PhD Program

The PhD in English is designed to be a five-year program requiring 30 hours of coursework. Students select and work closely with a faculty advisory committee to plan a course of professional study and training in their chosen primary and secondary fields. Coursework is meant to provide deep knowledge as well as methodological sophistication. 

After students complete coursework in the first two years, they take written and oral comprehensive exams in the third year and write a dissertation in the fourth and fifth years.

PhD General Course Requirements

The PhD candidate will take 30 hours of coursework beyond the MA. Coursework must include:

  • At least 18 hours in English at the 8000-level (English 8095 and 9090 hours do not count toward the 18-hour requirement). 

Candidates’ coursework and program of study will be designed to prepare them as competent scholars in the designated fields. All PhD candidates will be required to take:

  • English 8005, Introduction to Graduate Studies (a one-hour course in fall semester of the first year in the program)
  • English 8010, Theory and Practice of Composition is required in the first semester for students teaching English 1000
  • A course in English linguistics focused on the structure of the language (English 7600 or an equivalent graduate course at another institution), on its history (English 7610, English 7200, or an equivalent graduate course at another institution), or on sociolinguistic aspects of English (English 7620 or an equivalent graduate course at another institution)
  • A course in literary criticism (English 8050, 8060, 8070, or an equivalent graduate course at another institution)
  • English 8020, The Theory and Practice of Teaching in English (for students who want to teach literature classes)

PhD students in the creative writing program are required to take:

  • 9 workshop hours at the 8000 level (6 in their primary genre, and 3 in a second genre of choice)
  • 9 hours of 8000-level seminars in literature or seminars whose content includes in-depth analysis of literary texts. 7000-level courses, or courses outside of the English department may be substituted with the approval of the Director of Creative Writing and the Director of Graduate Studies

A student may elect one English 8095 problems course (a maximum of 3 hours credit), with the prior consent of the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), but the credits will not count towards the 18-hour 8000-level course requirement. Students may also take up to 9 hours of coursework outside English in fields related to their programs of study upon the advice and consent of the advisory committee. In general, students with limited backgrounds in related areas (such as history, philosophy, art history) are encouraged to take coursework in such areas, while students with extensive background in other areas (e.g., one whose undergraduate major or MA is in a field other than English) should choose to concentrate coursework within the department.

Degree Timeline

The typical timeline for the PhD is five years.

Semester One

Take  three  courses;  teach  courses.  Begin  to  explore  potential  areas  of specialization. Consider potential advisors.

Semester Two

Take three courses; teach courses. Choose an advisor, and in consultation form a doctoral committee. Meet with committee to discuss program of study. This meets the Graduate School's requirement of a "Qualifying Examination." Use Graduate School's D-1 form and have it signed at that meeting. After meeting, prepare D-2 form for program of study and have it signed by the committee and the DGS.

Semester Three

Take two or three courses; teach courses. Begin reading for comprehensive examination.

Semester Four

Take two or three courses; teach courses. Continue reading for comprehensive examination.  Submit draft of preparatory essay portion of comprehensive exam to committee for comments.

Semester Five

Teach classes. Prepare to take comprehensive examination by the end of the semester. Use D-3 form to register success with the Graduate School

Semester Six

Teach classes. Prepare dissertation proposal early in the semester and have it approved by advisor and DGS. Begin dissertation work.

Semester Seven

Teach classes. Work on dissertation.

Semester Eight

Teach classes. Work on dissertation.

Semester Nine

Teach classes. Take Job Market Workshop (English 8006).

Semester Ten

Teach classes. Finish dissertation. Use D-4 form for successful defense of accepted dissertation.

Please see the additional semester of teaching policy for information about applying for additional semesters of funding.


Language Requirement


PhD students must fulfill a language requirement to ensure that all students have a familiarity with a language other than English. Students, regardless of specialty, gain substantially by making meaningful connections between their own work and a non-English-speaking culture. 

A student may satisfy the language requirement for the PhD in English by one of the following:

  1. By taking coursework at MU. The student must pass with a grade of B or better an intensive introduction to a language, the two-semester introductory sequence of courses, or one course at or beyond the second semester level in the language chosen. 
  2. By demonstrating to the Director of Graduate Studies that the student has taken courses equivalent to those specified in item #1 at another college or university.
  3. By demonstrating proficiency through a language test. Language tests will be administered by the department in November and April. Those wishing to take a test must notify the DGS in the semester prior. Those students who submitted a TOEFL score as part of their application to graduate school will be considered to have passed the language requirement.


Upon entering the program, students should work with the DGS or a faculty advisor to plan how they will fulfill the language requirement. Projects and areas of study will require different levels of language proficiency. Students’ committees may recommend that they pursue language study beyond the level required by the department.

Proficiency in English

International students should consult the International Teaching Assistant Program (ITAP) of the Office of Graduate Studies for university and state requirements regarding teaching at the university.

Qualifying Exam

By the end of the first year, students must meet with their advisers to organize their doctoral committees. The committee is made up of at least three English department members and at least one member from an MU department outside English. Students then meet with this committee to plan coursework and define their primary and secondary fields of study. This meeting satisfies the graduate school requirement for a PhD qualifying examination.

The Qualifying Exam must be a formal meeting, scheduled by the committee chair, with at least three of the four members present. The outside faculty member need not be involved in this meeting, but all four members of the committee must sign the D-1 form. The student and committee chair should decide on a proposed Plan of Study to be discussed and approved at the meeting. The student is responsible for preparing the forms and bringing them to the meeting.

Comprehensive Examination

After the coursework and foreign language requirement have been completed, the student takes the PhD comprehensive examination. This exam consists of a written section (the Preparatory Essay) and a two-and-a-half hour oral exam. Guidelines for the PhD comprehensive examination are as follows:

1. Committee and Reading List

Students will choose a faculty committee consisting of a chair, two additional department members, and an external member from another department.

In consultation with her or his committee, the student will specify reading lists made up of one major field, one minor field, and one field in criticism and theory.

The major field list should reflect the student's area of professional specialization (poetry, 16th-century British literature, 20th-century American fiction, rhetoric and composition, folklore) and should take account of both the student's interests and job market categories. If a candidate chooses a major field that is a single genre (or has an otherwise delimited focus), then the candidate's committee may mandate that the area should extend over at least three centuries.

The minor field list might be a related field (for instance, a student with a major list in African-American literature might have a minor list in twentieth-century American fiction, or one studying Romanticism might have a minor list in transatlantic colonial literature), a secondary field (film or linguistics if the student is studying a literary field; a literary field if the student is studying rhetoric or folklore), a genre or sub-genre (creative nonfiction, the sonnet, etc.), or an area of thematic focus (Transcendentalism, nature poetry, etc.).

The criticism and theory list will vary depending on the topics of the major and minor lists. In cases where the major and minor lists consist primarily of literary works, the criticism and theory list must include sections covering the major works of criticism and/or theory in those fields. The remainder of the criticism and theory list, up to its entirety in cases where both the major and minor list include substantial secondary reading, can be organized around a major subfield of criticism or theory (poetics, psychoanalysis, the history of the novel) or a particular theme (Theories of the Middle Class; The Role of Religion in Contemporary Fiction; Medieval Conceptions of Gender).

All three lists together should comprise approximately 100-120 book length works or the equivalent in scholarly articles or works in other media (as decided in consultation with the committee), with the major list roughly equivalent in size to the combined minor and criticism/theory lists. Where linguistics constitutes one of the fields, the relevant committee member or members will assign, in addition to reading materials, other materials intended to ensure competence in carrying out analyses in phonology, phonetics, syntax, and other areas appropriate to the student's background and interests.

During the semester in which the student begins drafting her or his reading lists (ideally the second semester of PhD study), the faculty chair will convene a meeting with the entire committee, during which the student will present and defend her or his program of study and draft reading lists. This meeting is known as the Qualifying Examination. During this meeting the committee members will sign the D-1 form; after the meeting the student will prepare the D-2 form for program of study and have it signed by the committee members.

2. Preparatory Essay/Written Comprehensive Exam

During the time a student is preparing for her or his exam, he or she will write a Preparatory Essay of at least twenty-five pages. These essays must not be more than fifty pages. This Preparatory Essay constitutes the written portion of the comprehensive exam, and is designed to give the student the opportunity to demonstrate broad knowledge of her or his fields, deep interest in specific topics relevant to those fields, and initial plans for the dissertation (or, in the case of creative writers, the critical introduction).

This is a highly individualized process, designed to encourage students to shape this process to serve their research needs. 

Students will write and submit two different drafts.  They will submit a preliminary draft of the essay to committee members for feedback; this must be done the semester before submitting the final draft and taking the exam.  When the student submits the final version to the committee, committee members will evaluate it for range and depth of coverage, specificity of references to the works discussed, theoretical grasp of the material and clarity of organization and style. A student should consider the Preparatory Essay an opportunity to address what he or she has learned in the preparation process, and to indicate what questions most interest him or her about the works on her or his lists. The Preparatory Essay is designed to be flexible, but each essay should include the following, in a form agreed upon by the student and the committee:

  • Brief overviews of each of the fields represented by the lists, discussing major issues raised by the three lists, and, where relevant, connections among them; these overviews may preface the body of the essay or be folded into it
  • Answers to three or four substantive questions about the fields (or, where relevant, problems in linguistic analysis) that were developed in consultation with the committee, and that are meant to serve as talking points for the oral exams
  • A preliminary description of the dissertation or, for creative writers, the critical introduction that demonstrates how it will be informed by the student's reading

In order to pass the written portion of the exam the student must receive no more than one dissenting or abstaining vote on the Preparatory Essay. To submit the final version of the preparatory essay, a student should send the essay to the Graduate Secretary who will distribute the exam to the student’s committee. Within a week of receiving a copy of the exam, committee members will submit evaluations discussing strengths and weaknesses of the Preparatory Essay to the Graduate Studies Secretary, who will forward them to the student and also place copies in the student's file.

If the student does not pass, the committee will offer advice on rewriting and resubmitting the Preparatory Essay. If the student does pass, the chair of the exam committee, in conjunction with other members of the committee, will schedule the student's oral examination for no earlier than one week, and no later than one month, following committee members' reports on the Preparatory Essay. The Graduate Secretary should be informed of the time and place of the oral examination. Students must be enrolled during the term in which they take their oral exam (to be administered only when MU is officially in session). The oral exam must be completed at least seven months before the final defense of the dissertation.

3. Oral Exam

While discussion will be guided by the writing students have done in the Preparatory Essay, the examinee should be prepared for questions on any item on their list, in order to demonstrate a breadth of training beyond that displayed in the essays. Exams are commonly structured in two parts, with discussion of the essay in the first hour and discussion of the lists more broadly in the second.

The oral exam will be scheduled for two and half hours and will consist of:

  • Two hours of questions, with format and time allotted to committee members arranged beforehand by the chair of the student's committee
  • Fifteen minutes during which the committee deliberates about the exam
  • Fifteen minutes during which the committee informs the student whether he or she has passed or failed, and discusses the exam with the student

During the fifteen-minute faculty deliberation period the chair of the committee is responsible for taking notes, which will form the basis of a 1-2 page document discussing the exam—things the student did well on, and things he or she might improve. The chair should give a copy of this document to the Graduate Secretary, who will forward it to the student and also place a copy in the student's file.

In order to pass the student must receive no more than one dissenting or abstaining vote on the oral exam. Students who fail the oral examination will be allowed to retake it, but cannot do so sooner than 12 weeks after, or later than the end of the semester following, the initial examination. If the student passes the oral examination, all members of the committee must sign the D-3 form. The chair of the committee is responsible for submitting the D-3 form to the graduate studies office, and the form must be filed with the graduate school within two weeks after the final completion of the exams. Per graduate school rules, failure to pass two comprehensive examinations automatically prevents candidacy.

4. Comprehensive Exam Timeline

Semester Two in the PhD program: Choose a committee, begin to draft reading lists, and take the Qualifying Exam.

Semester Three: Begin reading for exams; meet at least once with each committee member; finalize reading lists.

Semester Four: Continue reading for exams and begin drafting Preparatory Essay; meet with each committee member and during meeting discuss a rough draft of the Preparatory Essay (to be given to committee members at least one week prior to the meeting). Students must give the draft of the Preparatory Essay to committee members the semester before they expect to turn in the final version and take the oral exam, and should then meet with committee members for oral feedback.

Semester Five: Give final draft of Preparatory Essay to committee members; complete oral examination; turn in D-3 form upon passing the oral examination.

Continuous Enrollment

After students complete their comprehensive exams, candidacy for the doctoral degree is maintained by enrolling in two credit hours in the fall and spring semesters and one credit in the summer semester up to and including the term in which the dissertation is defended. Failure to enroll continuously in 9090 Research hours (or alternatively, in the 8006 Professional Writing Workshop or Job Market Workshop) until the doctoral degree is awarded terminates candidacy. Guidelines for continuous enrollment can be found on the Office of Graduate Studies website.

Dissertation and Defense

As soon as possible after passing the comprehensive examination, a candidate should explore a dissertation topic under the guidance of the student’s adviser. Candidates must formally present and describe the topic in a prospectus of no more than fifteen pages (excluding bibliography); for the student to remain in good standing, the prospectus with committee members’ signatures must be submitted to the Graduate Studies Office within three months of a successful oral defense of the Comprehensive Examination or first two weeks of the semester following.

The prospectus should contain five elements:

  1. The state of current scholarship in the relevant fields
  2. The nature of the dissertation’s intervention in current scholarship
  3. A description of method
  4. A description of the materials—that is, the objects/archives studied and consulted
  5. A short bibliography  

In the case of students writing creative dissertations, the prospectus should primarily describe the critical introduction (see “Creative Dissertation” below); ten pages is a good goal here.

The prospectus should be drafted in consultation with the adviser. Once drafted, it will be the subject of the Prospectus Conference, a meeting of the dissertation committee (outside member optional) covering the student’s ideas and research plans, including schedule. If a majority of the student’s committee doesn’t approve the prospectus, suggestions for revision will be made and the student will submit the revised prospectus only to the adviser; for this reason, students should schedule their meeting with enough time to revise and meet the deadline.

The prospectus must be completed for the student to begin writing, but it is also important because it usually forms the basis of grant applications and dissertation descriptions when the student goes on the job market. It is of long-term use to have a prospectus on file early, even though it is understood that the dissertation may change during research and writing. 


Two types of dissertations are written for our program: the scholarly dissertation and the creative dissertation. 

The scholarly PhD Dissertation is a work of original scholarship in a recognizable field covered by departmental expertise. Most dissertations in English are between 200 and 350 pages and combine an original argument with research into the field you explore. By the end of the process of researching and writing the dissertation, the successful student will be one of a few world experts in the field addressed. Therefore topics should be specific enough to allow students to stake a claim to expertise, while broad enough to speak to the general field in which the dissertation is placed. The dissertation becomes the central document upon which you build your academic reputation. At best, it will be ready to go as a book project. Chapters of your dissertation will likely serve as writing samples on the academic job market and might be revised into publications either before or after you have defended it and received your PhD. The dissertation itself will be read by the student’s adviser and a minimum of three other readers (for students entering in the fall of 2005 or later; earlier students must have committees of at least five faculty members). One member of the committee must be a member of a department other than English. In the process of research and writing, some students work closely with an entire committee; others focus on the responses of their primary adviser to preliminary work.

PhD candidates in Creative Writing generally write a creative PhD dissertation, which may take the form of a collection of poetry, a novel, a novella, a book-length collection of short stories, or a book-length work of creative non-fiction. To exercise this option, the candidate must have taken 9-12 hours of creative writing seminars as part of the PhD coursework. In addition to the creative part of the dissertation, the candidate will compose a Critical Introduction, which is an article-length and rigorous critical essay that substantively engages the candidate’s areas of critical interest.

By the rules of the Office of Graduate Studies, seven months must elapse between a student's successfully passing the PhD Comprehensive Examination and submitting the PhD dissertation.

Defense usually occurs within a month of submission to the committee of an acceptable dissertation. Committee members prepare questions in advance and the defense consists of a conversation regarding the scholarship and writing of the dissertation. The defense is customarily a celebratory occasion. But committee members can—and sometimes do—ask challenging questions that undercut specific and general issues in the project. Students have a chance to incorporate suggestions from the defense into the final document submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies. Therefore it is useful to schedule the defense some weeks before the final deadline for submission to the Office of Graduate Studies in the term in which the student wishes to graduate. A majority of the committee must vote positively for the dissertation to pass. If the dissertation is not passed, the student can revise in accordance with suggestions and resubmit.

For instructions on filing your dissertation, see: