Department of English Department of English College of Arts and Sciences
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PhD Exams in Literary and Cultural Studies

There are three written comprehensive examinations and one two-hour oral examination.  Both written and oral examinations require the formation of a committee consisting of a minimum of four faculty members.

Exam #1:

The first four-hour proctored written exam will evaluate the Ph.D. student’s command of at least 100 seminal texts in his or her Teaching Field—75 primary sources and 25 secondary sources, including scholarly books, chapters, and articles. The scope of the exam should roughly correspond to an undergraduate survey (for example, Brit Lit to 1750; British Literature from 1750; American Literature to 1865; American Literature since 1865; or African-American Literature), and should be organized around broad historical, national, and generic problems. The list will be developed by the student in consultation with his or her dissertation director and committee.


Exam #2:

The second four-hour proctored written exam will evaluate the student’s command of at least 75 seminal texts in his or her Research Field—50 primary sources and 25 secondary sources. The scope of the exam should roughly correspond to an upper-division undergraduate or graduate course, and should be organized around the critical problems peculiar to the student’s chosen area of specialization within the concentration, whether literary-historical ("Romanticism"), generic ("The Slave Narrative"), or thematic ("Vampires in Literature"). The texts must be distinct from those covered on Exam #1. The list will be developed by the student in consultation with his or her dissertation committee.


Exam #3:

The third written exam, a take-home exam, will evaluate the student’s command of the literature and criticism directly related to his or her proposed dissertation area. The objective of this exam is for the student to demonstrate that he or she has sufficient depth of knowledge to develop an original dissertation project and to draft a coherent dissertation prospectus. The student will write an essay of 3,500 to 5,000 words based upon a reading list of 20 to 25 primary and / or secondary texts. The list will be developed by the student in consultation with his or her dissertation committee, and the essay will answer a question or explore a topic assigned by the committee. The intention of Exam #3 is to help students find a good dissertation question by familiarizing them with the critical movements, theories, and methodologies that will be important to their eventual dissertation. The essay must be completed within seven days.

To allow time to study for the exams, students should take their first written exam within two semesters after completing all PhD coursework (including the foreign language requirements). Students could then take one exam per week over three weeks. A student will have a maximum of two months to complete all of the comprehensive exams.

Oral Exam

After the written exams have been completed and graded, there will be a two-hour oral exam based upon the written exams.


A student who fails one section of the comprehensive examination will be given one opportunity during the same semester or not later than the following semester to retake that section. A student who fails more than one section of the exam will be given an opportunity to retake a different exam (with all new questions) no later than the following semester. A student who fails the second comprehensive exam will be dismissed from the program.

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Last Updated: 7/7/14