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Program Description

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The PhD Curriculum

Our PhD program encourages an intense engagement with the historical, theoretical, and ethnographic literature of the student's chosen sub-discipline as well as a broad familiarity with, and conversation across, the three sub-disciplines represented in the Department.  That said, the program is also streamlined and flexibly shaped to the particular needs and goals of each student.

All incoming students for the PhD are supported with a five-year funding package as well as additional grants for foreign language study, conference travel, and preparatory research during summers.  The first year of our PhD program is devoted primarily to achieving a solid grounding in social theory through a set of “common” and elective courses emphasizing critical engagement with the history of the discipline and contemporary theory. In the second year, students focus more intensively on developing mastery of the existing bodies of scholarship on their research topics and areas. Working closely with faculty, they prepare two essays that critically review the “state of the field” in two areas of scholarly literature relevant to their planned dissertation research. During the summers following this first and second years of coursework, most PhD students visit their chosen field areas to assess the feasibility of research on their planned topics, to establish preliminary contacts, and to study local languages. In the third year of study, PhD students complete any remaining coursework and write their dissertation research proposal and grant applications.  Students who have passed their proposal and received funding carry out field research for one year. After returning from their field research, they write up their dissertation in consultation with the faculty members on their dissertation committee.

A PhD in Anthropology at the University of Virginia requires 48 graded credit hours of course work. Most graduate courses run for a single semester and count for 3 credit hours. Full-time graduate students generally take three or four courses a semester and can complete all PhD course work within two and a half or three years. Students who enter with an MA degree will usually be able to transfer 6 credit hours of graduate course credit towards this total. PhD graduates must demonstrate either “Competence” in two languages other than English, or “Mastery” in one. We expect students to be doing dissertation research, usually away from the University, by the beginning of their fourth year. In order to earn the PhD degree, students must complete two Critical Reading Essays, successfully defend a dissertation proposal, and write and defend a dissertation based on original research.

For more information, please see the Anthropology Graduate Student Handbook.

Please refer to this calendar of Dates and Deadlines 2021-2022 for useful information relevant to your path through the graduate program.

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The First Year

During the first year of study, students work together toward fulfilling coursework requirements, including our required course sequence, while preparing their First Year Portfolio, which is submitted by the end of the first year and constitutes a gateway to continuing in the program. The department has a flexible set of required courses that most students take together as a cohort and that ensure that all students begin their advanced study and own research with a solid foundation in the discipline's history, theory, and diversity. Faculty advisors work with individual students to establish a pathway through these requirements that adjusts to their own interests, strengths, and prior training and experience.

We require these two courses:

  • ANTH 7010 and 7020 “History of Anthropological Theory I and II.”

In addition, we have the following subfield distribution requirement:

  • One course each in the subfields of Archaeology, Linguistic Anthropology, and Socio-Cultural Anthropology (including the student’s own subfield), to be taken over three years at a pace of at least one per year.

These courses and other electives should be chosen in consultation with the Graduate Committee in the first year and with the student’s committee thereafter. For Linguistic Anthropology, ANTH 7400 is expected, but other options will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Students who enter the program with a previous MA in Anthropology may have one subfield requirement waived on the basis of graduate coursework done elsewhere.

Second Language Requirement 

Before the end of the first year, we also expect that students will have documented a minimum of “Competence” in one language other than English. An incredibly wide range of languages have been used in recent years to satisfy this requirement.

More Information on Language Requirements

Summer Language Training and Preliminary Research

Each year the Department of Anthropology and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) Dean’s Office make available funding for students in the PhD track to do summer language training and preliminary research. Students are generally expected to apply for internal UVA summer research and language training awards during their first and second years. Applications for these awards will be solicited early in the spring semester of each year.

First Year Portf​olio

During the first year of study, each student will prepare a First Year Portfolio consisting of:

  • one-page cover letter, summarizing the student’s research interests and requesting continuation in either the MA or PhD track. Students requesting continuation for the PhD should present their plans for next year’s Critical Reading Essays, including a tentative plan for the scope of topics, the names of faculty readers, and a timetable for completion. Students requesting continuation for the MA only should indicate plans for writing either the Critical Reading Essays or the Exam (see below).
  • three course papers (each 5+ pages), unrevised, from three UVA classes, student-selected to showcase the substantiveness and quality of the student’s coursework during the year.

Portfolios should be submitted in electronic form to the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), who will make them available to the Department faculty by posting on a Collab site. They will be read initially by the DGS or other members of the Graduate Committee. Where the quality of a portfolio is in doubt, the whole Department faculty will be asked to read it. The faculty will use the portfolio, along with the student’s performance in courses, as a basis for discussion at the May faculty meetings, evaluating the student’s progress.

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The Second Year

During the second year of study, students continue their coursework, finishing up requirements, but emphasizing courses and independent studies that focus on their particular research goals.  Milestones this year include the option of applying for and receiving an "en-route MA degree" and writing two Critical Review Essays that serve as the threshold to PhD Candidacy. Faculty advisors work with individual students to establish dissertation committees that can guide them toward preparation for their individual dissertation research projects.

The En-Route MA Degree

Students who do not already have an Anthropology MA degree can apply for this degree during their 2nd year of studies, usually after their 3rd semester in the program, after having successfully completed one of the two Critical Reading Essays (described below).

Critical Reading Essays

PhD track students will prepare two Critical Reading Essays (each approximately 8,000 words plus bibliography). These reading essays will be read by the student’s committee, and by the DGS at the Committee Chair's request. Where the quality of the work is in doubt, the essays will be shared with the wider faculty.

One essay is due in each semester of the second year. The essays should be posted on a Collab site for all faculty to access. The faculty will use the two reading review essays, with the student’s performance in courses, as a basis for discussion at the May meetings, evaluating the student’s progress and deciding whether to grant the student (a) the MA degree and (b) PhD candidacy, allowing continuation towards the PhD.

The two essays should be written over the course of the student’s first and second years in the program and include one thematic field and one geographical field. Each essay should be a critical review of the “state of the field” in an area of scholarly literature that the student defines in consultation with his or her committee and other faculty. Ideally, this will be an area of literature to which the student’s dissertation research will contribute. However, it is understood that research plans often change with increased knowledge of the literature, so it is not crucial that students “get it right” in their choice of focus in these essays. What is important is building and demonstrating skill in the definition and mastery of bodies of literature.

Students should build up the bibliographies for their essays in course work and through their reading and writing for the essays themselves; and recent volumes of appropriate journals should be surveyed for relevant articles and reviewed books. While it may be helpful in beginning the process to solicit reading recommendations and syllabi, we would urge students not to overly emphasize the compilation and negotiation of “reading lists” as an end in itself.

More than a string of summaries or annotated bibliography, the Critical Reading Essays should digest the field’s literature, synthesizing its major points of departure, major findings, and major debates. The essays should identify recurring difficulties in the field, newly emergent concerns, and the most promising directions for new research.

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The Third Year

During the third year of study, students may augment their coursework as needed or desired, but by now most are working intensively on their individual research projects.  Two major tasks dominate the horizon of the third year: Submitting grant proposals to secure research funding for fieldwork ordinarily carried out during a student's fourth year at UVa, and writing a dissertation proposal that is formally defended in a meeting with the student's committee (and friends). Along the way, third year students also present to the entire department a brief outline of their proposed dissertation research at a mini-conference attended by most department faculty and graduate students in mid Spring. We call this event our "Third Year Symposium," and it's a great launching pad for project proposals to take shape!

External Research Grants

During the Fall semester of the third year most of our students come together again for a cohort class, our Proposal Workshop, or Anthropology 7060, which guides students in writing their department Dissertation Proposals and external research grant applications.

    Dissertation Proposal

    Each student is expected to defend the Department Dissertation Proposal (also called the research prospectus) in committee by the end of April in their third year.

    Students whose research involves human subjects are required to gain approval from the University of Virginia Institutional Review Board for the Social and Behavioral Sciences (IRB-SBS) and from relevant local and national governing bodies as necessary prior to starting the research. An annual IRB Tutorial session guides students in preparing and submitting their IRB Protocols.

    Third Year Symposium

    All students will make a public presentation of their doctoral projects at a Third Year Symposium. This AAA-style panel, with 15-minute presentations and a limited time for questions and answers, will not be an evaluated exercise but an opportunity for students to get feedback about their projects from the whole Department community in the midst of grant writing.

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    Research and Dissertation Years

    Most students devote their fourth year of the program to externally funded "fieldwork," or anthropological data collection, preparing themselves to write up their original research as the dissertation that is ideally completed within a two-year period following the fieldwork year.  But these final three years can be flexibly arranged to suit the needs and constraints of a student's particular project.  The department provides tuition support and health insurance for the period of fieldwork, but most students have their travel, equipment, and living expenses provided by external research grants. 

    Upon return from "the field" (wherever that may be) Fifth Year students develop and teach an anthropology course as main instructor. The department encourages students to do this in their first post-field semester, but it can be scheduled at any time after they have completed fieldwork.  We also require that a student complete a "First Dissertation Chapter" by the end of this first post-field semester.

    During their "Write-Up Years," ideally years five and six of our program, students are supported by the guidance of their faculty committees, collaboration with peers, and a host of formal and informal writing groups, workshops, and presentation opportunities.  The department supports advanced students in travelling to professional conferences to present their work, and most students participate in their final year of funding in our "Professionalization Workshop," where a faculty member guides the cohort of students nearing completion of their dissertation in developing the materials and skills to excel in the job-seeking experience (whether that focuses on academic anthropology employment or other kinds of venues).

    Along the way, students are also responsible for one final requirement: Documentation of Competence in a Third Language or Mastery in the Second Language, if this has not already been achieved.  As with the first part of our language requirement, there is a great deal of flexibility in how this requirement may be fulfilled -- including often counting the student's field language as that "Third Language."

    Ideally students complete and defend their dissertations by the end of their sixth year in our program (if not earlier).  The formal defense of dissertation is a ritual attended by fellow students, department faculty in addition to the student's own committee, and often friends and family as well.  A committee frequently requires some revision after defense, and the student is then responsible for submitting the dissertation and some other documentation before being eligible to be hooded in our department graduation ceremony as a Doctor of Philosophy! 

    The information contained on this website is for informational purposes only.  The Graduate Record, found at, represents the official repository for graduate academic program requirements.

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