PhD Program of Study

The PhD program (72 credit hours) normally takes four to five years of full-time study.  We expect students to adhere to this timetable and therefore fund them for this length of time, designing a program that will enable them to progress quickly from coursework to dissertation and defense.  In order to facilitate the shift from ‘student’ to ‘colleague,’ we match students to appropriate faculty mentors early in the student’s career, and we urge students to develop a dissertation research agenda by the end of the first year of graduate work.A student entering with an MA in an approved field may be awarded up to 24 credits of advanced standing toward doctoral coursework.  PhD students must maintain a minimum grade-point average of 3.5 in order to remain in the program.

Course work

Students must have 48 hours (16 seminars) of course work; this includes Independent Study (ENGL 6720) and Advanced Research and Reading (ENGL 8998) courses, which may be repeated for credit with the approval of the DGS.

Students may take up to two courses outside the English Department, in other GW graduate programs, in Consortium Universities with English graduate programs (Georgetown University, American University, the University of Maryland-College Park, and George Mason University), or at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Our seminars are small, thereby encouraging discussion and equal participation.  While requirements vary according to topic and faculty member, typically they culminate in an essay which should meet the standards of publication in a scholarly journal.  Similarly, seminar presentations are modeled on conference papers, and many of our students have turned their coursework into conference presentations and articles.

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.

Qualifying Exam

The Qualifying Exam - an oral examination - is normally taken just before the beginning of the second year (ie at the end of August). All students must identify and approach a faculty advisor before the last day of classes during their first semester in the program in order to sign off on the Faculty Advisor Form. Preparation will follow over the course of the spring and the student will submit the list and rationale along with the Qualifying Exam Form before the beginning of summer (dates vary each year; see GW academic calendar). The exam itself is designed to test a student’s competence as a scholar and a potential teacher within his/her declared concentration (either Medieval and Early Modern Studies, British/Postcolonial, or American Literature and Culture), as well as his/her readiness to continue in the PhD program. Except in the case of extreme hardship, we cannot allow postponement of exams.  Students who fail the exam can take it once more the next time it is offered; students who fail the exam twice are dismissed from the program.

Field Exam

The Field Exam prepares students for advanced scholarship in their chosen area of specialization, with an eye to their possible dissertation topic. It is taken when students have completed course work. Students must inform the English office and the DGS of their intention to take the exam at least three months in advance. All students must also identify and approach a faculty advisor before this date in order to sign off on the Field Exam form. Students who fail the exam can take it once more the next time it is offered; students who fail the exam twice are dismissed from the program.

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 Field 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 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 six 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 sis submitted electronically.

English Department Graduate Handbook, updated Fall 2015 (PDF)