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. While creating exam lists, discuss the timing and formatting of the PhD exam (details below).
  2. Submit Exam lists and the Doctoral Examination Approval Form to the Graduate Office for approval by April 15.
  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 MA/PhDs or third year for PhDs. 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 MA/PhDs, or third year for MA/PhDs.

Creation and Submission of Examination Lists

The PhD Qualifying Examinations are typically 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). 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). When appropriate, students should discuss with their advisors ways to handle the challenges of representing multiple subfields and/or disciplines within the two-list structure

Traditionally, each list comprises approximately 60-75 works, including 75% primary works and 25% secondary works. A “secondary” work may refer to a book, essay, or group of essays including literary criticism, historical, or theoretical texts. Lists from students in certain fields may look slightly different. For example, lists in Rhetoric and Composition may contain entirely secondary texts, including articles and book chapters alongside book-length texts. Lists in fields such as Digital Humanities or Film Studies may include texts in a variety of modalities. Students in these fields should discuss with their advisors the best way to proceed. All lists should include no fewer than 60-75 works overall, of any genre or modality. Because each field is different, a student’s list should reflect the kind of texts (e.g., theoretical, multimodal, visual) that are important in that field. How each text “counts” on the PhD exam list will be determined at the discretion of the student and their advisory committee, as the graduate office recognizes that length and complexity are not equivalent. 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 PhD-level exam — each author’s writings.) 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 reading lists. Selections of works should take into consideration both coverage of the field and preparation for the anticipated dissertation.

Reading lists are to be drawn up by the student in consultation with their 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 texts 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).

You can find a sample examination list with correct formatting and marginal notes explaining its elements here.

The student is responsible for making copies of their lists and rationales and depositing them, along with the completed Examination Approval Form, in the Graduate English Office no later than April 15th of the final year of coursework. All reading lists will then be referred to the Graduate Executive Committee for approval. 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 the timing and format of the exams (details below) as well as specific dates on which their exam is to be administered.  Please complete the Ph.D. Sign-Up form and send to the Graduate English Office. If the student requires a space on campus to take the exam, arrangements should be made at this time.  Students should communicate this information to the Graduate English Office.  The deadline by which all students must take their Examination (including the exam conference) is February 28th of the fourth year for MA/PhDs or the same date of the third year for PhDs..

Understanding PhD Examination Deadlines and Time Limits

The PhD 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 Director of Graduate Studies by submitting a typed request, signed by the student and their 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 Director of Graduate Studies, in consultation with the Graduate Executive Committee, will determine an appropriate response to the request, which will be communicated to the candidate by the Director of Graduate Studies. The Committee’s response will specify new deadlines by which the exam should be taken.

Taking the Examination

The PhD exam consists of three parts. The first two exams (Field 1 and Field 2) test the student’s knowledge of works on the each field list for the purposes of teaching and research. The third exam (Synthesis) 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.

The exam can take one of three formats, charted below. These formats are designed to provide graduate students and their advisory committees the flexibility to design a PhD exam that is intellectually challenging and responsive to a student’s needs and goals. As students prepare reading lists for their exams, they must consult with their advisory committee to select a fitting exam format. In the course of these deliberations, students and their committees also should take into account matters of access (outlined below) as well as students’ caretaking responsibilities, their ability to secure a quiet space to take exams, and other relevant factors. If these factors require a change in the exam’s format not recognized below, or in the event of a disagreement, the student should consult with their advisor and/or the Director of Graduate Studies.


Exam Format Writing Oral
Current Format 3 written essays (Field One, Field Two, and Synthesis) composed over a period of 3 days of writing (i.e., starts 8 am on day 1 and is due 8 am on day 4).


For each exam, the student should receive two questions, of which the student selects and answers one.


The student can receive all exam questions at once.



This format requires an exam conference, but the student will know if they have passed or failed the exam before that meeting. The exam conference is described below. It is ungraded.


Current Format (Extended) 3 written essays (Field One, Field Two, and Synthesis) composed over a period of 3 days spread across 3 successive weeks (e.g. Friday, October 1; Saturday, October 8; Friday, October 15).


For each exam, the student should receive two questions, of which the student selects and answers one.


The student receives exam questions as they answer them, not all at once.



This format requires an exam conference, but the student will know if they have passed or failed the exam before that meeting. The exam conference is described below. It is ungraded.

Modified Current Format: Oral 2 written essays (Field One and Field Two) composed under either the Current Format or Current Format (Extended)


A graded, hour-long oral examination, initiated by a 15-minute presentation from the student in which they outline three to four research questions that arose from their reading, dedicating approximately equal time to each. The remaining 45 minutes is led by faculty as an oral synthesis exam.


In addition to the oral exam, this format requires an exam conference, but the student will know if they have passed or failed the exam before that meeting. The exam conference is described below. It is ungraded.


Examination questions are to be drafted by the candidate’s committee and reviewed by the Director of Graduate Studies, but the major advisor is responsible for assembling the exam. Candidates are not permitted to view the questions prior to the examination. The Graduate Program Assistant will distribute questions for written exams upon the schedule determined by the student and their committee and assist in scheduling a space for the oral exam, if applicable.

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 assembling the lists and at a later stage just prior to scheduling the examination.

The Graduate Executive Committee assumes that answers to written exams 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 candidate should pay attention to the question’s instructions regarding the number of texts they should use in their response and not consider a text in detail in more than one essay.

Access and Accommodations for Ph.D. Exams

The University of Connecticut is committed to achieving equal educational and employment opportunity and full participation for persons with disabilities. Graduate students who have questions about access or require further access measures in any element of the graduate program should contact the Center for Students with Disabilities (CSD), Wilbur Cross Building Room 204, (860) 486-2020, or visit Alternatively, students may register online with the CSD by logging into the student MyAccess portal at

The English Graduate Office advises students who would like to discuss matters access related to their PhD exams to consult with the Director of Graduate Studies, ideally during the creation of the exam lists. Access measures for PhD exams may include, but are not limited to, extended time to complete the exam, the use of voice recognition programs and the extended time some programs require, or locating and scheduling space to take the exam.

The Examination Grade

Upon completion of the examination, students will receive a grade from their committee of “Pass,” or “Fail.” Major advisors should communicate this grade to their advisees as soon as possible and certainly before the day set for the examination conference. Students who fail the examination will be required to meet with their 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

Within two weeks of a student passing the PhD examination, the advisory committee will meet with the student to discuss the examination. This examination conference is a mandatory, but not a graded, component of the examination. The purpose of the conference is twofold: to offer candidates a forum for a thorough discussion of their exam’s strengths and weaknesses and to help the student transition from the examination phase to the prospectus phase of the PhD. To this end, the Graduate Executive Committee assumes that advisory committee members will divide time appropriately between offering feedback on each of the three exams 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 on page 19 of 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.  The form for the language requirement is online here; it must be completed and signed by the examiner, a copy sent to the Grad English Office for the student’s file and then submitted directly to the Registrar’s Office or