What is the History major at Princeton like?


I’m considering pursuing studies in History but I’m not seeing many compelling New Zealand university history programs that are heavily orientated towards US affairs.


The history major at Princeton is fantastic - all undergraduates leave the program having conducted serious historical research independtly. All history majors write a senior thesis that ends up being somewhere in the ballpark of 70 pages. This senior thesis paper makes Princeton history majors some of the best young historians in the world, as it is sort of a mini version of what to expect in a graduate history degree later.

While the degree culminates with the thesis paper, all history majors are extremely well prepared by the time they’re researching and writing on their own. All history majors write two junior papers (or simply JPs) that are around 40 pages, and function as practice for the senior thesis. The first semester JP relates to whatever junior history seminar you end up in, and you pick a topic based upon the course. For example, my junior seminar was about Haiti in the colonial years, so I ended up writing about the Haitian Revolution for my first paper. Then in second semester you are free to pick your own topic, and you submit it to the department for approval, and also get assigned a JP advisor who can best mentor and assist you through the process of researching and writing it. Some people turn their second semester JP into the groundwork for the senior thesis, particularly as it pertains to the research. While you can’t recycle your JP writing in your thesis, you can use the research as a building block for the thesis. So again for example, I wrote my second semester JP on the creation of one particular university’s jazz performance degree that was established in 1968, the first of its sort. That provided the basis of my senior thesis, which was about jazz education in the broader context of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and what it meant to legitimize a black music in academia. Also, you get to pick your senior thesis advisor, and you are allowed to keep your JP advisor if you established a good relationship with him or her (this is what I did - Prof. Alec Dun, in case anybody is wondering, is a total rockstar).

So while you’re a senior at Princeton, you have a lighter course load in order to have time to do your thesis. This is particularly awesome for history majors, as we tend to end up writing the longest theses, and have SO MUCH reading as the central parts of our research.

Overall, I can confidently say that my Masters paper at Columbia (about the history of democratic education in post-WWII Europe, and how NYC’s board of ed played a major role in influencing that policy), seemed like a piece of cake as a whole had I not been fortunate enough to have been a part of one of the very best undergraduate history departments.