Dissertation & Examination Guidance

Find the information and guidance you need regarding research requirements, plan of study, general examinations, dissertation defense and more.

The Department of English offers specific guidance on certain steps of the dissertation and examination processes. For further details beyond those included on this page, consult the Columbian College Doctoral Student Handbook and the English department's Graduate Handbook. The English department requires 48 credit hours in order to proceed to candidacy.


CCAS Doctoral Student Handbook



Language Exam

Students must pass a comprehension exam in a language other than English; the language is selected with the approval of the student’s faculty advisor and/or DGS.  In some cases, faculty advisors may conclude that the student’s research requires two languages. Most language exams are administered by the George Washington University Language Center, which schedules and grades them.  In some cases, the English Department arranges for other evaluators of language proficiency.

Normally, students complete their language requirement before taking the Qualifying Exam. In any case, students must complete the requirement before being allowed to proceed to the Field Exam.


Written Exam

The Written Exam is the first in the formal doctoral exam sequence, and should be completed by April 1 of year 2. It is an eight-hour written exam based on the student’s proposed field of study for the dissertation, and serves as the entry point for the dissertation.

Students begin to prepare for the written examination in the spring semester of the first year. At the beginning that semester, students declare a primary field. This is most likely the area of strength into which the student was admitted.

By the end of the spring semester, students will have formed an exam committee and with their help will have drafted a reading list (no fewer than 50 books) along with a 1-2 page rationale that lays out major points of interest across the periods and genres within the area of strength. The recommended breakdown of the books for the reading list is 30-40 primary texts and 10-20 works of criticism and theory. However, students may propose a different ratio (such as 10-15 primary texts and 35-40 works of criticism and theory) provided there’s a strong rationale for doing so.

Students prepare for the exam and take it in their second year (and should be completed by April 1 of year 2). More information on the format of the exam and how to prepare for it is provided in the graduate handbook.


Oral Exam

The PhD Oral Exam is the second in the formal doctoral exam sequence, to be completed within three weeks of the Written Exam (i.e., by the end of April in Year 2). The Oral Exam provides the student the opportunity to defend the Written Exam and to discuss wider aspects of the works included on the reading list. This Oral Exam will last 90 minutes. The examination committee consists of the student’s advisor, the second reader of the Written Exam, and a third reader. More information on the procedures of the exam and how to prepare for it is available in the English graduate handbook.


Dissertation Prospectus

The dissertation prospectus follows naturally from the Field Exam and is produced in consultation with the student’s dissertation committee consisting of a Director and two readers. Students must identify and approach faculty members who will serve in these capacities in order to sign off on the relevant Dissertation Prospectus Form. Students normally submit the prospectus, signed by the committee, to the DGS during the same semester as the Written Exam. Submission is followed by a defense, which consists of an oral discussion of the prospectus by the dissertation committee, as well as the other faculty and graduate students in the concentration.



The dissertation is normally written in two years. All students, having successfully defended the Dissertation Prospectus, must secure the continued advising agreement of faculty advisors by having them sign off on the Dissertation Committee Form. We expect that dissertation-writing students will meet regularly with their Director and Readers. A schedule of meetings should be set up early in the dissertation stage, as should a schedule outlining when portions will be submitted and returned with comments. In the event that a student’s dissertation is co-directed by multiple faculty members, there must still be two readers in addition to the directors.



In order to graduate in May, students must defend by the end of March; to graduate in August, students must defend by the end of May; to graduate in December, students must defend by the end of October. This means that a final draft of the dissertation must be submitted to the examining committee at least four weeks before the defense, with the approval of the dissertation committee. The defense is conducted by the three faculty members on the student’s dissertation committee, joined by one other member of the English Department and an evaluator outside the Department. The final, revised draft of the thesis is submitted electronically.