Graduate Degree

The Department of African American Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, with one of the most successful graduate programs in the field, offers an M.A. in a wide range of disciplines. The department’s strong emphasis on research and writing prepares students for entry into Ph.D. programs and for professional positions in education and related fields. Its faculty is committed to academic excellence and to the department’s initial objective to promote interdisciplinary study in three major areas: Culture (the arts and humanities), History, and Society (social sciences). Students are guided in using innovative as well as conventional methods of scholarship in a way that contributes to the development of African American Studies and to the diversification of academic disciplines, communities, and institutions. To achieve that goal, the Department maintains flexible models of study which can be adapted to fit individual student interests.

Students with an interest in pursuing a Ph.D. in either English or History might be interested in applying to the English Bridge Programs or History, which allows a student who has completed an M.A. in African American Studies to move directly into one of those Ph.D. programs.

Requirements for the Master of Arts Degree in African American Studies

Twenty-four credits of course work, six thesis credits (AAS 790), and successful completion of an M.A. thesis. Students are assigned an adviser upon admission into the program and should consult with them regularly throughout their studies.

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Course Work

Students must take 12 of their 24 approved graduate coursework credits in the Department of African American Studies. Because the graduate program emphasizes interdisciplinary and cross-cultural study, we encourage students, with the approval of their adviser and the Graduate Director, to take some of their remaining 12 credits in related courses in other departments. While the department encourages independent work, no more than 6 hours of directed study (AAS 699) credits may be applied toward fulfillment of the M.A. course credit requirements.

Sample Schedule for the Two-Year Graduate Program

Year 1

  • Semester I: 9 course credits
  • Semester II: 9 course credits
    • Students must establish their thesis committee by the end of week eight. The deadline for submitting a preliminary bibliography and thesis proposal will be determined by their committee Chair (however, their preliminary bibliography and thesis proposal must be complete by the end of the semester).

Year 2

  • Semester I: 6 course credits
    • Students should meet with their thesis committee Chair to set up a schedule for submitting drafts of chapters of their thesis throughout the semester.
  • Semester II: Research and Thesis (AAS 790) 6 credits
    • Students should have a thesis draft to circulate to committee members within the first three weeks of the semester.
    • Students should have a defense date scheduled by mid-semester.

Maintaining Satisfactory Progress

Students in the graduate program are reviewed for satisfactory progress by the Graduate Program Committee at the end of their second semester. Students who do not meet all the following criteria face the possibility of being placed on probation. Students who do not meet the required criteria for satisfactory progress by the end of their second semester may be dropped from the program.

  • Students must register for a minimum of 9 graduate credits (in courses numbered 300 and above) each semester during their first year; six credits if they hold a teaching assistant position (excluding the summer semester), and must always maintain a minimum overall cumulative GPA of 3.5.
  • No more than 3 credit hours of incomplete work may be carried at any time. Students must make up Incompletes by the end of the following semester during which the student is registered. Students with incompletes will not be considered for Teaching or Project Assistantships in African American Studies.

The Master’s Thesis

The purpose of a Master’s Thesis is to demonstrate that the student has acquired the knowledge and skills to produce a scholarly project of 75-100 pages (not including notes and bibliography) that makes a significant contribution to their discipline and advances knowledge in the field. The following general guidelines for the Master’s thesis in African American Studies are applicable to each of the areas of specialization:

Choosing a topic:

  • This is the most important first step in writing a Master’s Thesis. Students should choose a topic they are genuinely interested in and about which they can generate new knowledge. Ideally, the topic for the thesis will build on the student’s graduate coursework.

Critical position:

  • Students must demonstrate an understanding of how their critical methodology relates to current and historical trends in their areas. In most cases, this constitutes an explanation of a student’s critical position/perspective in the first chapter of the thesis. The importance of the study should also be specified in the first chapter.

Primary and secondary sources:

  • The thesis must reflect a thorough knowledge of the primary and secondary texts discussed in the work through a comprehensive literature review. Students who choose to write on a single subject or author which or who has received relatively little critical attention must be able to demonstrate detailed knowledge of the full range of critical material that exists on the topic or person. Students writing on a subject or figure which or who has attracted widespread critical attention will be expected to demonstrate detailed knowledge of the major works and criticism that focus specifically on their topic. The quantity of required secondary reading included in the literature review will be determined in a conference with the student’s major adviser following the student’s submission of an initial working bibliography.


  • Students at the thesis-writing stage in their programs should have graduate level writing skills. They should be attentive to such technical problems as grammar, punctuation, and spelling throughout the writing phase of the project. Should they have weaknesses in any of these areas they need to take immediate intensive steps to remedy those flaws. The staff in the Writing Center, located in the English Department, offers excellent one-to-one help to students with writing problems. An excellent online resource that will benefit students at all levels of graduate work and in all stages of writing, from beginning thesis proposals to completing the Master’s Thesis, is the Purdue Online Writing Center.
    • Students are encouraged to review the site’s formats for proper citation in their discipline to avoid any possibility of plagiarism, a serious offense for which there are severe penalties.

The Thesis Defense:

  • The thesis defense is an oral presentation where students are expected to demonstrate their acquisition of in-depth knowledge of the topic on which they have written. They will also be expected to establish a context that shows the significance of their work toward advancing the field of African American Studies broadly and narrowly. Students proceeding into disciplinary Ph.D. programs should have further insights into how the knowledge they gained could affect the directions they take in their future explorations of their fields.

Please contact Dr. Sandra Adell, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, with any questions.