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SIS PHD Admission Procedure & Requirements

PhD Admission & Requirements

Admission to the PhD Program

Submission of an Application
In order to be considered for admission, applications and all supporting materials must reach American University’s Office of Graduate Admissions no later than DECEMBER 15.

American University’s School of International Service (SIS) only admits new students for the PhD degree in the fall semester. The school does NOT permit students to enter the doctoral program in the spring or summer semesters.

The program is design for full-time study only. Normally, part-time study is NOT permitted.

Deferral of admission into the PhD program to a later year is NOT permitted.

Applicants must submit a completed application, which can be obtained by sending an e-mail to:, or by submitting an electronic application, which can be found elsewhere on this web site.

Four items must accompany an application for it to receive full consideration:

  • Transcripts from all previous universities attended
    Students pursuing a PhD degree at SIS must hold at least a bachelor's degree or its equivalent before entering the program. Applicants should normally have a cumulative grade-point average that is substantially above a B (i.e., above 3.00 on a 4.00 scale, or equivalent if educated outside the US) in any previous undergraduate and graduate study, preferably in a field relevant to international relations.
  • Entrance Examination Scores
    All applicants are required to submit Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores. SIS accepts the GREs ONLY. SIS does NOT accept other graduate entrance examinations.

    International applicants whose first language is not English are required to submit results of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). The minimum TOEFL score that earns an applicant full consideration is 600.

    Please note: Applicants should plan to take the GRE and TOEFL far enough in advance of the December 15 application deadline to ensure that they will be available for consideration.
  • Letters of Recommendation
    All applicants must submit at least three letters of recommendation. The application for admission includes a form for this purpose. The letters should evaluate the applicant’s potential and suitability for undertaking doctoral study in international relations. It is preferable that recommenders hold a PhD and be active researchers.
  • Statement of Purpose
    Applicants must also write a “statement of purpose.” The statement should explain why the applicant wants a PhD, a preliminary thesis topic, and a summary of previous preparation and experience.

Degree Requirements

Students take six “core” PhD seminars during their first three semesters of study (i.e fall and spring semesters of the first year and fall semester of the second year). Core seminars are designed specifically to meet the needs of PhD students. Only SIS PhD students are normally permitted to take core PhD seminars. The small size and precise focus of the core seminars enables professors to tailor them to the needs of PhD students and to have the opportunity to work closely with each student. Three of the core seminars cover the essential scholarship for doctoral study and research in international relations, broadly defined. They are: Comparative and Regional Studies Proseminar, International Relations Proseminar, and Contemporary Social Theory. The three remaining core courses deal with methodology. Two of these comprise a multiple-methodology sequence that aims: (1) to provide students with a broad spectrum of approaches to the production of knowledge in the social sciences, and (2) to train students to make intelligent choices about which methodology is appropriate for a particular research task. As such, philosophy of science is integrated throughout the sequence. The first course in the sequence covers large-n quantitative analysis and small-n cases studies at an introductory level for PhD students. The second methodology course familiarizes students with to participant-observation ethnography and discourse analysis, including constructivist approaches. The third methodology course and final core course is a Seminar on Advanced Research Design. It gives students the opportunity to apply the methodological knowledge that they have acquired to design an actual research proposal.

Beyond the core courses, students are required to select an upper-level methodology course that will provide them with additional training in the approach that they, in conjunction with their advisors, feel is most appropriate for their own research. In this way, our students achieve two distinct but related goals: a broad competence in a variety of methodological approaches and advanced proficiency in the approach that is most germane to their research interests.

To complete the remainder of the coursework, students are free to take any graduate course at the School of International Service, as well as graduate courses relevant to doctoral study in other programs at American University (including courses in the law and business schools), and at other universities in the National Capital area that are members of the Washington Metropolitan Consortium of Universities.

A doctoral student must complete a total of 72 credit hours of approved graduate coursework. This consists of 60 hours of course credits and 12 credit hours of independent dissertation supervision, which do not require coursework. The six core courses in the PhD program require four credits each. PhD students may take any other graduate courses in SIS for either 3 or 4 credits. As a result, students entering the program with only a bachelor’s degree can complete coursework by taking as few as 15 or as many as 18 courses, depending on the student’s preference.

Students with previous graduate coursework at accredited institutions may transfer up to 30 credit hours into the SIS PhD program at the transfer rate of three credits per each full course. The student must have received at least a grade of B in the course and the course’s subject matter must cover some aspect of international relations, broadly defined. As a result, students entering the program with 30 graduate credits eligible for transfer can complete the coursework by taking as few as eight or as many as 18 courses, depending on the student’s preference. Requests for transfer of graduate credit are considered at the time of advancement to candidacy. Credits completed more than seven years before the semester of matriculation are not transferable.

PhD students must also acquire proficiency in social science research methods appropriate to the student's dissertation topic. Normally this requirement is satisfied by completing 12 credit hours of courses in research methods.

A minimum grade point average of 3.00 in all course work is required to remain in good standing and to earn the degree.

Students are required to demonstrate proficiency in one modern language (other than English). Language proficiency should normally be in an area relevant to the student's research. Certification is normally done by university-administered examination, but other equivalent examinations may be accepted.

PhD students are expected to participate in SIS Research Seminars during the first three years of residency and are encouraged to participate in subsequent years. There are five seminars per semester. In these seminars, students, faculty and outside scholars present the results of ongoing research. Students and faculty serve as discussants.

Students are also welcome to participate in Greenberg seminars conducted by the Center for Teaching Excellence at AU. These seminars provide a unique opportunity for doctoral students who intend to pursue careers in college teaching and are designed to complement the PhD experience through a hands-on, practical introduction to professional development and classroom techniques. There are typically four seminars organized each Fall and Spring semester. 

Comprehensive Examinations
Over the course of study, students must pass two written comprehensive examinations and two oral examinations.

The first oral examination is the oral qualifying examination (OQE), which normally given at the end of the first year of study. The oral qualifying examination evaluates students' preparation in material covered in the four thematic PhD core seminars that students take in the first year.

The oral defense of the dissertation prospectus is the second oral examination (see below).

Students must take one written comprehensive examination from among the eight established fields at the School of International Service. These are: comparative and regional studies, global environmental policy, international communication, international development, international economic policy, international peace and conflict resolution, international politics, and U.S. foreign policy. The second comprehensive examination may either be in a second established field. As an alternative, students may construct a “special field” tailored to their research interests. Students work with three scholars (two of which must be American University faculty members) to construct the special field’s scope and reading list. The Director of Doctoral Studies must approve a special field. Students are expected to attempt two written field examinations no later than September of their third year in the program, but are encouraged to take them as early as possible.

For details on scheduling comprehensive examinations and examination procedures, see the Director of Doctoral Studies or the SIS Graduate Office.

Defense of the Dissertation Prospectus

The purpose of the dissertation prospectus is to explain the subject under investigation, place it within the existing scholarly literature and to present the planned approach for writing the dissertation. Students work with their PhD committees to develop and refine the prospectus. When a student’s PhD committee and the Director of Doctoral Studies deem the prospectus to be ready, the student presents it in a seminar open to the university community. Immediately after this defense, the student’s PhD committee and the Director of Doctoral Studies meet to decide whether the student passed the defense. A student who passes the prospectus defense then begins the actual research and writing of the doctoral dissertation.

The Dissertation

The dissertation must consist of the highest quality original research and be directly relevant to the student's doctoral program. Dissertation committees comprise a minimum of three members, one of whom serves as Chair and as the primary supervisor of the dissertation research. It is the responsibility of the student to secure the agreement of a full-time tenured or tenure track member of the School of International Service faculty to serve as the Chair of his or her dissertation committee. At least two members of a dissertation committee (including the Chair) must be full-time tenured or tenure track members of the American University faculty. The members of the committee must be approved by the Dean of the School of International Service. Students must successfully defend their completed dissertation in an oral examination, which takes place in an open seminar. Dissertations must also be approved by the Dean of the School of International Service.