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 8001, English 8005, 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 (in at least two genres)
  • 6 hours of 8000-level seminars whose content includes in-depth analysis of literary texts. Workshops do not fulfill this requirement. 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.

PhD Sample Timeline

Below is a sample timeline for completing the PhD within five years of funding. Variations to the timeline can be developed in consultation with a student’s advisor and the Director of Graduate Studies.


Year One:

  • Take 8005: Introduction to Graduate Study
  • Take three 3-credit courses each semester
  • Choose an advisor and consult with that person in forming a doctoral committee
  • Draft a plan for fulfilling degree requirements, including the language requirement
  • Take the Qualifying Exam (see tab on this page for more information about timing)

Year Two:

  • Complete course requirements
  • Read for Comprehensive Exam 

Please note that coursework required for the degree must be completed before taking the Comprehensive Exam. 

Year Three:

  • Take Comprehensive Exam by the end of the fall semester
  • Have dissertation prospectus conference spring semester
  • Begin writing the dissertation
  • Consult with advisor about professionalization plans 

Year Four:

  • Work on dissertation
  • Consider taking 1-credit 8001 seminar(s) (Critical Writing Workshop can be taken before Year Four)

Year Five:

  • Apply for jobs
  • Consider taking a 8001 seminar
  • Defend dissertation by the end of spring semester

Although the Department of English offers only 5 years of guaranteed funding, the Graduate School allows 5 years after entering the program for students to pass their Comprehensive Exams and 5 additional years for students to defend their dissertations after passing their Comprehensive Exams. 

Students who are unable to keep to the 5-year PhD timeline because of extreme circumstances (e.g. disability, medical condition, family emergency) should consider applying for an additional semester of funding (see "Additional Semester of Teaching Policy" form on the right on this page). Students who are registered with Disability Services can apply to the scholarships listed here.


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

The Qualifying Exam satisfies a Graduate School requirement. The student and advisor should decide on a proposed Plan of Study (D-2 form) to be discussed and approved at the meeting by the doctoral committee. The doctoral committee is composed of at least three faculty members from the English department and at least one faculty member from a department other than English.

Students may use this meeting to shape their fields of study or their lists for the Comprehensive Exam, but this is not required to pass the exam.

Students are encouraged to take the Qualifying Exam by the end of their first year, but may take the exam at the beginning of the second year, if they need more time to compose their doctoral committees.  Regardless of the timing of the exam, all students should discuss a plan for fulfilling degree requirements with their advisors and/or with the Director of Graduate Studies by the end of their first year.

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 is responsible for preparing the forms and bringing them to the meeting.

Comprehensive Examination

After all required coursework has been completed, PhD students must take the comprehensive examination. This exam consists of a written section and a two-and-a-half-hour oral exam.


Students will choose a faculty committee consisting of at least four members of the MU graduate faculty: a chair, two additional department members, and an external member from another department. In consultation with their committees, students will specify reading lists made up of one major field, one minor field, and one field in criticism and theory.

Reading Lists

The major field list should reflect the student’s area of scholarly specialization and take into account the student’s interests and intellectual, pedagogical, and/or professional fields.

The minor field list should be a more narrowly focused secondary specialization (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 genre or sub-genre (creative nonfiction, the sonnet, etc.), or an area of thematic focus (Transcendentalism, nature poetry, etc.).

The criticism and theory list should enhance students’ understanding of critical conversations surrounding the works on their major and minor list and can also be used to develop a separate area of specialization in theory that is anticipated to be useful for the dissertation.

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.

Written Exam

The written section of the comprehensive exam is comprised of one essay, intended to prepare students for the dissertation. The essay would prepare creative writing students for the critical introduction and/or the creative dissertation. Although the written exam is submitted to the committee prior to the oral exam, it is expected that students will complete their reading of works on all three lists before turning in the final draft of the written exam. The order of this process is crucial, as this reading may well shape a student’s plans for the dissertation and hence inform the topic and substance of the written exam.

The essay will identify and summarize the critical conversation(s) in which a student’s individual dissertation work will participate. This essay may have, but does not require, an original argument. In consultation with their committee members, students are encouraged to shape their written exam to best serve their research needs. The essay must be 15-20 pages, not counting additional materials such as bibliography, illustrations, or charts (which should be placed in an appendix). While the essay should refer to both primary and secondary sources from students’ lists, students may also use other sources relevant to their projected dissertation.

Students will submit two drafts to their committee members: a first draft and a final written exam. The first draft must be submitted for written or oral feedback on how to proceed with revisions at least four weeks and no more than sixteen weeks before turning in the final written exam. The committee will evaluate each version of the essay for range and depth of coverage, specificity of references to the works discussed, theoretical grasp of the material, effective synthesis of important approaches or debates, and clarity of organization and style. Once the final written exam has been submitted, committee members will use these criteria to vote on whether the student has passed the written portion of the exam. To proceed to the oral exam, students must receive no more than one vote of “fail” or “abstain.”

At least one month prior to the submission of the final written exam, students should communicate with committee members, alerting committee members to the date the final written exam will be submitted. The advisor should consult with committee members to schedule a tentative date and time for the oral portion of the exam. The oral portion of the exam should take place at least two weeks and no more than one month after the final written exam has been submitted. The advisor should inform the Graduate Secretary of the time and place scheduled for the oral examination.

On the agreed upon date, the student should submit the final version of the written exam to the Graduate Secretary, who will distribute the exam to the student’s committee. Exams submitted to the Graduate Secretary that are either under or over the required page length will not be sent to committee members, but will be referred to the Director of Graduate Study. Within two weeks of receiving a copy of the exam, committee members will submit evaluations discussing strengths and weaknesses of the 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 written exam, the oral examination date will be cancelled and the committee will offer advice on rewriting and resubmitting the essay.

University rules require that students are 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 defense of the dissertation.  See

Oral Exam

The oral section of the comprehensive exam is designed to test a student’s knowledge of the teaching and research fields represented by their reading lists.  Students should be prepared both to answer focused questions about individual works and to speak broadly about the connections among them.  Students should send final copies of their lists to their committee members at least two weeks before the oral exams.

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. The student may also use this time to schedule follow up meetings with each committee member so that they can discuss the student’s movement toward the prospectus.

Within one week of the oral exam, the chair of the committee is responsible for writing a brief document (up to one page) discussing the exam-- things the student did well on, and things that might be improved upon. The chair must give a copy of this document to the Graduate Secretary, who will forward it to the student and place a copy in the student's file.

In order to pass the student must receive no more than one vote of “fail” or “abstain” 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.

Full-Time Status and Continuous Enrollment

While studying for the Comprehensive Exams and after completing required coursework, students may elect to take English 9090: Dissertation Hours in order to maintain Full Time status (Full Time status according to the Graduate School is 9 hours before a student advances to ABD status). English 9090 may be taken before completion of coursework only with permission of the DGS.

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 and the Dissertation Prospectus Approval Form  signed by committee members (posted to the right on this page) 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 advisor should schedule the prospectus conference.

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. For the dissertation to be successfully defended, the committee must vote to pass it with no more than one abstaining or dissenting vote. If the dissertation is not passed, the student can revise in accordance with suggestions and resubmit.

The advisor will schedule two and half hours for the defense. It will consist of: two hours of questions and conversation, fifteen minutes during which the committee deliberates about the exam, and fifteen minutes during which the committee discusses the outcome and any revisions to be incorporated into the final copy turned in to the Graduate School.

For instructions on filing your dissertation, see:

Professionalization Opportunities

The English Department is committed to helping our graduate students succeed in our program and to preparing them for future careers. To those ends, we have developed a range of courses, internships, and administrative appointments for our students to supplement our regular course offerings and teaching opportunities.

Additional professionalization opportunities are available through our Graduate School:

AAU Grant

Because of our commitment to cultivating career success, English is one of three departments participating in the AAU Ph.D. Education Initiative, which aims to change the culture surrounding doctoral education by diversifying career pathways. The Association of American Universities selected the University of Missouri as one of only eight universities to participate in the project. For more information see MU News.

Professionalization Courses

See “Courses” for full descriptions.

Please note that the courses listed below can be taken for graduate course credit, but cannot be counted for the 18 hours in English at the 8000 level that are required for PhD students.

8005: Introduction to Graduate Study (Fall, 1-credit)

This required course introduces new students to graduate study and to the concrete procedures and long-term goals involved in successfully negotiating their programs of study. We have in-class panels of graduate students and faculty on such topics as “how to form a graduate committee” and “how to make the most of a conference.” Speakers in our faculty works-in-progress series come to the class to discuss their writing and research processes.

7950: Publishing Internships (variable credit)

An ongoing challenge in higher education is providing students with real-world experience to complement solid traditional scholarship. Potential employers want to know what students have actually accomplished as well as what academic courses they have taken. An internship at the Missouri Review or Persea press provides opportunities for students to gain valuable hands-on experience in publishing. From their first day, interns are an integral part of the general operations. The editors encourage individual initiative and teamwork while offering the interns the resource of publishing experience.

8001: Critical Writing Workshop (Fall and Spring, 1-credit)

The Critical Writing Workshop gives graduate students the opportunity to work on their advanced critical writing (dissertation chapters, essays being revised for publication, or the critical introductions to creative dissertations). Participants take turns submitting drafts of their writing ahead of time and receiving intense feedback and discussion of their work.

8001: Alt-Ac Job Market Workshop (Spring, 1-credit)

Available to students at any time in their graduate careers, this course considers non-academic career options for which a graduate degree in English might be valuable preparation. We explore the resources available for humanities PhDs seeking non-academic careers and address the proficiencies that employers in a range of fields seek, learning to translate the skills and experience acquired in an English graduate program into terms that resonate outside the academy.

8001: Academic Job Market Workshop (Fall, 1-credit)

This course provides intensive preparation and support for graduate students going on the academic job market. We workshop job letters, CVs, dissertation abstracts, statements of teaching philosophy, writing samples, and job talks. We also practice MLA interviews, campus interviews, job talks, and teaching demonstrations.

Administrative Appointments for Graduate Students

See “Assistantships, Fellowships and Benefits” for full descriptions.

Composition Program Assistant

The Composition Program Assistants work closely with the Director, Assistant Director, and Senior Program Assistants of Composition and with the Composition Committee to provide intellectual leadership for the program, serve as peer mentors for graduate students teaching composition and assist with various tasks related to program operations.

Writing Center Fellowship

This fellowship gives a graduate student a solid foundation in writing center theory and history, pedagogy, and practice as well as professional administrative experience and training that will be useful to them in future careers both inside and outside the academy

Assistant to the Director of Graduate Studies

This graduate student works closely with the Director of Graduate Studies and the Graduate Studies Committee (GSC), gaining administrative experience useful inside and outside of the academy. Duties include doing research for GSC initiatives, assisting in the planning and hosting of Welcome Day for prospective students, and developing and maintaining the department website.

Assistant to the Director of Creative Writing

This graduate student works closely with the Director of Creative Writing and the Creative Writing Committee (CWC), gaining administrative experience useful inside and outside of the academy. Duties include assisting with the planning and coordination of the creative writing reading series, helping coordinate the department creative writing contests and the AWP conference, and managing Creative Writing’s presence on social media.