The History Major’s Handbook

The FAQ’s: What Every History Major Should Know

Table of contents


Faculty and students have put together this handbook for you to provide information about how to become a history major and how to be successful in your history studies.  We welcome you to our dynamic department and are pleased that you have decided upon or are considering a history major.  As you read through the handbook, you may find that you have more specific or unaddressed questions that would be of interest to other students.  If so, let the undergraduate advisor know by email:  In the meantime, it’s great that you are thinking about history, and professors and students are looking forward to meeting you.

How do I become a history major?

Declaring a history major requires a trip to the undergraduate academic advisor in the Department of History. Call the department at 784-6855 or drop by the department office, Room 243 MSS, to learn who the undergraduate advisor is—currently Professor Greta de Jong.  Make an appointment to see him/her.  Get a declaration of major form from the advisor. Fill it out, obtain the necessary signatures, and carry it to the admissions and records office.

What are the requirements?


  • Fulfill university requirements including the Core Curriculum
  • Fulfill the Department of History’s specific requirements which include:
    • 36 credits of history
    • Distribution courses
    • Specific required courses
    • Capstone courses
    • Special history courses
    • A minor course of study
    • Foreign language study
    • Writing and presenting a senior thesis/project

General requirements:

A major in history requires the completion of at least 36 credits in history.  Many students have more credits than these when they graduate, but for purposes of discussing the major, let’s assume that you wish to complete exactly 36 credits in history at the time of graduation.  In this case, half of your history credits will be, in one way or another, required.  The remaining half is open to personal choice.  However, keep your eye on the requirement that 24 credits must be at the 300 and 400 level. 

Distribution courses by level:

You are expected to complete at least 6 credits at the 100 level.  If you are transferring from a community college and have completed 12 credits at the 100 level, do not panic.  These are acceptable, but if you want to complete the history major with just the minimum 36 credits, your choice of any further credits below the 300 level has just vanished. In addition, plan to take a minimum of 24 credits combined at the 300 and 400 levels.

Distribution courses by area:

You are required to choose 6 credits from a category of non-European, non-U.S. courses.  You may take as many credits from this category as you like, if you enjoy Latin American history, African history, or Asian history however everyone must have at least 6 credits in this area.  Some of these courses are at the 200 level, so be careful if you have already taken your 12 credits in the lower division (i.e. 100 or 200 level courses).

Specific required courses:

All students are required to complete History 300 [Historical Research and Writing] and History 499 [Senior seminar].  The rest is up to you, as long as 24 credits end up being at the 300 or 400 level. History 300 and 499 count as part of these 24 upper division credits.

Counting Capstone Courses:

Two capstone courses are required for graduation—a university requirement—but only one may be a history course.  It counts both as a university and a departmental requirement at the 400 level and part of the 24 upper division credits.

Special history courses:

There are history courses called “Advanced Historical Studies” [Hist.498/698] which vary in their topics from semester to semester.  Keep your eyes open for these because these courses can be extremely interesting experiences.  Usually the course title “Advanced Historical Studies” is used by a faculty member who wishes to try out a new course, or who wants to focus upon a special area of interest.  In the past there have been courses like “Pirates and Piracy,” “The World of Leonardo da Vinci,” and “Modern German History.” These are regular 400 level courses and when one seems interesting or exciting, grab it. Many 498 courses do not return on any regular basis and may never be seen again. They count as normal 400 level courses, however, and you can enroll in up to 9 credits (three different courses) of 498 if you want to.  To find out what the topic is for a particular 498 course, look at the footnote in the relevant semester schedule accompanying individual sections of History 498/698.  The rules apply for “topics” courses, such as History 487 [Topics in American Studies] or 454 [Topics in Medieval History] and 480a [Problems in the History of Science] although here you are not able to repeat courses as many times.

Senior Thesis or Project:

The department requires every major to complete a senior thesis/project.  It is created in conjunction with two required courses: History 300 and 499 (Senior Seminar).  Ideally, History 300 should be taken no later than in the second semester of your junior year, since it positions you for a good beginning in Senior Seminar and helps you in all your upper-division work.  You might even begin thinking about your senior project in History 300.  History 499 is your time to shine.  Students meet five times during the semester in seminar and, outside the seminar, work with individual supervisors to prepare a senior project, usually a thesis.  If the thesis/project is on track, students are then “advanced to presentation,” and take part in a formal oral presentation of their research at the end the course.  Successful completion of both the written project and oral presentation is required for graduation. 

Thesis Prize:  Each semester a special committee chooses one senior thesis to receive a thesis prize, an accompanying monetary award, and public acknowledgment.

Minor Course of Study: select a minor course of study in consultation with your advisor.

Foreign Language: History majors must show competency in a foreign language by completing the College of Liberal Arts requirement.  Unless you have completed level eight of a foreign language in high school, this usually means that you will need to complete successfully the fourth semester of a foreign language at the university.  In choosing a foreign language to study, ask yourself what culture really speaks to my imagination and gets my heart racing?  If you have an interest in the culture of a people and place, you will just naturally want to do more to learn its language.

So, where is the Department of History?

Physically it’s in the Mack Social Sciences building, but organizationally it is in the College of Liberal Arts.  The College itself is one of about ten colleges that reside within the university, sort of like different rooms (departments) on different floors (colleges) of a big building (the university). Sometimes colleges are called “schools,” as in the “School of Journalism” or the “School of Medicine.”  At other times, schools are sub-units within colleges, such as “the School of Nursing” or the “School of Social Work.”

The university is a nearly unfathomable medieval artifact. Call or drop by the History Department.  Ask where the undergraduate advisor may be found.  Make an appointment.  Ask questions about anything that may be confusing you about the Department of History, the College of Liberal Arts, or the University of Nevada.

Faculty at each one of these three levels—university, college, department--have made, and continue to make, decisions about what types of skills and abilities our students should possess.  So, everyone at UNR has to complete the Core Curriculum—a university requirement.  Students in the College of Liberal Arts are expected to have, besides the major, also a minor; they are also required to show competency in a foreign language, and have additional experience in the humanities.  Departmental requirements are discussed above.  Talk to the undergraduate advisor about all this.  He/she can help in organizing your curriculum and making good choices. 

Does History give scholarships?

Yes! The department of history has been fortunate to receive donations from several private sources over the years, and money generated from these funds every year is specifically earmarked for the support of students.  The application process is quite easy.  Applications are made through the College of Liberal Arts, and distributions of available funds occur usually in April.  Ask the academic advisor about other scholarship opportunities as well.  Ask also about study abroad and other learning opportunities.

What if I only want a history minor?

History has four minor options: American, European, Third World, and, if you can’t decide, a general history option as well.  The general history option is a 21 credit minor; all the others are 18 credit minors.

General History Minor:                                                               Credits

Hist. 101-102 - United States OR

Hist. 105-106 - European..........................................….….................... 6

From 300 level or above - American History Courses..…............................ 6

From 300 level or above - European History Courses.................................6

From 300 level or above - Third-World History Courses..............................3

                                                                 TOTAL CREDITS               21

[One three-credit 200 level course may be substituted for one 300-level course with the approval of the academic advisor]

American History Minor:

Hist 101-102 - United States..............................................................................................6

Twelve additional credits in American History courses numbered 200 and above (nine credits of which must be 300 and above) ......................................12

                                                                  TOTAL CREDITS              18

European History Minor:

Hist 105-106 -European.......................................................................6

Twelve additional credits in European History courses numbered 200 and above (nine credits of which must be 300 and above)..............................12

                                                                 TOTAL CREDITS              18

Latin America, Asia, Africa, Middle East:

Hist. 105 – European..........................................................................3

Fifteen additional credits from African, Latin American, East Asia, or Hist 371 (Ancient History)………………………………………….....................................………15

                                                                 TOTAL CREDITS              18

Thinking about the future?

Keep a portfolio.   Grades and transcripts provide evidence of your college achievement, but these measures are often narrow and largely impersonal, reducing your varied experiences to a letter grade, a grade point average, or a list of credits.  But individuals are more than statistical averages. To demonstrate your individuality it is a good idea to keep a portfolio of your work as a history major. 

A portfolio gives any interested party solid evidence of your accomplishments. We suggest keeping a binder with writing samples, papers written for classes, research projects, and, especially, your senior thesis.  Whenever you take a history class, save materials, the course syllabi, details of course assignments, papers, and projects, and add them to your binder.  At the end of the course, write a page or two about what you have learned (in general), what skills you have come by.  Get some feedback from the professor, write it up, and ask the professor to endorse it with a signature.  

The portfolio can be a good place to keep track of your university records.  Keep your DARS reports there.  Check off completion of university, college, major and minor requirements.  You can document your extra-curricular experiences here as well.  Graduate schools look favorably upon such experiences as studying abroad, club and organization activities, independent study, foreign travel, public service, and teaching experiences.  It's all important, and you don’t want to forget any of it.  When it comes time to apply for graduate or professional programs, or to apply for employment, such a portfolio can be a lifesaver.  You can draw on it to describe your particular strengths and experiences.  You won’t make vague statements such as “I have really enjoyed history,” but be able to use specific examples like “I have done especially well in Colonial Latin American history, and my work in cultural theory has contributed to my critical ability. . .”

 Thinking about the present? Hints for a successful semester.

You braved the lines and bought the books, you forced a reluctant computer to enroll you in the classes that you want, and you managed to make it to the first day of classes despite the broken alarm clock and having to park in the north lot after a roommate forgot to put gas in your car.  You will deal with the roommate later; at the moment you want to know how to make this a successful semester.  Here are some hints.

Bring your body, use your brain

We cannot stress enough the need to attend classes regularly.  The work that professors and students perform in classes, lectures, discussions, and debates helps you become a historian.  More important, it helps you do well on assignments and make the grades you will need to pursue future plans.  Paying all that money to get C grades is like paying for front row tickets and then preferring to sit in the back row of the third deck.  So, show up.  Always. Or as close to always as you can get.  Buy a calendar, put important dates on it, and consult it.

Be prepared

Coming to class unprepared can result in a feeling of helplessness and a sense of being completely at sea.  It can also leave you outside the conversation.  Prepare for your classes. Do the readings, complete the assignments, and check your notes.  It’s just that simple.  Make sure you bring the proper accoutrements to class.  Want to take notes?  Pencils and pens often prove handy.  So does notebook paper.  Have some questions about the reading?  Bringing the book will help you pose your queries.  Have lots of friends?  We’re very happy for you.  BUT TURN OFF THE CELL PHONE OR PAGER.  Your friends will understand.

Get involved

Be an active member in class.  Even if the professor gives a lecture, she will usually accept questions.  And you should be taking notes. Copious notes.  Lots of notes—in both lectures as well as in discussions. That sounds like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised.  Always keep the course syllabus with you, maybe in a specific notebook where you will also keep your notes. Sometimes lectures are outlined for you, but sometimes they are not.  Be prepared to organize the material presented in lecture for yourself.  Not everything that is important is written down by the professor.  Be an active participant in the organization of knowledge.  If you don’t know how to spell a name or term, ask!  If you need more description of a theme and want to be sure about how it relates to a particular issue, ask!  If you have questions about the reading, have your book handy and refer to the part you want to talk about.  If you attend a 50-minute class and take three sentences of notes, rethink your strategy.  Bring your books and other readings, and be prepared to consult them.  (You paid for them; this is how you get your money’s worth.)

Make a commitment to learning

Show respect, to others and to the professor. Attending class means more than staring at the lecturer, or doodling in your notebook.  It means working with all the class members to shape an environment in which everyone learns, because everyone is teaching everyone else.  If you want your classes to work, then commit yourself to working as well.  Attend regularly.  Show up on time and stay until discussion ends.  Whether you are talking or listening, show respect and consideration for your fellow class members.  Get your assignments to your professor on time.  Don’t like feeling lost in discussions?  Read the book before class.  Having problems because your slightly-less-committed fellow students would rather talk about something else?  Let the professor know.

Work: It’s not just for classrooms

How much time do I need to give to a class?  The usual rule of thumb is three to one.  For every hour you spend in class, you should spend three hours studying-- really studying, not while watching TV or in between orders at your part-time job.  If you are taking 15 credits in a semester, that means you need to study 45 hours a week.  That’s why going to college is compared to a full time job.   In fact, once you get a job after college, your workload may decrease.  But first, put in the three hours of study for every hour of class.

“But professor, I read the book three times”

It is amazing how often professors hear this.  Usually what students mean is that they looked at the book on three occasions, or tried to reread some particular passages.  Some reading is more difficult than others.  The subject may be unfamiliar.  The way a text is written may be difficult for you. You may be reading a primary source (that is, an original document or a work written by a historical figure) and the language is not what you are accustomed to.  All these things play a role in how much time you need to give to reading.  But remember, your skill as a historian has as much to do with learning how to read sources as with extracting information from them. Getting used to the seemingly obscure ways in which subjects have been discussed is part of the job.

Professors like to talk

While office hours are not social events, professors love to see students and really like it when students come to talk more about their subjects.  Get to know your professors. Try to visit them at least once or twice a semester.  Bring questions if you have them. “I don’t get this book, even though I've read it three times” is not a great way to start.  Maybe you could say, “I don’t quite follow the argument on p. 63,” or “I’m not really sure I understand why he/she makes such a big deal about X.”  An office visit is a good opportunity to get some help with writing as well.  Ask what you can do to improve your writing, and about topics about which you want to learn more.  Ask about what kinds of courses the professor is planning to teach in the future, and, about how best to prepare for them.

Help is good

The library is the heart of the university.  Familiarize yourself with the library webpage and with the library building.  Work with the reference librarian when you have questions.  Check the webpage when you need a history journal, or a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary, or you really need to find out who Giuseppe Mazzini or George Bellows was. The more familiar you become with the library, the easier your classes.

Research-- Asking questions, finding answers

When you become a history major, you will learn pretty quickly that “research” plays an important role in your college life.  But what does it mean when you take on a “research topic”?  Do you have to get a membership card?  Must you pay dues?  Will you have to wear glasses?  The answer to these questions is no, no, and only if you need them.  Taking on a research topic in history actually means you announce your intention to create new knowledge about the past.

This may seem counterintuitive-- after all, the past is over, it is done, it is history.  What is there to find that is “new” about the past?  But this is where you would be mistaken.  As William Faulkner observed, “The past isn't dead. It isn't even past.”  In fact, each person brings his or her own perspective to history, and as one leans to do research as a historian, he or she brings a personal perspective to history.  So, in learning to do research as a historian, you are setting about creating your own personal history.

But this new “history” is what you find, not what you start with.  As you progress through the program, you will learn that historians are driven not so much by what they know as by what they do not know.  During your career in the department, you will learn how to ask your own historical questions, such as, “How did the Spanish empire coexist with the remnants of the Aztec empire?”  Or “How did European ideas about nature influence ideas about health”? Or even “Why did people in the United States become obsessed with fast food after the Second World War, and why did they feel it necessary to foist it off on the rest of the world?

As you learn to ask questions that interest you, your classes will give you the tools to answer those questions.  The library contains both general and more specialized handbooks on conducting research, but a good place to begin any project is by working with the classroom instructor.   They will help you see which questions are too broad (“what changes have shaped Chinese society over the last 500 years?”), which questions are likely to produce dead ends (“who really shot John Kennedy?”), and which questions will work for you.

When There are Problems

Sometimes there are disagreements, especially about grades.  The best way to deal with an issue like this is to make an appointment with your professor in order to learn why a certain decision has been made, and to find constructive ways to improve.  Don’t take criticism personally and don’t alienate yourself from the professor or the class by holding a grudge.  We are constantly learning, and the process of learning means accepting honest criticism maturely—hard to do when you are frustrated.  However, sincerity and calm will take you much further than acting out when your native genius is not acknowledged.

Always remember this.  Plagiarism, from whatever source, is never OK.  If you are tempted, DON’T DO IT!!!

Student Services

Take advantage of the writing center.  The writing center is located in EJCH 206 (phone number: 784-6030) and is there for a purpose, to help you express and communicate your ideas.  There are tutors and the center can provide you with writing tips so that you can keep on top of your semester.  They also have coffee.  Remember you need three hours of study for every hour in class, and napping in your textbook doesn't count.

So, there you have it-- tips for a successful semester.  One last piece of advice.  Never be afraid to ask for help, and don’t wait until it’s too late.  Ask early, and your stress will decrease.

Why should I join the History Club?

While some witnesses have observed that members of the History Club are concerned primarily with having fun, we hasten to add that high-brow intellectual discourse also takes place amidst the celebrations, fund-raising events, and culturally oriented road trips to such worthy destinations as San Francisco’s fine art museums and Mexico’s archeological sites. The History Club, in other words, is a social venue for getting to know other history majors and faculty in the History Department.

The History Club also provides the home for Phi Alpha Theta, which is chartered to promote appreciation and understanding of the past in all cultures, on campus and in the larger community. 

History Club members have participated in a variety of dynamic events, from judging history competitions in Washoe County high schools, to organizing film festivals.  We invite you to join.  Please come meet people, have a few slices, watch movies, and make the most of your time at UNR.

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