Ph.D. Exams

The PhD Qualifying Examinations

The PhD Qualifying Examinations are based on two reading lists (details below), which are created in the final semester of coursework and must be approved by the Graduate Executive Committee. The Graduate Executive Committee recommends the following timeline for completion of the Doctoral Examination:

  1. In consultation with the Advisory Committee, create Exam lists in the spring semester of the final coursework year.
  2. Submit Exam lists and the Doctoral Examination Approval Form to the Graduate Office for approval by April 1.
  3. Submit Plan of Study to the Graduate School in summer or early fall semester in the third year.
  4. Take the Doctoral Examination no later than February 28th of the fourth year for M.A./Ph.D.s, or third year for Ph.D.s. The Graduate Executive Committee recommends that students take exams in the late Fall.
  5. Submit dissertation prospectus and schedule the Prospectus Colloquium no later than April 1st of the fourth year for M.A./Ph.D.s, or third year for M.A./Ph.D.s.

Creation and Submission of Examination Lists

The PhD Qualifying Examinations are based on two reading lists, which provide the materials for three discrete exams: one addressing the first reading list, one addressing the second reading list, and a third which combines materials from both lists. For the purposes of the exams, each list designates a clearly defined and professionally recognizable field or subfield of scholarship (e.g., a literary-historical period such as the Renaissance, a transtemporal genre such as Drama, a critical tradition such as Feminism, an established body of literature such as Children’s Literature). Each of the two lists consists of approximately 60-75 works, including both “primary” and “secondary” works (approximately 75% primary works and approximately 25% secondary works). The relationship between the two reading lists is to be determined by the advisory committee, with the understanding that the fields identified by each list are to complement one another (in terms of (literary) history, discipline, method, genre, or otherwise).

The definition of a “primary” work is to be determined by the student in consultation with his/her Advisory Committee, as appropriate to the field in question. Generally speaking, excerpts are not permissible, though standard excerpts of exceedingly long or multi-volume works may be permitted with the approval of the Advisory Committee. (In assembling selections of poems, essays, excerpts, etc., students should not use undergraduate-oriented anthologies such as the Norton or Bedford anthologies; instead, students should research and choose an authoritative scholarly edition that surveys adequately–for a Ph.D.-level exam–each author’s writings.) A “secondary” work (which designates not only literary criticism but also historical and theoretical texts) can refer to a book, a long essay, or a group of short essays. The student’s reading lists should reflect both breadth and depth of reading, as well as a sense of the history of criticism throughout the fields and contemporary critical and theoretical approaches. There should be no overlap of works between the two reading lists. Selections of both primary and secondary works should take into consideration both coverage of the field and preparation for the anticipated dissertation.

The two exams test the student’s mastery of the designated fields for the purposes of both teaching and research. The third exam tests the student’s ability to combine material from both reading lists in the service of a comprehensive argument (ideally one informing future work on the dissertation).

Reading lists are to be drawn up by the student in consultation with his or her Advisory Committee, beginning at the end of the fall semester of the final year of coursework. Students are encouraged, though not required, to meet with the Advisory Committee as a whole to discuss the creation of the lists. All items in each list should be numbered clearly, and lists should be arranged chronologically or in some other systematic fashion.

Each list should be accompanied by a brief statement (no longer than 500 words), known as a “rationale,” which explains its content.  The purpose of the rationales is the following: 1) to identify a body of literature and its legibility as part of a professionally recognizable field or subfield; 2) to justify inclusions or exclusions that might seem idiosyncratic or which are, at least, not self-explanatory (e.g., including more drama than prose or poetry on a Renaissance list); 3) to indicate a methodological, theoretical, or other type of emphasis (e.g,, a high number of gender studies-oriented secondary works).

The student is responsible for making copies of his/her lists and rationales and depositing them, along with the completed Examination Approval Form, in the Graduate English Office no later than April 1st of the final year of coursework. All reading lists will then be referred to the Graduate Executive Committee for approval. Students and Advisors should note that the Graduate Executive Committee will not approve lists that fail to meet the basic guidelines recommended above. Students whose ideas about the exams continue to change during the reading period may update their lists with the approval of their Advisory Committees. **

Scheduling the Examination

After Examination lists are approved, students in consultation with their Advisory Committees need to agree upon specific dates on which their exam is to be administered and if the candidate requires a space on-campus, arrangements should be made at this time. The student needs to complete the Graduate Doctoral Examination Sign-up form, which is available in the Graduate English Office. The deadline by which all students must take their Examination (including the Conference) is February 28th of the fourth year for M.A./Ph.D.s, or 3rd year for Ph.D.s.

Understanding PhD Examination Deadlines and Time Limits

The Ph.D. Examination was devised in part to facilitate students’ timely completion of the doctoral degree, and so the Graduate Executive Committee requires that students meet all official deadlines. Students incapable of meeting an Examination deadline, for whatever reason, must apply for a time extension from the Graduate Director by submitting a typed request, signed by the student and his/her Major Advisor, at least one month in advance of the deadline. The letter must state the specific reasons for the time delay and also designate the specific amount of extra time requested. The Graduate Director, in consultation with the Graduate Executive Committee, will determine an appropriate response to the request, which will be communicated to the candidate by the Graduate Director. The Committee’s response will specify new deadlines by which the exam should be taken or the Prospectus Colloquium passed. Students repeatedly failing to show progress towards the degree will be required to meet with the Major Advisor and Graduate Director to determine an appropriate solution to the problem.

Taking the Examination

Examination questions are to be drafted by the candidate’s Committee and approved by the Director of Graduate Studies, but the Major Advisor is responsible for overseeing the exam. Candidates are not permitted to view the questions prior to the examination. The questions in the Examination are organized into three distinct sections:

The first tests the candidate’s knowledge of works on the Field List. Candidates must answer one of two questions The second tests the candidate’s knowledge of works on the Specialist List. Candidates must answer one of two questions. The third tests the candidate’s ability to synthesize material from both lists in the service of a single comprehensive argument. Candidates must answer one of two questions.

This open-book, take-home examination must be written over a 72-hour period, between the hours of 8 AM on day one, when the exam is distributed, and 8 AM on day 4, when the exam must be emailed to the major advisor and Graduate Program Assistant. The Graduate Executive Committee strongly recommends that all candidates consult their entire Advisory Committee about their personal understanding of the examination process and expectations for each part of it–both early in the process of studying the lists and at a later stage just prior to scheduling the examination. Committees and candidates may wish to establish recommendations or guidelines for how candidates will ideally approach the examination over the 72-hour test period. For example, candidates who feel they require more structure may ask their major advisor to collect each response at a designated time (e.g., essay 1 on the first evening, essay 2 on the second evening, and essay 3 on the final evening). The point of the take-home examination is NOT to suggest that candidates should be working non-stop or obsessively on an examination for the entire time; rather, the point is to allow candidates to demonstrate adequately their knowledge of a sizable body of material and to articulate this knowledge without feeling rushed. The Executive Committee assumes that each essay will be approximately 10-15 pages of double-spaced prose (with limited block quoting); that each essay will answer the question asked by the Advisory Committee, however creatively; that each essay will establish a clear argument and seek to back it up with textual evidence; and that each essay will be clearly written and appropriately revised. Pre-written essays are strictly forbidden.

The Examination Grade

Upon completion of the written examination, students will receive a grade from their committee of “Pass,” “Fail,” or “Honors.” Students who fail the examination will be required to meet with the Advisory Committee to determine an appropriate time and plan for retaking it. Students failing the examination twice will be dismissed from the program.

The Examination Conference

Applies only to candidates who have passed the examination; students will be notified of their grade prior to the meeting. Within two weeks of the written examination, The Dissertation Advisory Committee will meet with the candidate to discuss the Examination. The Examination Conference is a mandatory meeting of the student and the Advisory Committee, not a graded component of the examination. The purpose of the Conference is twofold: to offer candidates a forum wherein can occur a thorough discussion of their exam’s strengths and weaknesses, and to ease the transition from the examination phase to the prospectus phase of the Ph.D. To this end, the Executive Committee assumes that Advisory Committee members will divide time appropriately between offering feedback on each of the three essays and working collaboratively to establish a clear understanding of expectations, goals, deadlines for completion of the prospectus. The Examination Conference form needs to be signed by the Advisory Committee members and filed with the Graduate English Office.

Language Requirement

The English Department requires its doctoral students to know at least one foreign language, preferably one of demonstrable utility in their intended area of specialization. Students specializing in certain areas–Medieval or Renaissance, for example–will probably need to acquire additional language skills. The various ways to demonstrate knowledge of a foreign language are described in detail in the current Graduate School Catalog: A plan to fulfill the language requirement should be worked out early in the student’s program in consultation with the Major Advisor. The Graduate Executive Committee recommends that students complete the requirement prior to completing coursework and requires that students do so prior to submission of the dissertation prospectus. Failure to complete the language requirement by the end of the third year (PhD students) or by the end of the fourth year (MA/PhD students) will put students at risk of losing their funding for the next academic year. Forms for the language requirement are online here; they must be completed and signed by the examiner, and submitted directly to the Graduate School.