Doctor of Philosophy in American Studies

The Doctor of Philosophy in American Studies represents the study of the United States as an academic field with its own theories, methods, and applications. The program benefits from Penn State Harrisburg’s location in a capital region with internationally known heritage sites and American Studies resources such as the Gettysburg Battlefield, Three-Mile Island, the towns of Hershey and Steelton, the Anthracite Coal Region, and Amish Country. The program emphasizes critical cultural inquiry and the application of American Studies to public heritage, public policy, and cultural resource management — including governmental work, museums, cultural agencies, education, archives and records management, public policy, and communications. A foundation for this application is an understanding of the American experience developed within the intellectual legacy of American Studies.

Program graduates are typically oriented toward public practice as well as scholarship in American Studies — integrating perspectives on United States history, culture, and society. Students have opportunities for internships and field experiences outside the classroom. In addition to preparation for academic teaching and writing, the program is distinctively concerned among other doctoral departments of American Studies with the production of public scholars and leadership careers outside of academe. The program strives to cover America broadly in its national and international contexts, work with local resources and institutions, and to develop a focus on cultural expression and identity, including areas of material and visual culture; folk and popular culture; race, ethnicity, and gender; and literature, performance, and media.

Degree Conferred: Ph.D.

Program Requirements for Admission

Requirements More Information
GPA Successful applicants with an M.A. typically have a GPA of 3.5 or above (on a 4.0 scale) in their graduate work.
Education Applicants must hold a master’s degree in American Studies, or a related field emphasizing American cultural scholarship and public heritage work such as history, English, sociology, political science, folklore, cultural studies, performance studies, ethnic studies, gender studies, communications, art history, museum and library studies, education, and cultural resource management.
Supporting Materials
  • Scores from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).
  • Three reference letters attesting to academic and professional capabilities. (At least two letters should be from academic sources, such as professors or advisers).
  • A letter of 500 to 1000 words outlining significant scholarly and applied experience, career goals, commitment to American Studies as a field, and academic objectives.
  • A recent personal vita.
  • A paper from a graduate course taken previously or publication demonstrating research and compositional skills.

Application Deadline

Semester Deadline
Fall January 15
*GRE scores are required for scholarships and assistantships.

Application Process

Gather supporting materials and begin the standard graduate application


Between admission to and completion of the Ph.D. program, the candidate must spend at least two consecutive semesters (summer sessions are not included) as a registered full-time student (9 credits per semester) at Penn State Harrisburg.

The Curriculum

Students progress through the following phases and take courses designated by their doctoral committee:


In this initial phase, the student must (1) make up any deficiencies in graduate courses in American Studies noted in the letter of acceptance, and (2) complete with a grade of B or better the following courses — AM ST 500 (Theory and Method), AM ST 502 (Problems in American Studies), AM ST 591 (Seminar), and at least one course from the subfield seminars (AM ST 510 to 570) — and (3) pass a candidacy examination. Admitted students who have met all course prerequisites begin the core courses with AM ST 500 (Theory and Method). Students who have already taken AM ST 500 within three years of admission may begin their program of study with AM ST 502 (Problems in American Studies).

A special committee appointed by the doctoral program director administers the candidacy examination. After passing the exam, a student advances to doctoral candidacy. A doctoral committee of four or more active Graduate Faculty members, including at least two faculty members in the major field and one outside member, provides general guidance to the candidate. The outside member’s primary responsibilities are (1) to maintain the Graduate School academic standards and (2) to assure that all procedures are carried out fairly. The outside member represents the Graduate School but need not have direct expertise in the candidate’s research area. The outside member may contribute technical expertise, but this role is subordinate to the primary responsibilities. The dissertation adviser must be a doctoral committee member and usually (but is not required to) serves as chair. If the candidate has a minor, that field must be represented on the committee. The graduate dean through the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services, upon recommendation of the head of the major program, appoints the committee soon after the student is admitted to candidacy. A person not affiliated with Penn State who has particular expertise in the candidate’s research area may be added as a special member, upon recommendation by the head of the program and approval of the graduate dean (via the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services). A special member is expected to participate fully in doctoral committee functions. If the special member is asked only to read and approve the doctoral dissertation, that person is designated a special signatory of the thesis. Special signatories may be drawn from within the Penn State faculty in particular situations.

The Comprehensive Examination

Students must be registered as a full-time or part-time degree student for the semester (excluding summer session) in which the comprehensive examination is taken. Administered by the doctoral committee, the examination consists of three parts: one in the area of Theory and Method and an additional two in subfields from a list of five areas covered in the program. The subfields are:

  1. Public Heritage, Cultural Resource Management, and Museum Studies;
  2. Culture (material and visual culture, literature and media, sports and physical culture), Arts, and Communication (language, performance, media, and music);
  3. Interdisciplinary History and Politics (history of ideas, philosophy, and politics; biography and oral history; everyday life and socioeconomic studies; government, public policy, and diplomacy)
  4. Society and Ethnography (race, ethnicity, class, gender, age; religion and belief; comparative culture and transnationalism);
  5. Regional, Environmental, Urban, and Local Studies.

Students may select additional subfields with doctoral committee approval.

Although the number of courses required in each subfield may vary, typically four are required. Doctoral committees meet with students at least once each academic year. Written and oral comprehensive examinations in the three areas are given at the end of the study period.

The Dissertation

Under doctoral committee guidance, the candidate prepares a detailed research proposal that serves as the basis for the written dissertation. The dissertation should represent a significant contribution to knowledge, show familiarity with the intellectual heritage of American Studies, be presented in a scholarly manner, reveal the candidate’s ability to do high quality, independent research, and indicate considerable experience in using various research techniques and forms of primary evidence. The dissertation contents and conclusions must be defended at the final oral examination. Once approved, the student can enroll in AM ST 600 Thesis for On-Campus Work or AM ST 610 Ph.D. Dissertation Research Off-Campus. The writing and defense of this original contribution to the theory and practice of American Studies is the program’s capstone. A student must be registered continuously for each fall and spring semester, beginning with the first semester after they have met the comprehensive examination and residency requirement until the dissertation committee accepts and approves the dissertation. To maintain continuous registration, candidates may register for noncredit AM ST 601 or 611, with payment of the special thesis preparation fee; students who want to combine course work with thesis preparation must register for AM ST 600 or 611 (not 601 which is full-time thesis preparation) plus course registration at the regular per-credit fee. For more information on academic procedures, visit the web.

The final examination is an oral examination (defense) administered and evaluated by the entire doctoral committee. This oral defense is open to the public and related in large part to the dissertation, but it may cover the candidate’s whole program of study. The committee may restrict part of the defense to its members and the candidate. The candidate must be registered as a full-time or part-time degree student for the semester in which the oral defense is held.

Grade-Point Average and Time Limit

A minimum grade-point average of 3.0 (on a 4.0 scale) for work done in the program is required for doctoral candidacy, for admission to the comprehensive examination, the final oral examination, and for graduation.

A doctoral student is required to complete the program, including acceptance of the doctoral thesis, within eight years from the date of successful completion of the candidacy examination. Extensions may be granted by the Director of Graduate Enrollment Services in appropriate circumstances.

Financial Aid

A limited number of scholarships, loans, and grants are available from the University. Also, many employers have a tuition-reimbursement plan. For more information, contact the Financial Aid Office at 717-948-6307 or visit the web.

Graduate School Funding Programs

Full-time incoming doctoral students starting in the fall semester with a record of scholarly excellence may qualify for a University Graduate Fellowship, Bunton-Waller Graduate Scholar Awards, and other programs. Interested students should contact the program director, who is responsible for nominating students. For more information, visit the web.

Capital College Funding Programs

Full-time incoming graduate students may qualify for a Capital College Assistantship and other programs. Students must be nominated for an assistantship by the program director. For more information, visit the web.

American Studies

  • AM ST 500 THEORY AND METHODS (3) Introduction to graduate work in American Studies through exploration of the approaches, materials, and interpretations of the field.
  • AM ST 502 PROBLEMS IN AMERICAN STUDIES (3 – 6) A variable-content course, addressed each term to a specific problem, topic, or period in American culture.
  • AM ST 510 U.S. LITERATURE AND CULTURE (3) Studies exploring the relationship between literature and culture in American Studies
  • AM ST 511 PIVOTAL BOOKS (3 – 9 per semester) Exploration of a number of books which have been particularly influential in shaping thinking about American civilization.
  • AM ST 520 TOPICS IN POPULAR CULTURE (3) A detailed exploration of aspects of American popular culture, including the relationship to society and scholarship.
  • AM ST 530 TOPICS IN AMERICAN FOLKLORE (3) A detailed exploration of aspects of folklore and folklife in America.
  • AM ST 531 MATERIAL CULTURE AND FOLKLIFE (3) A detailed investigation of American material culture and folklife.
  • AM ST 533 AMERICAN CIVILIZATION IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY (3 – 9 per semester) Detailed investigation of specific topics in eighteenth-century American civilization.
  • AM ST 534 AMERICAN CIVILIZATION IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY (3 – 9 per semester) Representative interdisciplinary investigation of social, historical, economic, and aesthetic forces predominant in nineteenth-century America.
  • AM ST 535 AMERICAN CIVILIZATION IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (3 – 9 per semester) Detailed investigation of specific periods or topics in twentieth-century American civilization.
  • AM ST 536 AMERICAN CIVILIZATION IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY (3 – 9 per semester) Detailed interpretation of specific topics in twenty-first century American civilization.
  • AM ST 540 ETHNOGRAPHY AND SOCIETY (3) Ethnographic theories, methods, and case studies emphasizing current controversies and new strategies in field work.
  • AM ST 550 SEMINAR IN PUBLIC HERITAGE (3) A study of the ways that Americans use and understand heritage in public settings.
  • AM ST 551 SEMINAR IN LOCAL AND REGIONAL STUDIES (3) Detailed investigation of local and regional historical themes and topics, emphasizing research methods.
  • AM ST 560 SEMINAR IN RACE AND ETHNICITY (3). Studies exploring issues of race and ethnicity in America.
  • AM ST 561 SEMINAR IN GENDER AND CULTURE (3) Thematic study of gender issues in American history and culture.
  • AM ST 570 TOPICS IN AMERICAN ART (1 – 6 per semester) Various themes within the American arts will be explored under this rubric.
  • AM ST 575 MUSEUM INTERNSHIP (3) A supervised museum internship experience featuring a "hands on" introduction into aspects of the curatorial profession.
  • AM ST 579 READINGS IN AMERICAN STUDIES (3 – 9 per semester). Directed readings in selected areas of American Studies. Prerequisite: AM ST 500
  • AM ST 590 COLLOQUIUM (1 – 3) Continuing seminars which consist of a series of individual lectures by faculty, students, or outside speakers.
  • AM ST 591 SEMINAR IN AMERICAN STUDIES (3) An advanced seminar covering particular themes and issues in American Studies. Prerequisite: AMSTD 500
  • AM ST 592 FIELD EXPERIENCE IN AMERICAN STUDIES (3) Field projects and study tours to off-campus sites using American Studies methodologies.
  • AM ST 594 RESEARCH TOPICS ( 1 – 15) Supervised student activities on research projects identified on an individual or small-group basis.
  • AM ST 595. INTERNSHIP (1 – 18). Supervised off-campus, nongroup instruction, including field experiences, practicums, or internships. Prerequisite: AM ST 500
  • AM ST 596 INDIVIDUAL STUDIES (1 – 9) Creative projects, including nonthesis research, that are supervised on an individual basis and which fall outside the scope of formal courses.
  • AM ST 597 SPECIAL TOPICS (1 – 9)
  • AM ST 600 THESIS (1 – 6) Capstone academic research project, evidence by major scholarly paper.
  • AM ST 601. PH.D. DISSERTATION PREPARATION FULL-TIME (0). Activity consisting solely of work on the completion of research and writing of the dissertation.
  • AM ST 602. SUPERVISED EXPERIENCE IN COLLEGE TEACHING (1 – 3). Supervised experience in teaching and orientation to other selected aspects of the profession at The Pennsylvania State University. Prerequisite: AM ST 500.
  • AM ST 610. PH.D. DISSERTATION RESEARCH OFF-CAMPUS (1 – 15). Course for post-comprehensive candidates conducting dissertation research off-campus.
  • AM ST 611. PH.D. DISSERTATION PREPARATION PART-TIME (0). Activity consisting partly of work on the completion of research and writing of the dissertation.

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