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PhD Program

PhD Program

The Ph.D. is expected to take four years beyond the M.A. to complete. According to Graduate School regulations, all requirements must be met within eight years, though the department reserves the right to stipulate that a student fulfill remaining requirements within a shorter period. Those interested in completing a dual-title degree should review the English partners and The Graduate School’s dual-title degree policy.

There is no fixed number of courses or credits required for the PhD degree; however, students must fulfill the minimal course requirements listed below. These requirements may be met by 3-credit graduate courses taken either at the M.A. or the PhD level. Upon entry into the PhD program, students will consult with a designated member of the faculty to decide which of these requirements have been fulfilled at the M.A. level and which have yet to be completed. Students may not count Penn State 400-level courses or equivalent undergraduate courses from elsewhere toward distribution requirements. PhD students entering from another institution will need to consult with their prospective committee to determine if more preparation is needed in areas outside the areas of specialization.

  • one course in methods, materials, and contexts of literary study (ENGL 501 or the equivalent)
  • one course in literary theory or rhetoric
  • two courses in literature in English prior to 1800
  • two courses in literature in English after 1800

Courses which overlap the divisions listed above may be used to fulfill requirements in one or the other area, but no one course may be used to fulfill more than one requirement.

Proseminars are designed to introduce master’s and beginning doctoral students to areas in which they lack sufficient breadth to enable them to perform well in specialized seminars. Their function is both to introduce students to primary texts in multiple genres and to map out the historical and critical territories surrounding those texts. Proseminars carry a heavier reading load and a lighter writing load than do seminars. While proseminars are most appropriate for master’s level students, doctoral students may also find them useful. Doctoral level students should consult with their advisers on these and other courses before registration.

Near the end of their second semester in the program, all PhD students will be reviewed by the Graduate Studies Committee. As part of its review, the Committee will consider the candidate’s first semester grades and instructors’ comments and will also seek the views of each candidate’s second semester instructors.

For an official minor, the student must take at least 15 credits in the minor field. (For additional information on the official minor, consult the Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin .) With the approval of a student’s doctoral committee, the area of the candidate’s minor may be added to the comprehensive examinations.

A student is required to demonstrate reading knowledge of one of the following languages: Chinese, Classical Greek, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Russian, Spanish, or any other language approved by the Graduate Studies Committee. Additional languages needed for individual students programs will be determined by their doctoral committees. (See the section on the language requirement for the M.A. for information on procedures for fulfilling the language requirement.)

Purpose of Comprehensive Exam

The comprehensive exam is designed to encourage students to identify the areas of expertise that will support their research and teaching. It requires them to build reading lists for each of three areas described below in consultation with advisor(s) and committee members. In the exam itself, students will demonstrate a broad knowledge of primary texts, historical periods, methodologies, theoretical approaches, and scholarly conversations.

Examination Format

The comprehensive exam has written and oral components. The written component consists of three discrete take-home exams, each of which is to be completed within twenty-four hours. Please note that students are not meant to stay awake for 24 hours and are therefore asked to observe an upper page limit of 10-12 pages or 2500-3000 words for each exam. All three written exams will be completed within a week’s time. The oral component is designed to allow committee members to engage substantively with the answers provided in the written component, to consider the student’s understanding of relevant theory and methods, to request clarification or elaboration of assertions made in the written component, and to discuss the viability of the student’s plans for the dissertation. The two-hour oral component will stand as the Graduate School’s official record of the comprehensive exam. The date, time, and location for the oral component must be agreed upon by the entire committee and scheduled through the graduate office at the same time as the written exam is arranged.

The written component of the exam consists of three parts:

  1. Major Area
    The Major area exam encompasses a range of issues and scholarly conversations within a recognized field, broadly construed. Examples include but are not limited to: Early Modern Literature, 19th-20th Century American Literature, Rhetoric and Composition, African American Literature, Visual Culture.

  2. Theory and Methods
    The Theory and Methods exam allows students to engage a set of theoretical texts and tools, an area of interdisciplinary inquiry, or a particular set of methods. Examples include but are not limited to: science studies, historiography, feminist theory, digital studies, environmental humanities, critical theory, ethnographic methods.

  3. Special Topic
    The Special topic exam asks students to engage with a focused body of work. This topic is open and may encompass a secondary subfield. It may also engage a set of questions relevant to the student’s plans for a dissertation. The written examinations will form the basis for the two-hour oral examination.

Exam Preparation

In the fall of the second year in the Ph.D. program, students will form a doctoral committee consisting of at least three members of the English graduate faculty and, in accordance with Graduate School regulations, at least one graduate faculty member from another department. The student must file a form in the Graduate Office establishing the committee by the end of their second semester in the Ph.D. program. The student should meet periodically with the advisor and with members of the committee in order to develop a list for each of the three exam areas. Each reading list should be accompanied by brief (250-word) rationales for the list design and purpose. Exam reading lists and rationales need to reach final form no later than one month prior to the exam. The number of items on the lists should range between 150-200 works total.

Scheduling the Exam

Steps for planning and scheduling the comprehensive examination:

  1.  Meet with the examination committee to determine three exam areas.

  2. Check with the graduate office to make sure you have no missing or incomplete grades (students must be in registered status and have all missing or incomplete grades resolved before taking exams).

  3. Select date to complete the written component of the comprehensive examination.

  4. Schedule oral examination date, time, and place with your committee. Consult with the graduate office for help reserving a room. The oral exam date should allow at least two weeks for committee members to read and consider written material.

  5. Two weeks prior to the beginning of the exam, notify the graduate office of the dates for the written component, and specify date, time, and location for the oral component. The date, time, and location for the oral component must be agreed upon by the entire committee, because it becomes the Graduate School’s official record of the exam.

Recommended steps for advisors:

  1. Meet regularly with graduate students to discuss examination areas and rationale.

  2. Review lists and rationale; make sure the student is consulting with committee members about lists and rationales.

  3. Hold an organizational meeting for committee and graduate students. This meeting will provide an opportunity for the committee to organize itself around the exam, to collaborate on questions and design.

  4. Gather questions from the committee and create the exam with clear instructions. Consider offering choices of questions, and please consider asking students to answer only one or two questions for each area exam.

  5. One week before the written exam is scheduled to take place, send exam questions to the staff assistant in the graduate office as an email attachment. Make sure it is clear which exam is to be given on which date.


At the end of the oral examination, the committee will deliberate about the student’s performance on both components of the exam. Committee members will offer feedback to the advisor, who will then offer an overview of the feedback to the student. Each committee member will also rate the candidate’s knowledge of the field and preparedness to embark on the dissertation research according to the evaluative categories that appear on the Graduate School’s “report on the doctoral comprehensive examination” form:

4 (Superior)
3 (Above Average)
2 (Average )
1 (Below Average)
0 (Fail)

A favorable (passing) vote of at least two-thirds of the committee members is required for passing.

  • Candidates should have selected a thesis topic by the time of their comprehensive exams and should submit a detailed thesis proposal after the completion of comprehensive exams (proposal forms are available upon request in the graduate office). After the proposal has been approved by all members of the student’s committee, it should be sent to the Director of Graduate Studies for final approval on the basis of the committee’s assessment. The dissertation proposal needs to be completed and approved by ninety (90) days after the completion of the comprehensive examination.

  • The doctoral thesis committee will consist of the chairperson (who must be a member of the English graduate faculty), at least two members of the English graduate faculty whose special fields of interest bear some relation to the topic of the thesis, and one member of the graduate faculty from outside the department. Please note that dual title degree programs have additional requirements for committee composition. (For additional information on the membership of the doctoral thesis committee, consult the Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin .)

  • Students should make sure that every member of the committee is involved in each stage of the project–from the initial proposal to the final oral defense. Students should consult with their advisers to decide whether to convene the entire committee for periodic conferences as the thesis develops.

  • Upon completion of the thesis but before it is in final typed form, an oral defense should be scheduled by the committee chair, in consultation with the student and the Director of Graduate Studies, at least two weeks in advance with the Graduate Secretary (using an Exam Request Form which is also filed with The Graduate School). Before the oral defense is scheduled, all members of the thesis committee must agree that the thesis is complete and ready to be defended. After a successful defense, a clean copy of the thesis should be delivered to the department head for his or her signature.

  • It is the responsibility of the chair of the thesis committee to make sure that changes and recommendations agreed upon during the oral defense are carried out by the student. It is the student’s responsibility to make sure that the copies of the thesis submitted to the Graduate School and to the English Graduate Office are absolutely clean and free of error.

This examination is taken after the thesis has been submitted to the thesis committee, but before the thesis has been typed in final form. The thesis committee acts as the examining committee. Satisfactory performance in this exam is necessary for acceptance of the thesis. The examination is oral and open to the public. Please note the following Graduate School policy in regard to the final oral examination:

The State of the Doctoral Thesis at the Time of the Final Oral Examination

Both the thesis director and the student are responsible for assuring the completion of a draft of the thesis and for adequate consultation with members of the thesis committee well in advance of the oral examination. Major revisions to the thesis should be completed before this examination. The dissertation should be in its final draft, with appropriate notes, bibliography, tables, etc., in place at the time of the oral examination; both the content and style should be correct and polished when this final draft is in the hands of the committee. Again, there should be an adequate period of time (at least two weeks) between the delivery of the final draft of the thesis to committee members and the scheduled oral examination.

Graduate School Requirements for Residency and Credits

There is no required minimum of credits or semesters of study, but over some twelve-month period during the interval between admission to candidacy and completion of the PhD program the candidate must spend at least two semesters (which may include the semester in which the candidacy examination is taken) as a registered full-time student.

After a student has passed the comprehensive examination and met the two-semester residence requirement, no further registration for credit will be required by the Graduate School. However, status as a student must be maintained by registering continuously (for each semester, beginning with the first semester after both of the requirements mentioned above have been met) until the thesis is accepted by the doctoral committee. This registration may be for noncredit ENGL 601 or 611, with payment of the special thesis preparation fee; students who want to combine course work with thesis preparation must register for ENGL 600 or 611 (not 601 which is full-time thesis preparation ) plus course registration at the regular per-credit fee.


The doctoral committee serves several functions: 1) to advise the student on all matters relating to his or her program; 2) to administer the comprehensive examination; and 3) to supervise and approve the doctoral dissertation. Every entering PhD student assembles a doctoral committee upon formal admission to candidacy (by passing the candidacy review). The committee bears the principal responsibility for guiding and assessing the student’s progress through the program.

The Guidelines for Doctoral Committees is designed to help faculty and students adjust to the department’s policy of establishing doctoral committees early in the PhD program. It should be read in conjunction with the Graduate School’s regulations concerning doctoral committees ( Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin ) and the English department’s general requirements and procedures for the PhD program.

I. Establishing the Committee

  • Every entering student should begin to consider the field or combination of fields on which he or she wishes to focus. Soon after admission to the program, the student should arrange to meet with the graduate director or associate director to identify areas of interest and faculty who work in these areas. Penn State M.A.s are encouraged to begin this process as soon as they are admitted to the PhD; M.A.s from other institutions will begin the process early in the second semester in the program.

  • By the end of the first year of the program, the student should have his or her doctoral committee assembled and one member of the committee identified as the chair. A committee consists of at least three members of the Department of English, and in accordance with Graduate School regulations, at least one graduate faculty member from another department. If the student is pursuing a PhD minor field, then the external member must be from that field. All students must file a form in the English Graduate Office establishing their committee by the end of their second semester in the PhD program. After choosing a committee, the student should then meet with committee members to develop a specific course of study leading to the comprehensive examination and subsequent research. Committees should meet together at least once–preferably more often–before the student takes the comprehensive examination.

  • Changes in the committee membership should be done in consultation with the committee chair. If a student wishes to change the chair of the committee, he or she should consult with the Graduate Director.

II. Comprehensive Examinations

  • Every student should work with the doctoral committee to develop a coherent program of study that looks forward to the comprehensive examination and beyond to the doctoral dissertation and other professional research. The student should consult with individual committee members on a regular basis and arrange periodic meetings of the entire committee.

  • By the beginning of the second year, students should have selected their examination areas. The committee may tailor readings and exams to the student’s individual needs, but should follow some general guidelines: a) no examination area should be a mere subset of another area–for example, if Renaissance is the major field and poetry a secondary field, the latter should not be confined to Renaissance poetry; b) the examination area should not be defined too narrowly–for instance, readings in a historical period should cover the range of genres, and genre preparation in all areas should include not only primary texts but also acquaintance with the relevant historical contexts and current critical debates. If the committee decides that its existing membership is not fully qualified to guide the student in a particular area, then it may consider adding an additional member for the purpose of the examination.
  • Full-time students are expected to take the comprehensive examination no later than the end of the second year in the program. Any extension beyond that point requires a petition with full justification to the Graduate Studies Committee. All curricular requirements for the degree must be fulfilled by the end of the semester in which the student is taking the exam. The student, in agreement with the doctoral committee, sets the precise date, but the exam must be scheduled at least three weeks prior to the last day of classes for the semester. The English Graduate Office must be notified by the student at least two weeks prior to the exam in order to process Graduate School forms. The student must be registered for at least 1 credit in the semester during which the exam is taken. Summer session is included if exams are scheduled during this time.

  • The structure of the examination is laid out in the Graduate Student Handbook . Individual members of the committee may be responsible for preparing specific areas of the examination, but the entire committee should review the exam before it is administered, and should read all of the student’s work once it is completed.

  • After the examination the committee chair should notify the English Graduate Office of the results. In the event that the student fails one or more parts of the exam, the doctoral committee will decide whether the student should retake the exam in its entirety or only those parts that he or she has failed. It may also recommend against retaking the exam and ask the graduate studies committee to review the student’s overall performance in the program.

III. Doctoral Dissertation

  1. After passing the comprehensive examination, the student may modify committee membership to suit the specific needs of thesis research. Such changes should be made as quickly as possible.

  2. Students who have passed the comprehensive exam should turn immediately to the doctoral dissertation. Thesis proposal forms are available upon request from the Graduate Office and proposals must be approved by the doctoral committee and submitted to the graduate office no later than ninety (90) days after the completion of the comprehensive exams.

  3. Guidelines for writing the thesis and taking the final oral examination appear on pp. 8-9 of the graduate handbook.