Qualifying Exams

To advance to candidacy, all PhD students must complete the oral Qualifying Examination. The language requirement must be satisfied before a student can take his or her qualifying exam. Students should contact the Graduate Office eight weeks before to schedule an exam date and reserve a room. A signed copy of the reading list must also be submitted when scheduling the exam.

Planning for the Qualifying Examination

Qualifying Exam Form

In order to be admitted to Qualifying Exams, students must have satisfactorily completed all their coursework and met the foreign language requirement. Students with outstanding Incompletes in coursework are not eligible for taking the exam. Students should consult with their appointed advising teams in forming an examination committee that will administer the Qualifying Exam and serve as the student's advising committee until the constitution of the dissertation committee. The exam committee consists of four graduate faculty members, including a chair and three committee members. (Please note that while many students do keep the same committee for their dissertation, it is not a requirement.) Students register for a range of 3 to 6 credit hours of ENGL898, Pre-Candidacy Research, and are expected to meet regularly with the chair and at least one member of their examination committees under this rubric.

We encourage PhD students to take the Qualifying Examination by their sixth semester in the doctoral program and expect them to sit for the exam no later than their seventh semester. Students who received MAs prior to admission are expected to complete coursework more quickly and take their qualifying exams as early as the fifth semester in the program.

The Reading List

The Qualifying Examination is based on a reading list compiled by the student in consultation with his or her committee. The list will include roughly 80-120 works, chosen to cover two of the following categories: a literary period; a recognized field; the proposed area of the dissertation.  For students planning to work in literature, it is assumed that a 100-year period will be covered. The field may be interpreted as any discrete literary concern that has accrued a body of serious critical thought, and may include such diverse subjects as genre; literary, linguistic, or theoretical criticism or methodology; a sub-period. Typically, students develop a literary period or field list of approximately 75 works and a more focused list of 25 works on the proposed dissertation topic; also typically, around 80 percent of the list consists of primary texts and 20 percent of secondary titles.  But there are wide varieties in lists (some will be longer than others; some will have more criticism than others; etc.) The reading list must be approved by the committee chair and all committee members eight weeks prior to the examination. A copy of the reading list, signed by your committee, must be turned into the Graduate Office eight weeks prior to scheduling the exam. 

The Exam

The exam consists of two 60-minute parts: 1) an oral presentation by the student and follow-up discussion of the presentation; 2) a general examination on the reading lists.

Working in consultation with other members of the committee and the student, the committee chair prepares 2-4 topics for part one of the exam, the student's oral presentation. The student will receive the topics from the graduate office one week before the oral examination. The exam begins with the student's 15-20-minute oral presentation on the selected topic. The student may bring a copy of the reading list and brief notes to the exam. Students may also use Power Point or any other technological aid for their presentation. A 35-40 minute discussion follows the student's presentation.

Part two is an approximately one-hour examination on the student's two reading lists.  The emphasis here is on breadth.

At the conclusion of the examination the student leaves the room, and the committee discusses and votes on the student's performance.  Three passing votes constitute a passing grade on the exam.  If the student fails the exam, s/he can retake the exam the following semester.  The student will receive a written assessment from the chair of the committee indicating the reasons for the failure.  The examination committee and reading list should remain the same from the initial to the second attempt.  Changes must be requested, in writing, to the DGS, and may be made only upon approval by the DGS.  Failing the exam a second time disqualifies the student from continuing in the PhD program.  The DGS or a representative from the Graduate Studies Committee will be present at the second attempt to ensure procedural fairness.  The chair of the examining committee informs the Director of Graduate Studies in writing about the result of the exam.


Teaching assistants receive a step promotion and a small raise in stipend once they have advanced to candidacy. Upon advancing to candidacy, the student has four years to complete the dissertation; the Graduate School grants extensions only in extreme circumstances.  Students generally complete the dissertation in 2-3 years. Candidacy forms to be submitted to the Graduate School must be filed at the English graduate office. See PhD Deadlines and Paperwork. Upon advancing to candidacy, students are expected to file a dissertation progress form (save to your hard drive to access the text fields) with the Graduate Office each semester.

Dissertation Prospectus

The prospectus is to be submitted within four months of passing the qualifying exam. The prospectus establishes that the student has defined a research question that is worth pursuing and is in a position to do a good job of pursuing it. The prospectus should be developed in consultation with your committee.

The prospectus should demonstrate that the student:

- has defined and delimited an interesting research question
- can explain the importance of the research question and the contribution that it will make to the field
- is familiar with the existing scholarship related to the research question and can describe the relationship of the dissertation project to that scholarship (review of the literature)
- has developed a theoretical framework for the argument and a methodology for your project.

The prospectus should be between 8-12 pages in length. It should be written in clear prose and include a bibliography. The prospectus, including a one-page abstract and the completed prospectus form (signed by all committee members), should be turned in to the English graduate office.