The Bancroft Awards were established by the Trustees of Columbia University in 1963 to make possible the publication of up to two dissertations, successfully defended during the preceding year, in the areas of American history (including biography), diplomacy, or international relations. The awards include a publication subvention of $7,500 that is payable to the press that accepts the manuscript for publication.
Though the terms of the awards are a special encouragement of excellence in doctoral dissertations from the departments of History and of Political Science, a liberal interpretation of those terms, agreed upon by the trustees, allows that the awards be given to dissertations with an appropriate topic submitted from another program or department in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Thus, for instance, a literary biography on James Fenimore Cooper or a sociological analysis of the rise of life insurance in the United States may also be considered eligible for the awards.
The Bancroft Awards Committee, composed of two members of the faculty and the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, should be guided by the following considerations:
- The principal purpose of the Bancroft Awards is to encourage excellence. A secondary purpose is to convey to PhD candidates and to the larger community of scholars the university's standards of excellence.
- There is no single criterion for the excellence of a dissertation. Different disciplines and subjects propose different modes of treatment and have different virtues. Yet certain principles may guide the judges of the Bancroft Awards in making their choice. The first consideration should be the importance and originality of its subject as judged by scholarly standards. No dissertation accepted by a department or program of the university will be without some degree of importance and originality. The Awards Committee will therefore base its decision upon its judgment that the subject of the dissertation have a more than usual interest for scholars in the field in which they were written. Dissertations whose interests reach beyond their own fields and engage the attention of scholars in other fields should be considered to have special eligibility for the awards. Dissertations may be considered to have a further degree of excellence if they are judged to be of interest not only to an unusual number of scholars but also to the general educated public.
- In most universities, it is recognized that there is a difference between a "dissertation" and a "book." Implicit in this distinction is the fact that a few dissertations will be made into books at a later point in the scholar’s career. Hence, works being considered for the awards should be scrutinized in point of form and language: brevity is considered a virtue and gratuitous use of technical language should be avoided. At the same time, technical terms can scarcely be considered a fault in works of special and technical scholarship and nothing that has been said about the criterion of general interest should be taken as implying the contrary.
Upon completion of the defense, the chair of the Dissertation Defense Committee shall ask for nominations from members of the Defense Committee. In order to be included for final consideration for the Bancroft Award, the vote must have the unanimous endorsement of the candidate's dissertation defense committee.
For a list of previous recipients of the Bancroft Award, see Award and Prize Recipients.