PhD Program

PhD Program

The emphasis in the Graduate Program is on training candidates for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.  This degree certifies that, in addition to having a sound knowledge of anthropology as a whole, the holder has been trained to do independent research at a professional level of competence in at least one of the major subfields of Anthropology (Anthropological Archeology, Biological [Physical] Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, Linguistic Anthropology).


Joint PhD Program

Applicants should apply to only one program within GSAS (Graduate School of Arts and Sciences). If you are interested in another department within GSAS, you may include this in your personal statement. Upon review, our faculty will decide if the candidate is a good fit for our department or if another program is more suited to their academic interests.

Applicants may, however, apply to more than one school simultaneously (i.e.: Penn Medical School, Penn Graduate School of Education, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences). In the case of a dual degree, Anthropology will be the secondary department and funding will come from the primary department. For more information about the MD/PhD program click here.


Course Requirements

The PhD degree requires a minimum of twenty (18) course units (one unit per course); a normal full-time program consists of three to four units per term.  Of these units, at least twelve (12) must be taken at this University. Up to eight (8) course units may be transferred from another institution.  Students should request credit transfer from the Graduate Group Chair after the first year of residence. 

All PhD students must complete successfully a core program of four courses in the first year.  The first-year courses cover the four subfields of anthropology and are mandated by the Graduate Group (GG).  These courses include ANTH 6000, 6010, 6020, and 6030. Failure to complete the first year core courses with a final grade (i.e., no Incompletes) by the end of the second semester disqualifies a student from continuing in the program.  The Graduate Group will determine the action to be taken. 


Comprehensive Examinations (PhD Preliminary Exams)

The Comprehensive Examinations (Comps) are taken during the last week of May of the student's first year, following completion of the first-year core courses.  Held over eight hours on two consecutive mornings, the Comps will cover the field of anthropology as presented in the first year core program and focus upon an integration of the material discussed therein.  In addition to formal course work, further opportunities for preparation for the Comps include departmental colloquia and lectures, the basic anthropological references in the Van Pelt Library and the University Museum Library, and ethnographic and archaeological collections of the University Museum. 

Core course faculty will evaluate the Comps and the student's first-year academic record within two weeks after the exams are completed.  Faculty approval of both is necessary for the students to able to continue to work toward PhD Candidacy and/or the MA Degree in the department. 


Foreign Language Exam

Students pursuing the PhD (and MA) degree in Anthropology are required to demonstrate a reading knowledge of one foreign language used in written source material or scientific literature relevant to the student's professional career.  Language examinations may be taken in French, German, Spanish, or Russian (or other languages with permission of the Graduate Group).  Dates for language examinations will be arranged by the Department.  Students are strongly urged to take the language examination at the first opportunity but, in any case, are encouraged to complete the requirement by the end of their second year.  The language exam must be completed before the student is able to take the Oral Examination.  Students whose first language is not English are exempt from the requirement.



At the time of matriculation, students shall work together with the GG Chair to determine an appropriate advisor, if they have not already done so.  An advisor will work with a student on a regular basis in order to determine the shape of the student's program from semester to semester.  As the student gains familiarity with other faculty within the GG, he/she may invite those professors to serve on his/her Oral Examination and Dissertation Committees.  It is expected that the core members of the committees will be determined by the time the student is defending his/her field statements and dissertation proposal (in most cases, by the end of the third year) during the Oral Exam (see below).  When special expertise is required, additional committee members may be appointed from outside the GG or the university.  The Advisor is responsible for initiating regular meetings with the student for the purpose of guidance.  These meetings occur at least once per semester, at least until the student has passed the Oral Examination. 


Oral Examination (PhD Candidacy Exam)

When course work, the language exam and the Comps have been completed, the student is eligible to stand for the Oral Examination (Oral Exam).  At least one year must have lapsed since the completion of the Comps before the Oral Exam can be taken.  At least one semester in advance, after consulting with her/his Committee, the student should reserve a date for and petition the GG Chair to take the Oral Exam.   

The Oral Exam will concentrate mainly on the student’s specialized fields of interest, theoretically and geographically, and on his/her program of proposed research.  The student, in conjunction with his/her advisor, and the GG Chair, will determine the appropriate fields of examination (see examples of approved fields in the Graduate Handbook) and produce Oral Exam statements summarizing research on those topics.  In addition, the student must generate a PhD dissertation proposal.  This proposal should demonstrate the student’s ability to plan and execute independent research in accordance with professional standards. 

Two weeks prior to the Oral Exam, the student is required to submit the PhD dissertation proposal and three Oral Exam statements on areas of concentration for distribution to the Graduate Coordinator (“tabling”).  The proposal and statements should be reviewed and approved by the Oral Exam Committee before being tabled.  While the Oral Exam is open to all members of the GG, a quorum of five GG members, including the student’s advisor, the GG Chair and other Oral Exam Committee members, must be present in order for the Oral Exam to proceed.

Within one month following successful completion of the Oral Exam, the PhD candidate, in consultation with the Oral Exam Committee, must produce a final version of the proposal for approval by the Graduate Group and submission to the Graduate Division.


PhD Dissertation

The PhD dissertation proposal should demonstrate the candidate's ability to plan and execute independent research in accordance with professional standards and to present its results in a manner that is coherent and readily intelligible to fellow professionals.  The dissertation is based on the candidate's own field investigation and is written under the direction of a Dissertation Committee appointed by the GG Chair.  The Dissertation Committee will consist of a student’s Advisor and 2-4 other faculty members who are usually appointed at the time the student passes his/her oral examination.  At least two members of the Dissertation Committee must be active members of the GG.

After the Dissertation Advisor and Committee reads and approves a complete, “defendable” or “close to completion” (but not necessarily the final) version of the dissertation, the PhD Candidate will schedule the Dissertation Defense.  The version of the dissertation for the Dissertation Defense should include all chapters, including the introduction and conclusions, and a complete literature cited section that have been read and approved.

At least two weeks in advance of the Dissertation Defense, the PhD Candidate must make a physical and a digital version of the dissertation available to the Graduate Group (“tabling”).  The digital version is sent with an announcement of the Dissertation Defense to the entire Graduate Group.  At the public defense, the PhD Candidate will present his/her research and respond to questions from the Dissertation Committee members and others in attendance.  The Dissertation Committee, in concert with the Graduate Chair, will determine if the PhD Candidate has passed the defense.

Upon passing the Dissertation Defense, the newly minted PhD must submit a final copy (consisting of two copies for the University and one copy for the Department) to the GG for final acceptance, according to Graduate Division guidelines.


Program Planning

Each student's program of study and research is an individual one and the timing will vary from person to person.  The total years to degree has traditionally ranged from 5 (for students transferring in) to 9 (with allowance for MA degree and/or additional time in the field).  The general schedule provided below may be used as a template for planning purposes.  While this schedule reflects the five-year funding package, it is expected that students will apply for external research funds to support dissertation research during their third and fourth years, which will extend their Ben Franklin funding by a year.


First Year
  • Core courses
  • Basic courses in area of specialization
  • Comprehensive Examination (spring) 
Second Year
  • Specialized courses, seminars, tutorials
  • Grant writing course
  • Teaching Assistant
  • Completion of Language Exam (fall or spring)
Third Year
  • Completion of course requirements
  • Apply for dissertation research grants
  • Oral Examination & submission of Dissertation Proposal
  • Teaching Assistant
Fourth Year
  • Dissertation Research (preferrably supported by external research funding in Fourth Year or Fifth Year) 
Fifth Year
  • Dissertation Research, Writing, and Submission (with outside research funding Fourth Year or Fifth Year)
Sixth Year (if necessary)
  • Dissertation Writing and Submission



Students must complete all course requirements, the foreign language requirement, the Comps, and the Oral Exam within a period of five consecutive years.  The granting of a leave of absence or research leave does not extend this limit.