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MA & PhD Planning Guide

MA & PhD Planning Guide

This guide provides information to help current English graduate students complete their degree program.

MA Planning Guide

MA Curricular requirements over two years (30 credits):

  • Ten 3-credit courses in the English department.
  • Six of these courses must fulfill the distribution requirements for the degree: ENGL 501; one course in theory or rhetoric; two courses in pre-1800 literature in English; two courses in post-1800 literature in English. See the Graduate Studies Handbook for more details.
  • Language Requirement:  The department requires a demonstrated reading knowledge in a language other than English. The following languages quality for this requirement: Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Latin, or Ancient Greek. Other languages may be substituted if approved by the Graduate Studies Committee. 

Graduate assistants register for a minimum of 18 credits in each MA year, plus 1 credit of ENGL 602 in each of the first two semesters of teaching.

Curricular Phase:

Keep in mind your distribution requirements. You will be enrolled automatically in ENGL 501 for the fall semester. If you are a graduate assistant, you must register for ENGL 602 (1 credit) in each of your first two semesters of teaching.


Meet with the Associate Director of Graduate Studies to discuss areas of study, and to sketch out a plan of coursework. Begin thinking about faculty who might be suitable members of your dissertation committee. Acquaint yourself with the English Grad Futures initiative for information about non-academic and non-tenure-track careers.


Fulfill language requirement: consult with the Associate Graduate Director and/or see Graduate Studies Handbook for details.


Apply for admission to the PhD program. EGO keeps archives of application materials from previous years, and will hold an information session in early October. Plan to assemble your materials well in advance of the deadline. These will include a c.v., a two-page statement of purpose, and a 20-ish-page writing sample—usually a successful seminar paper that you have edited for the occasion. There can be no outstanding deferred grades at the time of admission. Applications are reviewed by the Graduate Studies Committee, and decisions will be communicated by email, and then discussed in individual meetings with the Director of Graduate Studies, before Thanksgiving break.

MA completion semester (usually spring):

Prepare MA Scholarly Paper (aka MA thesis) by revising and polishing your best seminar paper. (Remember that thesis will be uploaded through the Graduate School to the library.) Obtain approval of revisions from faculty member for whose course it was written, and submit approved thesis to English Grad Office no later than 3 weeks prior to the last class day of the semester. Graduation is contingent on submission of MA thesis.

Curricular Phase:

Complete the 30 required credits, as well as all distribution requirements.


Continue to think about possible dissertation committee members. These could be professors with whom you’ve taken a seminar, or whose scholarship or expertise is of interest to you. Initiate introductions through email or visits to office hours. (These preliminary conversations are exploratory, not binding.) Look at profiles of faculty in adjacent departments who might be suitable outside members of your doctoral committee. Consult with English Grad Futures for resources and information about non-academic and non-tenure track careers.

PhD Planning Guide

Curricular Phase:

Select up to 6 seminars (majority in English). Continue to acquire research tools, e.g. archival, theoretical, historiographic, interdisciplinary, digital, creative methods; relevant languages. Complete any outstanding distribution requirements.

Teaching and Related Opportunities:

English 15, English 202, English 137-138 (Rhetoric and Civic Life); research assistantships, including CALS, Center for Black Digital Research, Hemingway Project, Oxford History of English Poetry; faculty RAship, Writing Center tutoring (signal interest on teaching preference sheet).

Doctoral Advisor and Committee Deadline:

By the end of this year, you must secure a doctoral advisor, assemble a doctoral committee, and begin planning your comprehensive PhD exams. Look for English department committee members among those professors with whom you’ve taken a seminar, and/or whose scholarship or expertise is of interest to you. Consult with your advisor/committee about choosing an outside-of-department committee member. Look at faculty profiles in adjacent departments for interests that overlap with your own; initiate introductions or committee invitations through email or visits to office hours. We recognize that approaching possible committee members may feel very awkward to you, but be assured that professors are accustomed to this process, and will be honest with you about whether they think they’re a good match for you, or if they are overbooked with other commitments. If you’re stuck, consult with the DGS or associate DGS.

Signature sheet formalizing your doctoral committee due in the English Graduate Office by May 1. This is a firm deadline.

Professional Opportunities:

Pursue calls for conference papers, start preparing an essay for publication, consult with the Grad Futures in English initiative about post-PhD career paths beyond tenure-track academic employment.


Assemble a draft of your comprehensive exam reading lists and begin preparing for exams. For an explanation/description of the exam and reading lists, see the “PhD Comprehensive Exam” see pages 5 and 6 in the Graduate Studies Handbook on the English Department Intranet. Consult EGO archives for examples of reading lists. Check in with your advisor about your lists; draft paragraph-long narrative rationale for each list.

Year 2 includes the candidacy review, comprehensive exams, and dissertation proposal.

PhD Candidacy Review (also known as Qualifying Exam):

In the first two weeks of the fall semester, the DGS will meet with you to discuss past, present, and future coursework, and to make sure you are on track to complete all program requirements.

Curricular Phase:

Complete coursework. Take comprehensive exams (see below).

Teaching and Related Opportunities:

English 15, English 202, English 137-138 (Rhetoric and Civic Life); research assistantships, including the Hemingway Project, Center for Black Digital Research, Oxford History of Poetry in English (signal interest on teaching preference sheet); work in Graduate Writing Center. If comprehensive exams are completed in the fall, request upper-level literature or rhetoric teaching for spring.

Scheduling Comprehensive Exams:

Comps exams must be taken in PhD 2. Working with your advisor, finalize your comps lists; obtain feedback and formal approval from your committee members. Set exam dates in consultation with advisor and committee, and schedule with Cheryl Mohr at least 4 weeks before those dates. Comps exams contain a written component (questions are usually written by committee members) and an oral component, the latter to be conducted by committee around two weeks after the written exams have been completed. At the time of exam scheduling, Cheryl will reserve a department conference room (or issue a Zoom link) for the oral portion.

Take Comprehensive Exams:

It is expected that you will take exams in the fall (by December 5), unless you have unfinished coursework for a dual-title degree, or need extra seminars to prepare for your dissertation. In these latter cases, you should schedule your exams for the spring (by May 1). You may enroll in 12 credit hours dedicated to preparation for exams.

Two comps exam scenarios (both requiring preparation during summer pre-PhD2):

  • Fall exams (for those who have finished coursework): Register for 9 comps reading credits and complete the exams around December 5.
  • Spring exams (for those taking more seminars): In fall, enroll in 3-9 seminars credits and 0-6 comps reading credits, for a total of 9 credits. In spring, register for 9 comps reading credits and complete exams by May 1. Alternatively, take one 3-credit seminar each semester (fall and spring) and 6 comps-reading credits each semester and complete exams by May 1.

Dissertation Committee:

When you have completed your comprehensive exams, you may review the composition of your committee and make any changes that you feel are necessary or appropriate; if you make changes, file new paperwork. Be sure that that your doctoral committee includes a member from outside the English department.

Dissertation Proposal Deadline:

Within three months of taking your comps exams, your dissertation proposal must be completed and approved by your advisor and doctoral committee. Approval may be granted by way of a proposal defense or some less formal mode of consultation. Once the approved proposal and committee signature page are submitted to the English Graduate Office, you will be accorded the status of ABD (‘all but dissertation’) by the Graduate School; at this point you are eligible to apply for internal course releases and external fellowships/grants.

A Note About the Dissertation Proposal:

The form that your proposal takes will be determined in consultation with your doctoral adviser. Proposals may range from a 10-page sketch/blueprint prospectus of your dissertation project, plus chapter descriptions and a preliminary bibliography, on the one hand, to a highly developed 35-page proposal resembling an introductory chapter, on the other. The Grad Program has no particular policies in place about the form or content of this document. We only wish to remind you of two things. First: the proposal is just that, a proposal, and not a binding contract. Its primary purpose is to launch you into the dissertation-writing stage of your training. You may end up writing a rather different thesis than what you’d first imagined, and that’s fine. And second: you must submit your completed and approved proposal within three months of finishing your comps exams. So you should plan to outline/ compose/consult about/revise a document that will take fewer than 90 days to finish.


Perhaps prepare an article for publication. Think about internal fellowships (see Appendix) and when they might be most useful to you. If you have submitted your dissertation proposal, this could be good time to apply for a Humanities Dissertation Release, which is a duty-free semester granted to all liberal arts doctoral students progressing toward their degrees. HR applications are due around November 1 & May 1; notify Cheryl Mohr & Amy Barone before you apply. Consult with English Grad Futures: perhaps pursue an internship or audit a course that introduces you to non-academic or extradepartmental university career paths & skills.


Humanities Institute summer residency? CALS summer fellowship? Begin drafting dissertation.

Curricular Phase:

Dissertation writing; dissertation to be completed and defended by the end of PhD year 4.

Teaching and Related Activities:

Request teaching of 200-400-level course; English 202s; English 137-138 (Rhetoric and Civic Life); research assistantships, including the Hemingway Project, Oxford History of Poetry in English; Digital English Studio; Graduate Writing Center; Center for Black Digital Research; RAship with individual professors.

Take your Humanities Release for a duty-free semester (and notify Cheryl Mohr and Amy Barone). If you have already taken the HR, consider applying to the RGSO research or dissertation support competition.

In September of this year (and every year) you will receive emails inviting you to apply for a bundle of Liberal Arts and Graduate School awards. Typically these are awarded to students across the College or University who have established a significant record of teaching or mentoring (for teaching or mentoring awards) or scholarship (for publication or merit awards). The English department has no role in selecting winners for these awards; we simply match up applications to the likeliest awards and forward them to the soliciting offices/ institutes/agencies.


What do you need to begin an academic or non-academic job search next year? Consider fellowship possibilities for PhD 4, internal and external. Join writing groups; stay connected with your various cohorts, and practice self-care. Meet with your advisor to sketch out your writing schedule and to discuss your job search plans (academic or non-academic). Check in with all of your dissertation committee members. Consult with the Grad Futures in English initiative for information & directives about jobs beyond tenure-track academia. Identify non-academic or extradepartmental university internships or training initiatives; refine your goals for non-academic job searches.


Attend job search meetings organized by job search co-directors. Keep up with dissertation-writing.

Curricular Phase:

Complete dissertation during this academic year and schedule your dissertation defense for the second semester. Begin preparing job search materials for academic or non-academic positions; attend job search meetings beginning the summer before PhD 4 and throughout the year. Make use of English Grad Futures programs and support.

Teaching and Related Activities:

Request 200-400-level course; English 202s; English 137-138 (Rhetoric and Civic Life); research assistantships, including the Hemingway Project, Oxford History of Poetry in English; Digital English Studio; Graduate Writing Center; individual professors. Take Humanities Release semester if you haven’t already (and notify Cheryl Mohr and Amy Barone); apply to RGSO dissertation support or research funding competition if you’ve taken your Humanities Release.

Apply for Post Doc, if Interested:

Once you’ve defended your dissertation, you may apply for an English department post-doctoral teaching fellowship for the following academic year.

Finalize Dissertation Manuscript:

Make final edits to dissertation and prepare manuscript for deposit with the Graduate School.

PSU English post-doctoral teaching fellowship

Job search within or outside of academia


Humanities Release:

A guaranteed semester release from teaching, RA-ships, tutoring, etc., awarded to all doctoral students who are progressing toward their degrees. Applicants must be ABD (‘all but dissertation’: comps completed and dissertation proposal approved).

RGSO (Research Graduate Studies Office competition for dissertation support):

This college-level award provides up to $2,000 for research-related expenses OR $5,000 for a course release; you must take your Humanities Release before applying for RGSO support.

Other Sources for Teaching Release:

Summer Support:

Also Consider Applying for National External Fellowships:

Note that the College of the Liberal Arts offers an incentive award for such applications: