. Although you will be focusing on your own research for most of your time, we want to help you to become a well-rounded and successful PhD candidate.


  • 3-4 years full-time
  • 5-7 years part-time

If you are interested in part-time study, please visit our Part-Time PhD in History page for more information.

At a glance

Students will research and write a doctoral thesis of up to 80,000 words, representing an original contribution to knowledge.

They will be supported throughout the course by a Supervisor, an experienced Cambridge academic who will provide one-to-one advice and feedback. At the same time, the student will take part in Cambridge's vibrant research community, attending seminars, postgraduate workshops and a broad spectrum of skills training.

Students are formally assessed twice. At the end of their third term, they submit a Progress Essay (up to 10,000) words and meet formally with their Supervisor and Advisor (another academic who provides additional guidance). This meeting determines whether the student has made sufficient progress to complete their thesis on schedule.

At the end of their research project, students submit their completed thesis and take part in an oral ('viva voce') examination on its contents. The two examiners will be leading academics in the field. 

Students can expect to receive:  

  • Regular oral feedback from their supervisor, as well as termly online feedback reports;
  • Oral feedback from peers during postgraduate workshops and seminars;
  • Access to regular training sessions and relevant undergraduate lectures to develop key skills;
  • Support for fieldwork research;
  • Opportunities to teach and supervise undergraduate students in their field of research.

If you have any questions, drop us a line on

I gained maturity, developed intellectually, learned research independence, gained research self-confidence, learned a great deal of history, met excellent intellectual figures, developed writing skills, improved my career prospects.

The Course

What are we looking for?

We see the primary purpose of the PhD being the preparation and presentation of a substantial piece of original research. From the very beginning of the PhD course, the student focuses on the writing of the doctoral dissertation. History is a broad subject which covers many areas, and we are always very excited to see the sheer range of research proposals submitted. When looking at this, we consider:

  • Whether it represents a significant contribution to learning through the discovery of new knowledge, the connection of previously unrelated facts, the development of a new theory or the revision of older views;
  • Whether it takes due account of previously published work on the subject and you are therefore well-read;
  • Whether the thesis is clearly and concisely written, without exceeding the maximum limit of 80,000 words (excluding footnotes and bibliography).

If a research proposal is likely to take significantly longer than three years to complete, we don’t tend to accept it. However, if your topic seems feasible within the time-frame then we will be very interested!

Are there any course requirements?

Please also see the ‘Requirements’ tab in the prospectus on Graduate Admissions page:

For full-time PhD candidates, we require that you pursue supervised research in residence in Cambridge for nine consecutive terms (three calendar years). ‘In residence’ means living within a distance of 10 miles from the centre of Cambridge.

The dissertation must be submitted by the end of the twelfth term, earlier if possible.

In terms of applicant requirements, you can see our language and academic requirements on the link provided above. Otherwise, we encourage people from all backgrounds to apply – we are a multicultural university and in your life as a PhD candidate, you will meet people from all over the world! The PhD is intellectually demanding so consider whether you have the self-motivation to pursue research at a high level of scholarship, and whether you have the enthusiasm to keep going when the going gets tough. You will not be alone in your studies, though – there are plenty of people here to help, including supervisors, administrators, college tutors, as well as many others.

PhD students are expected to begin their studies at the start of the term they choose to enter, usually October, January, or April. You will be in residence continuously throughout the year, apart from short breaks for research.

As the full-time PhD requires full-time study, we ask that students do not take any outside employment (even part-time employment).

How is the PhD examined?

Once you have submitted a full dissertation, it is examined by two examiners. These examiners are appointed by the Degree Committee after consultation with your supervisor. You will then have a viva voce – an oral examination – on the dissertation and the general field of your knowledge into which your dissertation falls. The University of Cambridge does not offer any qualifying grades or credits, so you will be awarded a pass or a fail – we hope it’s the former!

The below outlines, for full-time candidates, the registration and submission dates:

Minimum number of terms of research needed before submitting

  • Qualification: PhD
  • Term (1 being your first term): 9

Minimum number of terms of research which need to be in Cambridge (in order to qualify for the PhD)

  • Qualification: PhD
  • Term (1 being your first term): 3

End of term by which your draft dissertation must be submitted to your supervisor

  • Qualification: PhD
  • Term (1 being your first term): 10

Absolute final submission deadline

  • Qualification: PhD
  • Term (1 being your first term): 12

Maximum number of terms for which an exemption or allowance will be made following a one-year course

  • Qualification: PhD
  • Term (1 being your first term): 3

For full-time PhD students their first year is a probationary year, at the end of which they undertake something called the RAE. This is the Registration Assessment Exercise, which is held between the student, the supervisor, and an Advisor (we appoint them for you). You submit work and then have a meeting to discuss what you have submitted, in order to check that you are on track and help you continue to frame your research.  This exercise should take place in the third term of study. Once registered by the Faculty Degree Committee, you are a registered PhD student; up until this point, you are a NOTAF, which means ‘not at first registered’.

The piece of work you submit for the RAE is likely to be surveying your field of research, summarising progress so far, proposing a research strategy and timetable, and indicating the original contribution to knowledge that is intended.

Although it might sound like a scary process, this is your chance to shine and show off how much work you have done during your first year and how your research is coming along! It’s also a chance to discuss any problems, issues, or worries you may have with your research in a formal setting, though you will have ample opportunity to do this with your supervisor before the third term RAE.