The Undergraduate Program

Frequently Asked Questions for Undergraduates


Prospective Majors and Concentrators

Q: Why should I major in this subject?
A: A major in history helps students develop analytical skills and the ability to think historically- a skill of increasing necessity in our time. Majors also gain invaluable experience in research, writing, critical thinking, and collaboration that are proven assets in government, politics, law, nonprofit management, education, business, media, and other fields.

Q: Are there any prerequisites for history courses?
A: Most history courses have no prerequisites. However, it is advised to move from the general to the specific: from broad survey courses to more specialized lectures to seminars. The department offers a few 1000-level lectures that are especially appropriate for students with little or no history background, and for first- and second-year students contemplating the major. Most of our 2000-level lectures are also appropriate for such students, though having some background can be helpful for very specialized topics.

Keep in mind the following general guidelines when contemplating advanced coursework, particularly the undergraduate seminars (normally listed at the 3000- or 4000-level):

  • Students will get more out of a seminar if they have had previous coursework (such as a lecture course) in the relevant field. 
  • Students’ work on a senior thesis will be more productive if they have already had some experience in writing a research paper. 
  • Students should make every effort to take at least one of the two seminars required for the major in the junior year to allow more flexibility in course selection in the senior year. 

Q: To whom do I speak about this major? How does the department structure its faculty for advising purposes?
A: For initial questions about requirements and procedures, students should consult the Undergraduate Handbook.

After reviewing Undergraduate Handbook, students interested in academic advising on the major or concentration may contact any member of the Undergraduate Education Committee (UNDED) in the Fall or Spring Term. (UNDED members are elected each year and do not serve in the Summer Term.) 

Q: What are the requirements for majors and concentrators?
A: Majors are required to complete 9 courses in history, 4 of which must be in their chosen specialization- a single field of history defined in consultation with a member of UNDED. Concentrators must take 6 history courses, and 3 within their specialization. A specialization does not appear on the student’s transcript but provides an organizing principle for the program and is required by the department. Majors must also complete at least two seminars, one of which must be in the specialization. There is no seminar requirement for concentrators.

Finally, majors must fulfill a breadth requirement by taking 3 courses far removed from their specialization (one removed in time and two removed in space). Concentrators must take two breadth courses: one removed in time and one removed in space. (Please see the Undergraduate Handbook for a more detailed explanation on selecting such courses.) Note that a member of UNDED must approve both the specialization and breadth courses outlined on your yearly Plan of Study Form in order to ensure that the degree requirements are being met. After being signed by an UNDED member, the  Plan of Study Form must be filed with the Undergraduate Administrator.

Q: When should I declare my major?
A: Students typically declare a major in History in the spring semester of their sophomore year. We encourage students to take courses during the first and second years as a way of exploring the major and preparing for more advanced coursework.

Current Majors and Concentrators

Q: What counts as a history course?
A: Courses in the History Departments of Columbia and Barnard will count for major or concentration credit. Courses taught by our faculty outside the History Department usually will count as history courses. Courses taken through study abroad programs will be evaluated according to syllabi and written work for those classes.

Q: What research opportunities exist in the department?
A: Professors sometimes have independent funding for research assistants or may occasionally use work-study students in this capacity. However, the most compelling research opportunity available to History majors is the senior thesis. We strongly encourage our majors to write a senior thesis, a research paper between 13,000 and 17,000 words. Usually, this takes place in one of the year-long thesis seminars, but the thesis can also be done individually. The latter option requires students to identify a faculty member to sponsor their thesis and provide guidance throughout the process.

Q: I am going abroad for a semester…what do I need to do?
A: Great! Students who are planning to study abroad may review their plans with the Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS) before their departure; however, they should be aware that courses are only officially approved by the DUS after they return to Columbia. They should also keep in mind that seminar requirements must be fulfilled at Columbia. Please see the Study Abroad and Transfer Courses page for additional information.

Q: I need to receive credit towards my History major or concentration for a class I took at another college…what steps do I need to take?
A: History students seeking credit toward the major must bring copies of the course syllabi, reading lists, Columbia transcripts, as well as a completed Plan of Study Form and Transfer Credit Form to the Undergraduate Administrator, who will then petition the DUS on their behalf. Please see the Study Abroad and Transfer Courses page for additional information.

Q: How does one receive departmental honors?
A: Honors are awarded to 10% of graduating majors on the basis of a high GPA (including exceptional history coursework) and an excellent senior thesis. Please note that writing a senior thesis is necessary, but not sufficient, for an award or departmental honors.

Q: Are there any student clubs, committees, and/or activities offered within the department?
A: The Undergraduate History Council (UHC) is a small group of representatives for history majors and concentrators. In addition to serving as student advisors to UNDED, they act as peer advisors for fellow students and organize events. Membership to the UHC is open each fall by application, and members are expected to serve for at least one full academic year. Please see the UHC page on the departmental website for more information.

Q: Who should I contact about graduate study in this field?
Generally, it is best to consult a faculty member who specializes in the specific area of history students intend to study at the graduate level, although members of UNDED can also provide advice. If students are interested in graduate study at Columbia, please visit 
this link.

Q: Where can I find a list of faculty office hours, telephone numbers, and other information about the history department faculty?
A: A list of office hours is posted outside the History Department (413 Fayerweather Hall) and online.