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Degree Requirements

The following account describes a student's typical progress toward the Ph.D. It is not an official description of the degree requirements, which you will find on website of Northwestern's The Graduate School. All students admitted to the PhD program are guaranteed full funding (stipend, health insurance, and a tuition scholarship), details about which can be found here. The Ph.D. in English takes a minimum of five years, though candidates almost always take at least six years to finish. Though the Graduate School allows students nine years in which to complete their degree, but we strongly encourage students to finish by the end of the sixth.


Our current requirements ask our students to take 17 graduate-level courses during their first three years in the Ph.D. program.  In order to ensure that students become acquainted with literature from diverse historical periods and contexts, all doctoral students fulfill a breadth requirement, taking one course from each of the following seven categories:

1) Literature and Culture up to 1500
2) Literature and Culture 1500-1680
3) Literature and Culture 1680-1800
4) Literature and Culture 1800-1900
5) Literature and Culture 1900-1989
6) Literature and Culture since 1989
7) Genres, Topics, and Theories in the longue durée

We have a proposal waiting for approval that would significantly simplify this schema, requiring students to take three courses on literature written pre-1800, and three on literature written post-1800. We anticipate that these new requirements will take effect for students matriculating in Fall 2024 and thereafter.

Further details can be found in the Guide to Graduate Study.

Language Requirement

The Ph.D. in English requires demonstration of advanced reading knowledge in a second language, and must pass either a language exam (administered by the department), complete a summer language intensive, or take a graduate-level course with readings primarily in the language in question. This requirement must be fulfilled by the end of the first year.

Year One

Doctoral students at Northwestern spend most of their time on course work during this year, taking three seminars each quarter. Together with the other new graduate students in English and the Comparative Literary Studies Program, they enroll in "Introduction to Graduate Study," a course focusing on contexts of method, theory, and history for the advanced study of literature. Beyond that, the student's goal is to fulfill their Breadth requirement, to strengthen and deepen their background in literary studies, and to choose a field of specialization.

At the end of the first year, the department's Director of Graduate Study reviews each student's performance to decide whether they will continue into the second year of the doctoral program, or to leave the program with a Master's degree. This decision is based on satisfactory performance in course work and demonstrated ability to develop a significant scholarly project and carry it to completion within a reasonable time.

Graduate Assistantships

Much of the funding supporting doctoral students during their time at Northwestern is in the form of Graduate Assistantships, through which students are assigned duties (usually as teaching assistants) relevant to their work and training. In this way, doctoral students are given the opportunity to play a key role in the educational mission of the department, while at the same time acquiring skills and experience that have proven to be invaluable on the academic job market.

Teaching is an essential element of the education and training experience of PhD students at Northwestern. The Graduate School requires that all Ph.D. students serve in some instructional capacity for at least one academic quarter during their graduate education at Northwestern. This teaching requirement is unique to American higher education, and is an integral aspect of professional development. Students are expected to do comparable teaching work to other students within their program. The Graduate School strives to ensure teaching demands are as similar as possible across academic programs.

Years Two & Three

As explained above, students in their second and third year serve as teaching assistants while taking a total of 7 courses over the course of the year. During year two, students will gather a committee of three members of the graduate faculty, and will develop three distinctive and non-redundant reading lists in close consultation with them. In the Fall quarter of the third year, a two-and-a-half hour Qualifying Exam will be scheduled with the full committee.

After successful completion of the exam, students will begin the process of writing a dissertation prospectus, a concise description of a significant and original scholarly or critical project. The student's committee and the Director of Graduate Study must approve the prospectus by the end the third year.

Candidacy & Completion

Upon successful completion of all course and language requirements, the qualifying exam, and approval of the prospectus, students formally advance to candidacy in the Graduate School.

Once a student is admitted to candidacy, the examining committee normally continues as the dissertation committee. Students remain in close contact with their advisors, and many join informal dissertation working groups to hone their critical and professional skills, to critique their works-in-progress, and for intellectual companionship during this phase of their studies, the success of which depends increasingly on their initiative, motivation, and self-discipline.

After the dissertation is completed and has been read by the supervising committee, which may require revisions, the candidate defends it in a formal meeting with the advisors. The dissertation is then submitted to the Graduate School and the candidate approved as a recipient of a doctoral degree by the department.